March 1971

“Judaism,” Ensign, Mar. 1971, 40


Another in a series of articles dealing with the religions of the world

Judaism is a term broadly embracing all the facets of the ways of life of the Jews.

In its theological aspects it embraces some distinctive doctrines concerning the one God, whose name we pronounce “Jehovah.” However, the Jews never pronounced it; for the sake of reverence, they called him Adonai, i.e., the Lord.

As a philosophy of life and living, developed over the centuries out of tenets from the Torah and the teachings of the prophets and the great rabbis, Judaism has historically reached into all activities of the life of Jews.

As a way of worshiping the Lord, Judaism’s rituals, liturgies, feasts, and fasts have also arisen out of the Bible, with modifications through the centuries engendered by the experiences of the Jewish peoples in many lands; but they have always had the basic purpose of keeping the people in remembrance of God and their duty toward him.

As an ethic, Judaism’s most characteristic principle is justice. Such an ideal has seldom been attained, either within the Jewish community or with other communities, but it remains the great desideratum of those who have the faith to strive for the ideal.

Judaism is thus a term broadly embracing the way of life of a people without a land, but inhabiting many lands for many centuries since their original descent from Judah and other sons of Israel.

Historically, the sources of the doctrines, philosophies, ethics, morals, policies, and practices of Judaism had their beginnings in the Bible. However, endless proliferations of definitions, analyses, exemplifications, refinements, and elucidations have given rise to secondary source-book collections such as the Talmud, the Mishna, the Gemara, and the Midrash. These are the works of the great rabbis of the early centuries of the present era. These fathers of Judaism have made its literature voluminous and the scope of its interests almost infinite.

In spite of the many sources of its definitions, prescriptions, and proscriptions, Judaism remained a surprisingly monolithic institution down to the dawn of the modern period of secular “enlightenment.” This period has brought to Judaism, as to many other systems, a century and a half of reexamination and modification.

One result of these later influences has been the rise of three major and several minor diversifications of worship and practice. They are generally identified as the Orthodox, the Conservative, and the Reform movements. These parallel, of course, like movements in many other cultures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And also, like other religious communities, those of the Jews are suffering in some modern lands from the apostasy of a generation tending to assimilate into the larger cultures around them. It is ironic that in free America, for instance, the “ethnocide” by assimilation may accomplish what tortuous centuries of purges and pogroms never could accomplish. How a new dispensation will dawn and bring Judaism to its destiny is largely unknown by the leaders and the people of Judaism today, but many of them are vigorously searching for the keys to it.

The word Judah is an anglicized form of a Hebrew-Israelite name more properly pronounced “Yehudah.” It is traditionally thought to have been derived from the Hebrew verb yadah, which means to praise. There are comments indicating awareness of this root idea in the story of Judah’s birth and of his later reception of the patriarchal blessing from Father Israel. (See Gen. 29:35 and Gen. 49:8.) The man named Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was also called Israel; Jacob was one of two sons of Isaac; Isaac was one of the several sons of Abraham; Abraham was a Hebrew (i.e., a descendant of Eber) and a Semite (i.e., descendant of Shem). (For the genealogical sequence from Shem down to Israel, see Gen. 10:21–24; Gen. 11:14–27; Gen. 17:5; Gen. 21:3; Gen. 25:26; Gen. 29:35; Gen. 32:28.)

The term Jew is a late English derivation, abbreviated from old English Iudeas, ultimately from Latin Jude(us). The Latin came, of course, via the Greek Iouda, ultimately from the Hebrew Yehudah. Judaism as an English word is a loanword also from Latin.

Obviously the Jews are not genealogically the only descendants of Israel, nor the only descendants of Abraham, nor the only Hebrews, nor the only Semites. They are, however, the people most commonly associated with these biblical names among the peoples of the world today.

It would be pointless to try to describe the rise of the religion of Judaism apart from a description of the rise of the people. The people of Israel were a people chosen of God to live a specified way of life, and that way of life is what we call their religion. Though their whole mission was to exemplify a religion, there was no word in biblical Hebrew for religion. The concepts associated with what we call religion were referred to by Old Testament writers with such terms as the way, the law, the Torah. People were not designated as religious or irreligious, but only as obedient or disobedient to the Lord, his word, and his way.

It all began with the divine call of Abraham. He was called of the Lord to be the forefather of a great posterity who would become a blessing, or a source of blessings, unto all peoples of the earth. These blessings would include not only acquaintance, but also a covenant relationship with the Lord. The corollaries of such a covenant would be the requirement that the people live and behave toward God and man in accord with God’s laws and principles, and teach others to do so; and for those who fulfilled the requirements, the Lord would provide help in life and salvation after death.

Moses expressed the requirements this way: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.

“Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.

“For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?

“And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deut. 4:5–8.)

At the other end of Israel’s national existence, just before ten of the tribes were taken into captivity and “lost” until the times of the latter days, the great prophet Isaiah also made the mission plain: “It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles [i.e. the other nations], that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)

Both reechoed facets of the original call to Abraham: “Behold, I will lead thee by my hand, and I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood. …

“And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations.” (Abr. 1:18, Abr. 2:9.)

Thus it was that, centuries after Abraham lived and died, the family of Israel, grown to the proportions of a small nation, were led out of Egypt where they had been first guests, then slaves, and were prepared by the Lord through the great prophet and lawgiver, Moses, to become “a kingdom of priests, a dedicated nation,” and to be God’s own “royal treasure” whereby he could extend, operate, and defend his kingdom on earth (see Ex. 19:1–6). After a period of wilderness life during which the older, more intransigent people perished and the younger, more tractable were prepared to live according to the Torah of God (i.e., the “teaching,” “guidance,” and “instruction” of God) as given to and through Moses, Israel was placed under Joshua’s leadership to be led into the promised land.

They who were trained by Moses and established by Joshua were not very successful in transmitting their standards and practices to the second and third generations after them, and in the days of the judges after Joshua’s time “there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim; And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt. …” (Judg. 2:10–12.) At times, in the days of some of the great judges, there were improvements for a few decades, but apostasy always returned, and the spirals of change seemed to proceed ever downward. By the end of the period of the judges, Israel had reached such ridiculous extremes of evil that the reader of the account can hardly conceive that the nation would ever fulfill its destiny.

But another great leader, dedicated to the Lord before his birth, was raised up. Samuel became priest and prophet, judge and captain of Israel, and brought about massive reforms. However, a leader can lead only when the people will follow, and the people requested a king like the nations around them had.

The subsequent history of the kings of Israel, whether the three kings in succession over united Israel or the score of them after Israel was divided, shows few exemplars of the ideal in Israel. According to the estimate of the authors of the Bible, virtually all of the people in the northern nation of the ten tribes of Israel “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord”; and so it came to pass that two hundred years after Ephraim and the other tribes of the northern ten broke off from Judah and its few partial-tribe affiliates, the land indeed “spewed out” the northern ten tribes. God withdrew his hand of protection and the expanding empire of Assyria conquered them in 721 B.C. They have been the lost ten tribes ever since, except for a few million members of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, predominantly, who are being identified by patriarchs of the Church in these latter days.

Before they were taken away, the Lord sent the great “writing prophets,” such as Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, to warn Israel that unless they should speedily repent, captivity was imminent. Failing to achieve repentance, the prophets then warned that the Israelites would go into exile; but though they had forgotten God, he had not forgotten them; he would send “hunters” and “fishers” (as Jeremiah later put it) to find them, and they would eventually come out from the north countries to build the ideal Zion and prepare for the setting up of the kingdom of the Messiah.

To some extent Judah’s descendants have remained as witnesses of the power of faith and fidelity to the one God, and of the moral and ethical values and the validity of his laws for man if man will live them.

Even the concise histories of Judah from the end of the Old Testament on require a thousand pages to so much as touch upon the major movements of the long exile. Few people outside the Jewish culture know about or read the valuable apocryphal books about the significant days of the heroic Maccabees, who tried to lead Judah to independence again (160–60 B.C.) after the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Macedonian Greeks and Syrians had ruled them. The tragedy of the fraternal and internecine strife that opened the way for the entrance of Rome’s legions into the frequently unholy Holy Land is little known.

Better known to Christians, of course, is the history of the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah by the religiopolitical leaders of the Jews and their instigation of his crucifixion. It is less well known that Jesus’ disciples were also Jews, and that thousands of converts during the mission of the apostles were also Jews (e.g. Acts 3:11 to Acts 4:5). And largely unthought and unspoken among Christians is the fact that thousands of Jews then living and millions born since then have had nothing to do with the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus.

Millions of so-called Christians have thought it a service to God to visit the sins of the religious and political leaders who instigated the crucifixion upon the heads of the children and children’s children of all Jews unto the third and fourth generation and unto the three-hundredth and four-hundredth generation—piously or impiously ignorant that God himself said through Moses, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (Deut. 24:16.)

So it has been that with little heed for the degree to which the Jew has kept or not kept the commandments and the faith of God, and with malice arising out of malaise engendered by a multitude of reasons, so-called Christians have persecuted and pillaged Jews for nineteen hundred years from Italy to Spain, from Spain to Gaul, to Germany, England, the Netherlands, Poland, and Russia.

Fortunately for the world there have been places where Judaism has been able to flourish and has made its contributions to religion and to cultures since the earliest postbiblical times. Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, descended from the early Babylonian exiles, and later from exiles of Roman times, were able to produce many of the important commentary works on the Bible. The biblical books inherited from Ezra’s collection and “canonized” at Yavneh (also spelled Javneh, Jabneh, Jamnia) about A.D. 90 in the days of the great Johanan ben Zaccai were cherished and studied by scholarly Jews in Mesopotamia for nearly ten centuries after the decimation of Jewry in Judea by the Romans. Only the little group of Jewish scripturalists who managed to survive in Galilee in the second century A.D. and who produced the Mishna (about A.D. 200) rivaled the contributions of the Jews in Babylonia who produced the monumental Babylonian Talmud. It is the codification of much of the ancient oral law that had developed out of the teachings of the rabbis concerning the scriptures over the centuries as a kind of “hedge about the Law.” It contains definitions and interpretations of the applicability of many facets of the Torah, intended to keep the would-be obedient from coming even close to violating the great, revealed Law of Moses. Only after conflict arose between Jews and the followers of Islam was it urgent for major Jewish communities to locate elsewhere.

The preservation of learning by an important Jewish community in Spain in the ensuing centuries was accomplished by the great poets, philosophers, and learned men—Samuel the Nagid, Solomon Ibn Gabriol, Jacob al-Fasi, Judah Ha-Levi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses Maimonides. These are the names of but a few of scores.

In the twelfth century in Spain the Jewish communities came to grief in their relationships with Islam, and that grief was matched by the despair and death suffered by the Jewish communities of the Franco-German areas of the Rhineland. Jews had migrated there since the early centuries of the Roman empire and had lived with heathens and Christians in tolerable coexistence until the time of the crusades.

There were times, however, when the great rulers themselves sought benevolences from Jewish doctors in the dark ages, recognized Jewish philosophers in the renaissance, borrowed from Jewish financiers in the early era of liberation, or listened to Jewish musical compositions in later times of culture and enlightenment.

There were by the nineteenth century great waves of migration of Jews from Europe to America, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, depending upon the pressures in one place and the tolerances in another.

There were times when there was a rise of hope and idealism, such as that which once centered around a so-called messiah, Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676); that which attracted the enlightened to the scholarly, liberal, quasi-assimilationist emancipator, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786); or that which led the despairing to the mystic who created a mode of “joy in misery” (Hasidism), “The Besht”—Israel Baal Shem Tob (1700–1760); or the intellectual aura that surrounded the great publicists, essayists, and poets of the late nineteenth century.

It was the poets and the essayists who stirred the hapless people to new hope and resolution and led them to seek new places and ways of survival after the disenchantment of seeing the failure of the great humanitarian enlightenment movement. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the leaders of Jewish communities throughout Europe realized that there was nothing more to hope for in “enlightened” western Europe. Even cultured France, with the much-touted “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” showed that there was no guarantee of such privileges for “Frenchmen of the Mosaic persuasion” in the Dreyfus affair. And the interruption of the trend toward relaxation of the economically disabling and discriminatory laws against Jews in Germany left more frustration and disillusionment.

Intermittent favors from an occasional, kindly disposed czar or czarina in Russia were more than counterbalanced by intermittent pogroms. The very word pogrom came from there, being a Russian word for organized massacre, devastation, destruction. The poverty-stricken “Pale of Settlement” in eastern Poland and western Russia became one large and nonviable ghetto. The confined Jewish quarters of the cities—the original ghettos—were intolerable to people beginning to see that things should not be so in civilization.

It was the urgent need for relief from the whole morass of human degradation that gave birth to the hope and stimulus to the plans for a Jewish homeland. Though it soon became evident that neither Uganda, nor Madagascar, nor Argentina, nor any other place but the ancient homeland would satisfy more than a modicum of people, practical plans for purchasing land there were often frustrated by the difficulties of negotiating with the Turkish overlords of the time. The political plans of those who hoped to move enough people into the ancient homeland so that they could gain recognition as a de facto state seemed to many unpracticable. The whole idea of a man-made Zion was repulsive to the religious who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah to establish Zion. Yet the pressures of persecution, and the urge of their tired souls to find some way to survive, took wave after wave of immigrants to the ancient homeland. Best known of the Zionists was Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), whose proposal for a Jewish State (in the essay Judenstaat) appeared in 1896, and under whose aegis the first Zionist Congress took place in Basel in 1897.

There are signs that the freedom and acceptance Jews have enjoyed in the United States may, ironically, bring about by assimilation what no despotism has been able to bring about by persecution, purge, or pogroms. This danger is recognized in leading Jewish journals today. There is a continuing discussion of ways, plans, and programs to interest Jewish young men and women in marrying only within the Jewish ethnic group and in raising their children to be practicing, observant Jews.

For the rising generation in Judaism, the luster, the appeal, or indeed the needs for the old ideals and hopes have been dimmed. Community survival against militant enemies has been a strong motivator. A sense of mission, a hope for Zion, a trust in the Lord, a belief in the Messiah, a vision of a better world to come—these have all strengthened Judaism in the past. But something has happened in the minds of many young Jews, as in the minds of many of their contemporaries of other faiths. Some of the factors can be briefly characterized.

The hope for a return to Zion, for instance, is different today. The Zion achieved by the men and the movements of the turn of the century and hastened by the fearsome Nazi holocaust of this century does not look like the Zion that people of the past longed for.

The Zion seen today in tightly ringed and trouble-plagued little Israel seems to many to have little of the promise the prophets told about; and the cataclysm of six million executions in the 1930s and 1940s left some survivors with questions about the availability of divine aid in time of dire need. The absence of any evidence that the Messiah and redemption will indeed appear soon has invited skepticism.

The question, therefore, that arises in the minds of the young generation of today is: Why should I raise my children to be Jewish? A survey of the articles of the last five years in such journals as Judaism, Commentary, and the Journal of Jewish Communal Service gives the impression that no set of ready answers has yet been found to satisfy those who ask that question.

The best known voice of the Orthodox Jews is that of Mordecai Kaplan and the “reconstructionist” movement. Its approach is not unlike that of those who are concerned about holding to the tried-and-true ideals among the orthodox of the Christian churches.

The voices of the great middle-road body of Judaism, the multifaceted Conservative movements, are the thousands of socially conscious, progressive, yet tradition-oriented rabbis and their thousands of programs, such as the young peoples’ activity groups, action groups, and interaction groups in community centers, synagogues, and schools.

The softer, more alluring, and less anxiety-ridden voices of the leaders of Jewish Reform congregations are also calling Jewish youth. They appeal for the effective continuation of Jewish fellowship and brotherhood and for retention of some modified forms of traditional worship, but they are permissive of integration of Jews with others in the common milieu of the socioeconomic and political world of the modern state.

For Judaism in the rest of the world, the problems of American Judaism are quantitatively and qualitatively significant. There are more millions of Jews in America now than there were in all of Europe before the holocaust. The spiritual problems of American Jewry are of the same urgency as are the spiritual problems of Jews elsewhere in all of the progressive cultures of the world. Only a vital religious culture that possesses a rational theology will be able to survive. A proven, practical, and effective educational, social, and marriage and family program is needed. A philosophy of life, a promising eschatology, and a concept of a Savior, salvation, and eternal life are all urgent today in a viable religious culture.

The state of Israel is an explosive human aggregate under tetrahedral pressures. (1) It has socioeconomic problems sufficient to destroy its viability. (2) There are political problems that would likely have disabled it already except for other problems, the urgency of which have forced political coalitions and cooperation for survival. (3) Most threatening are the international relations with immediate neighbors, and through them some dangerous ramifications among the superstates of the world. These are capable of triggering a war of annihilation for the entire world. (4) There are religious problems for which no man among them has a practical solution. The fulfillment of the prophetically predicted program of the Messiah would be needed to save the Jews in Israel, for if any one of the four sides of the tetrahedron were to collapse, the other forces would crash in upon it in confusion.

The irony of the religious problem is that the religious leaders in Israel should be able to offer solutions rather than adding aggravations to the many other national ills.

The troubled religious situation there originated in the days of the rise of such movements as political Zionism, practical Zionism, and cultural Zionism in the late 1800s. The nonreligious Zionistic movements brought many people to the ancient land of Israel for urgent practical, political, and cultural reasons, but they did not accomplish age-old religious ideals. In the opinion of the orthodox, the other movements usurped the domain of the Messiah and set up merely another secular, mundane, political nation in the Near East. When the religious leaders could not counter the success these movements had, they joined the immigrations. They also organized pioneers to go to the land of Israel, striving to keep religion from perishing there for lack of adherents and active worship. Their religious organizations abroad became religiopolitical parties in the Jewish substate during the British mandate, and remain as such in the nation since independence. Because there are so many political parties in Israel, the small group of religious voters (about 14 percent of the electorate in all elections during the first twenty years) can command enough seats in the Knesset (parliament) to merit a place in the cabinet and on occasion demand concessions for their programs. Their gains have only imitated the nonreligious parties, however. Religion in Israel awaits fulfillment through other means.

The mission of Abraham’s descendants through Israel was, as earlier noted, to bear the witness of the true and living God unto the nations of all the world, and to bring the blessings of his acquaintance and his covenants to all. Paul, in his famous letter to the gentile Christians of Galatia, made it plain that all people who are of the faith in Christ Jesus and baptized unto his name become the adopted seed of Abraham and heirs to the mission and joint heirs to the promise inherent in the Abrahamic covenant with God. But there is almost no similarity in the concept of this mission as seen by Jews and by Christians. Those among the Jews who still feel there is a mission for Judaism to accomplish do not think in terms of converting the world to Judaism, as many Christians think of converting all to Christianity. The mission is conceived by the orthodox more in terms of living in such a way that others may see that the laws and the ways of those who worship the one God are good, and that he is good.

There are also differences in Jewish and Christian concepts of the work of the Messiah, the saving of the world, the setting up of the kingdom of the Lord, and the identity of the Messiah. Jews expect the Messiah to be a mortal descendant from the loins and lineage of David. Most Christians expect him indeed to be the descendant of David but see him specifically as Jesus of Nazareth.

What, then, is the concept of the “chosen people” today? David Ben-Gurion, who lives in the quiet of a Negev agricultural settlement after his many years of working for the founding and the defending of modern Israel, sums it up:

“If a Jew had been asked two centuries ago: What is a Jew?—he would have answered simply and with complete inner confidence: A Jew is a descendant of Abraham our father, who obeys the commandments and hopes for the coming of the Messiah. This answer would at that time have been satisfactory to any Jew wherever he might live, but today it would not satisfy a large part of our people, perhaps the greater part. Ever since the Emancipation, the Jewish religion has ceased to be the force which joins and unites us. Nor is the bond with the Jewish nation now common to all Jews, and there are not many Jews in our times who hope for the coming of the Messiah.

“If those who fought for Jewish Emancipation in Germany and France had been asked a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago: What are the Jews?—they would have replied: a religious community—the Jews are Germans or Frenchmen of the Mosaic faith.

“Most of the Jews of Russia, Poland, Galicia, or Rumania would have replied a century ago: The Jews are a minority in exile completely different from the people among whom they live; and fifty years ago many of them would have added: And they aspire to return to Zion. Not many of the Jews of America, even those who continue to call themselves Zionists, would give the last answer today, for it is their desire to become rooted in their new country, as an organic part of America, like all the other religious and national groups which reached America a generation or a few generations ago. Nor is religious Jewry any longer an integral and internally united entity.” (David Ben-Gurion, “Vision and Redemption,” in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, ed., The Mission of Israel [New York: Robert Speller & Sons, 1963], p. 219.)

Nevertheless, this prophetic destiny remains to be fulfilled. The Old Testament prophets were explicit about it, and the Book of Mormon prophets are very explicit: When they shall come to know the true Messiah, they and all families of the earth shall be blessed and the covenant shall be fulfilled. (See 3 Ne. 20:25–46.)

  • Dr. Rasmussen, chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, serves as high councilor in BYU Fourth Stake. He has been a serious student of Hebrew and the Jewish people for many years.

A Jewish family in Israel (top photo) celebrates the Passover feast, best-known ceremony in the Jewish festival year. The famous Judaic symbol from a mosaic floor of a sixth century synagogue is shown below. At the right is the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Untermann. (Photo by Ellis T. Rasmussen.)

This nineteenth century conception of King Solomon’s Temple was done by H. C. Selous.

Shown at the right are the ruins of a Jewish synagogue at Capernaum, which may date from the time of Christ. (Photo by Ellis T. Rasmussen.)

The Torah scroll contains the five books of Moses as well as other Jewish laws and traditions. (Art by Dick Brown.)

The “Wailing Wall,” where faithful Jews offer prayers is the last remnant of Herod’s Temple. (Photo by Doyle L. Green.)