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What is Judaism? Miriam Bell

What is Judaism? Miriam Bell


Judaism is a monotheistic religion, which means that it is defined by a belief in one God. Miriam Bell outlines the different movements and expressions of the Jewish faith for the JoM visitor.

Inspired by the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the montheistic religion of Judaism revolves around the central concept of the Torah. The Torah is essentially the foundational narrative of the Jewish people and their covenant with God. It also elaborates on the set of religious obligations and laws which, traditionally, embody the Jewish way of life.

According to religious tradition, God gave all the teachings of the Torah - both written and oral - to Moses who codified them for the Jewish people. The contents of the Torah are reinforced by a number of later religious texts, most notably the Talmud. Religious Jews consider the practice of Judaism to be the expression of their relationship with God.

Dating back over 3000 years, Judaism is one of the oldest consistent monotheistic religions. It originated from the Middle East and has influenced other major world religions - notably Christianity and Islam. It is not a homogenous religion and is made up of a variety of different streams and views. 

However, since the development of the Talmud around the 6th century CE, Rabbinic Judaism has been the dominant form of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism holds that the written Torah (the Law) cannot be correctly interpreted without reference to the oral Torah and the extensive array of religious literature which clarifies exactly what is sanctioned by the Law (which is called halakah or the Way).

In the 18th century, the Jewish Enlightenment led to the division of Rabbinic Jewry into a number of different religious denominations. The largest of these, which still exist today, are Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism. In New Zealand, the majority of Jewish people adhere to either Orthodox Judaism or Reform Judaism.


Orthodox Judaism, which was the mainstream of Judaism until the Enlightenment, adheres to a strict interpretation and application of the laws and ethics of the Torah - as detailed by the Talmud and the interpretations produced by the Jewish authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim and Acharonim. The two main movements within Orthodox Judaism are Modern Orthodox Judaism and Haredi Judaism, although it does include an array of other philosophies.

However, a central concept is that the laws of the Torah were divinely revealed to Moses are, therefore, binding and unchanging. Orthodox Jews believe that it is important to maintain the basic philosophy and legal framework which have existed throughout Jewish history. This means that, in their eyes, Orthodoxy today is the contemporary manifestation of the doctrine codified first by Moses, then in the Talmud and later in oral law and rabbinic literature. This in turn means that Orthodox Jews have to live in accordance with the 613 Commandments and Jewish law.

Orthodox Judaism does not have a single rabbinical body to which all rabbis belong, or one organisation representing member congregations. Rather there are many different Orthodox congregational organisations. None of these organisations represent a majority of all Orthodox congregations. This means that there is no definitive canonical statement of the principles of faith. In turn, this means a number of different viewpoints on religious interpretation are possible especially in areas not made explicit in the halakah. For example, the role of women in religious society and the extent of Orthodox engagement with secular society.

The essential distinction between the two main movements with in Orthodox Judaism is that Modern Orthodox Judaism attaches a positive value to interaction with contemporary society, while Haredi Judaism is less accommodating to modernity and has less interest in non-Jewish disciplines. Haredi Judaism is further distinguished by its styles of dress and more stringent practices. Subsets of Haredi Judaism include: Hasidic Judaism, which is rooted in the Kabbalah and distinguished by reliance on a Rebbe or religious teacher; and Sephardic Haredi Judaism, which emerged among Sephardic Jews in Israel.

In New Zealand, Auckland and Wellington both have active Orthodox congregations. The Auckland Hebrew Congregation (Beth Israel) is the largest in the country. Founded in the 1840s, it has a mikveh (ritual bathhouse), religious school (Kadimah) and runs a kosher delicatessen (the Greys Ave Deli). The main synagogue is in the central city, and there is also a stiebel (prayer centre) in the eastern suburbs. Wellington's Orthodox community, Beth El, was founded in 1843 and has a mikveh, a kosher shop and offers religious classes and services. In the South Island, the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation is Orthodox and works in partnership with Chabad of Canterbury to offer religious services and kosher food.

Reform Judaism 

Reform Judaism, which is called Liberal or Progressive Judaism in many countries, defines Judaism as a religion rather than as a race or culture. The denomination rejects most of the ritual and ceremonial laws of the Torah while observing moral laws, and emphasises the ethical call of the Prophets. Reform Judaism has developed an egalitarian prayer service in the vernacular (along with Hebrew in many cases) and emphasises personal connection to Jewish tradition.

The denomination emphasises the idea that a Judaism frozen in time is an heirloom, not a living fountain. Reform Jews believe the movement has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.

Reform Judaism embraces the central tenets of Judaism - God, Torah and Israel - as it acknowledges the diversity of Jewish beliefs and practices. The Torah is viewed as a living document which enables Reform Jews to confront the challenges of life, while the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is a central component of Reform Judaism.

The denomination believes Judaism has to change and adapt to the needs of the day to survive, and is also committed to the principle of inclusion not exclusion. For example, Reform Judaism is committed to the equality of women in all areas of Jewish life.

In New Zealand, both Auckland and Wellington have active Reform communities. Auckland's Beth Shalom was founded in 1956 and offers services and religious education to over 100 families. It was the first synagogue in the country to employ a full-time rabbi. Wellington's Temple Sinai was founded in 1959 and offers services and religious education. In the South Island, the Dunedin Jewish Congregation is a liberal synagogue. It is also the southern-most synagogue in the world.


Conservative Judaism1 is a moderate movement which aims to occupy the centre ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It arose out of a school of thought known as Positive-Historical Judaism, which developed in 1850s Germany in response to the liberal positions taken by Reform Judaism. The movement took institutional form in the US in the early 1900s.

The movement uses the term "conservative" in reference to its belief in the need to "conserve" Jewish tradition - rather than reform it - and not to indicate a politically or socially conservative bend. To avoid confusion over this, many of the denomination's Rabbis advocate renaming it as Masorti (Hebrew for "traditional") Judaism.  Conservative Jews aim to conserve the traditional elements of Judaism while allowing for reasonable modernisation and rabbinical development.

Conservative Judaism is characterised by a commitment to traditional Jewish laws and customs, including observance of Shabbat and kashrut, a deliberately non-fundamentalist teaching of Jewish principles of faith, a positive attitude toward modern culture, and an acceptance of both traditional rabbinic and modern scholarship when considering Jewish religious texts. It teaches that Jewish law is not static and has always developed in response to changing conditions. This means rabbis can interpret Jewish law to reflect modern conditions. For example, women may be Rabbis and Zionism is supported.

Conservative Judaism is not prominent in New Zealand.

Some other types of Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern, US-based movement which views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization. Like Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism does not hold that Jewish law requires observance. Originally a branch of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructivist Judaism splintered into its own movement from the 1920s. Substantial theological diversity continues to be present in the movement and positive views towards modernism are emphasised. Halakah is not considered binding, but is viewed as a valuable cultural remnant which should be upheld unless there is good reason not to. Decisions are made communally through a process of education and distillation of traditional Jewish values.

Orthodox Feminism

Orthodox Feminism is a movement in Orthodox Judaism which promotes a more egalitarian approach to Jewish practice within the bounds of Jewish Law. It relies on liberal interpretations of Jewish Law, by both modern and classical rabbinic scholars, and takes advantage of the lack of universal consensus on legal interpretations among rabbis in different eras. Many of the interpretations and practices of Orthodox feminists are considered controversial, largely because they are often considered to be the province of men.

Jewish Renewal

Jewish Renewal is a recent US-based movement which focuses on spirituality and social justice, but does not address issues of Jewish law. The movement describes itself as a kind of "neo-Hasidism" because it seeks the spiritual renewal of Judaism, but insists on full equality for women. It emphasises a creative return to the process of transforming halakah so that it is a "living path to connection to God".

Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism is a small non-theistic movement, centered in North America and Israel, which emphasises Jewish culture and history as the sources of Jewish identity. Established in the 1960s, the movement's adherents combine the celebration of their Jewish culture and identity with a belief in humanistic values and ideas. They embrace the aspects of Jewish culture which offer a genuine expression of the contemporary way of life. 

  1. Conservative Judaism: How the middle became a movement []

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