Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people who worship the God of Israel, the nation founded by the descendants of Israel (formerly Jacob), the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. It is one of the oldest religions in the world, dating back to the 18th century BC. It is the complex phenomenon of a total way of life for the Jewish people, comprising theology, law, and innumerable cultural traditions. There are 14 million people who observe the Jewish faith worldwide. About 42% live in Israel and 42% in North America, with another 10% residing in Europe.
Judaism has several branches:
Orthodox (8%) Judaism is the most traditional branch of Judaism and emphasizes observance of both the moral and ritual obligations of traditional Jewish law. There is great diversity within Orthodoxy and it contains many philosophical movements. These range from Modern Orthodoxy, which teaches that Jews should embrace Western culture while adhering to Jewish law, to Charedi Judaism, which teaches that Jewish life should focus on Jewish culture. The Hasidic sect are Orthodox Jews.
Reform (30%) Judaism teaches that Judaism’s ethical laws are binding while ritual laws can be adapted to fit modern society. It views Judaism’s essence as ideals of morality and social justice while encouraging individuals to maintain traditional practices that they find meaningful. The branch favors individual choice over obligatory beliefs and practices.
Conservative (28%) Judaism occupies a middle ground between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. Institutionally, it seeks to preserve the structure and content of traditional Jewish observance, while allowing for adaptations to fit modern circumstances. Conservative Judaism emphasizes the importance of studying traditional Jewish texts to guide ethics and practice.
Reconstructionist (1%) Judaism began as a movement within Conservative Judaism before emerging as a distinct branch. It teaches that Judaism is not simply a religion, but an evolving civilization that includes important religious elements. In Reconstructionist thought, Jewish law is not binding but should be followed when possible because it strengthens the community.
Jewish monotheism has had both universalistic and particularistic features. Along universal lines, it has affirmed a God who created and rules the entire world and who at the end of history will redeem all Israel (the classical name for the Jewish people), all humankind, and indeed the whole world. The ultimate goal of all nature and history is an unending reign of cosmic intimacy with God, entailing universal justice and peace. Between creation and redemption lies the particularistic designation of the Jewish people as the locus of God’s activity in the world, as the people chosen by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). This arrangement is designated a covenant and is structured by an elaborate and intricate law. Thus, the Jewish people are both entitled to special privileges and burdened with special responsibilities from God. As the prophet Amos (8th century bce) expressed it: “You alone have I intimately known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). The universal goal of the Jewish people has frequently expressed itself in messianism—the idea of a universal, political realm of justice and peace. In one form or another, messianism has permeated Jewish thinking and action throughout the ages, and it has strongly influenced the outlook of many secular-minded Jews (see also eschatology).Law embraces practically all domains of Jewish life, and it became the principle means by which Judaism was to bring about the reign of God on earth. It is a total guide to religious and ethical conduct, involving ritualistic observance as well as individual and social ethics. It is a liturgical and ethical way constantly expatiated on by the prophets and priests, by rabbinic sages, and by philosophers. Such conduct was to be performed in the service of God, the transcendent and immanent ruler of the universe, the Creator and the propelling force of nature, and the one giving guidance and purpose to history. According to Judaic belief, this divine guidance is manifested through the history of the Jewish people, which will culminate in the messianic age. Judaism, whether in its “normative” form or in its sectarian deviations, never completely departed from this basic ethical and historical monotheism.