Gain a better understanding of the religion of Judaism, the oldest of the three primary monotheistic religions (including Christianity and Islam), or religions that believe there is one God. As of 2020, Judaism was practiced by approximately 14 million people, primarily concentrated in the United States and Israel. Judaism is central to the identity of the Jewish people, having originated with the Jewish ancestors known as the Hebrews, and later known as the Israelites, nearly four thousand years ago.
According to Jewish scriptures, God first revealed himself to the patriarch Abraham and established the covenant on which Judaism is based. The covenant was based on the idea that the Hebrews (later known as the Israelites) would forever be God’s “chosen people,” the physical sign of which was male circumcision. They would enjoy God’s blessing as long as they kept God’s law and worshipped only God, rejecting false gods or idols of non-Jews, known as Gentiles. The covenant also included the promise that the Hebrews would have a homeland in the area encompassed by present-day Israel.
The history of the Jews, along with the words of their prophets and descriptions of their laws, are captured in one of Judaism’s most sacred texts, the Tanakh, which is comprised of the Torah, the Navi, and the Ketuvim. Another important text in the religion is the collection of teachings and commentaries on Jewish law collected in the Talmud between 200 and 500 CE. Jewish teachers known as rabbis were entrusted with studying and communicating Jewish Law (halakha) to the people through literature and in sacred buildings known as synagogues.
Three important branches of Judaism developed, starting in the nineteenth century. Orthodox Judaism adheres to a strict interpretation of traditional Jewish laws and rituals; the most well-known sect within the Orthodox faith is that of the Hasidic Jews. Reform Judaism, by contrast, is a more liberal sect that values ethics over strict observance of the Jewish law; this is the primary branch followed by Jews in the United States. Conservative Judaism developed as a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform practices, honoring the traditions of Judaism while allowing for some modernization. Many Jews, however, do not adhere to a particular denomination of Judaism.