6: Judaism


The Arch of Titus
A representation of the Ancient Romans stealing the riches of the destroyed Jewish Temple.
Rome, 82 CE


  • Adherents: 13-14 million
  • Do They Proselytize? No.
  • Dogmatic?
    • Progressive Jews (90% of American Jews): No.
    • Orthodox Jews (10% of American Jews): Yes.
  • Theistic? Yes.
  • Major populations: Israel & the U.S.

Key Terms

  • patriarch
  • Tanakh
  • Hanukah
  • Exodus


I. The Jews & History

  • A. Imagining Israel: Biblical, Ancient, or Historical?
    • “Biblical" Israel
      • Understanding Israel through the lens of Biblical narrative
      • E.g. Garden of Eden, destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.
      • Concern with the written text
      • Theologians focus on this view
    • “Ancient" Israel
      • Pursuit of validating the claims of Biblical Israel through archaeology
      • Books and tours promote Ancient Israel
    • “Historical" Israel
      • Compare texts and practices of all ancient peoples who lived in the region
      • Does not privilege any particular religious affiliation or agenda
      • Scholars focus on this view

  • B. The Jews in History: from Israel to Judah
    Cultural Influences: Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians
    • First historical evidence of the Jewish people is mid-700s BCE
    • Israel was 5x larger than Judah until the Assyrian army destroyed Israel in 720 BCE
    • Israelites sought refuge in Judah leading to population growth in what was once a more rural region
    • Much of the Torah is written during this time

  • C. The Jews in History: the Babylonian Exile
    Cultural Influences: Babylonia, Persia
    • Babylon took over the Assyrian Empire, and thus Judah, sacking Jerusalem in 597 BCE
    • The Temple of Solomon is destroyed, according to Biblical accounts
    • Many Jews were resettled in Babylon, leading to the Babylonian Exile
    • Biblical narratives during this time reflect the Jewish exile from Israel
      • Adam: God loves us and created a “good” world.
      • Noah: God protects the righteous and destroys the wicked.
      • Abraham: God has promised us our former territory in Canaan.
      • Isaac: God will provide for us in our hour of need.
      • Jacob: The fragmented tribes of Israel and Judah are brothers.
      • Joseph: In–fighting among the tribes will only hurt us.
      • Moses: God has delivered us from imperial bondage before.
      • Joshua: Despite the odds, God will give us victory over our enemies.
    • The Persian king Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians in 538 BCE and granted the Jews their freedom
    • The “second” Temple was built in 516 BCE, paid for by the Persians

  • D. The Jews in History: “Second Temple” Judaism
    Cultural Influences: Persia
    • The Torah is completed
    • Jewish Priests are put in charge of Jerusalem
    • Jewish identity takes shape, embracing strict monotheism by the 500s BCE

  • E. The Jews in History: “Rabbinic" Judaism
    Cultural Influences: The Roman Empire & Europe
    • 100 years after Rome conquers the region, the Jews of Galilee revolt (c.f. Christian New Testament)
    • The Romans destroy the Second temple in 70 CE. Only the Western Wall remains today
    • Jews transition to Rabbinic Judaism
      • Judaism revolves around the study of scripture
      • The Sanhedrin is dissolved
      • Local Jewish scholars, Rabbis, take up a leadershp role
      • The Talmud is written

II. Modern Jewish Identity

  • A. Semites, Hebrews & Israelis
    • Ten generations after Adam is Noah; Noah’s son is Shem, from which we get the name Semitic
    • Shem’s great-grandson is Heber, from which we get the name Hebrew
    • Abraham, with whom God makes his covenant, is a Hebrew whose son is Jacob, renamed Israel
    • When Rome conquers the region, they call it Palestina, after the Philistines, from which we get the name Palestine

  • B. Who is a Jew?
    • Believing vs. Belonging
    • Jewish by birth
    • Jewish by conversion
      • A year of Jewish study
      • Knowledge of Hebrew
      • An active role in Jewish life
      • Bet Din (Jewish Court)
      • Male circumcision
      • Mikveh (c.f. Baptism)

  • C. A People Apart
    Cultural Influences: European Christians
    • Tolerance for Judaism ended in 380 CE with the Edict of Thessalonica
    • Medieval Jews were not allowed to own property and were blamed for a myriad of events
    • Martin Luther advocated for the destruction of Jewish synagogues, schools, and texts
    • Antisemitism persists even today in Europe and the West (LINK)

  • D. The Holocaust
    Cultural Influences: The Nazis & Modern Europe
    • Hitler’s leadership of Germany resulted in Kristallnacht and the implementation of his Final Solution
    • America, England, and other countries turned Jews away and passed laws to ensure they would not immigrate
    • After the Holocaust, the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947 formed Israel, a permanent homeland for Jews

  • E. The Modern State of Israel (MAP-LINK)
    Cultural Influences: Nazi Germany, Britain, America, & the Arab World
    • Zionists advocated for Jewish control of the region as a haven for Jews
    • Citizens of Israel are Israeli, regardless of religious affiliation
    • Two regions of Israel are primarily ethnic Palestinian Arabs
    • The Two-State Solution 

The Shema

Hear, O Israel,
the Lord our God is One.

Deut. 6:4


III. The Texts of Judaism

  • A. The Tanakh: The Hebrew Bible in Brief
    1. The Torah (Instruction/Law)
      • 613 mitzvot or commandments
      • The Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses
    2. The Nevi’im (Prophets)
      • Transition from prophets to kings and back to prophets
      • The Major Prophets: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Elijah
    3. The Ketuvim (Writings)
      • Judges
      • Kings

  • B. After the Tanakh: the Talmud
    • Commentaries written by Rabbis
    • Struggle for interpretation of Tanakh
    • Jerusalem Talmud, written in Jerusalem, and Babylonian Talmud, written in Babylon

IV. Key Concepts in Jewish Texts

  • A. Monotheism and the Covenant
    • There is only one God
    • God will not abide worship of other gods
    • The peopel of Israel have a covenant with God and are His people

  • B. Righteousness for Non–Jews (the Noahide Laws)
    • Non-Jews are righteous if they follow the 7 Noahide Laws
      • A prohibition against idol worship
      • A prohibition against murder
      • A prohibition against theft
      • A prohibition against sexual immorality
      • A prohibition against blaspheming God
      • A requirement to maintain fair courts of justice
      • A requirement to treat animals well

V. Exegesis: Traditions of Jewish Interpretation

  • A. Archaeology and the Bible
    • Inability of archaeology to confirm many Jewish narratives
      • Slavery in Egypt
      • Wandering in the desert
      • United monarchy
      • Solomon’s temple

  • B. Orthodox Judaism
    • “Normative” Judaism
    • Emphasis on law
    • Strictest form of Judaism
    • 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox

  • C. Progressive Judaism - Reform & Conservative (Masorti)
    • Reform Judaism originated in the 1800s
      • Progressive, focusing on individual interpretation, gender equality, ethical life
      • 35% of American Jews identify as Reform
    • Conservative Judaism originated in the 1900s
      • Emphasizes tradition
      • 18% of American Jews identify as Conservative
    • 30% of American Jews identify as “just Jewish”

  • D. Scriptural Interpretation
    • Orthodox - literal (more or less) interpretation
    • Progressive - more nuanced view
    • The Tanakh is a viewed as a sacred moral guide worthy of rigorous debate


VI. The Jewish Calendar

  • A. Shabbat (The Sabbath)
    • Time between sunset on Friday and nightfall on Saturday
    • Day of ritual rest
    • Woman of the house lights two candles and says a blessing
    • Songs, blessings, wine, and food are shared
    • A blessing on Saturday ends the Sabbath

  • B. Other Holy Days
    • Holidays based on Jewish past
      • Purim commemorates Esther’s protection of the Jews
      • Passover commemorates the plagues
    • Commonly observed holidays by American Jews
      • Rosh Hashanah
      • Yom Kippur
      • Hanukah
      • Passover

VII. Enacting Jewishness

  • A. Halacha (The Path/Law) 
    • 613 commandments
    • Orthodox and Progressive Jews view Halacha, Jewish Law, differently
    • Orthodox Jews - Halacha is binding
    • Progressive Jews - Halacha should be viewed through the lens of history

  • B. Aliyah (Return to Israel)
    • The State of Israel is a refuge for Jews worldwide
    • Many opportunities for Jews who live there

  • C. Tikkun Olam (The Repair of the World)
    • The world is made better by enacting justice
    • Living by God’s commandments is one method to do this
    • Charity is another
    • Jewish Israelis talk of making Israel a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6)

  • D. Some Common Ritual Accouterments
    • Skull cap (Yiddish: yamaka/yarmulke, Hebrew: kippah): men generally wear a skull cap during temple services
      to cover their heads in reverence to God. Some Orthodox Jews cover their heads everywhere they go. (Youtube)
    • Tallit: a prayer shawl for men. Some Reform & Conservative women also wear the shawl.
    • Shabbat candles: two candles are lit on Shabbat. One to “remember” the Sabbath and one to “keep” it holy (Exodus 20:8).
    • Menorah: a candelabra with 8 small candles lit during Hanukah.
    • Shofar: a hollowed–out animal horn that is blown like a trumpet for the Jewish New Year.
    • Mezuzah: a small roll of parchment that is nailed to the right side of a Jewish doorpost. The parchment is generally placed inside a small ornate case. The parchment contains Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. (Youtube)