Simply put, Judaism is the way of life of the Jewish people. In the English-speaking Western world, “Judaism” is often considered a “religion," but there are no equivalent words for “Judaism” or for “religion” in Hebrew; there are words for “faith,” “law,” or “custom” but not for “religion” if one thinks of the term as meaning solely the beliefs and practices associated with a relationship with God or a vision of transcendence. The Jewish tradition is much broader than this. As a way of life, it includes the social, cultural, and religious history of a widespread and diverse community, including people who do and do not think of themselves as “religious.”
Judaism embraces the intricate religious and cultural development of the Jewish people through more than thirty centuries of history, stretching from Biblical times to medieval Spain to the Enlightenment, and then to the Holocaust and the founding of the modern state of Israel. The result is an experience that reflects the elliptical relationship between religious practice and peoplehood. From a religious perspective Judaism is a theistic system, but from a peoplehood perspective, it is also the group memory of the manifold communities and cultures formed by Jews through the ages. It consists not only of Torah (divine revelation) and mitzvoth (divine commandments), but also the diverse cultures of the Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino languages. It includes not only the visible markers of religious observance, such as the kippah or the payot or the tzitzit, but also the communal structures of the kehillah, the mellah, and the shtetl. It includes politics—whether in Poland, America, or Israel. And it includes the whole range of Jewish education and family life, food and festival, music and dance, and custom and humor.
Judaism is perhaps best conceptualized as a triad with three points of reference: God, Torah, and the people of Israel (that is, the Jewish people). None is central; all are interdependent, with varying degrees of emphasis at various times. God is the God of Israel, the God of all creation, the one God. Torah embodies Judaism’s intellectual culture, focusing on the study, understanding, and interpretation of sacred texts. Israel focuses on Judaism as a historical culture and the civilization of a particular people; the “peoplehood” of the Jews includes customs and foods, arts and music, dance and folkways that are part of a way of life. Judaism is critically concerned with the evolving relationship between God, Torah, and the Jewish people, a relationship described as a covenant. In the covenantal triad, God emphasizes the vertical relationship of the Jewish people to the Divine; Israel emphasizes the horizontal relationship Jews bear to one another, and Torah is both vertical and horizontal, for it defines the way of life of a whole people lived in relationship to God.
These three connotations of Judaism as a monotheistic system, as a literary tradition, and as a historical culture are sometimes viewed separately. For example, there are Jews who see themselves as culturally Jewish, but who are also non-religious or atheist, often identifying more strongly with Jewish “peoplehood” than with traditional understandings of God and Torah. Even so, all Jews would recognize that these three points of reference have shaped and guided Jewish experience through the ages.
The great symbols of God, Torah, and Israel have assumed varying positions of prominence throughout Jewish history, and our discussion of them necessarily unfolds within an ongoing historical framework. Such a historical approach is critical for an understanding of contemporary Judaism, for Judaism is a historical tradition—in which history is valued in and of itself. In many ways, Judaism has always been the sum total of all the history of its God, texts, and people.
"Star o' David," Steve Snodgrass (2008), modified from Flickr Creative Commons.