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Judaism: It’s History and Beliefs

By Patrick Zukeran

The religion of Judaism laid the foundation for the two largest religions in the world today: Christianity and Islam. The Jewish moral law, in particular the Ten Commandments, has been the basis for moral and legal codes for civilizations throughout history. This article will present a brief overview of the historical development, basic beliefs, and one approach to sharing Christ with followers of Judaism. 

HISTORY OF JUDAISM

The origin of Judaism begins nearly 4,000 years ago in the Middle East when God chose Abraham and called him to leave his homeland, Ur of the Chaldeans, and move to the land of Canaan. This account is recorded in Genesis 12. At this time, God established a covenant with Abraham called the “Abrahamic Covenant.” This covenant included several promises. First, Abraham would become the father of a great nation. Second, this nation would be a blessing to the entire world. Third, God would bless those nations that blessed Abraham’s seed and curse those who came against them. It is through this nation that God would redeem the world. The promise was passed to Abraham’s  son Isaac and then to Isaac’s son Jacob. Jacob became the father of twelve sons who became the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Through various circumstances ultimately under God’s sovereign guidance, the family migrated to Egypt and there grew to become a great nation. However, their rapid growth concerned the Pharaoh who perceived them as a threat and enslaved the nation.

After four hundred years of slavery, the nation was delivered miraculously by God and His appointed prophet, Moses, who is considered by Jews the greatest prophet of Israel. This deliverance from slavery, which occurred in approximately 1400 B.C., is known as the “Exodus” and is considered the most important event in the history of the Jewish people.is Moses led the nation through the Sinai Desert, and at Mount Sinai God gave His Law to the nation. The giving of the Law is very significant, for this law would guide the nation for centuries. Moses led the nation to the Promised Land, but it was his successor Joshua who led the conquest of the land.

Israel was to live in obedience to God’s law under a theocratic government. By living in obedience to God’s statutes, the nation would enjoy a special relationship with God and be a light to the entire world. However, the nation frequently turned away from God and fell into idolatry. As a result, God allowed foreign nations to conquer and oppress the people. Israel would then repent and turn to God and He would raise a judge to deliver the people. During the lifetime of the judge, the people lived in accordance with God’s law; however, after the judge died, the nation would again fall into idolatry.

Eventually the nation pleaded for a king, and God granted their request. Saul was the first king, but the most significant king was his successor David. David proved to be a “man after God’s own heart,” and because of his love for God, God made a covenant with David known as the “Davidic Covenant” recorded in 2 Samuel 7. In this covenant, God promises that from David’s descendants a king will arise who will establish an everlasting kingdom. This future king would sit on David’s throne and rule from Jerusalem.

David’s son Solomon led Israel to their greatest height of power. Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem where God’s presence dwelt in a special way, and there the sacrificial ceremonies were performed. The Temple of Jerusalem became the most holy site in the nation of Israel. It was the Levitical priests who performed the ceremonies and taught the Law of God to the people.

After the death of Solomon, the nation entered into a period of civil war with ten northern tribes seceding, leaving the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south. The northern tribes soon turned away from God and fell into idolatry. As a result, God allowed the Assyrians to conquer the north and deport the people in 722 B.C. Judah had several rulers who were faithful to God but eventually the southern Kingdom of Judah succumbed to idolatry as well. God allowed the Babylonians to conquer Jerusalem and the Jews are exiled to Babylon in 586 B.C.

It is during the Babylonian exile that several significant changes occurred in Jewish religious practice. While in exile, the Jews had no access to the Jerusalem Temple and thus could not perform the sacrificial ceremonies prescribed in the Jewish law. However, their de- sire to unite in worship led to the development of the synagogue where Jewish communities gathered for worship and the teaching of the Law. During this time the oral laws or traditions interpreting the written Law of Moses arose along with wise rabbinical sayings. These were
the Pharisees, known for their knowledge and strict interpretation of the Jewish law. Another significant party were the Sadducees. The Sad- ducees were the aristocratic party allied with the Herodian and Ro- man rulers. Thus they When we refer to Judaism today, we are primarily referring to rabbinic Judaism which developed in the second century B.C.were connected with the Jerusalem Temple priests and were the ones in political power. One of the greatest changes to Judaism
formally collected and written down by Rabbi Judah in A.D. 200 in a work called the Mishnah. Following the Babylonian exile, about the  4th century B.C., the Jews, under the lead- ership of Ezra and Nehemiah, returned to Israel and rebuilt the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. From about 200 B.C. rabbinic Judaism rose to prominence. The institutions of the synagogue, the office of rabbi (a leader holding religious authority), and the yeshivot (religious academies for training rabbis) be- came key components in Judaism. The most influential party among the populace were occurred with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. This event brought an end to the sacrifices, the priesthood, and the Sadducees. As a result, the rabbis became the authorities on spiritual and legal matters as the syna- gogue became the only remaining institution for worship and the teaching of the law. “Old Testament” Judaism no longer exists and the rabbinic Judaism that developed deviates from the former. When we refer to Judaism today, we are primarily referring to rabbinic Judaism which developed in the second century B.C.

MODERN JUDAISM

Since the eighteenth century, three main branches  of  Judaism  have  developed: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. Orthodox Judaism upholds the divine inspiration of the Old Testament, giving greater authority to the first five books, and recognizes the Talmud (see below) as authoritative for interpreting the Jewish law. Since these works are divinely inspired, this branch believes all Jews must continue to observe the traditional Jewish laws. Reform Judaism is the liberal wing. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is considered the founder. After his writings were published, it was under the leadership of Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) and Abraham Geiger (1810- 1874) that the movement gained prominence. Holdheim and Geiger were influenced by the Enlightenment and so viewed reason and science as authoritative. They also rejected belief in revelation, messianic hope, and the promise of the land. This branch seeks to modernize what are considered outmoded ways of thinking. The primary focus of Reform Judaism is the ethical teachings of the Jewish Law.

Conservative Judaism is considered the intermediate position between Orthodox and Reform. It was founded in the nineteenth century in Germany by Zacharias Frankel (1801-1875). Conservatives seek to practice the Law and the traditions but cautiously reinterpret the Law and adapt their practices to contemporary culture.

The existence of these and numerous other sects means a wide variety of beliefs within Judaism. In addition, as a result of the Enlightenment and the Holocaust, secularization among the Jews is increasing rapidly. Because of the wide variety of beliefs within Judaism, it is difficult today to define what makes a person Jewish. Nonetheless, according to the Old Testament, Jews are the descendants of Abraham. God has established special covenants with these people, and it is through the nation of Israel that God has chosen to bring redemption to the world.

BASIC BELIEFS OF JUDAISM

Among the several branches of Judaism there are unique and distinct beliefs. However, the basic beliefs of Judaism are summarized in the “Three Pillars of Judaism”: God, the Torah, and Israel.

First, Judaism teaches a unified monotheism summarized in the Great Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Judaism teaches that God is the creator of all things. He is a personal being. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He has the character qualities of justice, mercy, and love. God is spirit and is not visible to man in any physical form and, therefore, must not be worshipped or represented in any form of an idol.

The second pillar is the Torah, which means “instruction.” It is used sometimes in reference to the first five books of the Old Testament, and it is also used in a broader sense to refer to the entire scope of sacred literature including the Talmud, which means “to study” or “to learn.” The Torah contains the theology, religious practices, and the ethical teachings of Judaism.

Views of divine inspiration vary between the different branches. Orthodox and Conservative schools view the Pentateuch as the most inspired part, the Prophets and Writings less so. The Talmud consists of two key works, the Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnah is the collection of the oral traditions and interpretations of the Old Testament law covering the period from the 4th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. The Gemara is the collection of rabbinical interpretations of the Mishnah. The teachings of the Gemara extend from A.D. 200 to 500. Most Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, consider the Talmud useful for giving instruction for life but not divinely inspired.

The third pillar is Israel. The name Israel means “He for whom God fights.” The name was given to Jacob by the Lord in Genesis 32 after the patriarch wrestled all night with the Angel of the Lord. Israel refers to the descendants of Abraham. After the conquest, it also came to designate the land of Canaan, which was a promised inheritance to the nation. Israel represents the chosen people of God who are heirs of the Old Testament covenant promises of God. This includes the promise of God’s presence, land, and a future messianic king who will establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. Israel is also given the responsibility to live in obedience to God’s law, proclaim God’s supremacy and his ethical law to the world. Many of the 613 Old Testament laws can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel.

There are three other doctrines I believe are important to cover. First is the nature of man. Judaism teaches that man is born with a “clean sheet.” Everyone has an inclination for evil as well as good. The inclination towards evil can be overcome by discipline and obedience to the law. Second is the belief in life after physical death. The Orthodox school holds to a bodily resurrection at death. The Conservative school teaches the immortality of the soul. The Reform school generally has no teaching regarding life after death. Third is the doctrine of salvation. A proper relationship with God comes through repentance, prayer, and obedience to the Law. Jews do not feel they need “salvation” but assume a standing with God through their heritage. Conservative and Reform Jews view salvation as the betterment of self and society.

The basic beliefs of Judaism are summarized in the “Three Pillars of Judaism”: God, the Torah, and Israel.

JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY

Do Christians and followers of Judaism wor- ship the same God? What is Judaism’s un- derstanding of Jesus? Let’s take a look at some basic Jewish beliefs as compared with Christian ones.

Both religions are monotheistic, recog- nize the Old Testament as authoritative, em- brace the ethical teachings of the Law, and have a hope in the coming of the Kingdom of God. However, they differ on some important fundamental doctrines. The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Geoffrey Wigoder, lists several key differences between Christianity and Judaism:

  1. Judaism teaches God’s unity as absolute, with no internal distinction. Therefore, Judaism rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.

  2. God is spirit and is not visible. For this reason Judaism rejects the Christian teaching that Jesus is God in the flesh. 3.Judaism believes in the sinfulness of man, but individuals can attain salvation through self-effort. Christianity teaches original sin passed through Adam and prevents anyone from attaining salvation without the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

  3. Jews generally believe the messiah to be a political ruler who will be a human descendant of David who will restore the Temple and lead the return of the Jews to the land of Israel. Christianity teaches that the messiah is fully God and fully human.

  4. Judaism teaches that God’s law is universal and eternal and observance of the law as taught in the Talmud is necessary for salvation. Christians believe salvation stands upon believing in the atoning work of Jesus. Jesus fulfills the requirements of the Jewish Old Testament Law and has established a new covenant.

Wigoder’s summary reveals several key differences between Judaism and Christianity. First, Judaism and Christianity do not worship the same God. Although both are monotheistic faiths, Judaism rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, Judaism rejects the deity of Christ. Christianity teaches that Jesus is the eternal Son of God (John 1:1 & Col. 1:19). Christianity affirms the triune nature of God and the deity of Christ as essential to salvation. Since Judaism rejects these essential doctrines, it is not possible to conclude that Judaism and Christianity worship the same God.

Second, Judaism teaches that man is created in the image of God but without original sin. The study of and obedience to the teachings of the Torah can overcome our inclination to evil. For this reason, Judaism believes that one can attain a right standing before God by good works. Christianity teaches that because of the sin nature passed through Adam, it is not possible for an individual to attain salvation through works of obedience. It can only come through faith in the perfect sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The New Testament teaches that without accepting Christ, even the sons and daughters of Abraham cannot inherit eternal life (cf. John 8:21-47; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:1-21).

Third, central to Jewish hope is the Messiah. Orthodox Jews anticipate a personal Messiah, while Reform and Conservative Jews view the messianic concept as the ideal of establishing justice by human effort.  A key dividing point between Judaism and Christianity, of course, is their views of Jesus. Judaism recognizes Jesus as a moral teacher but rejects His claims to deity as a creation of the early church. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God and the Messiah who fulfills the Old Testament prophecies and the requirements of the Old Testament law.

From our brief survey, then, it is clear that Judaism and Christianity differ significantly on major doctrines. The two do not worship the same God. They also differ in salvation theology. Judaism is works-oriented and rejects the atoning work of Christ and His divine nature. Christianity proclaims faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross. The New Testament teaches that without accepting Christ, even the sons and daughters of Abraham cannot inherit the hope of eternal life.

THE PRACTICES OF JUDAISM

Jewish festivals and holidays are an integral part of Judaism. They memorialize key events in the history of the Jewish people and honor their unique heritage. Here are some important Jewish festivals.

The most significant is Passover, the first observance of which is recorded in Exodus 12. Jews continue to commemorate God’s deliver- ance of the Israelites from Egypt in the 14th century B.C. Passover is observed in March

or April and lasts a week. Seven weeks after Passover comes Pentecost, which observes the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.

The festival of Tabernacles occurs in the fall. This festival commemorates the forty years of wandering in the desert when the Israelites lived in tabernacles or booths. The ceremony includes prayer for rain and the reading of the Torah. Rosh ha-Shanah is the celebration of the Jewish New Year. This joyful festival occurs in September or October and marks the begin- ning of a ten-day period known as the High Holy Days. Rosh ha-Shanah climaxes on the tenth day which is called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a solemn day when Jews fast, attend the synagogue, and recite prayers asking God for forgiveness of their sins. Purim is a minor holiday celebrated in February or March and commemorates the deliverance of the Jews by God told in the story of Esther.

Hannukah is celebrated in November or De- cember and lasts eight days. It honors the vic- tory of the Maccabees over the Syrian armies of Antiochus Epiphanes and the rededication of the second Jerusalem Temple in 165 B.C. The lighting of the eight-branched menorah is the main feature of this celebration. When Israel was reestablished as a nation in 1948, the menorah became a national symbol.

Not only are the holidays important, but the celebration of events in the life cycle are as well. Circumcision on the eighth day for boys is one such event. Another event which celebrates the thirteenth birthday is the Bar Mitzvah for boys and Bat Mitzvah for girls. Third is the Jewish wedding. Finally, there is the funeral service and mourning for seven days. These Jewish practices, especially those surrounding the holidays, not only play a key role in the life of the Jewish people, but are significant to the church as well. Major events in the life of Christ and the church in Acts occurred on these days. Christ died on the Passover, and the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. Also, the symbolisms and rituals enacted at these festivals foreshadow what was fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ.

WITNESSING TO THE JEWS

How do we share Christ with our Jewish neighbors? Before preaching the gospel, it would be wise to first build friendships and learn from them. Second, we should understand the Jewish perception of Christians and Christianity. For a Jewish person to become a Christian means to reject his or her heritage and distinctiveness; in other words, many equate it to becoming a gentile. This is difficult, for many harbor resentment for mistreatment by Christians and gentile nations.

For these reasons, it is best to build a trusting relationship with your Jewish friends. Eventually, you will want to share that you know they are Jewish and that you are a believer in Jesus. Since Jewish people believe Christian- ity is a gentile religion, you can often build a bridge by sharing that you have come to faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and that you have come to believe in the Jewish Messiah. Explain that Christianity is a faith for all people but it is a faith that arises from the Jews. Encourage your Jewish friend to read the New Testament, especially the Gospel of Matthew, and they may be surprised how “Jewish” the gospel message is.

There are several scriptural passages you can raise as you engage them in spiritual discussion. Many grow up reciting passages of the Old Testament but not studying the Old Testament or the messianic prophecies. Often it is worthwhile to ask your friend how they interpret these passages and ask questions regarding their interpretation.

There are many messianic passages to which one could refer. One frequently used passage is Isaiah 53 which describes the suffering servant who takes on the sins of the people. Most Jews have been taught that this is the nation of Israel. However, the context and content of the passage make it clear that it is not. For example, verse 9 states, “He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” The idea is that the servant was silent and submissive while persecuted. How- ever, verse 9 takes it even further stating he was completely innocent of any sin and did not deserve the suffering he received. This servant was innocent and did not speak to defend himself. This is not true of Israel. A study of the prophets reveal that Israel deserved her judgment, for she was guilty of grievous sins including idolatry, cult prostitution, and exploiting the poor. This servant is also killed for the sins of the people (v. 8), but he is also resurrected from the dead (v. 10). Passages such as these reveal that it cannot be the na- tion of Israel but the Messiah who best fits the description of this servant.

Another passage is the prophecy of the seventy sevens in Daniel 9. According to this prophecy, sixty-nine weeks, meaning 69 x 7, or 483 years would pass after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was pronounced and the Messiah would be killed in Jerusalem. The de- cree to rebuild Jerusalem was given in 444 B.C. by King Arataxerxes (Neh. 2). After factoring in the Jewish 360 day calendar, the prophecy predicts the Messiah to enter Jerusalem and be crucified in about 33 A.D. So the Messiah was in Jerusalem at this time. If you factor in this date and the description of Isaiah 53, example. The lamb was sacrificed and its blood was painted on the doorframe to identify and protect the Israelites from the Angel of Death. In Numbers 9, the Passover lamb was to be without blemish, and none of its bones were to be broken when sacrificed (Num. 9:12). This is a foreshadowing of Christ, the unblemished Lamb of God who lived a sinless life. His blood was shed and covers the sins of believers de- livering them from sin and death. John 19:33 records that the Romans were about to break the legs of the criminals, but finding Christ already dead, they did not break his bones. In every way, Christ meets the requirements for the perfect sacrifice.

These passages and symbols reveal that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Be sure to ex- plain that not only must one acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, but that one must put all one’s faith in His atoning work of sacrifice to be brought into a right relation- ship with God. God’s redemption plan began with the Jewish nation

Jews do not feel they need “salvation” but assume a standing with God through their heritage.

Jesus appears to be the best candidate. These are two passages that can open the mind of a Jewish friend to begin investigating further the prophecies and the life of Jesus. As you continue to talk, encourage them to read the Gospel of Matthew which was written for the Jews.

There are also many images in the Old Testament and in Jewish festivals that point to Jesus Christ. The Passover lamb is a good and Jews today can receive the full blessing of the promises of eternal life when they receive their Messiah Jesus.

Patrick Zukeran is a research associate with Probe Ministries (www.probe.org) and the host of the radio talk show Evidence and Answers (www.evidenceandanswers.org). He is the co- author (with Norman Geisler) of The Apologetics of Jesus (Baker), and the editor of World Religions through a Christian Worldview (Xulon).

NOTES

1 Gleason  Archer,  A Survey of the Old Testament

(Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 227.

2 Ibid., 246.

3 W.A. Elwell & P.W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 903.

4 A.C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 902.

5 Sara Karesh & Mitchell Hurvitz, Encyclopedia of Judaism (New York: Facts on File, 2006), 369-70.

6 Ibid., 419-20.

7 Ibid., 98-99.

8 Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, William Scott Green, ed., The Encyclopedia of Judaism Volume 1, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1999), 324.

9 W.A. Elwell & P.W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 903.

10 D.R. Wood, & I.H. Marshall, New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996),

11 51. 11Norman Anderson, ed., The World’s Religions (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1991), 60.

12 Dean Halverson, ed., The Compact Guide to World Religions (Minneapolis, MN.: Bethany House, 1996), 126.

13 Geoffrey Wigoder, ed.,  The Encyclopedia of Judaism (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 163-64.

14 Halverson, Compact Guide, 126.

15 John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 396-97

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