"What is Judaism and what do Jews believe?"

What is Judaism, and who or what is a Jew? Depending upon whom you talk to, or the selection of books you read, you will come away with very different answers to this most provocative question. Is Judaism simply a religion? Is it a cultural identity or just an ethnic group? Are Jews only a clan of people or are they a nation?

According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary a “Jew” is: 1a: a member of the tribe of Judah b: Israelite 2: a member of a nation existing in Palestine from the 6th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. 3 : a person belonging to a continuation through descent or conversion of the ancient Jewish people 4 : one whose religion is Judaism.

According to rabbinical Judaism, a Jew is one who has a Jewish mother, or one who has formally converted to Judaism. Leviticus 24:10 is often cited to give this belief credibility, although the Torah makes no specific claim for this tradition. Some rabbis say that it has nothing to do with what that individual actually believes. These rabbis tell us that a Jew does not need to be a follower of Jewish laws and customs to be considered Jewish. In fact, a Jew can have no belief in God at all and still be Jewish based on the above rabbinical interpretation.

Other rabbis make it clear that unless the person follows the precepts of the Torah and accepts the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” which Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, one of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars) so clearly expresses, he cannot be a Jew. Although this person may be a “biological” Jew, he has no real connection to Judaism.

In the first book of the Torah, Genesis 14:13 teaches us that Abram, commonly recognized as the first Jew, (his name was later changed to Abraham) was described as a “Hebrew.” The name “Jew” comes from the name Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Apparently the name “Jew” originally referred to those who were only a member of the tribe of Judah, but when the kingdom was divided (Israel in the north and Judah in the South) after the reign of Solomon (1 Kings, chapter 12) it referred to anyone in the kingdom of Judah which included the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi. Today, many believe that a Jew is anyone who is a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, regardless of which of the original twelve tribes they descend from.

So what is it that Jews believe, and what are the basic precepts of Judaism? There are five main forms or sects of Judaism in the world today. They are Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionist and Humanistic. The beliefs and requirements in each group differ dramatically; however, a short list of the traditional beliefs of Judaism would include the following:

God is the creator of all that exists; He is one, incorporeal (without a body), and He alone is to be worshipped as absolute ruler of the universe.

The first five books of the Hebrew Bible were revealed to Moses by God. It will not be changed or augmented in the future.

God has communicated to the Jewish people through prophets.

God monitors the activities of humans; He rewards individuals for good deeds and punishes evil.

Although Christians base much of their faith on the same Hebrew Scriptures as Jews, there are major differences in belief: Jews generally consider actions and behavior to be of primary importance; beliefs come out of actions. This conflicts with conservative Christians for whom belief is of primary importance and actions tend to be secondary.

Jewish belief does not accept the Christian concept of original sin (the belief that all people have inherited Adam and Eve's sin when they disobeyed God's instructions in the Garden of Eden).

Judaism affirms the inherent goodness of the world and its people as creations of God.

Jewish believers are able to sanctify their lives and draw closer to God by fulfilling mitzvoth (divine commandments).

No savior is needed or is available as an intermediary.

Beliefs about Jesus vary considerably. Some view him as a great moral teacher. Others see him as a false prophet or as an idol of Christianity. Some sects of Judaism will not even say his name due to the prohibition against saying an idol's name.

The Jews are often referred to as God's chosen people. This does not mean that they are in any way to be considered superior to other groups. Biblical verses such as Exodus 19:5 simply imply that God has selected Israel to receive and study the Torah, to worship God only, to rest on the Sabbath, and to celebrate the festivals. Jews were not chosen to be better than others; they were simply selected to receive more difficult responsibilities, and more onerous punishment if they fail.

The 613 commandments found in Leviticus and other books regulate all aspects of Jewish life.

The Ten commandments, as delineated in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, form a brief synopsis of the Law.

The Messiah (anointed one of God) will arrive in the future and gather Jews once more into the land of Israel. There will be a general resurrection of the dead at that time. The Jerusalem Temple, destroyed in 70 CE, will be rebuilt.

"Are Jews saved because they are God's chosen people? Do Jews have to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved?"

The last Book of the Torah teaches that the Jews are God’s chosen people. “For you are a holy people unto the LORD your God: the LORD your God hath chosen you to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers…” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).

From all the nations and people on the earth, why exactly did God “choose” the Jews? John Gill, in his “Exposition of the Entire Bible” says the Jews were “chosen for special service and worship, and to enjoy special privileges and benefits, civil and religious; though they were not chosen to special grace…or eternal glory.” The Jews were chosen to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12). The Jews were chosen to be a light to the gentiles. So then, are all Jews “saved” just because they are Jews?

According to many modern rabbinical scholars the Christian concept of salvation from sin has no equal in Judaism. Judaism does not believe that man, by his nature, is evil or sinful and therefore has no need to be “saved” from an eternal damnation. In fact, most Jews today do not believe in a place of eternal punishment or a literal hell. The Hebrew root word for “sin” is chayt, which literally means to “miss the mark.” It is a term commonly used in archery, of one who “misses the mark” of the bulls eye. When a Jew misses the mark, and occasionally falls into the sin of failing to fulfill the laws of God, the belief is that one can obtain forgiveness through prayer, repentance and doing good deeds.

The Book of Leviticus (17:11), the third Book of the Torah, clearly gives the prescription for forgiveness. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” The Temple sacrifice was always the centerpiece for Jewish atonement. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Levitical High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat. Through this yearly act, atonement was made for the sins of all Israel, but the Holy Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and for almost 2000 years Jews have been without a Temple, a sacrifice, and a means of atonement.

The Brit Chadasha (The New Covenant or New Testament) teaches us that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, came to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) precisely at the time preceding the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. “But when Messiah arrived as a High Priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more complete Tabernacle, not made with hands, that is, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered into the Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been made common, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Messiah, Who through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the Living God?” (Hebrews 9:11-14).

The New Testament teaches that all of us, Jews and gentiles, have “missed the mark.” (Romans 3:23) All of us are under the consequences of sin, and “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) We are all in need of salvation from our sin; we are all in need of a Savior. The New Testament teaches that Jesus the Messiah is “the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father”, but through Him. (John 14:6) And most importantly, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which it is necessary for us to be saved." (Acts 4:12).

For the Jews, Jesus the Messiah has come as High Priest, and through His once-for-all sacrifice for sin offers complete atonement to all people. For there is “no distinction” between Jew and gentile. (Romans 10:12) Yes, the Jews are God’s chosen people, and through them come the Jewish Messiah to bless all the nations of the earth. And it is only through Jesus that Jews can find God’s complete atonement and forgiveness.

"Why do most Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah?"

The Jews rejected Jesus because He failed, in their eyes, to do what they expected their Messiah to do--destroy evil and all their enemies, in this case the Romans, and establish an eternal kingdom with Israel as the preeminent nation in the world. The prophecies in Isaiah and Psalm 22 described a suffering Messiah who would be persecuted and killed, but they chose to focus on those prophecies that discussed His glorious victories, not His crucifixion.

The commentaries in the Talmud, written before the onset of Christianity, clearly discuss the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and puzzle over how these would be fulfilled with the glorious setting up of the Kingdom of the Messiah. After the Church used these prophecies to prove the claims of Christ, the Jews took the position that the prophecies did not refer to the Messiah, but to Israel or some other person.

The Jews believed that the Messiah, the prophet which Moses spoke about, would come and deliver them from Roman bondage and set up a kingdom where they would be the rulers. Two of the disciples, James and John, even asked to sit at Jesus' right and left in His Kingdom when He came into His glory. The people of Jerusalem also thought He would deliver them. They shouted praises to God for the mighty works they had seen Jesus do, and called out "Hosanna, save us" when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:9). They treated Him like a conquering king. Then when He allowed Himself to be arrested, tried and crucified on a cursed cross, the people quit believing that He was the promised prophet. They rejected their Messiah (Matthew 27:22).

Note that Paul tells the Church that the spiritual blindness of Israel is a "mystery" that had not previously been revealed (Romans chapters 9-11). For thousands of years Israel had been the one nation that looked to God while the Gentile nations generally rejected the light and chose to live in spiritual darkness. Israel and her inspired prophets revealed monotheism--one God who was personally interested in mankind's destiny of heaven or hell, the path to salvation, the written Word with the Ten Commandments. Yet Israel rejected her prophesied Messiah, and the promises of the kingdom of heaven were postponed. A veil of spiritual blindness fell upon the eyes of the Jews who previously were the most spiritually discerning people. As Paul explained, this hardening in part of Israel led to the blessing of the Gentiles who would believe in Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior.

2000 years after He came to the nation of Israel as their Messiah, Jews still (for the most part) reject Jesus Christ. Many Jews today (some say at least half of all living Jews) identify themselves as Jewish but prefer to remain “secular.” They identify with no particular Jewish movement, and have no understanding or affiliation with any Jewish Biblical roots. The concept of Messiah as expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures or Judaism’s “13 Principles of Faith” is foreign to most Jews today.

But one concept is generally held as universal: Jews must have nothing to do with Jesus! Most Jews today perceive the last 2000 years of historical Jewish persecution to be at the hands of so-called “Christians.” From the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the pogroms in Europe, to Hitler’s holocaust – Jews ultimately believe that they are being held responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, and are being persecuted for that reason. They, therefore, reject Him today for this reason and for the other historical reasons mentioned above.

The good news is that many Jews are turning to Christ today. The God of Israel has always been faithful to keep a “remnant” of believing Jews to Himself. In the United States alone, some estimates say that there are over 100,000 Jewish Believers in Jesus, and the numbers are growing all the time.

"If the Jews are God’s ‘chosen people,’ why have they been so oppressed?"

Israel’s blessings were dependent upon her obedience. If the nation sinned, it would be chastened. This is God’s warning to the Jews, followed by His promised restoration: "The Lord shall scatter you among all people, from the one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shall you find no ease, neither shall the sole of your foot have rest: but the Lord shall give you there a trembling heart, and failing eyes, and sorrow of mind" (Deuteronomy 28:64,65).

"In the latter years you shall come into the land that is brought back from the sword, and is gathered out of many people, against the mountains of Israel, which have been always waste: but it is brought forth out of the nations, and they shall dwell safely all of them" (Ezekiel 38:8).

"Jews don’t need to be ‘saved’; they’re already God’s chosen people. Even the New Testament says ‘so all Israel shall be saved.’"

The gospel was first preached to the Jews. They were commanded to repent and trust the Savior (Acts 2:38), and warned that if they didn’t repent, they would perish (Luke 13:3). John the Baptist preached fearful words to those who, simply because they were Jews, thought that they need not repent. The Bible says, "Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say to you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And now also the axe is laid to the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Luke 3:7–9).