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About Judaism - What is Judaism
Articles on the basic elements of Judaism
By: Rabbi David Botton

What is Judaism

Judaism, known in Hebrew as Yahaduth, has a religion, but is not in itself a religion. A one-word definition is an impossible task as its components taken as a whole are an entity unlike any other. Therefore a picture of Judaism must be formed and presented by its elements: nation, land and religion. Each is described and defined along with its relationship to the whole.

Judaism’s membership is primarily made up of descendants of a family of Hebrews (Hebrew: Ivrim), a tribe of northern Semitic peoples. The patriarch of this family being Jacob as recorded by the primary written text of Judaism, the Torah (English: Pentateuch). Membership also includes other individuals that have integrated through ritual conversion. The members are called Jews (Hebrew: Yehudim) or Israelites (Hebrew: Yisraelim) and collectively referred to as being Jewish. Judaism also has an additional membership, the Benai Noach (English: Children of Noah), comprised of non-Jews that have accepted the seven universal laws of Noah, but do not wish to become Jews through ritual conversion.

As Judaism has a nation, the nation has a land. From the year 1,273 BCE and for the next 1,406 years until 133 CE, with minimal interruption following the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews occupied and ruled the area that today includes parts of Israel, Jordan, and Syria. This area included two regions one called Israel, and the other Judah, together they are called the Land of Israel. In 1948, a Jewish organization, the Zionists, reclaimed a small portion of this region and formed the present day State of Israel (Hebrew: Medinat Yisrael).

The common element of religion found among all Jews is absolute monotheism. The god of the Jews is believed to be unknowable to any but itself and beyond comprehension and thought. Revelation to man, the only comprehensible aspect, is by way of prophets (or those that stood at the singular mass revelation at Mount Sinai comprised of the entire nation) through a name formed of the four hebrew letters Yud, Heh, Vav, and Heh. The Name has no vocalization and therefore incapable of being pronounced. Instead Jews refer to their god by the name Adonai, from the Hebrew root of master. Frequently the four letter name is written with the Hebrew vowels for this pseudonym which has lead to the common misunderstanding that the four letter name should be pronounced as Jehovah, or Yahweh.

Beyond this singular belief there is a number of variations in belief and practice of the Jews. The traditional religious belief of Judaism also includes the belief that every mark in the Torah is of direct divine transmission delivered by the prophet Moses, and included with this transmission is the authentic divine interpretation of the text to be passed by word of mouth to all Jews for all generations. Beyond these beliefs, all other ideologies are determined by detailed logical study of the Torah. Historically, there have been a few organized groups, the Sadducees and Karites being the most prominent, that broke from this traditional view and accepted only the divine origin of the text, but not the interpretation. Beginning in the early 1800’s a new wave of movements began that in addition to not believing in the divine origin of the interpretation do not believe in the divine origin of the text.

The text of the Jews, the Torah, contains laws and ethical lessons taught through historical stories of the Jewish patriarchs and the prophet Moses. The laws cover all aspects of individual health and spirituality, ritual, communal life, jurisprudence, statehood, and international affairs. The orally transmitted interpretation includes extensive details on the manufacture of ritual objects, systems of textual exegesis, rules for allowance and restraint of communal edicts, and deep mystical understandings of the reason and affect for performance and adherence to the law of the Torah and the following of its ethical lessons.

Jews believe that salvation, redemption and the world to come are guaranteed for all Jews and any non-Jew adhering to the seven universal laws of Noah and do not require any additional belief or action. Judaism believes in a temporary purgatory for the cleansing and punishment of deviations from Torah law, following which the soul enters the spiritual Garden of Eden awaiting its final resurrection with the body that will happen in the world to come following the arrival of the Messiah. The Messiah is the title given exclusively to whichever Jewish man possessing proper paternal lineage from King David that will rebuild Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Even though Judaism believes in the assured existence of all its members in the world to come, their position and reward is based solely on their deeds in this time period.

These three elements nation, land, and religion combined form Judaism. Despite a wide variation in the religious beliefs outside of the universally agreed monotheistic view of God, the Jews as a whole maintain good peaceful relations and a high degree of tolerance for others. Judaism prides itself on being the only major religions to openly teach that all men can enter heaven not just those of Jewish decent or with Jewish beliefs and practices. The Jew believes he is chosen by the creator to strive to be a light, an example and model, on to the nations for peace, brotherhood, and service of God.

(c) 2003-2008 All Rights Reserved - Rabbi David Botton

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