Judaism is a monotheistic religion. Jews believe there is one God who created and rules the world. This God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (in all places at all times). God is also just and merciful.
It is believed that each person is created in the image of one God. Therefore, all people are created equal. Furthermore, our likeness to God is in our intellectual ability to understand. Judaism believes that people have freewill and are responsible for the choices made.
Judaism is an ethical religion. When the Israelites accepted the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai, they committed themselves to following a code of law which regulates both how they worship God and how they treat other people.
The Torah is the primary document of Judaism. Torah, which means “teaching,” is God’s revealed instructions to the Jewish People. Jews learn from the Torah how to act, think and even feel about life and death. The stories in the Torah teach about God’s relationship with the Jewish People. In addition, the Torah contains 613 commandments from God (mitzvot). The Ten Commandments are considered the most important commandments of the Torah.
- I am the Lord your God
- You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence
- You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain
- Remember the day of Shabbat to keep it holy
- Honor your father and your mother
- You shall not murder
- You shall not commit adultery
- You shall not steal
- Do not give false testimony against your neighbor
- You shall not covet your fellow’s possessions
Judaism believes the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) was part of the covenant made between God and the Jewish People at Mount Sinai. Since the time of Abraham, there has been a continual Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith is the most widely-accepted list of Jewish beliefs.
- God exists.
- God is one and unique.
- God is incorporeal.
- God is eternal.
- Prayer is to be directed to God alone.
- The words of the prophets are true.
- Moses was the greatest prophet, and his prophecies are true.
- The Torah was given to Moses.
- There will be no other Torah.
- God knows the thoughts and deeds of men.
- God will reward the good and punish the wicked.
- The Messiah will come.
- The dead will be resurrected.
Essence of Judaism
The following famous story from the Talmud best summarizes the essence of Judaism. A non-Jew asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him all about the Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, don’t do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now, go and study.”
Basic Jewish Beliefs
The word Jew is used in a wide number of ways, but generally refers to a follower of the Jewish faith, a child of a Jewish mother, or a member of the Jewish culture or ethnicity and often a combination of these attributes.
The term Jew came into being when the Kingdom of Israel was split between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Hence, the Israelites (who were later destroyed by the Assyrians) were those of the northern kingdom and the Jews (who survived) were those of the southern kingdom. Over time, the word Jew has come to refer to those of the Jewish faith rather than those from Judah. In modern usage, Jews include both those Jews actively practicing Judaism, and those Jews who, while not practicing Judaism as a religion, still identify themselves as Jews by virtue of their family’s Jewish heritage and their own cultural identification.
Most Jews regard themselves as a people, members of a nation, and the ancestry of Jewish national identity is traced from the Biblical patriarch Abraham through his son Isaac and in particular Jacob, Isaac’s son, as well as to those who subsequently joined them over the course of history as converts.
Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief, and has been called not only a religion, but also a “way of life,” which has made the job of drawing a clear distinction between Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish nationality rather difficult. In many times and places, such as in the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after the Enlightenment (see haskalah), and in contemporary United States and Israel, cultural phenomena have developed that are in some sense characteristically Jewish without being at all specifically religious. Some factors in this come from within Judaism, others from the interaction of Jews with others around them, others from the inner social and cultural dynamics of the community, as opposed to religion itself.
Jewish Principles of Faith
While Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish Principles of Faith, it has never developed a binding catechism. That is, there is no formal agreed-upon dogma (set of orthodox beliefs.) While individual rabbis, or sometimes entire groups, at times agreed upon a firm dogma, other rabbis and groups disagreed. With no central agreed-upon authority, no one formulation of Jewish principles of faith could take precedent over any other.
The ancient historian Josephus emphasizes practices and traditions rather than beliefs when he describes the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherence to traditional customs). Despite the above, in Orthodox Judaism some principles (e.g. the Divine origin of the Torah) are considered important enough that public rebellion against them can put one in the category of “apikoros” (heretic).
A number of formulations of Jewish principles of faith have appeared; most of them have much in common, yet they differ in certain details. A comparison of them demonstrates a wide array of tolerance for varying theological perspectives. Below is a summary of Jewish principles of faith. A more detailed discussion of these beliefs, along with a discussion of how they developed, is found in the article on Jewish principles of faith.
- Monotheism—Judaism is based on strict unitarian monotheism, the belief in one God. God is conceived of as eternal, the creator of the universe, and the source of morality.
- God is one—The idea of God as a duality or trinity is heretical for Jews to hold; it is considered akin to polytheism. Interestingly, while Jews hold that such conceptions of God are incorrect, they generally are of the opinion that gentiles that hold such beliefs are not held culpable.
- God is all powerful (omnipotent), as well as all knowing (omniscient). The different names of God are ways to express different aspects of God’s presence in the world. See the entry on The name of God in Judaism.
- God is non-physical, non-corporeal, and eternal. All statements in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature which use anthropomorphism are held to be linguistic conceits or metaphors, as it would otherwise be impossible to talk about God.
- To God alone may one offer prayer. Any belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical.
- The Hebrew Bible, and much of the beliefs described in the Mishnah and Talmud, are held to be the product of divine Revelation. How Revelation works, and what precisely one means when one says that a book is “divine”, has always been a matter of some dispute. Different understandings of this subject exist among Jews.