Beliefs, Teachings, Wisdom, Authority

Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;


Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.


Basic Beliefs

Jews are monotheists. They believe there is only one G-d.

Jews believe that: G-d is eternal and beyond time and space. G-d is not limited by a physical body. G-d is omnipresent. G-d is the creator of the world and everything in it, and has a purpose for the world. G-d is omnibenevolent. G-d is interested in people’s moral behaviour. G-d is omnipotent and omniscient. G-d judges each individual.

Judaism teaches that G-d created the world. The accounts of this creation of the world and all life on it are found in Genesis 1-3.

Judaism teaches that G-d gives all life and only G-d can take it away. However, Judaism does not have any clear teaching about what happens after death.

Jews believe that they are the ‘chosen people’ of G-d. This means that G-d selected them to live their lives according to his will and to set an example to others of how he wanted everyone to live.

Both Christianity and Islam have the same belief in a monotheistic god but have different beliefs about how this god wants people to live.

The Future and the Messiah

In the Jewish Scriptures the ‘Day of Jehovah’ was a future battle that would decide the fate of the Jewish people. It was seen as a future day of victory but the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah and Zephaniah, suggested that it would bring destruction.

Later, these prophecies also included ideas of future prosperity with eschatological hopes.

The Book of Daniel holds the hope that the kingdom of the world will be given to the saints of the Most High, the Jewish people. The archangel Michael will appear after the death of the beast which represents the Greek kingdoms of the Middle East.

There is no appearance of a messiah in the Book of Daniel. This idea of a deliverer king is in the Song of Solomon. The desire for a messiah who would break the Roman rule and establish the empire of the Jews led to the rebellion of 66-70CE that brought about the destruction of Jerusalem. It does not appear that this Messiah figure was connected with the final judgement and the raising of the dead:

But I know that my Vindicator lives;

In the end He will testify on earth (Job 19:25).

The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honourable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws” (2 Maccabees 7:20-23).

When the Messiah arrives, peace will be brought to the earth. As the prophet Isaiah said:

For a child has been born to us,

A son has been given us.

And authority has settled on his shoulders.

He has been named

“The Mighty God is planning grace;

The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler”-

In token of abundant authority

And of peace without limit

Upon David’s throne and kingdom,

That it may be firmly established

In justice and in equity

Now and evermore.

The zeal of the Lord of Hosts

Shall bring this to pass (Isaiah 9:5-6).

Isaiah also wrote that this Messiah or Servant of G-d who would suffer for the peoples’ sins.

Jews are still waiting for this Messiah though some Jewish groups argue that they are waiting for a Messianic Age rather than for a person.

The Scriptures and Authority

For Jews all authority comes from the Torah and so from G-d.

Tenakh The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew and the first five books are the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This Jewish Bible is called in Hebrew the TeNaKh: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings). (Sometimes the whole of the Jewish Bible is referred to as the Torah.)

Jewish belief is that the Torah was given to Moses by G-d. These five books are revealed scripture. This is the Written Torah. The Written Torah is unchanging and unchangeable and all truth claims are based on the teachings it contains and the belief that it is the revealed word of G-d.

The teachings of the Torah influence all Jewish life as Jews are required to follow the 613 mitzvot (commandments or laws). These contain instructions for worship as well as for living, eating and clothing amongst many other things.

The rest of the Tenakh, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings) are believed to be divinely inspired but not unchangeable or infallible as is the Torah.

The twenty-four books of the Tenakh are the history of the first 3500 years from the creation of the world until the building of the second Temple in Jerusalem. They contain details of the history of the Jews from the beginning, through the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and until the end of the first commonwealth.

The Tenakh provides details of G-d’s plan for the world and of G-d’s relationship with humanity.

Talmud Moses received both the Written Torah, and the Oral Torah – the Talmud, direct from G-d. The Talmud (Oral Torah) has developed and grown over time through the work of the Rabbis who have added discussions to it over time offering further explanations of what it contains. All Jews recognise the authority of the Torah though there may be disagreement over the status accorded to the Talmud.

The Rabbis in Babylon produced a more detailed version of the Oral Law which is now called the Gemara. A similar work by the Rabbis of Israel never finished because of persecutions. The Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud (teachings).

Rabbi Judah the Prince lived about 1700 years ago. Until this time the Oral Torah had been passed on by word of mouth. However, the continuing persecution of the Jews meant that people began to fear that it might be lost. Rabbi Judah wrote down the outline of Oral Torah in the Mishnah.

The Mishnah has 62 divisions (Mesechtos) which provide the background for every subject of Halakha or Jewish law found in the Oral Torah. Each division is a collection of about 50 to 100 Mishnayos. The 62 are divided into six sedarim or orders:

– Zeraim (seeds)
– Moed (festivals)
– Nashim (women)
– Nezikin (damages)
– Kedoshim (holy matters)
– Taharos (purities)

The Mishnah provides a basis for discussion of these issues of Jewish life and belief. Also in the Mishnah is Halakhah, guidance on law and practical rulings, and Haggadah, explaining the spiritual dimensions of the law.

Midrash The third religious book is the Midrash (rabbinic commentary and interpretation of the Scriptures). It dates from about 200 CE.

The local Jewish community may be led by the Rabbi (teacher). A Rabbi is a learned person who leads the community, teaches the people and may lead them in worship. However, the authority of the Rabbi comes from learning in the Torah and Talmud and there is no sacramental or priestly role attached to the position.

Founders of Faith

The main figures associated with the foundation of Judaism are those who appear in the Jewish Scriptures. Perhaps the most significant of these are:

– Adam and Eve
– Noah(although these three all predate the establishment of the Jewish people)

– Abraham
– Moses
– David

Adam and Eve: whether regarded as historical personages or mythical concepts Adam and Eve appear at the beginning of the Biblical accounts. The first Creation account in Genesis 1 says that Adam and Eve were made by G-d at the same time:

And G-d said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And G-d created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

The account in Genesis 2 suggests that at first G-d made a human being but, having being unable to find a partner for this human, created a female from the human’s ribs and at this point the original human becomes male. [This subtlety is lost in the translation from the Hebrew.]

The Lord G-d planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed … And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found. So the Lord G-d cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This one at last

Is bone of my bones

And flesh of my flesh.

This one shall be called Woman,

For from man was she taken” (Genesis 2:8, 20-23).

The story of Eve being tempted by the serpent and taking the fruit from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil and eating with Adam is well-known. They are exiled from the Garden and lose their (presumed) immortality. Whilst Judaism sees this as the Fall it does not accept the later Christian interpretation of Original Sin arising from this event.

Noah: Noah is significant because he places his trust in G-d and accepts G-d’s commands to build the ark and fill it without question.

Abraham: Abraham is often known as the Father of Judaism. It was Abraham’s faith in G-d, having been brought up in the polytheistic society of Ur, that initially singles him out.

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there (Genesis 11:31).

Abram (later Abraham) made three Covenants with G-d. Genesis 12, 15 & 17). Perhaps the most significant is the Covenant of Circumcision in chapter 17:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”

Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God” (Genesis 17:1-8).

Moses: Known as the teacher of Judaism, Moses followed G-d’s commands and led the Israelites out of Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. It was here that he received the Ten Commandments from G-d which form the Sinai Covenant. Although Moses frequently complains about the tasks G-d sets him, he nevertheless obeys all the commands he is given.

However, on an occasion when the Israelites had no water Moses and his brother Aaron spoke to G-d:

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them (Numbers 20:7-12).

David: The story of David is found from 1 Samuel16 to 1 Kings 2. David was the youngest son of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah, and the second king of Israel. In the Tenakh he is the forerunner and ancestor of the Messiah. He was the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz and the youngest of eight brothers. He was brought up to be a shepherd.

When God rejected Saul as King of Israel, Samuel knew that David was to be his successor. Saul died and G-d sent David back to Judah where he was anointed King. Later, after defeating the supporters of Saul, David was anointed king over the twelve tribes of Israel in Hebron, from where he moved his capital to Jerusalem.

David was King in Jerusalem for 33 years. He was ‘a man after G-d’s own heart’ and brought the ark of the covenant back from Kiriath-jearim and placed it in a special tabernacle.

It was at this time of success that David fell in love with Bathsheba and had intercourse with her. He then had her husband Uriah murdered.

David was known as a musician and seventy-three of the psalms in the Bible are recorded as David’s.

Despite his sins of adultery and murder it is to David that Jews look back with pride and affection as the establisher of their kingdom, and as the image of the coming Messiah. Perhaps he is the dearer example because of his devotion to G-d’s service and yet his flawed character.

An Exemplar of Faith

One Jew, significant for his life and the tradition which he founded is the Baal Shem Tov.

Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) (b. c.1700 Tluste, Podolia, Poland – d. 1760 Medzhibozh), whose original name was Israel Ben Eliezer and was also known as Besht, was the founder of modern Chasidism. He caused surprise and opposition because he mixed with ordinary people, he rejected mortification of the flesh and insisted on the holiness of ordinary human life.

He defended his behaviour and said that his actions were a necessary ‘descent for the sake of ascent’. This was later developed into a socio-theological theory placing great value on spiritual ministration.

He was responsible for getting rid of the rigid asceticism which Isaac ben Solomon Luria had imposed on Kabbalah in the 16th century.

The Baal Shem Tov’s life is surrounded by myth and legend. He came from a very simple background and was an orphan. He had several unimportant jobs in synagogues and Hebrew schools. Later he married the daughter of the very wealthy Ephraim of Kuty and moved to the Carpathian mountains. Here he studied mysticism and worked as a lime digger. He gained a reputation as healer using herbs, talismans and amulets which held the Divine name.

Later he became an innkeeper and schochet (ritual slaughterer).

In 1736, moved to the village of Medzhibozh in Podolia. From then until his death he spent his time in spiritual study.

As a young man the Baal Shem Tov knew Rabbi Nahman of Gorodenka and Rabbi Nahman of Kosov. The discussions which these men had at meals were later written down and became part of Chasidic literature. The Baal Shem Tov’s spirituality was tested by these rabbis and he recognised a mezuzah as non-kosher simply by his spiritual powers.

Eventually, he rejected the strict asceticism of his colleagues. According to his grandson, Rabbi Baruch of Medzhibozh, he said:

I came into this world to point a new way, to prevail upon men to live by the light of these three things: love of God, love of Israel, and love of Torah. And there is no need to perform mortifications of the flesh.

The Baal Shem Tov’s teaching was based on three issues:

– communion with God;
– service in ordinary bodily existence; he taught that every human deed done for the sake of heaven (even eating) was as valuable as any formal commandment;
– rescue of the sparks of divinity that are trapped in the material world.

These teachings appealed to ordinary people as it did not require any retreat from the world around them. They were all ‘limbs of the divine presence’. Members of the movement were criticised by rabbinical leaders for ‘dancing, drinking, and making merry all their lives’.

A story explains the Baal Shem Tov’s view of the Messiah:

The Baal Shem Tov made an ‘ascent of the soul’ and met the Messiah in heaven. He asked when the Messiah would come and received the reply, ‘when your well-springs shall overflow far and wide’ – when the teachings of Chasidism had been spread.

He taught that piety was more important than learning and so even the poor and uneducated could commune with God if they had enthusiasm.

The Baal Shem Tov had great influence during his lifetime and brought about social and religious change. He challenged many traditional values; there was more happiness and new rituals with smaller prayer houses outside of the synagogues. These changes were emphasised by the wearing of distinctive clothes and by story-telling.

The Name of G-d:

In the Jewish Scriptures G-d’s name is spelt with four consonants YHWH (this is called the Tetragrammaton or ‘four letters’). Jewish teaching says that the name is so holy that only the High Priest knew how to pronounce it and that he only spoke it once a year, alone, in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem. When they see these four letters Jews usually say the name Adonai which means Lord. Many Jews will not write the word which is a translation of this name and instead put G-d. In some parts of the Tenakh the name Hashem is also used for G-d – it means ‘the Name’.