By Paul McKenna
February 1994

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Judaism is the faith of a community, a people, a nation grounded in historical struggle and centred in a land considered Holy; a faith that calls for the preservation of the identity of the Jews as a distinct and distinguishable people.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord Our God Is One

Judaism is the religious or spiritual tradition that underpins a Jewish civilization dating back some 4,000 years. Jews of today run the entire gambit from those who believe that every syllable of the Torah is infallible, dictated by God, to those who do not believe in God at all. But most Jews, whether religious or non-religious, place a high value on Jewish history, culture and tradition for it is here that they find strength, identity and a common sense of destiny. What this means is that while many Jews are not practitioners of the Jewish religion, most continue to be influenced by at least some of the traditions of Judaism.

In the Judaic worldview, holiness and history are considered to be inseparable. In fact, Judaism is the most historically minded of the world's religions. The God of Israel is revealed not primarily in sun or storm or fertility, but in the historical events and struggles of the Jewish people. For the believing Jew, God acts in history.

And the first significant figure in this history was Abraham, the leader of a nomadic tribe which originated somewhere in the ancient Middle East. Abraham's culture was essentially polytheistic (a belief in many gods). What differentiated Abraham from his religious surroundings was his total conversion to the notion of one God (monotheism) known as Yahweh. Moreover, Abraham's intuition endured to become the central theological affirmation of the Jews - "Hear, O Israel: The Lord Our God is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4). And this monotheistic tradition later became the cornerstone of both the Islamic and Christian faiths.

For his part, Abraham was promised a holy land and blessings upon his descendants if he would but be faithful to God's will (Genesis 17:4-7).

SACRED LITERATURE The Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and the Midrash are Judaism's most sacred books.

HEBREW BIBLE - The Bible, composed of 24 books, contains the same writings as the Protestant Christian version of the Old Testament (although the books are ordered differently). These Scriptures, some of which date back to 1000 B.C.E., are the product of several writers and were originally transmitted orally. Jewish scholars divide the Bible into three distinct sections each edited (i.e. canonized) at different times:

1) THE TORAH, edited by 600 B.C.E., consists of the first five books of the ' Bible - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy - and chronicles events from the creation of the world to the death of Moses. (Torah also refers to the handwritten scroll of these five Mosaic books; this scroll is housed in the ark of each synagogue and is the most revered object in Jewish ritual.)

Religious Jews consider the Torah to be their most sacred text, In Jewish tradition, the continuous in-depth study of the Torah is the highest priority. The Torah is' holy because it contains the Law as revealed to Moses. Jewish Law can be defined as a body of religious and civil prescriptions that detail the ways in which the believer should act.

One of Judaism's primary concerns is the achievement of God's will in the affairs of humanity -the faithful Jew can fulfill God's will by obeying the divine laws as outlined in the Torah. (As Jewish history progressed, the notion of 'Torah as Law' expanded beyond the first five books of the Bible and came to include the Talmud and other' sacred literature and traditions.)

But Torah has a significance that goes beyond conformity to legal codes. In its broadest meaning, Torah refers to the 'total way of life' to which the Jewish believer aspires; accordingly, Torah encompasses all the vastness and variety of Jewish tradition and is synonymous with learning, wisdom and the love of God.

2) THE PROPHETS - This section (edited by 200 B.C.E.) contains the historical books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and kings), the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and the twelve minor prophets including Amos, Micah and Hosea.

3) HOLY WRITINGS - This third segment is comprised of the remaining books including the Psalms, Job, Proverbs and the Song of Songs.

THE TALMUD - Over the centuries, the ancient laws and ethical teachings of the Torah and other Biblical writings were strengthened, added to or modified in order to suit contemporary circumstances. This oral body of ' rabbinical commentary, known as the Talmud, was finally written down around 600 C.E. Its 63 books - a vast compilation of sayings; metaphysical speculations, science, history, parables and biographies - were originally composed by the rabbis to help explain the Law to their people. Across the ages, the Talmud has played a vital role in Judaic law, Jewish education and rabbinical training. It has also inspired a unifying role among Jews worldwide.

THE MIDRASH-This holy text is likewise a collection of rabbinical commentary on the moral teachings of the Bible. Its legends, exegesis and homilies are frequently quoted in Jewish literature and sermons.


The pivotal point in Judaic history is the Exodus event: here God intervened to liberate the Hebrews from their Egyptian slavemasters (approximately 1300 B.C.E. [Before Common Era]). But for the Jews this was more than just an act of political liberation. The Exodus experience followed by God's revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai provided the Hebrews with a new and fuller understanding of God's nature: God disclosed Self as a Being of unutterable greatness and holiness, an eternal God of righteousness, compassion and loving kindness, a personal God with a deep and abiding interest in humanity, a God who had come to the Jews to arrange a covenant, an agreement with them: "I will give them a heart to acknowledge that I am Yahweh. They shall be my people and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart" (Jeremiah 24:7). In this relationship, then, the Hebrews were clearly expected to reciprocate by way of loyalty, worship and obedience to the divine commandments.

"In Hinduism, this Supreme Reality was always seen as manifesting in the Cosmos and in the human soul. In Israel the same supreme reality is experienced primarily as manifesting in history, in the history of a particular people. That is the unique character of the revelation to Israel. Whenever God reveals Godself in Israel, it is always in relation to the history of the people." Bede Griffiths

Israel: The Jewish People In History

The notion of Israel is absolutely central to Judaism and can be appreciated on two levels:

(a) Israel as a people, a nation. Yahweh's covenant was not meant to be an individualist one; God had established a covenant with a community, a people, and if the Hebrews proved faithful to God's word, God would fashion them into a nation. Moses' leadership skills inspired a sense of unity among the twelve Hebraic tribes and eventually they developed into one nation - Israel. Throughout Jewish history, the concepts of 'people' and 'nation' (referring to Israel) have retained a meaning that is both symbolic and concrete.

(b) Israel as a geographical locale. The Hebrew language is sacred to Judaism because the original revelation was given in the Hebrew tongue. This sacred association also applies to the land in which the revelation took place. Accordingly, a consciousness of the Holy Land pervades the Torah that the faithful Jew reads, the prayers s/he recites and rabbinical literature s/he studies.

This notion of the land as sacred began when God promised Abraham and his descendants a blessed land; the land of Israel, the borders of which were constantly changing throughout the Jewish centuries, was the site of many of the supremely memorable incidents in Jewish history. During the 2,000year period in which the Jews were forced to live outside their homeland, they never lost a passion for the land of their birth. Little wonder, then, that the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a powerfully symbolic event for Jews worldwide. For the first time since 70 C.E. when they were forcibly displaced from their national and spiritual homeland, the Jews, as a people, were able to return to the land known then as Palestine.

Judaism, then, is the faith of a community, a people, a nation grounded in historical struggle and centred in a land considered holy; a faith that calls for the preservation of the identity of the Jews as a distinct and distinguishable people.

Righteousness, Service and Justice

Some religions concern themselves with doctrine first and ethics second. Not so Judaism, the Jewish faith does not subscribe to any universal creed, catechism or body of dogma; nor, generally speaking, does it maintain a religious hierarchy or a centrally organized doctrinal authority. The test of real Jewishness resides in the realm of morality, not doctrine: righteousness is the first requirement.

What is of ultimate importance is how one lives one's life in the context of community and how the community cares for its members. Moreover the ethical core of Judaism can be found in the Mosaic formula for treating one's neighbour fairly, respecting her/his rights, her/his property and above all her/his person. This passion for just human relations has dominated the ethical teachings of Judaism across the millennia. The idea that all persons have rights is common, for example, to the teachings of all the prophets.

But without God, there can be no --righteousness. The Hebraic approach to God is fundamentally a moral one. Only through obedience to the divine laws, particularly as expressed in the Torah, can the individual or the community seek to conform to God's will; in Biblical language - "the righteous shall live by faith" (Habakkuk 2:4).

Life Is Good

Members of the Jewish faith do not believe in original sin or the depravity of human nature. For the believing Jew, life is good, the human person is good, the world is good... and all these things are good because God has made them: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).

And God's goodness encompasses not just the joys of the spirit such as prayer and Torah study but also day-to-day realities including food, work, sex, clothing, nature and fellowship. In fact, each time that one uses and enjoys any aspect of God's creation, one has the opportunity to utter praise to God in the form of a blessing. Throughout Judaic culture there runs a double theme: people should enjoy life's goodness, and at the same time, they can add to this joy by sharing it with God in a spirit of thanksgiving; for any joy one feels is increased when it is shared.

Sin and evil are realities that must be contended with... People are endowed with infinite potential for good, but they do misuse their freedom... This can only be resolved by a vigorous discipline of individual and social reform.

Individually, one can resist sin in a number of ways: prayer, reflection, the study of Torah, good works, will power and association with good and wise people. Yet one of the best ways to induce inner virtue is to behave virtuously - to become good by doing good.

Socially, any movement toward repentance and reconciliation must begin with an effort on the part of the offending party to make amends with the party which has been hurt. And this important gesture of taking responsibility to right one's wrongs is a necessary prelude to God's forgiveness. By aiding the poor, for example, the community recaptures something of its lost integrity and reconciles with the Creator.

Through it all, however, there remains a constant, and that constant is a universal law of righteousness which holds sway over all persons, without exception. Each person will eventually be rewarded or punished according to past deeds. Such is the moral character of the Hebrew revelation.

"I will give them a heart to acknowledge that I am Yahweh. They shall be my people and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart."(Jeremiah 24:7)

Prayer, Observance and Ritual

A key objective of the Jewish faith experience is the sanctification, the hallowing of every moment of daily existence. The principle behind this spiritual stance is very simple - all of creation is permeated with the sacredness of Yahweh. Accordingly, a good Jew strives to suffuse each moment with an awareness of the sacred and with moral fervour.

To achieve this spiritual ideal, practitioners of Judaism have traditionally laid great stress on ritual, observance and fidelity to the law of the Torah and the prescriptions of the Talmud.

The use of statues, pictures or any physical image is forbidden in Jewish worship. This prohibition may help to explain why Jewish tradition has come to rely so heavily on symbol and rite to connect human experience with the source of all being.

One of the distinctive features of Judaism is its great variety of rites, customs and ceremonies. These rituals address every aspect of life... Many of these rituals are deeply grounded in Jewish history and they serve to remind the faithful of those great historical events in which God's goodness and greatness was demonstrated to God's people and help to provide meaning at every significant juncture, for example, birth, maturity, marriage and death. Ritual is generally accompanied by prayer and plays a vital role in religious services and in important observances including dietary laws, the Sabbath, Holy Days and festivals.

Observance refers to the practice of maintaining fidelity to Jewish law and ritual. It needs to be noted here that the various groupings of religious Jews vary markedly in their degrees of observance and in their interpretation of law and ritual. Orthodox Jews, for example, steep an amazing portion of their lives in observance. But whatever the degree of observance, the goal of such practice remains the same - the hallowing of life.

The synagogue (or temple) functions as the focal point for the believing community. This place of worship is also an environment for social activity and religious education. Each synagogue is autonomous; again there is a great deal of variation in religious practice from synagogue to synagogue even within the same branch of Judaism.

But the real centre of Jewish religious life is the home which is regarded as a religious sanctuary; the family is considered to be the very fountainhead of Jewish worship.

Vatican-Israel Sign Pact

On December 30, Israeli and Vatican officials signed an agreement that will lead to full diplomatic relations within several months. This 'pact' which took two years to negotiate creates a channel of communication between the Catholic and Jewish worlds and is a move to end 2,000 years of tension, misunderstanding and hatred between Jews and Roman Catholics. The pact is a platform on which to build in order to combat anti-semitism, promote freedom and peace of worship and encourage Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
This fundamental agreement defends freedom of conscience and worship, the free access of pilgrims to the holy places and the church's right to run its own schools, welfare institutions and communications media. It indicates a strong statement against anti-Semitism, racism and religious intolerance. An issue not specifically mentioned is the desire of the Vatican for international guarantees - above and beyond Israeli law- to protect the cultural and religious values of the city of Jerusalem - the holy place for Christians, Muslims and Jews.

John Paul's visit to Synagogue in Rome, April 13, 1986. Shaking hands with Great Rabbi Elio Toaff.

John Paul's visit to Synagogue in Rome, April 13, 1986. Shaking hands with Great Rabbi Elio Toaff.

Jews in Canada

The reader may be surprised to learn that the first Jewish immigrants to Canada arrived before the British; Jews were among the earliest fur traders in the 1700s. Canada's first synagogue- the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in Montreal- was founded in 1768.
For more than two centuries, Jewish people have contributed to the development of Canadian society in a host of trades and professions, as well as in the area of culture and arts. The same Jewish community has likewise been shaped by Canadian society.
An estimated 315,000 Jews reside in Canada. Since more than two-thirds of these live in Ontario and Quebec, Central Canada has become a ripe environment for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

For more information on Judaism, contact:
Canadian Jewish Congress,
4600 Bathurst Street,
Willowdale, ON,
M2R 3V2;
Phone: (416) 635-2883

Canadian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto,
44 Victoria Street, Suite 600,
Toronto, ON,
M5C 1Y2;
Phone: (416) 941-9356

Orthodox, Reform & Conservative & Judaism

Judaism, like most religions, is characterized, by the internal tension between its traditionalists and its reformists. At the root of this conflict is a tension between a Judaism that is perceived as constant and one that is perceived as evolving.

ORTHODOX - Orthodox` Jews view their faith as the mainstream of a tradition that has remained steadfast and unaltered throughout their history. Theirs is a way of life that does not change regardless of the trends or difficulties encountered in the modern world. Orthodox Jews subscribe to literal interpretation of the Bible, they pray three times daily, use only Hebrew in their prayers and services, are strict observers of Jewish law and ritual and maintain separate pews for women in the synagogue.

REFORM - The Reform movement which began in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century maintains that in order to keep the essentials of the Judaic tradition alive and healthy, Judaism must adapt its liturgy, observances and community life to the contemporary world. Accordingly; Reform Jews are much less observant, advocate equality of the sexes, permit instrumental music in synagogue worship and allow for greater flexibility in choice of prayers (including the use of the vernacular).

CONSERVATIVE -This grouping tries to strike a balance between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. A largely North American phenomenon, Conservative Judaism strives to remain true to the substance, form and practices of tradition and to' the spirit of Jewish Law, all the while seeking to leave room for evolution, adaptation and growth. This amounts to a theological stance that could be described as "moderately reforming."

Internationally, there are almost as many Orthodox Jews as Reform and Conservative combined. It should be noted that the borderlines between these branches of Judaism are not always clearly defined. Also, the terms used to denote these groupings differ in various parts of the world.

Focus On Facts

ORIGINS: approximately 4,000 years ago in the ancient Middle East


SACRED BOOKS: Hebrew Bible; Talmud; Midrash

TITLE OF DEITY: Yahweh(YHWH) or Jehovah


MAHOR RELIGIOUS BRANCHES: Orthodox, Conservative & Reform

PLACES OF WORSHIP: Home and Synagogue (temple)




MAJOR LOCATIONS: Israel, United States, Europe and Russia


    Sephardim- those with Middle Eastern or North African ancestry (4%)
    Ashkenazim- those of European Ancestry (84%)
    Orientals- those of Asian Ancestry (10%)

Festivals, Holy Days, and the Jewish Sabbath

PASSOVER - 8-day springtime festival commemorating God's sparing of the Hebrews in Egypt when the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed. The chief festival of the Jewish year, the Passover symbolizes the Israelites' deliverance from Egyptian bondage and all forms of enslavement.

SHAVUOT OR PENTECOST - late spring harvest festival celebrating God's giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

ROSH HASHANAH - Jewish New Year (two days, occurring in September or October).

Yom KIPPUR (DAY of ATONEMENT) - occurring shortly after Rosh Hashanah, this 24-hour period of prayer and fasting is the holiest day of the year. Penitence and family reconciliation are stressed.

FEAST OF SUCCOTH (TABERNACLES) - 8-day fall harvest festival of joy and thanksgiving.

CHANUKAH (FESTIVAL of LIGHTS) - 8-day December holiday of festivity and gift-giving - commemorates Israel's victory in the struggle for religious liberty against its Syrian rulers (168 B.C.E.).

PURIM - one-day joyous festival (late winter) celebrating Jewish deliverance from a Persian ruler (as described in the Book of Esther).

THE SABBATH - weekly 24-hour period occurring between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. A family-oriented day celebrated with special foods, songs and religious practices (at home and in svnagogue). Strictly observed by Orthodox Jews, it is a time of spiritual refreshment and a break from daily labour.

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