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Judaism (jo͞oˈdəĭzˌəm, jo͞oˈdē–), the religious beliefs and practices and the way of life of the Jews. The term itself was first used by Hellenized Jews to describe their religious practice, but it is of predominantly modern usage; it is not used in the Bible or in Rabbinic literature and only rarely in the literature of the medieval period. The word Torah is employed when referring to the divinely revealed teachings of Jewish law and belief. Judaism is used more broadly, including also the totality of human interpretation and practice. Thus, one may speak of “secular Judaism,” referring to an adherence to values expressed by Judaism but removed from any religious context. The most important holy days in Judaism are the weekly Sabbath, the major holidays of Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth (see Tabernacles, Feast of), Simhat Torah, Passover, and Shavuot, and the minor holidays of Hanukkah, Purim, and Tisha B'Av.

The Early Period

The history of Judaism predates the period to which the term itself actually refers, in that Judaism formally applies to the post-Second Temple period, while its antecedents are to be found in the biblical “religion of Israel.” The Bible is no longer considered a homogeneous work; the many traditions represented in it demonstrate variance and growth. While the historicity of the patriarchs' existence and of Moses as the giver of all laws is under question, certain dominant themes can be seen developing in this early period that have importance for later Judaism.

Central to these themes is the notion of monotheism, which most scholars believe to have been the outgrowth of a process that began with polytheism, progressed to henotheism (the worship of one god without denying the existence of others), and ended in the belief in a single Lord of the universe, uniquely different from all His creatures. He is compassionate toward His creation, and in turn humans are to love and fear (i.e., stand in awe of) Him. Because God is holy, He demands that His people be holy, righteous, and just, a kingdom of priests to assist in the fulfillment of His designs for humankind and the world.

Israel's chosenness consists of this special designation and the task that accompanies it. God promises the land of Canaan to Israel as their homeland, the place in which the Temple will be built and sacrificial worship of God carried out. The holy days were the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkoth; and circumcision, dietary laws, and laws pertaining to dress, agriculture, and social justice characterized the structure of the biblical religion. Three types of leaders existed during this period: the priest (kohen), who officiated in the Temple and executed the laws; the prophet (navi), to whom was revealed God's messages to His people; and the sage (hacham), who taught practical wisdom and proper behavior. There was developing already in this early period a belief in the ultimate coming of God's kingdom on earth, a time of peace and justice. To this was added, after the destruction (586 B.C.) of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity (which many saw as the consequence of idolatry and which may have been responsible for the final stage of the development from polytheism to monotheism), the expectation of national restoration under the leadership of a descendant of the Davidic house, the Messiah.

The Postexilic Period

It was after the Babylonian captivity (not later than the 5th cent. B.C.) that a compilation of earlier texts and oral traditions was made, forming the canon of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. Subsequently 34 other books were added to form the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, though the canon was not finalized until perhaps as late as the 2d cent. A.D. The Torah was traditionally attributed to Moses, and study of the Torah was accompanied by expositions and explanations in which the Oral Law, as distinct from the Written Law (the Torah text), is rooted. While it is widely held that the Pharisees further developed the Oral Law, in opposition to the literalness of the Sadducees, it is inconceivable that the latter group could have administered the biblical laws without reinterpreting them in accordance with a changing world, or in the face of a lack of specificity in the text.

The Babylonian exile had exposed the Israelites to new ideas, and it is to that period that the notions of identifiable angels (such as Michael and Raphael), of the personification of evil (Satan), and of the resurrection of the dead can probably be traced. The conquests of Alexander the Great once again brought the Jews into contact with new ideas, most significantly that of the immortality of the soul. Conflict arose within the community of Israel concerning the level of Hellenization acceptable, out of which came the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid rulers of Syria and their Judean sympathizers. The resulting martyrdom of many gave added impetus to the belief in collective resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul after the body's death. These concepts were wed in such a way that while the body awaited its resurrection, the soul was seen as living on in another realm. This new development in no way supplanted the earlier notion of earthly reward; life on earth, however, was viewed by many as preparatory for the next.

As the conditions of life deteriorated, apocalyptic beliefs grew—national catastrophe and the messianic kingdom were seen as imminent events. Some groups (see Essenes; Qumran) fled into the desert to lead righteous lives in anticipation, while others followed claimants to the mantle of Messiah (most notably Jesus). Out of these numerous ingredients came both Christianity and classical, or rabbinic, Judaism.

After the Destruction of the Second Temple

Developing over a period of five centuries (until c.A.D. 500), rabbinic Judaism completed the process already underway, which saw the replacement of the Temple by the synagogue (the Second Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70), of the priest by the rabbi, and of the sacrificial ceremony by the prayer service and study. Basic to these changes was the redaction and codification of the Oral Law (see Mishna; Talmud) and the Midrash, which, as outgrowths of the biblical religion, centered on the relationships between God, His Torah, and His people, Israel. Emphasis was placed upon study of the Torah (in its broadest sense) as the most important religious act, leading to an understanding of the proper way of life; upon the growing need for national restoration in the face of continued Exile from the Promised Land; and upon the function of this world as preparatory for the World to Come (Olam ha-Bah), while not devaluing the importance of life in this world.

Daily life was sanctified by the emphasis in Jewish law (halakah) on the ritual fitness of foods (kashrut), the recitation of blessings for a variety of mundane acts, and the daily, weekly, monthly and annual cycles of prayer. Rites for the personal life cycle came to include circumcision of male infants at the age of eight days, signifying their induction into the covenant between God and Israel; the recognition of thirteen years as the age of majority for religious responsibilities (see Bar Mitzvah); marriage; and funeral rites. During the medieval period, these trends continued and were basic to the several important codifications of the legal material and to the many biblical and Talmudic commentaries that were composed at this time (most notably by Rashi and Maimonides).

The Middle Ages

The kabbalah flowered during the Middle Ages, combining older trends in Jewish mysticism with Neoplatonism and other ideas. The kabbalists retained the idea that the totality of God's nature is ultimately beyond human grasp (“Ein Sof” [Heb., literally,=without end] as the “Nothing”), yet, in keeping with tradition, held to a vision of a personal God who exists as the active, creative, and sustaining force within the cosmos (“Ein Sof” as the “Everything”). Spain was a major center of kabbalistic thought, which after the expulsions and forced conversion in 1492, spread and became more central to Jewish life in the Mediterranean world. Palestine then became the center of kabbalism, especially as it was developed by Isaac Luria and others.

A Jewish philosophy developed in answer to the questions raised by the exposure to Greek thought as distilled through the Islamic natural philosophy and metaphysics. Central to these issues was the conflict between reason and revelation: whether revelation was necessary if all could be ascertained through reason, or whether reason was imperfect and revelation was God's assisting humans to know the truth. Maimonides argued that one can say nothing positive about the personal nature of God, which is beyond human comprehension; one can only indicate what He is not (thus, the statement that God is wise says only that God is not ignorant, not how wise He actually is).

While the Jewish Middle Ages is usually defined by scholars as extending at least into the 18th cent., there was a Jewish counterpart to the general European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th cent., and figures such as Judah Abravanel were influenced by contemporary European philosophic currents. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 led to the Jews of N Italy, S France, and the Levant coming under Sephardic influence (see Sephardim), and these events provoked much messianic and kabbalist speculation, culminating in the spectacular career of the self-proclaimed Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.

The Amsterdam community of Marranos (those Jews forced by the Inquisition to adopt Christianity, but who continued to practice Judaism in secret, and many of whom later emigrated and returned to the Jewish fold) often provided a liberalizing influence on Orthodox Judaism, most significantly in the person of Baruch Spinoza, a Jew excommunicated for his unsparing critique of Rabbinic Judaism. The reaction to Sabbatianism and philosophical liberalism caused a hardening of rabbinic orthodoxy, but the Jewish world of the 18th cent. remained turbulent. It produced both the great traditionalist rabbinic figure Elijah ben Solomon and the untraditional figures of Baal-Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism (which Elijah himself fought against), and Moses Mendelssohn, the spiritual progenitor of later reformers whom Elijah's spiritual descendants repeatedly condemned.

The Reform Movement and Zionism

The emancipation of European Jews in the early decades of the 19th cent. brought with it the problem of maintaining claims of distinctiveness, of being “chosen,” and at the same time wishing to participate in the general society. First dealt with by the Reform leaders of Germany (most notably Abraham Geiger), this problem was met directly in Eastern Europe, giving rise to the Haskalah movement, whose members (e.g., Nachman Krochmal) sought to revitalize Jewish life by recreating it along the lines of the best in European culture.

In the late 19th cent., Zionism promised a return to the Holy Land. This again created problems for the traditionalists whose religious ideas were rooted in the Diaspora, and many of whom opposed any movement to build a secular Jewish state in the Holy Land. Eventually, an Orthodox wing of Zionism did emerge. For many Jews still unanswered is the question of whether a full Jewish life is possible in exile, or whether residing in Zion is essential. Theologically, Zionism posed the problem of whether Jews can work for the messianic return or whether this would be counter to another traditional belief that saw humanity awaiting the divine intervention.

Modern Judaism

Ultimately, it was the halakah (the law) that divided Judaism in the 19th cent. The Orthodox hold both the written law (Scriptures) and the oral laws (commentaries on the legal portions of the Scriptures) as authoritative, derived from God, while the Reform do not see them as authoritative in any absolute sense, but binding only in their ethical content. While Orthodox Jews maintain the traditional practices, Reform Jews perform only those rituals that they believe can promote and enhance a Jewish, God-oriented life. In 1999, however, leaders of American Reform Judaism reversed century-old teachings by encouraging but not enforcing the observance of many traditional rituals. The “historical school,” or Conservative movement, attempts to formulate a middle position between Orthodox and Reform, maintaining most of the traditional rituals but recognizing the need to make changes in accordance with overriding contemporary considerations. Conservative Jews believe that the history of Judaism proves their basic assumptions: that tradition and change have always gone hand in hand and that what is central to Judaism and has remained constant throughout the centuries is the people of Israel (and their needs), not the fundamentalism of Orthodoxy nor what they consider the abandonment of traditions by Reform. The related Reconstructionist movement of Mordechai M. Kaplan holds Judaism to be a human-centered rather than a God-centered religious civilization.

Also part of contemporary Judaism are the several Sephardic traditions maintained in Israel, France, Canada, and the United States by immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa and by European Sephardim in Europe and the Americas; the several Hasidic groups in Israel and the United States; the religious and secular Zionists in Israel and the Diaspora; the unorganized secular Jews, who maintain an atheist's or agnostic's adherence to Jewish values and culture; and those unorganized Jews who seek a religious life outside the synagogue. These many positions represent the most recent attempts at defining the “essence of Judaism,” a process that has been continuous throughout the ages, variously emphasizing one of the three major components of Judaism (God, Torah, Israel) over the remaining two.


See J. L. Blau, Modern Varieties of Judaism (1966), M. M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (2d ed. 1957, repr. 1967), J. Neusner, There We Sat Down (1972) and Judaism: An Introduction (2002), R. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought (1980), A. Eisen, The Chosen People in America (1983), M. A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement (1988), G. Robinson, Essential Judaism (2000), and M. Goodman, A History of Judaism (2018); J. R. Baskin and K. Seeskin, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


the oldest of the three most widespread monotheistic world religions. Initially the religion of a nomadic tribe, the ancient Hebrews, around 1000 BC Judaism emerged as a religion different from those of surrounding tribes, marked off by belief in a single omnipotent God. Weber's explanation for the rise of Judaism is that it came about as a response to the political weakness of the Hebrews compared with surrounding powers. The concept of the Jews as the ‘chosen people’ of such an all-powerful God, a God who also punished his people for their moral shortcomings, arose as an ‘explanation’ for that political weakness. Over the years, Judaism survived as an autonomous religion despite the fact that for most of the time there was no Jewish state.

Both CHRISTIANITY and ISLAM, the two other main monotheistic world religions, were to some degree offshoots of Judaism. see also SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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Jewish men, one wearing an Israeli flag, pray in front of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. AP/Wide World Photos.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Some say Judaism began when a man named Abraham (see Abraham) heard the voice of God calling him to a new land where his descendants would someday be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the grains of sand on the beach.

Those of a more worldly bent are apt to think it all began when a sheep-herding nomad arrived in Canaan with a new idea and a new God whose followers constituted a great nation and one of the world's major religions. For a brief time, about one thousand years before the most famous descendent of Abraham was born in a Bethlehem stable, this religion and people attained wealth and unified power rarely again seen in what later generations would call the Holy Land.

Others claim it all started when the descendants of Abraham, by now slaves in Egypt, huddled in their homes one night, dressed for a quick flight into the desert. They ate a meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs while they listened for the sounds of death coming from the homes of their Egyptian neighbors.

Or perhaps it really started when Moses, the great liberator, came down from Mount Sinai bearing tablets of stone containing directions on how to live a decent and moral life. Or when "Joshua commanded the children to shout, and the walls came tumbling down." Or when Solomon built a temple. Or when the people, slaves again but this time in Persia, experienced real monotheism for the first time.

Some students of history say it is simply the result of religion evolving from worship in the desert to worship in the city—the Canaanite Gods morphing into the universal Yahveh.

However it happened, and whatever or whomever was behind it, Judaism has shaped the world in a way no other religion has done. Together with its child, Christianity, and its brother, Islam, it forms the principle known as monotheism. This is the hallmark of Judaism. Underneath all the rituals and ceremonies, underneath the patriotism and vision, underneath the law, the religious and political squabbles, and all the history, lies the one, essential, and inescapable fact of Judaism: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One."

Through eras of hardship and triumph, through the persecution of the Inquisition (see Inquisition) and the horror of the Nazi death camps, whether residing in Israel or declaring, "Next year in Jerusalem!" the descendants of Abraham have remembered the vow and the promise:

I will make you into a great nation And I will bless you.

I will make your name great And you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you And whoever curses you I will curse.

And all peoples on earth Will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)

The central point of Judaism is this: the Hebrew people felt called by God to be a unique people with a divine contract (see Covenant) and promise. This covenant earned them the nickname, sometimes used in a derogatory manner, "God's Chosen People." Their religion did not consist of striving for and attaining this position. Although education, teaching, and philosophy were important, they were not a means to an end.

The belief handed down from generation to generation was that they were Jews because they were born Jewish, children of the covenant. They were God's people because they were born to be God's people. All the rest came later.

Their story is told first and most importantly in the scriptures, the holy books called Tanakh, an acronym formed from the first letters of their three main sections or divisions—Torah (the five books of Moses), Nev'im (Prophets), and Kethurim (Writings). (Christians, breaking off from Judaism after the death of Christ, also used the Hebrew scriptures, eventually naming their version the Old Testament.)

But over the years the many interpretations, teachings, practices, and customs of Jewish life and religion became codified and written down in the great library of books known as Talmud. Talmudic scholars sought to adapt Judaism to their current times without sacrificing principle, an undertaking that kept the people united even while they were persecuted and driven from their homes time and again. Often criticized for interpreting the letter of the law while sacrificing its spirit, the scholars took the long view, realizing that over the centuries the sustaining power and discipline of the law was the force that protected their people. It was a hedge around them, a fence that served to keep the covenant people within the bounds of the promise while keeping their enemies at bay.

The sign of the covenant was chosen by Yahveh himself: "You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and you... any uncircumcised male who has not been circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:11, 14).

Even when it was inconvenient or dangerous to do so, most Jewish parents made sure their sons were circumcised on the eighth day of their life. During times of persecution, it might have meant their death if discovered, but death within the covenant of Yahveh was to be desired over life outside the promise.

If the Hebrew people came from Abraham, the Hebrew religion came through Moses. In the desert wilderness journey following their escape from Egypt (see Ark of the Covenant; Judaism, Development of), they received the law, both the Ten Commandments and the written law that filled page after page of the book of Leviticus. In the wilderness the religion was hammered out. Sacrifice began, the "burnt offering" of a lamb or other animal, recalling the day God provided a substitute for Abraham's son (Genesis 22). The plans for the Tabernacle (see Tabernacle in the Wilderness), later translated grandly into Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, were spelled out in detail. The priesthood was instituted.

When the Jews settled in Canaan, they were prepared and ready to "sing a new song unto the Lord." It was a song never heard before. They are singing it still.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a religion that arose in Palestine during the first millennium B.C.; it is practiced among Jews. (There are no reliable statistical data on the number of practicing Jews; the majority live in Israel and the USA.)

According to biblical legend, certain Western Semitic (Hebrew) nomadic tribes fled from the Egyptian pharaoh into the desert in the 13th century B.C. At the time of their invasion of Palestine they were united by the common worship of Yahweh, a god of the tribal federation. The tribal federation, which took the name of Israel (“god strives”), took final shape by the 11th century B.C. The worship of Yahweh (the pronunciation of his name later became taboo and was replaced by the word “Lord”) did not exclude the worship of other deities, both of the Hebrews’ own tribes and of the local Canaanites. There were no images made of Yahweh and no temples built to him; a tabernacle, or tent, with a coffer, or ark, inside, devoted to Yahweh, was considered the earthly dwelling-place of the god, who was invisibly present throughout the world. The official rites were performed by a special tribal group, or caste, called Levites. After the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah in the late 11th century B.C., King Solomon (King David’s son) built a temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem. The worship of Yahweh thus became the basis of the official ideology of the state, which defended the interests of the slaveholders. When the kingdom was divided in the tenth century B.C. into the northern Kingdom of Israel proper and the southern Kingdom of Judah, centered on Jerusalem, the Temple retained its importance primarily for the southern kingdom; the northern kingdom had temples of its own. But even the southern kingdom officially retained other places of worship, both of Yahweh and of other gods.

The prophetic movement, which arose in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., played the most important role in the gradual development of Judaism into a dogmatic religion. Sermons of the prophets were recorded beginning in the eighth century B.C. In the beginning the prophets did not insist on the universality of Yahweh but declared him a “jealous god” who did not permit his “chosen people” to worship other gods. There arose the concept of the “covenant,” or “testament,” between the tribes of Israel and Yahweh, according to which the former allegedly pledged not to worship other gods and to carry out Yahweh’s wishes while Yahweh promised to give them authority over Palestine. Circumcision was declared the external sign of the covenant; actually circumcision was a rite practiced by many other peoples of the ancient East and a survival of the initiation rite that accepted a boy into the community of warriors. Some prophets protested against various manifestations of social injustice while continuing to defend the slaveholder ideology, which was universal at the time.

The destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian siege in 700 B.C. were used by the prophets to spread their ideas among the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah.

The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, which were ascribed to Moses, who, according to legend, led the Israelites during their nomadic period, were essentially composed in the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries B.C. These books expounded the mythical past of the Israelites, in addition to their legal and ethical norms, in the spirit of the concepts of the covenant and the jealous god; the rituals and many elements of the mythological world view were taken from earlier religious traditions. The books interpreting the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah from the point of view of the fulfillment or nonfulfillment of Yahweh’s conditions by the kings and the population also date from the eigthth, seventh, and sixth centuries B.C. By the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. the prophets already began to deny the existence of other gods except Yahweh, but there is evidence that the population continued to worship other gods as late as the fifth century B.C. A manuscript of Deuteronomy, which sums up the teachings of the prophets, was “discovered” when King Josiah rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem in 622 B.C. In the early fourth century B.C., Deuteronomy, together with the other four books of Moses, became known as the Pentateuch, or Torah (Law), the part of the Holy Scripture, or Bible, most revered in Judaism. Subsequently all social ills that befell the ethnic groups practicing the Judaic religion were explained by deviations from the letter of the Torah. This made for the dogmatic character of Judaism and the great importance attached to the literally exact fulfillment of the rituals prescribed by the Torah.

In 587 B.C. the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II resettled a large part of the Judahites in Babylonia and the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. Among the resettled Judahites the prophet Ezekiel preached the restoration of Israel, but this time as a theocratic state with a new Temple in Jerusalem as its center. The state was to be founded by a descendant of King David, or the Messiah. The Iranian religion influenced the development of Judaism during the period of Babylonian captivity.

Under the Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids the Judahites were returned to Jerusalem, which had become a self-governing Temple city (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.), and a new “Second Temple” of Yahweh was built. But the leaders of the new religious community, Ezra and Nehemiah, did not accept into this community the Judahites who had not gone into captivity and the Israelites who had remained in Palestine, under the pretext that they had mixed with people who worshipped other gods. The rejected groups created a separate community, the Samaritans, who live in Palestine to this day. After Ezra, the isolation of the practicing Jews—under the pretext that they are the chosen people—became one of the most important dogmas of Judaism; later, however, circumcision and the fulfillment of the demands of the Torah were recognized as sufficient conditions for entering into the covenant with god, regardless of the convert’s origin.

In the third and second centuries B.C., a large number of Judahites were resettled by their Hellenic conquerors in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. Judah itself, the site of a bitter class struggle, saw the rise of various currents within Judaism—for example, the Essenes, who condemned the official orientation of Judaism (the Pharisees) and preached asceticism and primitive social equality. Christianity too was originally a Judaic sect and only later became a separate religion, distinct from Judaism. However, the Christian Bible incorporated the Judaic holy books in their entirety (the Old Testament, or the ancient covenant, as distinct from the New Testament, or the Gospel).

The canon of the Holy Scriptures of Judaism was definitively established in about 100 B.C. The canon included the Torah, the Prophets (written records of religious and political speeches and historical books of a prophetic nature), and the Writings (books of a different nature recognized as conforming to the dogmas of Judaism, including the books of Ruth, Esther, and Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs). When the written canon was introduced, literacy became mandatory for all males of the Judaic religious community; this rule was retained throughout the Middle Ages.

After two uprisings against Roman rule (the Jewish War of A.D. 66–73 and the Bar Kochba uprising of A.D. 132–135), the Jews were banished from Jerusalem.

The most important ritual innovation of the Diaspora was the replacement of worship in the Temple, which, according to dogma, could be done only in Jerusalem, by prayer assemblies in synagogues under the leadership of rabbis, or teachers of the religious law, instead of priests; the rabbis also usually governed the civil and legal life of the members of the religious community. The religious teachings of Judaism were further elaborated by commentaries on the Bible (the Mishnah; completed by the third century A.D.) and the Gemara, a collection of legal (halakah) and folkloric (agadah) interpretations of biblical texts, often incredibly lapidary, nebulous in form, subjective, and contradictory; the Gemara and the Mishnah together form the Talmud (completed by the fifth century A.D.). The development of the religious and philosophical foundation of Judaism (especially monotheism) was influenced by Hellenistic idealist philosophy and early medieval (including Arabic) Neoplatonism and Aris-totelianism. In the 12th century Maimonides generalized the teachings of early medieval Judaism: the unity of an incorporeal and eternal god who is the creator of all things and who has revealed to man through Moses and the prophets the eternity of the Torah, the expectation of the Messiah, retribution after death for one’s deeds, and resurrection of the dead.

Jews who lived in areas dominated by other dogmatic religions were subjected to legal restrictions and sometimes even to the cruelest persecution; this was true especially in the Christian countries, since Christianity blamed the Jewish religious community of the first century A.D. for the death of Jesus. At the same time the dogma of Judaism, which called for isolation of the Jews from those of other religions, made it easier for the authorities of the Christian states to create Jewish ghettos. Despite the artificial seclusion of adherents of Judaism, several medieval kingdoms, in an attempt to escape the political influence of the great Christian powers, adopted the religion (for example, the Khazar kingdom in the Volga region in the late eighth and early ninth centuries). The Karaite sect, which arose during the eighth century in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, rejected the rabbinate and all rabbinical commentaries on the Bible. Mystical teachings spread among Jews, such as cabala, of which the most important work was the Zohar of Moses de Léon in the 13th century. The cabala also influenced later religious and philosophical Judaic literature, such as Joseph Caro’s Shulkhan Arukh in the 16th century, a code of ethics that regulated the life of believers down to the smallest detail.

In the 17th century a movement arose around the mystic and adventurer Sabbatai Zebi of Turkey, who had declared himself the Messiah; his movement found numerous followers among Jews of many countries, who mistakenly sought in Zebi’s teachings salvation from social oppression. The collapse of this movement and deterioration in the conditions of the Jews both in the ghettos of Europe and in Asia and Africa produced, on the one hand, still greater isolation from other peoples, and, on the other hand, Hasidism, a movement founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov in the middle of the 18th century that rejected the authority of the rabbis and preached the personal communion of the believer with god through the most pious, or zaddikim. Both movements contributed to the deprivation of civil rights of the Jews and their alienation from general democratic movements.

In the second half of the 19th century a movement for the reform of Judaism arose among Jews in Germany, the USA, and other countries. The reformers wanted to bring Judaism closer to Protestantism, in an attempt to adapt Judaism to the established bourgeois system and to place it in the service of capitalism. According to the reformers, messianism, the expectation of the restoration of the Temple, and the creation of a theocratic state in Jerusalem should be understood figuratively, as a future realization of the ethical ideals of mankind that are supposedly contained in Judaism. However, orthodox Judaism remained the dominant current among Jews, especially in the USA and in Eastern Europe.

Judaism does not recognize temples and has no ecclesiastical hierarchy; synagogues are maintained by contributions from believers (capitalists make large contributions to their maintenance). The Synagogue Council of America in the USA manages several educational institutions.

Judaism is the official religion of the state of Israel. The synagogues, like the organizations of other religions, are financed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs; the rabbinate has judicial functions in family matters, marriage, and other affairs concerning Jews.

The major holidays of Judaism are the Sabbath, when all work is prohibited, including the cooking of food and traveling; the tenth day after the lunar New Year (the day of purification, or Yom Kippur), a time of fasting and atonement; Pesach, or Passover, in the spring; Pentecost; the Festival of Booths in the fall, followed in seven or eight days by a holiday of “rejoicing in the Torah.” At the age of 13 a boy professing Judaism passes through the rite of bar mitzvah, which introduces him into the community of believers; at that time he must show his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and make an appropriate speech in Hebrew. The life of people practicing Judaism is burdened by a multiplicity of archaic restrictions, rituals, and dietary taboos.

Judaism, as a religion, as well as Talmudic ritualism, prevents the Jewish working masses from understanding the true causes of social oppression. Judaism, like other religions, has always been a tool in the hands of the ruling and exploiting classes for the spiritual oppression of the working masses. Judaism has been taken over by Zionism, which is at present the official ideology of the state of Israel. Attempting to win over the masses of working Jews and to divert them from the world revolutionary labor and national liberation movements as well as to justify Israel’s expansionist policies, Zionism began to use the tenets of Judaism for its political aims (for example, messianism, which proposes the creation of a new, “ideal” Israel, with Jerusalem as its center, that would include the whole of Palestine). Since the second quarter of the 20th century Zionism has found support among the most reactionary Jews, especially in the USA. In its chauvinist and annexationist policy Zionism makes use of the Judaic dogma that the Jews are god’s chosen people and employs Judaism to substantiate the concept of a “worldwide Jewish nation” and other reactionary positions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.



Judaism has a rich tradition of dream interpretation. The interest of Jews in dreams was particularly stimulated during their captivity in Babylon, where dream divination was a widespread practice. The Jews, like other peoples in this region, distinguished between good and evil dreams.

The Babylonian Talmud, the largest collection of Jewish sacred writings, is full of references to dreams, rules for interpreting dreams, and means of avoiding evil dreams. The Berakhot section of the Babylonian Talmud contains a number of rabbinic stories, teachings, and reflections on dream interpretation. One common theme is that dream interpretation represents an important but very difficult and complex matter, since dreams are always enigmatic. Thus, interpreters must be very careful to distinguish meaningful and revelatory dreams from worthless ones (“just as there is no wheat without straw, so there is no dream without worthless things”).

Several Jewish prophets gave warnings against false dreams and false interpreters, recognizing that religious heresy might arise from bad interpretation. Rabbinic Judaism laid considerable emphasis on interpretation. According to the rabbis, a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read, and without conscious elaboration, a dream’s meaning is lost. Many dreams are linked to Jewish Scripture, relating words in dreams to important passages from the Torah.

The Jews had become worshipers of the one God rather than of many special gods, and this idea was reflected in their view of dreams. God alone could be the source of the divine revelations that came in dreams. And, since He was the God of the Jews, they believed He usually spoke clearly to them. In some cases, when the wishes of Jehovah are communicated by an angelic messenger, it is hard to distinguish between dreams and waking visions. In other cases, the dreamer hears the voice of God, or may like Solomon in Gideon, see the Lord himself.

Almost all symbolic dreams in the Old Testament are dreamed by Gentiles. Important examples are the enigmatic messages sent to non-Jews, such as Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, that only Jews were able to interpret (in these cases, Joseph and Daniel, respectively). Although the Jews had begun to give special emphasis to dream theory, they continued to classify dreams in much the same way as the peoples in neighboring territories.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Theodore Herzl’s imaginative description of the future Zionist settlement in Palestine. [Jewish Hist.: Collier’s, XIX, 79]
Oppenheimer, Josef Süss
chooses Judaism even when renunciation would save him from execution. [Ger. Lit.: Feuchtwanger Power; Magill I, 773]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the religion of the Jews, based on the Old Testament and the Talmud and having as its central point a belief in the one God as transcendent creator of all things and the source of all righteousness
2. the religious and cultural traditions, customs, attitudes, and way of life of the Jews
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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