What Beliefs Do Jews Share?
Most Jews share certain beliefs. Among these are
the unity of God
God's concern for humanity
the partnership of God and humanity
the concern that one person should show for another
the belief in a world to come or in the Messiah or in a Messianic Age
the covenant, an agreement between God and the people of Israel
expressed through God's laws for the proper use of the universe
Jews who participate in religious observances also share
Jewish life-cycle practices
Jewish holy days and the Jewish calendar
the observance of Jewish ethical practices and practices of holiness
practices of Jewish prayer and study
Finally, those who in any way identify themselves as Jews, share the
long chain of tradition that is the history of the Jewish people.
The Bible tells us that some time during the Early Iron Age (from
about 1900 to 1400 BCE -- see note), a man named Abraham lived in
the Middle East. According to Jewish legend, Abraham questioned the
religious beliefs of his ancestors and of the Mesopotamian community in
which he lived. He failed to understand how people could bow down to and
worship idols -- statues made of wood and clay. The legend describes
Abraham’s quest in a colorful way.
At first Abraham thought that the stars and the moon should be
worshiped; but as night passed and the sun came up, the stars and the moon
vanished. He reasoned that the stars and moon could hardly be the most
powerful force in the universe if they were so easily vanquished by the
light of day. So Abraham decided to worship the sun. But clouds came up
and covered the sun and the wind blew the clouds, which rolled up into
great thunderheads. In turn, Abraham worshiped the clouds, the wind, the
mighty claps of thunder, and the bolts of lightning. But all of these soon
passed away. Abraham concluded, "There must be one who rules over all --
over sun, moon, stars, wind and cloud; and over all the creatures of the
earth. I shall worship the Ruler of the Universe, the One God." Then
Abraham bowed before the God he could not see and spoke a prayer in his
heart. It was at that moment, the legend tells, that God spoke to Abraham,
saying, "I am here, my son."
The Bible relates how God commanded Abraham to leave his home and go
to a land of promise, Canaan. Canaan was located in the part of the Middle
East later called by many names: Israel, Judea, and Palestine. To the
Jews, however, it has always been known as both the "Holy Land" and the
"Promised Land." According to the biblical story, God entered into a
covenant, an agreement, with Abraham. God promised that Abraham's children
would one day become a great nation that would inherit the land of Canaan.
In return, Abraham promised to be faithful to his belief in the One God
and to perform the ceremony of Brit Milah (circumcision) as a sign
of the covenant.
Modern-day historians are not sure if there ever was a person named
Abraham. But to the Jewish people it is hardly important whether Abraham
existed or not. The story of Abraham as told in the Bible still teaches
the most central of all Jewish beliefs -- there is one God who rules over
all. This belief in one God, which began with Abraham, was embellished by
Moses, and was fully developed in the later prophets of the Bible, came to
be called Monotheism.
GOD'S CONCERN FOR HUMANITY
According to the Bible, Abraham's tribe increased in size and wealth.
Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The Bible describes how the
descendants of Ishmael later became the Arab peoples, while the
descendants of Isaac became the Jewish people. Isaac also had two sons,
twins named Esau and Jacob. The leadership of the tribe passed from
Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.
Jacob (who was also given the name, Israel) had twelve sons and one
daughter; and the Hebrews (as the Jews were then known) continued to
increase in number. Like many merchant tribes of the Middle East in this
period, the Hebrews were semi-nomadic. They would settle for a time when
they found good grazing land for their cattle and sheep or when they
wished to plant seeds and grow crops, but they would move from place to
place when the time came to increase their wealth through commercial
efforts. From the description in the Bible we can be sure that they were
not simple shepherds -- not only were they wealthy in silver and gold, but
they were sophisticated and cosmopolitan, as well.
Once, as the Bible tells, a great drought lingered in the land of
Canaan. Rather than starve, the Hebrews sought food in Egypt. One of
Jacob's sons, Joseph, was already there. Many years before, his jealous
brothers had sold him into slavery and Joseph had eventually become the
pharaoh's most trusted administrator. Joseph recognized his brothers and,
even though they had treated him cruelly, he forgave them and enabled them
to settle in Egypt in the section called the Land of Goshen. There, they
continued to increase in size.
Many years passed and a new pharaoh came to power -- a pharaoh who did
not remember Joseph, a pharaoh who enslaved the Hebrew tribes. According
to the Bible, the slavery so oppressed the Hebrews that their cries of
suffering were heard even in the heavens. In the end, a new leader emerged
-- a man named Moses.
In the case of Moses, just as in the case of the earlier leaders of
the Hebrews, truth and legend are closely intertwined. Certainly someone,
perhaps Moses, led the Hebrews (or some significant portion of the Hebrew
tribes -- since some scholars believe that other portions of the Hebrew
tribes never left Canaan) out of Egypt and into the wilderness of Sinai.
Following Moses, the Hebrews wandered as semi-nomads in this wilderness
for forty years, settling down for a few years at a time before moving on.
During this forty-year period, the Hebrew tribes more or less unified into
a single nation called the Israelites (or Children of Israel) and Moses
taught them the importance of law and the belief in one God.
According to the Bible, a new covenant was made between God and the
people of Israel at the mountain of Sinai. Alone, Moses went up the
mountain, returning after forty days and forty nights with the Ten
Commandments engraved on two stone tablets. These commandments, which
included prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and idolatry and
enjoined the Israelites to honor parents, observe the Sabbath, and
maintain loyalty to the One God, became the cornerstone not only of
Judaism but of Christianity as well.
A legal code like the Ten Commandments was not a new idea in the
history of religions. Kings and pharaohs had claimed to be given laws by
their gods before this. What was unique about this covenant was that God
had entered into a direct partnership with the people of Israel, that the
proof of God's love for the Israelites and all humankind was found in the
laws themselves, that the choice between good and evil was a personal
choice (as well as a national choice) and that blessing or curse would be
bestowed in kind based on the choices a person (or a community) made. For
the first time in history (in theory, at least), no intermediaries --
kings, prophets, or priests -- stood between God and the individual or the
community. Such is the agreement between God and the Jews still celebrated
as the Sinaitic Covenant (the covenant made at Mount Sinai).
Before the Sinaitic covenant, the Children of Israel had a more or
less monotheistic religion. Now, through the leadership of Moses and the
acceptance of God's laws, it had become an ethical religion as well. The
Children of Israel now believed that God was interested not only in
worship and sacrifice, but also in how people treated one another. This
has been termed ethical monotheism.
A PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND HUMANITY
Jews today continue to believe there is a partnership between God and
humankind, and especially between God and the Jewish people. The Jewish
religion teaches that God cares for the world, renewing it daily, and
expects human beings to care for it as if it were their own garden. The
Jewish religion teaches that God has given laws instructing individuals to
behave fairly toward one another. Moreover, the Jewish belief in the One
God implies that all human beings are created equal; every person is a son
or daughter of the One God, created in God's image; and each human being
is precious and unique.
WORLD TO COME
The biblical prophet Isaiah dreamed of a time, when
Isaiah's dream of a time of ultimate unity, peace, and prosperity was
similarly expressed by many of the prophets. It continued to be developed
and explored through ongoing generations.
Jews speak of this prophetic vision of the future as "the world to
come," and they believe that the person who will arise to rule over this
future united world will (figuratively or literally) come from the family
of the King David.
The special name set aside for that future ruler is Mashiach,
the "anointed one," the Messiah. According to Jewish belief, the
messiah will be a person, not a god; he will simply lead the nations of
the world in a time of unity and peace.
Jews do not believe that Jesus was the messiah because Christianity
holds that Jesus was both God and man. Jews do not accept this idea. The
Jewish religion teaches that man and God are separate -- just as no human
can be God, so too God cannot be human. In addition, Christianity
generally teaches that the world to come can only be achieved in heaven
(after death) and not on earth, but the Jewish idea of the world to come
is historical -- it looks forward to a time at the end of history when
that ideal world will be established here on earth. Also, the Jewish view
that every person is equally created in God's image augurs against
accepting any one person as the "son of God," especially since every one
of us is considered by Judaism to be the son or daughter of God. Jews do
recognize that in his time Jesus was probably a great Jewish teacher who
lived and died as a Jew with no thought of creating a separate religion.
Through the centuries, many a Jewish leader has engendered a cult
following that claimed him as "the" messiah. Since none of these so-called
messiahs has managed either to unify the world or to bring peace to all
humankind, they are collectively known as "false messiahs," no matter how
widespread their following. When mainstream Jews speak of yearning for the
messiah, they simply mean that they look forward to the time when one
person who understands God's concerns for the world and for humanity will
rule all nations.
Most Jews today continue to believe in a special time to come in this
world when all people will live in harmony under the leadership of the
messiah. Jews do not speculate overmuch on what the world to come will be
like -- the major concerns of Jews and Judaism are aimed at perfecting or
"repairing" this world in which we live daily -- but almost all Jews agree
(without defining the precise details) with the simple statement made in
the Talmud that every Jew will have a place in the world to come.
THE CONCERN OF ONE PERSON FOR ANOTHER
What the prophets taught, the rabbis and sages made clear. The rabbis
(who were teachers and jurists) began the work of creating a Jewish way of
life about three hundred years before the Common Era. Some of them became
very famous: Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rabbi Yochanan ben
Zakkai, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai -- and their teachings and stories about
them are still studied today in Jewish schools.
One of the most famous stories concerns the Jewish sage, Hillel, who
flourished in the first century, B.C.E. A Gentile (non-Jew) once presented
Hillel with a strange request, saying, "Teach me the whole Torah, all Five
Books of Moses, while you stand on one foot." A man of lesser patience
might have driven the Gentile away, but Hillel was extremely patient.
Supposedly, he raised one foot from the ground and said, "Do not unto
others that which is hateful unto you." Then, he continued: "This is the
whole Torah; the rest is commentary—now go and learn."
Hillel's statement (later rephrased in the positive and repeated by
Jesus) is the Jewish Golden Rule. It was the way the sages and rabbis of
the Talmud phrased the teaching of the prophet Micah:
A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP TO THE LAND
According to Jewish legend, before creating the world God first made a
small model containing all the elements -- the various kinds of terrain,
the many variants of temperature and climate, the manifold varieties of
flora and fauna -- that the created world would eventually contain. On the
evening of the sixth day of creation, the legend goes, when God had
completed the works of heaven and earth, this small model was given a
special place. It became the Land of Israel.
As shown by the covenant between Abraham and God, the Jewish people
have always had a special attachment to the Land of Israel, calling it the
Promised Land. They have always believed that the Land of Israel
was included in the covenant between God and the Jews. Historians point
out that despite the many years when the majority of Jews lived outside
the Promised Land, there has been a continual Jewish presence in the
Promised Land from the time of Abraham to the present day. And even when
the majority of the Jewish people were separated from the Promised Land,
Jews longed to return.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a new movement called
Zionism (named for Mount Zion in Jerusalem and modeled on the emerging
nationalism in Europe) began. It called for the Jews to rebuild the Holy
Land as a Jewish state. (The Holy Land was then called by the name the
Romans had given it after they destroyed the Jewish state, Palestine.) In
1948 the State of Israel was established More than six million Jews live
in Israel today. And most Jews (religious or not) who live outside of
Israel feel a special attachment to the Jewish state of Israel.
All of these ideas and beliefs derive from the covenant of law and
love between the Jewish people and God. According to the Bible, this
covenant was made with not only with the Children of Israel who stood at
the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God speaking, but also with all their
descendants from that time to this, and forward to the end of time.
The central element of this covenant is expressed as God's laws. The
laws contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, are called
Mitzvot or commandments According to Jewish tradition, there are 613
mitzvot in the Torah (the number is mainly traditional -- lists
compiled by Jewish authorities through the centuries always contain 613
mitzvot, but no two lists agree).
The rabbis of the Talmud (who were teachers and jurists) taught that
every commandment in the Torah is important no matter how slight, and that
the reward was the same for not harming a mother bird as for not killing
another person. Nevertheless, through the ages, Jews have generally
accepted the idea that the Ten Commandments are the most important laws of
BCE ("Before the Common Era") &
CE ("Common Era") -- The abbreviations
BC ("Before Christ") and AD
("Anno Domini": Latin for "In
the Year of the Lord") are both references to Jesus. Because Jews do not
believe in the divinity of Jesus, they substitute the abbreviations
"Before the Common Era" (that is, before the year 1) and
"Common Era" (that is, after the year 1). Back