Basics of Judaism

What is Judaism?
A religion?
Rabbi Simlai: an ethic of Torah
"Seek me and live!" (b. Mak. 24a on Amos 5:4)
How to apply the law?
Maimonides: a belief system or creed
The Yigdal: Thirteen core doctrinal principles
In what sense are these normative?
Torah: a storied people or nation
"sons of Israel" or "the tribe" (cf. Deut. 26:1-11)
Who belongs to the membership?
So Judaism embodies an "essentially contested concept" (W.B. Gallie)
Proceed with caution
Four warnings for Christians studying Judaism:
Don't impose a Christian-style "orthodoxy" with a sense of truth
Don't impose one camp's understanding
Don't assume that Jewish distinctives parallel Christian distinctives
Don't take one era's issues as definitive for all eras
Being good guests in someone else's mansion
Our tour: Texts, practices, history
What are our biases?

What is Judaism?

Should we classify the term before proceeding? Is it a 'religion'? For now, let's not insist that it is. That would force the word 'Judaism' to fit a prior category in which it might not in fact fit, confusing rather than clarifying. (Besides, I don't really care whether or not it's a 'religion,' because I don't think the term 'religion' is worth much.) Instead, let us see how the word functions among those who use it to describe themselves.

A. Rabbi Simlai's third century summary of Judaism (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a):

Six-hunded-and-thirteen commandments were imparted to Moses, 365 negative (corresponding to the number of days in the year), and 248 positive (corrsponding to the number of bones in the human body). David came and reduced them to eleven. For it is written:

A Psalm of David. O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent? Who shall dwell on thy holy hill? (1) He who walks blamelessly, (2) and does what is right, (3) and speaks truth from his heart; (4) who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his friend, (6) nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; (7) in whose eyes a reprobate is despised, (8) but who honours those who fear the Lord; (9) who swears to his own hurt and does not change; (10) who does not lend his money at interest, (11) and does not take bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved (Ps. 15.1-5).

Isaiah came and reduced them to six, for it is written:

(1) He who walks righteously (2) and speaks uprightly; ( 3 ) he who despises the gain of oppression (4) who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, (5) who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, (6) and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil (Isa. 33.15).

Micah came and reduced them to three, for it is written:

He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but (1) to do justice, (2) and to love kindness, (3) and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8).

. . . Isaiah came again and reduced them to two, for it is written:

Thus says the Lord: (1) Keep justice (2) and do righteousness (Isa. 56.1).

Amos came and reduced them to one, for it is written:

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: (1) Seek me and live (Amos 5:4).

Here, Judaism looks like an ethic of Torah: "Do this and you will live" (cf. Jesus in Luke 10:28). But of course it does – this is a rabbi talking!

Furthermore, how we seek God and keep his commandments is still an open question, answered in very different ways.

B. The Yigdal of Maimonides ("Rambam," 1135-1204) distills Judaism into thirteen principles. These are sung as a creedal hymn that concludes many synagogue services (

May the Living God be magified and praised Who exists, and whose existence is not limited by time
One, and there is no unity like His Unity Concealed, nor is there an end to His Unity.
He has no form of a body, nor is He a body It is not arranged around His holiness.
Preceding every created thing, First, and there is nothing prior to His Priority
As Master of the Universe to every formed being He teaches His Greatness and Sovereignty
The flow of His prophecy is His gift To men of His special, glorious nation.
There has not risen another in Israel like Moses A prophet and one who tells clearly his visions
A Torah of truth did the Almighty give to His nation By the hand of His prophet [Moses], faithful to His house.
God will not exchange nor retract His religion forever. Not even He.
He observes and knows our secrets Forecasting consequences from their antecedents.
He grants Man lovingkindness according to his deeds Gives evil to the wicked as they engage in wickedness
He will send at the end of days our Anointed King To redeem those who await the time of our salvation
God will resurrect the dead in His great lovingkindness Blessed forever is the praise of His Name

Rambam's version is more hard-line, and begins each line with "I firmly believe...," implicit in the singing itself. But this is more a prayer than a confession. Judaism expresses faith, but it also expresses doubt and prays for faith (Emil Fackenheim, What Is Judaism? 21-23).

Here, Judaism looks like a belief system or worldview (which today is usually taken to be exclusive of Christian faith): "The one who believes ... has eternal life" (cf. Jesus in John 5:24). But of course it does – this is a philosophical theologian talking!

Furthermore, which beliefs are appropriate to the truly Jewish worldview is still an open question. Fackenheim claims that few Jews today believe in the resurrection of the dead, though it is one of the claims of this confession.

C. Many Jewish traditions, including Torah, envision Judaism as peoplehood (= nationhood = ethnicity). Jews are the people of Jacob/Israel, descended or adopted into "the tribe," inheritors of a story that begins in Ur of the Chaldees, sojourns into Egypt, out to Sinai, across Jordan into Canaan, disperses, scatters, suffers, and (in the twentieth century) regathers in the Promised Land.

Consider one basic Jewish institution, namely, bar mitzvah. A Christian child is born pagan, becomes Christian through baptism, and baptism itself is provisional until at confirmation the confirmand makes a conscious commitment to the Christian faith. A Jewish child, by contrast, is born Jewish, is Jewish even before, if male, he is circumcised. He is and remains a Jew even if he is not circumcised. ... The event of bar mitzvah cannot be postponed or cancelled: In Judaism a Jewish boy becomes a "son of duty" – obliged to keep the commandments – quite regardless of his wishes, beliefs, or twinges of conscience (Fackenheim, 29).

Jews are a storied people, heirs of YHWH's blessings to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Here doctrinal beliefs and even obedience are secondary. Judaism looks primarily like a membership (cf. Jesus in Luke 1-4). But of course it does – these are (generally) sociologists talking!

Furthermore, how biology, culture, and narrative inform each other – who belongs in the membership, and why – is still an open question. Do Zionists embody faithful Judaism, or betray it?

So Judaism is a tradition embodying an "essentially contested concept" (W.B. Gallie).

Jews (and non-Jews) argue over what constitutes Judaism, or defines a Jew. The tradition (Jews seem comfortable calling Judaism 'tradition') is itself a protracted argument over self-understanding (cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?). Christians have arguments like this, but in Judaism (and, later, Islam) the terms of the argument differ.

So we have to be careful

  • not to assume parallelism between Jewish traditions and Christian traditions (making the two parallel, equivalent, or even mutually translatable "religions"), and
  • not to define the tradition in terms of "orthodoxy" meaning "truth" (say, asking what is true Judaism?),
  • not to impose one camp's understanding of "Judaism" on the tradition(s) the word commonly describes,
  • not to take one era's arguments as definitive for all eras (say, making Rabbinic Judaism "Normative Judaism," though many Jews do).

We are guests, entering a vast mansion in whose rooms conversations have gone on for millennia. The floor plan here is different from our home. The inhabitants are different, though we have encountered them before. Furthermore, our predecessors have ruined our relationship for centuries. The polite thing to do is to wait until invited in, to be gracious for any hospitality we receive, to be quick to acknowledge our ignorance, and to listen before speaking. Let us take the tour before we assume we know our way around.

A tour of a mansion might focus on furniture, or history, or personalities. Our tour of Judaism focuses on several aspects of Jewish life: Texts (especially Bible), practices, and history. These three intermingle, and each is present in each of the above visions of what constitutes Judaism. Rather than treating each in a series, we will overlay them. This allows variety, lets us combine easy and difficult readings, and helps us get a bigger picture as we go along, rather than just at the end.

And who are we?

Before entering such a vast and intimidating space, it might be wise to look in the mirror to see how we look. Wylen wisely begins by clearing away both Gentile and Jewish stereotypes of Jews (misanthropic, stubborn, nonconformist, scapegoats, overbearing, self-centered; charitable, compassionate, familial, overachievers). With what attitudes and assumptions about Jews and Judaism do we enter?