World Religions other than Christianity
A Brief Introduction
Judaism is one of the oldest of the world’s living religions, although it is numerically quite small, with about 15-18 million Jews worldwide. About one third of the world’s Jews live in Israel and others are scattered over many other countries.
The most familiar Jewish symbols are the menorah – the 7-branched candlestick found in synagogues and sometimes in homes – and the Star of David (Magen David), which also appears on the flag of Israel.
Jews today are the spiritual descendants of the Israelites – the Hebrews. They are Semitic in origin – peoples of the Middle East, sharing their origins with the present-day Arabs. They trace their faith back to Abraham, the patriarch or Father of the Nation, who is thought to have lived around 2000 BCE. As the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who was renamed Israel, Jews are also known as “the Children of Israel”. After 400 years of slavery in Egypt the Israelites were led out to their traditional homeland by Moses, who received the God’s Law on Mount Sinai. This Exodus from Egypt has strong resonances in Jewish theology and contemporary religious life.
Many Jews have lived far away from the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (renamed as Palestine by the Romans) for centuries. By the time of the Roman occupation the diaspora (from the Greek for ‘dispersion’) was already well established, with Jewish communities living in Babylonia and throughout the Roman Empire. Following failed rebellions against Roman rule, in 70 CE and again in 132 CE, the Jews were expelled from Palestine and established communities in many other parts of North Africa, Asia and Europe. Despite much persecution throughout the succeeding centuries Jewish communities survived and spread further afield.
The diaspora led to the establishment of 2 major communities of European Judaism, each with their own traditions: the Sephardim, in Spain and related areas, and the Ashkenazim, mainly in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe.
19th century persecutions (pogroms) in Eastern Europe led to the emigration of many Jews to Britain, Ireland and especially North America. Although there was always some Jewish presence in Palestine, from the beginning of the 20th century increasing numbers of Jews began to return to Palestine as settlers, and this was intensified after the end of World War II, with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
European anti-semitism in the inter-World-War period and under Fascism and Nazism led to the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews (including 1 million children) perished in the death camps and gas chambers (along with members of other minority groups). Holocaust Memorial Day is now marked every year on 27th January (the date of the liberation of Auschwitz) with special reflective activities.
There is a diverse range of Jewish groups with varying styles and practices, including Orthodox; Reform Conservative; Liberal & Progressive.
Tensions sometimes exist between Orthodox Jews and those who take a more liberal position:
- Orthodox – take a strong position on the revelation of the Torah and a generally conservative approach to Jewish practices. The term ‘orthodox’ includes various groups including Jews of the Haredi tradition (sometimes called “ultra-orthodox”, though the term is regarded as pejorative) who are mainly but not exclusively based in Israel.
- Reform – dating from the late 18th & early 19th centuries CE in Central Europe – take more liberal views of the Torah and other issues (such as the role of women).
- Conservative – including the Masorti movement in the USA, Israel and the UK – take a middle position between Orthodox and Reform.
- Liberal & Progressive – a more radical breakaway from Reform Judaism – including a significant minority of British Jews.
In addition to the modern Jewish “denominations”, various movements and traditions have emerged within Judaism over the centuries, including followers of the Kabbalah, a mystic tradition, and the Hasidim, a pietistic and ascetic movement commencing in the 18th century CE in Eastern Europe. Each of these traditions has contributed to the shape of contemporary Judaism.
Jews believe that there is only one God and that he has made a special promise (the Covenant) that the Jews have been chosen to be foremost in remaining faithful to him. Jews believe that God has given guidance for life in the Law (the Torah), which includes the Ten Commandments.
Jewish faith in one God is expressed in The Shema (Hebrew for “hear”), which is recited each morning and evening. The words are from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4,5):
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord is 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.
The Shema teaches Jews that they are to strive for holiness by loving God, accepting his Providence and submitting to his Law, which involves keeping the 613 commandments (mizvot). The doorposts of Jewish homes normally have a mezuzah – a small decorative box with the words of the Shema inside.
Orthodox Jews look to a coming annointed leader, the Messiah, who will reign in Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple there. Many attitudes towards the modern state of Israel and the future of Jerusalem centre on this belief, which is held with great passion by some. Within Reform Judaism, however, the idea of the Messiah has been spiritualised to symbolise God’s kingdom on earth of love, peace and righteousness – “a golden messianic age”.
Hebrew Dietary Laws require the careful preparation of food according to Biblical laws. It is only permitted (kosher – meaning ‘proper’ or ‘correct’) to eat herbivorous animals – with a cloven hoof and that chew the cud: ox, sheep, goat, deer; also chicken, duck, turkey, goose, but not birds of prey. Animal slaughter is by specially trained kosher butchers – shochtim – who are well-versed in the Biblical rules. Milk and meat must be kept separately and not cooked or served together and utensils must be washed and stored separately.
Observant Jews do not work on the Sabbath Day (Friday dusk to Saturday nightfall) and only certain foods (kosher) are permitted. The Sabbath (shabat) involves no work or school; no housework or homework; no “kindling”; no shopping or preparing food; no money (pockets are emptied). Similar rules apply to major Jewish holy days.
The most important document for all Jews is the Bible (TeNaKh), which is in three sections – the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). (TeNaKh is an acronym of these three names.)
The five books of Moses, the Torah, are the most important. A passage from the Torah is read each Sabbath in the synagogue throughout the year. For Orthodox Jews the Torah is the actual word of God, as written down by Moses. (More liberal forms of Judaism interpret this concept less literally.) In worship the Torah is read aloud in Hebrew (the ancient language of the Jews) from the the Torah scroll using a yad (a silver pointer), in 54 sections, spanning the year.
The other parts of the Bible contain histories and stories of Jewish leaders and prophets, and many other writings, including a collection of Hebrew poems called the Psalms, which are sung in worship.
(The Hebrew Scriptures are also included in the Christian Bible, where they are known as The Old Testament.)
The Talmud (meaning study or learning) is a very large body of commentary and discussion, written after the diaspora and based on the Torah and other scriptures. It includes judgements, opinions, descriptions of practices, etc.. For Orthodox Jews its study is a religious duty, although it is taken less seriously by the various non-Orthodox groups. The Talmud has had a tremendous effect upon Jewish life and schools of thought.
Jews worship in the Synagogue, where the reading of the Torah has a central place. The Torah scrolls are kept in a special cupboard – the Holy Ark – at the front of the synagogue and are taken out for reading during services. In Orthodox Judaism much of the service is in Hebrew.
Worship in the synagogue (often referred to as Shul) is normally led by a rabbi (teacher) and in larger synagogues there may also be a cantor (chazzan) who sings some of the prayers.
During services the congregation faces the Holy Ark (aron kodesh), which is oriented towards Jerusalem. By the Ark the Ner Tamid (everlasting light) burns – symbolising the eternal presence of God. Two symbolic tablets of stone are placed above the Ark with the Hebrew words (or initial letters) of the 10 Commandments. Facing the Ark, on an elevated platform (Bimah), there is a reading desk from where the Torah is chanted and sermons are preached, symbolising the precept that the Law is higher than humankind.
In Orthodox synagogues women and children (including boys who are not yet Bar Mitzvah – see Festivals below) sit separately from the men, sometimes in a gallery. This practice is no longer common in Reform or Progressive synagogues (and even many Orthodox synagogues have only token divides).
The Tallit – prayer shawl – is worn by men at the morning service and all day on Yom Kippur. It is made from wool or silk and is normally white with black or blue stripes and fringes on each corner. (Outside the Orthodox tradition it is also worn by women.) The yarmulka (or kippah) – a skull cap – is worn by male Jews in the synagogue, but many Orthodox Jewish men wear it at all times.
Men taking part in weekday morning prayers often wear the Teffilin – leather boxes, sometimes called phylacteries, containing the words of the Shema. These are strapped to the arm (close to the heart) and the forehead (close to the mind), based on Exodus 13:1-16 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “…bind these words for a sign upon your hand and a frontlet between your eyes”. They are not worn on the Sabbath or during festivals.
Jews also pray and worship together in the home, especially as part of the special meal which takes place on Friday evening, at the start of Sabbath.
The most important Jewish festivals are Rosh Hashannah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), times of reflection which take place about September. The Jewish year 5764 (traditionally dating from the beginning of mankind) began in September 2004 CE.
The most popular festival is Passover (Pesach) which marks the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses (about 1200 BCE). On Passover Eve the Seder meal is eaten, during which the story of deliverance from slavery is told in the words of the Haggadah (the Telling, the Story). After this a child asks the father to retell the Exodus story: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Other questions are based on the symbolic food items that are placed on the seder plate to remind the faithful of the deliverance from Egypt: a roasted shankbone; a roasted egg; three loaves of unleavened bread; bitter herbs; a green vegetable dipped in salt water; charoset (a paste made from nuts, cinnamon, wine and apples).
Hanukkah (“dedication”), an eight-day festival of lights, takes place in November/December. It celebrates the recapture and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE by Judas the Macabee after it had been desecrated by the Greeks (1 Macabees 4:48-59). The menorah had been badly damaged, so one was made out of spears. However, there was only one single jar of oil – enough for just one day – which was required in order to keep the Ner Tamid (everlasting light) burning. It took 8 days until more oil could be prepared, but the miracle was that the Ner Tamid kept burning throughout that time. In the home a candle is lit on the Hanukkiah for each day of the festival. Gifts are exchanged and special oil-related foods are prepared such as doughnuts and latkes (fried grated potato cakes).
Other festivals include:
- Shavuoth: commemorating the giving of the Ten Commandments;
- Sukkot:the harvest festival of Tabernacles;
- Simhat Torah:the end and beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings; and
- Purim:the Festival of Lots (based on the Biblical story of Esther).
In the Jewish lunar calendar a year can vary between 355 and 385 days, but on the whole the Jewish year remains fairly closely aligned to the national calendar.
A boy reaches adulthood in Jewish terms on his 13th birthday – when he becomes bar mitzvah(son of the commandment). After his birthday there is a special ceremony, usually on a Shabat, at which he is called forward to read in Hebrew from the Torah and the Prophets. This serves as a public announcement of his coming of age and he may now wear a tallit and the tefillin and read publicly from the Torah at synagogue services.
In Reform/Progressive (and even sometimes in Orthodox) communities girls may mark their achievement of adulthood at age 12 in a Bat Mitzvah (daughter of the commandment) ceremony. This is meant to encourage girls to have a more active role and takes a similar form to the Bar Mitzvah.
Jews in Ireland
In Ireland Jewish communities have been present from the mid 17th century, and the earliest known synagogue dates from around 1700 in Dublin. In 1771 the recorded existence of a “Jew Butcher” suggests that there was a Jewish community in Belfast. Growth took place from the 1840s when Jews came to Belfast from Central Europe, and in 1871-2 the first purpose-built synagogue was established. One of the co-founders of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard, German-born G.W. Wolff, came from the growing Belfast Jewish community of the mid-19th century. From 1881 there were significant new arrivals, fleeing the Russian pogroms, and from 1903 they joined with the main Hebrew congregation. In 1898 a Jewish elementary school was established, followed in 1904 by a new synagogue. At around the turn of the century Sir Otto Jaffe, a prominent Jewish businessman, was twice Lord Mayor of Belfast.
The community continued to grow and peaked just after World War II. The present synagogue in North Belfast was opened in 1964 and by 1967 there were about 1,350 Jews living in Northern Ireland. In recent decades, however, numbers have declined to just a few hundred, in part due to emigration to Israel. The small Jewish communities outside Belfast have almost entirely disappeared, and the main community is based in the north of the city where, despite the small numbers, a dignified presence is maintained.
- Cohn-Sherbok, L. & D. (1997) A Short Introduction to Judaism, Oxford: One World
The following dating system has been used:
- BCE: Before the Common Era;
- CE: Common Era.