judaism 4022


April 29, 2021

Judaism, religious culture of the Jews (also known as the people of Israel); one of the world’s oldest continuing religious traditions.

The terms Judaism and religion do not exist in premodern Hebrew. The Jews spoke of Torah, God’s revealed instruction to Israel, which mandated both a worldview and a way of life—Halakhah. Halakhah derives from the Hebrew word “to go” and has come to mean the “way” or “path.” It encompasses Jewish law, custom, and practice. Premodern Judaism, in all its historical forms, thus constituted (and traditional Judaism today constitutes) an integrated cultural system encompassing the totality of individual and communal existence. It is a system of sanctification in which all is to be subsumed under God’s rule—that is, under divinely revealed models of cosmic order and lawfulness. Christianity originated as one among several competing Jewish ideologies in 1st-century Palestine, and Islam drew in part on Jewish sources at the outset. Because most Jews, from the 7th century on, have lived within the cultural sphere of either Christianity or Islam, these religions have had an impact on the subsequent history of Judaism.

Judaism originated in the land of Israel (also known as Palestine) in the Middle East. Subsequently, Jewish communities have existed at one time or another in almost all parts of the world, a result of both voluntary migrations of Jews and forced exile or expulsions (see Diaspora). According to the American Jewish Yearbook, the total world Jewish population in the year 2000 was estimated at 13.2 million, of whom 5.7 million lived in the United States, 4.8 million in Israel, 530,000 in France, and 438,000 in the former Soviet Union. These are the four largest centers of Jewish settlement. Other significant Jewish communities are found in Canada (360,000), Great Britain (276,000), Argentina (200,000), and South Africa (80,000).

A Monotheism

As a rich and complex religious tradition, Judaism has never been monolithic. Its various historical forms nonetheless have shared certain characteristic features. The most essential of these is a radical monotheism, that is, the belief that a single, transcendent God created the universe and continues providentially to govern it. Undergirding this monotheism is the teleological conviction that the world is both intelligible and purposive, because a single divine intelligence stands behind it. Nothing that humanity experiences is capricious; everything ultimately has meaning.

From ancient through medieval times, various forms of Judaism have acknowledged the role of other heavenly beings, such as angels, and have warned against various forces of a demonic nature. But these forces have always been regarded as the creations of God, subordinate to the divine will, and ultimately irrelevant to the primary mission of the Jewish people, which is to acknowledge the unity of God and to serve God in the world.

B Revelation

The mind of God is manifest to the traditional Jew in both the natural order, through creation, and the social-historical order, through revelation. The same God who created the world revealed himself to the people, Israel, at Mount Sinai. The content of that revelation is the Torah (“revealed instruction”), God’s will for humankind expressed in commandments (mizvoth) by which individuals are to regulate their lives in interacting with one another and with God. By living in accordance with God’s laws and submitting to the divine will, humanity can become a harmonious part of the cosmos. It is primarily as a community bound together in obedience to God’s Torah that the Jews view their role in the larger human community. By testifying to the unity of God and the centrality of the divine will as revealed in the Torah, they seek to draw the attention of all humanity to the unique God of all creation.

C Covenant

A third major concept in Judaism is that of the covenant (berith), or contractual agreement, between God and the Jewish people. According to tradition, the God of creation entered into a special relationship with the Jewish people at Sinai. They would acknowledge God as their sole ultimate king and legislator, agreeing to obey his laws; God, in turn, would acknowledge Israel as his particular people and be especially mindful of them. Both biblical authors and later Jewish tradition view this covenant in a universal context. Only after successive failures to establish a covenant with rebellious humanity did God turn to a particular segment of it. Israel is to be a “kingdom of priests,” and the ideal social order that it establishes in accordance with the divine laws is to be a model for the human race. Israel thus stands between God and humanity, representing each to the other.

The idea of the covenant also determines the way in which both nature and history traditionally have been viewed in Judaism. Israel’s well-being is seen to depend on obedience to God’s commandments. Both natural and historical events that befall Israel are interpreted as emanating from God and as influenced by Israel’s religious behavior. A direct causal connection is thus made between human behavior and human destiny. This perspective intensifies the problem of theodicy (God’s justice) in Judaism, because the historical experience of both individuals and the Jewish people has frequently been one of suffering.

Much Jewish religious thought, from the biblical Book of Job onward, has been preoccupied with the problem of affirming justice and meaning in the face of apparent injustice. In time, the problem was mitigated by the belief that virtue and obedience ultimately would be rewarded and sin punished by divine judgment after death, thereby redressing inequities in this world. The indignities of foreign domination and forced exile from the land of Israel suffered by the Jewish people also would be redressed at the end of time, when God would send his Messiah (mashiah, “one anointed” with oil as a king), a scion of the royal house of David, to redeem the Jews and restore them to sovereignty in their land.

Messianism, from early on, has been a significant strand of Jewish thought. Yearning for the Messiah’s coming was particularly intense in periods of calamity. Ultimately, a connection was drawn between the messianic idea and the concept of Torah: The individual Jew, through proper study and observance of God’s commandments, could hasten the Messiah’s arrival. Each individual’s action thus assumed a cosmic importance.

D The Rabbinic Tradition

Although all forms of Judaism have been rooted in the Hebrew Bible (referred to by Jews as the Tanach, an acronym for its three sections: Torah, the Pentateuch; Nebiim, the prophetic literature; and Ketubim, the other writings), it would be an error to think of Judaism as simply the “religion of the Old Testament.” Contemporary Judaism is ultimately derived from the rabbinic movement of the first centuries of the Christian era in Palestine and Babylonia and is therefore called rabbinic Judaism.

Rabbi, in Aramaic and Hebrew, means “my teacher.” The rabbis, Jewish sages adept in studying the Scriptures and their own traditions, maintained that God had revealed to Moses on Sinai a twofold Torah. In addition to the written Torah (Scripture), God revealed an oral Torah, faithfully transmitted by word of mouth in an unbroken chain from master to disciple, and preserved now among the rabbis themselves. For the rabbis, the oral Torah was encapsulated in the Mishnah (“that which is learned or memorized”), the earliest document of rabbinic literature, edited in Palestine at the turn of the 3rd century. Subsequent rabbinic study of the Mishnah in Palestine and Babylonia generated two Talmuds (“that which is studied”; also called Gemera, an Aramaic term with the same meaning; see Talmud), wide-ranging commentaries on the Mishnah. The Babylonian Talmud, edited about the 6th century, became the foundation document of rabbinic Judaism.

Early rabbinic writings also include exegetical and homiletical commentaries on Scripture (the Midrashim; see Midrash) and several Aramaic translations of the Pentateuch and other scriptural books (the see Targums). Medieval rabbinic writings include codifications of talmudic law, the most authoritative of which is the 16th-century Shulhan Arukh (Set Table) by Joseph ben Ephraim Caro. In Judaism, the study of Torah refers to the study of all this literature, not simply of the Pentateuch (“the Torah,” in the narrow sense).


For the religious Jew, the entirety of life is a continuous act of divine worship. “I keep the Lord always before me” (Psalms 16:8), a verse inscribed on the front wall of many synagogues, aptly characterizes Judaic piety.

A Prayers and Services

According to the rules codified in the Talmud and the medieval law codes, Jews must offer communal prayers three times a day: in the morning (shaharith), afternoon (minhah), and evening (maarib). The times of prayer are deemed to correspond to the times when sacrifices were offered in the Jerusalem Temple. In this and other ways, rabbinic Judaism metaphorically carries forward the structure of the destroyed Temple cult. A company of ten men forms a congregation, or quorum (minyan), for prayer. If a community is unable to summon a minyan, individuals are still obliged to offer these prayers. But the service is somewhat abbreviated.

The single required component of all Jewish worship services is a series of benedictions called the Tefillah (“prayer”); it is also known as the Amidah, or “standing” prayer, because it is recited standing, and the Shemoneh Esreh, because it originally contained 18 benedictions. On weekdays it is now composed of 19 benedictions, including 13 petitions for welfare and messianic restoration. On see Sabbaths and festivals, these petitions are replaced by occasional prayers. A second major rubric is the recitation of the Shema in the morning and evening. All services conclude with two messianic prayers, the first called Alenu, the second an Aramaic doxology called the Kaddish.

As a sign of devotion to God, the observant adult male Jew during weekday morning prayers wears both a fringed prayer shawl (tallith; the fringes are called zizith) and phylacteries (prayer boxes, called tefillin). Both customs are derived from the scriptural passages that are recited as the Shema, as is a third, the placing of a mezuzah (prayer box) on the doorpost of one’s house, a further reminder that God is everywhere. As a gesture of respect to God, the head is covered during prayer, either with a hat or a skullcap (kippah; Yiddish yarmulke). Pious Jews wear a head covering at all times, recognizing God’s constant presence.

B Torah

The study of Torah, the revealed will of God, also is considered an act of worship in rabbinic Judaism. Passages from Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud are recited during daily morning services. On Monday and Thursday mornings, a handwritten parchment scroll of the Torah (that is, the Pentateuch) is removed from the ark at the front of the synagogue and read, with cantillation (chanting), before the congregation. The major liturgical Torah readings take place on Sabbath and festival mornings. In the course of a year, the entire Torah will be read on Sabbaths. The annual cycle begins again every autumn at a celebration called Simhath Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah”), which falls at the end of the Sukkot festival. Torah readings for the festivals deal with the themes and observances of the day. Thematically appropriate readings from the Prophets (Haftarah, meaning “conclusion”) accompany the Torah readings on Sabbaths and festivals. The public reading of Scripture thus constitutes a significant part of synagogue worship. In fact, this appears originally to have been the primary function of the synagogue as an institution.

C Benedictions

In addition to the daily prayers, Jews recite numerous benedictions throughout the day before performing commandments and before enjoying the bounties of nature. Benedictions recited for the commandments generally offer thanks for the opportunity of serving God. One of the most well-known benedictions, usually recited by women on Sabbath Eve before the lighting of the mandatory Sabbath candles, is typical: “May You be blessed, O Lord, King of the Universe, who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of the Sabbath.”

The benedictions of enjoyment, by contrast, cultivate the Jewish conviction that the Earth belongs to God. Humans are simply tenant farmers or gardeners. The owner, therefore, must be acknowledged before the tenant may partake of the fruits. The most common such benediction occurs in meals, when the breaking of bread is preceded by the following intonation: “May You be blessed, O Lord, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

D Dietary Laws

Since ancient times, Jews have been known among non-Jewish observers through their distinctive dietary observances. Many of these dietary laws relate to the ancient Temple cult. One’s table at home is deemed analogous to the table of the Lord that once existed in the Jerusalem Temple. Certain animals, considered unclean (see Genesis 7:2-3), could not be used in sacrificial service at the altar. Therefore, they are not to be eaten even in secular settings (see Deuteronomy 14:3-21). Into this category fall pigs, donkeys, camels, and other animals. The Bible also prohibits eating fish without fins or scales and other creatures deemed to violate in some way certain norms. Edible domestic animals—those that have split hooves and chew their cuds—must be properly slaughtered (k?sh?r, or “fit”) and the blood fully drained before the meat can be eaten (see Genesis 9:5). In a most radical interpretation of the biblical prohibition against boiling calves and other young animals in their mothers’ milk, rabbinic halakhah prohibits the consumption of foods containing a mixture of milk and meat. See Kosher.

E The Sabbath

The Jewish liturgical calendar carries forward the divisions of time prescribed in the Torah and observed in the Temple cult. Every seventh day is the Sabbath, when no work is performed. By this abstention, the Jew returns the world to its owner, that is, God, acknowledging that humans extract its produce only on sufferance. The two versions of the biblical Ten Commandments explain the necessity for Sabbath rest in complementary ways. In Exodus 20:8-11 the Sabbath is described as a reenactment of God’s rest from the six days of creation. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 the Sabbath rest is explained as a commemoration of the liberation from Egyptian enslavement. In either explanation the Sabbath has come to be the most distinctive holy day of Judaism. It is spent in prayer, study, rest, and family feasting (see Kiddush). An additional (musaf) service is recited in the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals, corresponding to the additional sacrifice that is offered in the Temple on these days.

F Festivals

The Jewish year includes five major festivals and two minor ones. Three of the major festivals originally were agricultural and are tied to the seasons in the land of Israel. Pesach (Passover), the spring festival, marks the beginning of the barley harvest, and Shabuoth (Weeks or Pentecost) marks its conclusion 50 days later. Sukkot (Tabernacles) celebrates the autumn harvest and is preceded by a 10-day period of communal purification. From an early date, these festivals came to be associated with formative events in Israel’s historical memory. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. Shabuoth is identified as the time of the giving of the Torah on Sinai. It is marked by the solemn reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue. Sukkot is still observed primarily as a harvest festival, but the harvest booths in which Jews eat during the festival’s seven days also are identified with the booths in which the Israelites dwelt on their journey to the Promised Land. The ten-day penitential period before Sukkot is inaugurated by Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to tradition, the world is judged each New Year and the decree sealed on the Day of Atonement. A ram’s horn (shofar) is blown on the New Year to call the people to repentance. The Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish year, is spent in fasting, prayer, and confession. Its liturgy begins with the plaintive chanting of the Kol Nidre formula and includes a remembrance of the day’s rites (avodah) in the Temple.

The two minor festivals, Hanukkah and Purim, are later in origin than the five Pentateuchally prescribed festivals. Hanukkah (Dedication) commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian king Antiochus IV in 165 bc and the ensuing rededication of the Second Temple. Purim (Lots) celebrates the tale of Persian Jewry’s deliverance by see Esther and Mordecai. It occurs a month before Passover and is marked by the festive reading in the synagogue of the Scroll of Esther (megillah). Four fast days, commemorating events in the siege and destruction of the two Temples in 586 bc and ad 70, complete the liturgical year. The most important of these is Tishah b’Ab, or the Ninth of Ab, observed as the day on which both Temples were destroyed.

G Special Occasions

Significant events in the life cycle of the Jew also are observed in the community. At the age of eight days, a male child is publicly initiated into the covenant of Abraham through circumcision (berith milah). Boys reach legal maturity at the age of 13, when they assume responsibility for observing all the commandments (bar mitzvah) and are called for the first time to read from the Torah in synagogue. Girls reach maturity at 12 years of age and, in modern Liberal synagogues, also read from the Torah (bat mitzvah). In the 19th century, the modernizing Reform movement instituted the practice of confirmation for both young men and women of secondary school age. The ceremony is held on Shabuoth and signifies acceptance of the faith revealed at Sinai. The next turning point in a Jew’s life is marriage (kiddushin, “sanctification”). Even at the hour of greatest personal joy, Jews recall the sorrows of their people. The seven wedding benedictions include petitionary prayers for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return of the Jewish people to Zion. Also, at the Jewish funeral the hope for resurrection of the deceased is included in a prayer for the redemption of the Jewish people as a whole. The pious Jewish male is buried in his tallith.


Until recent decades historians of the earliest history of Judaism were confident that the biblical literature, in concert with the latest archaeological findings, could be used as a firm guide in reconstructing the origins and history of the Israelite nation. With the increasing realization, however, that much of the surviving literature seems to have reached its current form centuries and even millennia after the events described, historians have become more cautious. Such vivid biblical personalities as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah are entirely lost to disciplined historical study. We know of them only through the legends of Genesis. Similarly, it is no longer certain when or under what circumstances the ancestors of Israel lived in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. The origins of the community that was consolidated in the Jerusalem-centered dynasty of David are also unclear. So, too, the precise nature of this community’s relationship to what the biblical historical books recall as the wicked northern kingdom centered in Samaria.

Perhaps the most we can say of the people recalled in the Bible as the Israelites is that they were a largely agricultural people living under kingdoms that acknowledged a covenantal relationship to the God of Israel. This divinity, in return for their love and obedience, would protect them from the invasions of other peoples and the dominion of foreign gods. According to the recollections in the Bible, however, Israel and its kings often were disloyal to their national divinity, and participated in a variety of activities that constituted worship of other gods. Accordingly, the God of Israel imposed upon Israel a series of punishments, culminating, at the end, in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the expulsion of the royal house of David and its priesthood from the land of Israel. It is here, with the exile of Israel at the hands of the Babylonian Empire, that the history of Judaism begins to acquire some focus.

A Babylonian Exile

The exile of the Israelites to Babylonia in 586 BC was a major turning point in their religion. The prior history of Israel now was reinterpreted in light of the events of 586, laying the foundation for the traditional biblical Pentateuch, prophetic canon, and historical books. The prophets Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah believed that God had used the Babylonian Empire to punish the Israelites for their sins, and he therefore had the power to redeem them from captivity if they repented. A truly monotheistic religion developed, the God of Israel now being seen as the God ruling universal history and the destiny of all nations. The Babylonian exiles’ messianic hope for a restored Judean kingdom under the leadership of a scion of the royal house of David seemed to have been vindicated when Cyrus the Great, after conquering Babylon in 539 bc, permitted a repatriation of subject populations and a restoration of local temples. The restored commonwealth in Judea (southern Israel) did not fully realize this hope, however, because the Persians did not allow the reestablishment of a Judean monarchy, but only a temple-state with the high priest as its chief administrator.

B Maccabean and Roman Periods

The introduction into the Middle East of Greek culture, beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great in 331 bc, put the indigenous cultures of the region on the defensive (see Hellenistic Age). The Maccabean revolt of 165 to 142 bc began as a civil war between Jewish Hellenizers and offended nativists; it ended as a successful war for Judean political independence from Syria. This political and cultural turmoil had a major impact on religion. The earliest apocalyptic writings were composed during this period. This genre of cryptic revelations interpreted the wars of the time as part of a cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil that would end with the ultimate victory of God’s legions. Bodily resurrection at the time of God’s Last Judgment was promised for the first time to those righteous Jews who had been slain in the conflict. (In earlier Judaism, immortality consisted solely in the survival of the individual’s children and people and in a shadowy afterlife in the netherworld, Sheol.)

The Maccabean victories inaugurated an 80-year period of Judean political independence, but religious turmoil persisted. Members of the Hasmonaean priestly family that led the revolt proclaimed themselves hereditary kings and high priests, although they were not of the ancient high priestly lineage. This, together with their Hellenistic monarchical trappings, prompted fierce opposition from groups such as the Qumr?n community, known to modern scholars from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Led by dissident priests, this sect believed that the Jerusalem Temple had been profaned by the Hasmonaeans and saw itself as a purified Temple exiled in the wilderness.

The Qumr?n group can probably be identified with the Essenes described by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and other ancient writers. Josephus also described two other groups, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, for whom no identifiable firsthand sources have been found. The Pharisees (perushim, “separatists”), like the Qumr?n group, put forth their own traditions of biblical law, which were disputed by the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly group. The Pharisees were the lineal forerunners of the rabbinic movement after ad 70. All the religious factions of this period, particularly those opposed to the Temple administration, appealed to the authority of Scripture, to which each gave its own distinctive interpretation.

Messianic-apocalyptic fervor increased when Judean political independence was brought to an end by Roman legions in the middle of the 1st century bc and climaxed in the outbreak of an unsuccessful revolt against Rome in ad 66 to 70. (Christianity began as one of these messianic-apocalyptic movements.)

C Development of Rabbinic Judaism

The Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in ad 70 and their suppression of a second messianic revolt in 132 to 135 led by Simon Bar Kokhba were catastrophes for Judaism of no less magnitude than the destruction of the First Temple in 586 bc. The priestly leadership was decisively discredited. In this context the rabbinic movement emerged. Because the Jewish people had lost control of their political destiny, the rabbis emphasized their communal and spiritual life. They taught that by conformity in daily life to the Torah as elaborated in the rabbinic traditions—through study, prayer, and observance—the individual Jew could achieve salvation while waiting for God to bring about the messianic redemption of all Israel. Some rabbis held that if all Jews conformed to the Torah, the Messiah would be compelled to come. Institutionally, the synagogue (which had existed before ad 70) and the rabbinic study house replaced the Temple that had been destroyed.

D Medieval Judaism

The rabbinization of all Jewry, including the growing Mediterranean and European Diasporas, was a gradual process that had to overcome sharp challenges from the Karaites and other antirabbinic movements. The Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century by Islamic Arab armies facilitated the spread of a uniform rabbinic Judaism. Near the seat of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghd?d, the heads of the Babylonian rabbinical academies (geonim; plural of gaon, meaning “excellence”) attempted to standardize Jewish law, custom, and liturgy in accordance with their own practices, which they set forth in their replies (responsa) to inquiries from Diaspora communities. Thus, the hegemony over Jewry passed from Palestine to Babylonia, and the Babylonian Talmud came to be the most authoritative rabbinic document.

In the cultural ambit of Islam, rabbinic Judaism encountered Greek philosophy as recovered and interpreted by Islamic commentators. Rabbinic intellectuals began to cultivate philosophy to defend Judaism against the polemics of Islamic theologians and to demonstrate to other Jews the rationality of their revealed faith and law. Medieval Jewish philosophy typically concerns the attributes of God, miracles, prophecy (revelation), and the rationality of the commandments. The most notable philosophical interpretations of Judaism were put forth by Babylonian gaon Saadia ben Joseph in the 9th century, Judah Ha-Levi in the 12th century, and, preeminently, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 12th century (Guide for the Perplexed, 1190?; translated 1881-1885). The exposure to systematic logic also affected rabbinic legal studies in the Islamic world and is evident in numerous post-talmudic codifications of Jewish law, the most famous being Maimonides’ elegant Mishneh Torah.

Medieval Judaism developed two distinctive cultures, Sephardic (centered in Moorish Spain) and Ashkenazic (in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire). Philosophy and systematic legal codification were distinctly Sephardic activities and were opposed by the Ashkenazim, who preferred intensive study of the Babylonian Talmud. The great Rhineland school of Talmud commentary began with 11th-century scholar Solomon bar Isaac (Rashi) of Troyes and continued with his grandsons and students, known as the tosaphists, who produced the literature of tosaphoth (“additions” to Rashi’s Talmud commentary).

Throughout the medieval period, Judaism was continually revitalized by mystical and ethical-pietistic movements. The most significant of these were the 12th-century German Hasidic, or “pietist,” movement and the 13th-century Spanish Kabbalah, of which the most influential work was Sefer ha-zohar (The Book of Splendor) by Moses de León.

The Kabbalah is an esoteric theosophy, containing elements of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, that describes the dynamic nature of the godhead and offers a powerful symbolic interpretation of the Torah and the commandments. It began in small, elite scholarly circles but became a major popular movement after the calamitous expulsion of the Jews from Catholic Spain in 1492. The spread of the Kabbalah was facilitated by the mythical, messianic reinterpretation of it made by Isaac Luria of Safed. Lurianic Kabbalah explained to the exiles the cosmic meaning of their suffering and gave them a crucial role in the cosmic drama of redemption. Luria’s ideas paved the way for a major messianic upheaval, centered on the figure of Sabbatai Zevi, which affected all Jewry in the 17th century. They also influenced the popular 18th-century Polish revival movement called Hasidism.

Begun by Israel Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism proclaimed that, through fervent, rapturous devotion, the poor, unlearned Jew could serve God better than the Talmudist. Rabbinic opposition to Hasidism was eventually mitigated in the face of a more serious threat to both groups: the western European Age of Enlightenment and the various modernizing movements that it generated within Judaism.

E Modern Tendencies

The civil emancipation of European Jewry, a process complicated by lingering anti-Jewish sentiment, evoked different reformulations of Judaism in western and eastern Europe. In the west (particularly in Germany) Judaism was reformulated as a religious confession like modern Protestantism. The German Reform movement abandoned the hope of a return to Zion (the Jewish homeland), shortened and aestheticized the worship service, emphasized sermons in the vernacular, and rejected as archaic much Jewish law and custom. The Reform rabbi took on many of the roles of the Protestant minister. Early Reform theologians such as Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, influenced by German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, emphasized ethics and a belief in human progress. Right-wing Reformers, led by Zacharias Frankel, favored the retention of Hebrew and more traditional customs. Their interest in historical research as a way of justifying and moderating the modernizing changes in Judaism led to the movement known as Positive-Historical Judaism. Modern Orthodoxy, championed by Samson R. Hirsch in opposition to the Reformers, sought a blend of traditional Judaism and modern learning that would preserve intact the medieval forms of halakhic practice.

In eastern Europe, where Jews formed a large and distinctive social group, modernization of Judaism took the form of cultural and ethnic nationalism. Like the other resurgent national movements in the east, the Jewish movement emphasized the revitalization of the national language (Hebrew; later also Yiddish) and the creation of a modern, secular literature and culture. Zionism, the movement to create a modern Jewish society in the ancient homeland, took firm hold in eastern Europe after its initial formulations by Leo Pinsker in Russia and Theodor Herzl in Austria. Zionism was a secular ideology but it powerfully evoked and was rooted in traditional Judaic messianism, and it ultimately led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.


The contemporary American Jewish community is descended largely from central European Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century and, particularly, from eastern European Jews who arrived between 1881 and 1924, as well as more recent refugees from, and survivors of, the Holocaust. The multiple forms of Judaism in America—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—have resulted from the adaptation of these Jewish immigrant groups to American life and their accommodation to one another. Institutionally, Judaism in America has adopted the strongly congregationalist structure of American Christianity. Although affiliated with national movements, most congregations retain considerable autonomy.

A Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism, the first movement to define itself, was largely German at the outset. In America, it was influenced by liberal Protestantism and particularly by the Social Gospel movement. Its national institutions, all founded in the 1870s and 1880s by Isaac M. Wise, are the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), and the Hebrew Union College, the oldest surviving rabbinical school in the world (which merged in 1950 with the more Zionist-oriented Jewish Institute of Religion). Once the bastion of religious rationalism, the Reform movement since the 1940s has put more emphasis on Jewish peoplehood and traditional religious culture. Its orientation remains liberal and nonauthoritarian. The Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, ordained its first woman rabbi in 1972, and the Reform movement has worked to increase the participation of women in religious ritual. In the year 2000 Reform rabbis voted to affirm gay and lesbian unions. While supporting same-sex unions, the CCAR, which passed the resolution, left it to individual rabbis to decide whether to perform such ceremonies and what kind of ritual to use.

B Conservative Judaism

The Conservative movement has intellectual precedents in the Positive-Historical Judaism of mid-19th century Germany. But in its American form, it embodies the sense of community and folk piety of modernizing eastern European Jews. It respects traditional Jewish law and practice while advocating a flexible approach to Halakhah. Its major institutions, founded at the turn of the century, are the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA), the United Synagogue of America (USA), and the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). An offshoot of the Conservative movement is the Reconstructionist movement founded by Mordecai M. Kaplan in the 1930s. Reconstructionism advocates religious naturalism while emphasizing Jewish peoplehood and culture. Reconstructionists began to ordain women rabbis in the 1970s, and in 1983 the JTSA voted to admit women to its rabbinical program and ordain them as Conservative rabbis.

C Orthodoxy

American Orthodoxy is not so much a movement as a spectrum of traditionalist groups, ranging from the modern Orthodox, who try to integrate traditional observance with modern life, to some Hasidic sects that attempt to shut out the modern world. The immigration to America of many traditionalist and Hasidic survivors of the Holocaust has strengthened American Orthodoxy. No single national institution represents all Orthodox groups. Among the synagogue organizations are the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and Young Israel (“modern” Orthodox) and Agudas Israel; among the rabbinical groups, the Rabbinical Council of America (“modern”) and the Rabbinical Alliance of America; and among the rabbinical schools, Isaac Elchanan Seminary at Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Theological College (“modern”) in Skokie, Illinois, and numerous small European-type yeshivas (talmudic academies). The Synagogue Council of America is a forum for discussion and joint action among these movements.

D Significance of Israel

American Judaism has been profoundly affected by the Nazi destruction of European Jewry and the founding of the modern state of Israel. The Holocaust and Israel are closely linked in the perceptions of most contemporary Jews as symbols of collective death and rebirth—profoundly religious themes. Israel has a religious dimension, embodying Jewish self-respect and the promise of messianic fulfillment. All movements in American Judaism (excepting the ultra-Orthodox sectarians) have become more Israel-oriented in the past decades. Both the Reform and Conservative movements have been striving to achieve legal recognition and equal status with Orthodoxy in the state of Israel, where marriage, divorce, and conversion are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, which is backed in the government by the important National Religious Party.


The modern state of Israel was founded by the Zionist movement as a secular democracy that would express the national ethos of the Jewish people. The founders of the Jewish state were largely immigrants of Eastern European Ashkenazic origins, with decidedly secularist and socialist perspectives. But as soon as the independent state was established in 1948, it became the home of a widely diverse set of Jewish immigrants. Deeply pious traditionalist Jews from the ravaged ghettoes of Eastern Europe—Hasidim and their rationalist opponents known as Mithnagdim—arrived simultaneously with equally pious Jews of Islamic lands from Morocco to Persia, whose lives had become untenable in their homelands. The Jews from Islamic countries are often identified as Sephardim, if they trace their ancestry to medieval Spain, or as the Edot ha-Mizrah (“Oriental Jews”), if they are of Yemenite, Persian, or other Middle Eastern origin. The contemporary face of Judaism in Israel reflects this unprecedented mixing of Jews of various traditional religious cultures in a society governed for the most part by the norms of a state created by secular Jews.

While most of Israel’s Jewish population has always regarded itself as secular in orientation, perhaps a fifth of Jewish Israelis consider themselves to be more or less devoted practitioners of Judaism. In addition, Israel’s large non-Jewish minorities—including Arabs and Armenians—practice various forms of Islam and Christianity. To accommodate this religious diversity in a democratic, pluralistic spirit, Israel since its beginnings has recognized the legitimacy of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as established religious institutions. It also guarantees the freedom of Israeli citizens to practice—or not to practice—any religion they choose.

A Official Orthodox Judaism

Even before the state of Israel was founded, the main forms of Judaism practiced in Palestine under Ottoman and British rule were of a highly traditionalist Orthodox variety. This resulted in part because Palestine had for centuries been the home of highly pious Jewish communities of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic origins. Additionally, since the 1890s, an important minority of the Zionist immigration had been Eastern European traditionalist Jews who saw in Zionism the beginnings of the messianic restoration of Israel (the people) to its land. When the Jewish state was created in 1948, these Orthodox Jews were poised to dictate terms on which they would participate in the government of the state. Among the concessions they won was the right to define Judaism in accord with the halakhic norms preserved from medieval Jewish tradition. While Reform and Conservative Jews are welcomed as Jews to the Jewish state, to this day their versions of Judaism are regarded as deviant. Accordingly, official Conservative and Reform religious communities are denied governmental support, and the rabbis of these movements may not perform legally binding wedding ceremonies or conversions.

B The Zionist Orthodox

Most Orthodox Jews in Israel are Zionist in political orientation. They accept Zionism as an authentic movement of Jewish national expression, despite its secular background. The National Religious Party has been an important voice for this community. The rabbinic leaders of this stream of orthodoxy are generally the pool from which candidates for the chief rabbinate are drawn. The religious Orthodox, especially those with a strongly messianic view of the rebirth of Jewish statehood, have often played leading roles in establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank territories occupied by Israel as a result of the Six-Day War of 1967.

C The Anti-Zionist Orthodox

A small, but highly vocal, minority of Orthodox Jews in Israel are bitter opponents of Zionism. Their roots lie in the pre-Zionist Orthodox population of Palestine, but they include many new voices of post-Holocaust immigrants, from Eastern Europe in particular. These groups generally regard Zionism as a heretical attempt by Jews to force God to end his decree of exile. They regard their “exile in the Land of Israel under the Zionists” as even more bitter than the exile under medieval Christian or Islamic empires.

D The Non-Zionist Orthodox

The non-Zionist Orthodox have largely the same ethnic origins as the anti-Zionist Orthodox. However, they view Zionism as a religiously neutral fact. The state of Israel for them, in contrast to the claims of the Zionist Orthodox, has no messianic meaning, but neither is it a demonic force, as the anti-Zionist Orthodox claim. The Agudas Yisrael (Union of Israel), the major voice of this community, has been an important player in Israeli governments, where it seeks to protect the interests of Orthodox Jews. More recently, the Shas Party, composed primarily of Sephardic Jews, has played a similar role in Israeli politics.

E Reform and Conservative Judaism

Most Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel come from the Western democracies. While deeply committed to Israeli statehood and a presence during Israel’s modern history, they have had only small success in creating a base among native-born Israelis. Nevertheless, in recent years both movements have ordained Israelis into their rabbinates. The leaders of both communities are vocal lobbyists for breaking the Orthodox monopoly on defining the nature of Israeli Judaism.

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