Judaism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, dating back nearly 4,000 years.
It is characterized by a belief in one transcendent God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the Hebrew prophets and by a religious life in accordance with Scriptures and rabbinic traditions.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion that emerged with the Israelites in the Eastern Mediterranean (Southern Levant) within the context of the Mesopotamian river valley civilizations.
The Israelites were but one nomadic tribe from the area, so named because they considered themselves to be the descendants of Jacob, who changed his name to Israel.
The history of the Jews and Judaism can be divided into five periods:
1. ancient Israel before Judaism, from the beginnings to 586 BC
2. the beginning of Judaism in the 6th and 5th centuries BC
3. the formation of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE
4. the age of rabbinic Judaism, from the ascension of Christianity to political power under the emperor Constantine the Great in 312 CE to the end of the political hegemony of Christianity in the 18th century
5. the age of diverse Judaisms, from the French and American Revolutions to the present
The worst persecution of the Jews was during World War II by the Nazis who murdered more than six million Jews or a third of the world’s Jewish population. This was called the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1880’s Jews began returning to their homeland in growing numbers, this time to avoid persecution where they lived. After World War II, many Jews believed that for the Jewish people and culture to survive, Jews needed to live in their own country where all Jews from anywhere in the world would have the right to live and be citizens. In 1948, Palestine was divided up and a Jewish state of Israel was formed in the land that was once called Canaan, surrounded by countries with predominantly Muslim populations. Since Muslims also claimed rights to the land where the Jews were living, there was conflict, which continues to this day in the Middle East.
Most Jews (with the exception of a few groups) believe that their Messiah hasn’t yet come—but will one day.
The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh also known in Hebrew as Mikra, is the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, including the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim. These texts are almost exclusively in Biblical Hebrew, with a few passages in Biblical Aramaic (in the books of Daniel and Ezra, the verse Jeremiah 10:11, and some single words).
The authoritative form of the Hebrew Bible for Rabbinic Judaism is the Masoretic Text (7th to 10th century CE), which consists of 24 books, divided into pesuqim (verses). The contents of the Hebrew Bible are similar to those of the Protestant Christian Old Testament, in which the material is divided into 39 books and arranged in a different order. Catholic Bibles, Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bibles and Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles contain additional materials, derived from the Septuagint (texts translated into Koine Greek) and other sources.
The Torah is the compilation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, namely the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In that sense, Torah means the same as Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. It is also known in the Jewish tradition as the Written Torah . If meant for liturgic purposes, it takes the form of a Torah scroll . If in bound book form, it is called Chumash, and is usually printed with
the rabbinic commentaries (perushim).
Jewish law, called Halakhah, having been interpreted and re-interpreted over millennia, has changed over time. Even so, religious Judaism operates cyclically, and the linear way that modern historians view history does not correspond to this worldview. As historian Yosef Yerushalmi explained, the Rabbis “seem to play with time as though with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will.” Major holidays, such as the weekly Sabbath or the annual Jewish New Year, provide a rhythm in order to structure a distinction between the sacred and the mundane. Other festivals rehearse ancient events, connecting modern Jews to the ancient Israelites. For instance, they mark the reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the exodus from Egypt, the fall harvests, and the Maccabee victory over the Hellenistic Persian kingdom.
In nearly 4,000 years of historical development, the Jewish people and their religion have displayed a remarkable adaptability and continuity. In their encounter with the great civilizations, from ancient Babylonia and Egypt to Western Christendom and modern secular culture, they have assimilated foreign elements and integrated them into their own social and religious systems, thus maintaining an unbroken religious and cultural tradition.
The term “Judaism” derives from Iudaismus, a Latinized form of the Ancient Greek Ioudaismos (Ἰουδαϊσμός). Its ultimate source was the Hebrew יהודה, Yehudah, “Judah”, which is also the source of the Hebrew term for Judaism: יַהֲדוּת, Yahadut. The term Ἰουδαϊσμός first appears in the Hellenistic Greek book of 2 Maccabees in the 2nd century BC. In the context of the age and period it meant “seeking or forming part of a cultural entity” and it resembled its antonym hellenismos, a word that signified a people’s submission to Hellenic (Greek) cultural norms. The conflict between iudaismos and hellenismos lay behind the Maccabean revolt and hence the invention of the term iudaismos.
In 2022, the world Jewish population was estimated at about 15 million, or roughly 0.19% of the total world population. About 46.9% of all Jews reside in Israel and another 38.8% reside in the United States and Canada, with most of the remainder living in Europe, and other minority groups spread throughout Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.