Aside from knowing that we share some of the same religious texts, most Christians today are completely unfamiliar with the “modern” forms of Judaism (forms that go back almost 2,000 years). To close a small portion of the knowledge gap about our religious Jewish neighbors, here are nine things you should know Rabbinic Judaism.
1. In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of the Torah. Rabbinic Judaism, which is based on the “dual Torah,” was formulated in the 2nd century, making the religion, in terms of defining texts, younger than Christianity. By the 6th century it had become the dominant type of Judaism and is the foundation of all forms of Judaism practiced today. The three main branches of Rabbinic Judaism in North America are Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
2. The “dual Torah” is the Jewish concept that the Torah was revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai in two ways, one written (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and the other transmitted by oral tradition through the prophets and the sages. The Oral Torah did not come to full expression in Jewish life until after the period following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70. As Jacob Neusner explains, “the Judaism of the dual Torah set forth a twin ideal: sanctification of the everyday life in the here and now, which when fully realized would lead to the salvation of all Israel in the age to come. But what remained to be sanctified, as the Temple had been sanctified through its cult, now that the Temple was gone? One locus of sanctification endured beyond 70: the holy people itself.”
3. The Oral Torah is the tradition collected in a number of rabbinic writings known as the Mishnah (halachic or legal tradition which form the core of Rabbinic Judaism). Upon being recorded the Mishnah became the object of further study, commentary and amplification known as the Gemara. The term Talmud can be used to mean either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara as printed together. There are two Talmuds: The Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud is the heart of Rabbinic Judaism; after the Bible, the Talmud is the book most studied by religious Jews and the Hebrew Bible is read and interpreted in light of the Talmud.
4. The most universal and distinctive form of Jewish spirituality is Torah study. Despite the name, Torah study actually includes the study of related texts, such as the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and various rabbinical writings. In rabbinic literature, the highest ideal of all Jewish men is Torah study (women being exempt). Torah study is counted amongst the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”), but is considered more important than many of the other commandments, such as visiting the sick or honoring one’s parents.
5. Yeshiva is a Jewish institution that focuses on Torah study. Study is usually done through daily shiurim (lectures or classes) and in study pairs called chavrutas (Aramaic for “companionship”). Chavruta-style learning is one of the unique features of the yeshiva. Historically, yeshivas were attended by high level males only. Today, all non-Orthodox and a few Modern Orthodox yeshivas are open even to females.
6. Reform Judaism (also known as Liberal Judaism and Progressive Judaism) maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions should be modernized and compatible with participation in the surrounding culture. Reform Judaism affirms the central tenets of Judaism (God, Torah, and Israel) and emphasizes Tikkun olam — “repairing the world.” Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, primarily in interfaith marriage, absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life, and commitment to LGBT issues. Reform Judaism is currently the largest North American denomination of American Jews.
7. Conservative Judaism (also known as Masorti Judaism) developed in 1850s Germany as a reaction to the more liberal religious positions taken by Reform Judaism. The term conservative was meant to signify that Jews should attempt to conserve Jewish tradition, rather than reform or abandon it. Conservative Judaism holds that the laws of the Torah and Talmud are of divine origin, and thus mandates the following of halacha (Jewish law). However, the Conservative movement also accepts modern methods of historical scholarship in analyzing Jewish texts and developing Jewish law.
8. Orthodox Judaism is an umbrella term for a variety of Jewish denominations and groups that refused to follow the path of Reform or Conservative Judaism. Orthodox Judaism believes that both the Written and Oral Torah are of divine origin, containing the exact words of God without any human influence. In terms of practice, Orthodox Jews strictly follow the written Torah and the Oral Torah as interpreted by the Medieval rabbis. From the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night, Orthodox Jews observe the commandments concerning prayer, dress, food, social behavior, etc.
9. In Rabbinic Judaism, the synagogue is the Jewish house of prayer. The buildings are not necessarily used for communal worship since Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. All synagogues contain a bimah, a table from which the Torah is read, and a desk for the prayer leader. The Torah ark — modeled on the Ark of the Covenant — is a cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept. Prayer and public reading of the Torah form the main components of Jewish liturgy.
Note on sources: Unless directly cited, all information was taken from Norman Solomon’s Judaism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1996).