Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa


An Ultra Orthodox Jewish Rabbi uses a quill to write the last letters of a Torah scroll during an inauguration ceremony for the holy book in an Ultra Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem. Photo AFP

Like other religions, Judaism is based on a certain number of core beliefs. Judaism is mono-theistic and is considered one of the oldest religions that is still followed. Also like other religions, it encompasses multiple denominations or sects.

The history of Judaism spans more than 3,000 years, with roots in the Middle East that go back to the Bronze Age. Jewish history, beliefs and traditions were recorded in the Hebrew Bible beginning as early as the 8th century BCE. It was then known as the ‘religion of Abraham’, after the man to whom God, in the Bible, reveals the Jewish tradition. Abraham is therefore considered the patriarch of the Hebrews, later called the Jewish people. The religion spread as a result of migration rather than missionary conversions, like Catholicism, for example. Although it never attracted the number of followers that other religions did, it still exerts a strong influence in the modern world.

What are the core beliefs of Judaism?

History has the utmost significance in Judaism, as the Bible is centred around historical narrative, and most Jewish holidays are intended to connect modern Jewish people with their historical ancestors and traditions. Claiming sovereignty over the Jews, also known as the Israelites, God established a covenant, or berit, with them and required from them obedience to his teaching, or law, which is called the Torah. Rituals and religious observances are guided by the Jewish oral law of halakhah, which means ‘the path one walks’. It is a complex framework of divine commandments, integrated with rabbinical laws. The halakhah is central to Judaism and guides daily life. Observing halakhah shows gratitude to God, provides a sense of Jewish identity and brings the sacred into everyday chores and acts in life.

Jewish principles guided by the halakhah can be outlined in values such as justice, truth, peace, loving kindness, compassion, humility and self-respect. Other Jewish practices are charity (tzedakah) and avoiding negative gossip (lashon hara, literally ‘evil speech’).

The commandments or mitzvot are the general laws. There are 613 commandments in the Torah: 248 are positive (‘you shall do this’) and 365 are negative (‘you shall not do this’). In addition to the commandments, Jewish law comprises rabbinical rules that have been added over the centuries.

Jewish worship is conducted in a synagogue, although solitary prayer is recited. Communal prayer is preferred and requires a quorum of ten adult males, called a minyan (in modern Judaism, women can also be included). A minyan is required for many traditional ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The approach to prayer varies among the diverse denominations as to text differences, frequency of prayer, number of prayers recited at religious events, and whether musical instruments and choral music are allowed.

Jewish Dietary Laws

The kashrut is a set of dietary laws that restricts the consumption of certain foods and defines how foods must be prepared and eaten. The word kosher is used to describe the foods that meet these standards, and a certification is used to help observant Jews to identify kosher foods. The kashrut laws have to deal with nascent health regulations and environmental considerations. However, the brief response to why Jews observe kashrut is that the Torah says so, and that should be enough for a traditional Jew since he or she is showing obedience to God.

Jewish Literature

Jewish life and tradition are guided by literature. Study of the Torah and other Jewish texts has been central to religious life since the beginnings of the Jewish faith. The Torah, the Tal-mud and other Jewish writings are important sources of Jewish history and divine commandments, and many interpretations have been written to guide Jews in the application of these commandments in their daily life. These interpretations continue: as new dilemmas surface in the modern world, Jews look for responses in their religious literature.

One of the books is the Tanakh, which is an acronym of the Torah. It consists of the Old Testament, i.e. the first five books of the story of Moses. The Talmud, or the Oral Torah, is a collection of rabbinical writings that interpret and explain how to apply the Torah scriptures. The Midrash is a large body of Jewish literature, the collection of rabbinical material derived primarily from sermons.

Jewish Movements

As of 2015, approximately 14.3 million people (or 0.2 per cent of the global population) identify as Jewish worldwide, although not all Jews are observant. It is also important to note that Judaism is a culture, not just a religion. Jewish life is rich in traditions, rituals and holidays commemorating the past, celebrating the present and expressing hope for the future.

There are three main movements in Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The main differences between these groups are their conception of Jewish law, the authority of the rabbinic tradition and the significance of the state of Israel. Orthodox Judaism expects that Jewish and rabbinical law are strictly followed and considers them divine in origin.

Conservative and Reform Judaism are more liberal. Conservative Judaism follows a traditional interpretation of the religion. There are also secular Jews who do not follow rabbinical laws, yet consider themselves Jewish since they are born to a Jewish family and raised in the Jewish culture with a Jewish identity. There are also converts to Judaism, who have to be approved by an Orthodox rabbinical authority. All mainstream branches of Judaism are open to conversions.

Adaptability and Continuity

The Jewish faith has survived over millennia, despite many periods of persecution through-out history and the Holocaust in the 20th century, during which 6 million European Jews were systematically murdered. Judaism has persisted to be resilient, prosperous and vulnerable at the same time. The Jewish world has experienced societal change, compounded by the turbulent changes in the modern world. Israel is still at the epicentre of Judaism, despite the geographic dispersal of Jewish communities across the globe.