The word Judaism has two meanings. It can mean the civilization of the Jews, the culture of those who claim to be Jews or whom others call Jewish. And it can also mean the religion of the Jews.
The two definitions are simple, but only on the surface. When we try to be precise, defining Judaism becomes a much more complex endeavor.
How can we give a single definition of Jewish civilization? There are African Jews and Persian Jews, Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States, British Jews and French Jews, Russian Jews and Indian Jews. All are a part of the Jewish civilization, yet all have differing views, rituals, and customs. A Jew born in Brooklyn might feel like a stranger when visiting the Jewish community in Bombay, even though there are some things that Jews everywhere have in common.
Nor is defining the Jewish religion simple.
It is made up of many parts: beliefs concerning God, the universe, and humanity; customs and ceremonies; a long tradition expressed in the writings of many great thinkers; common history; and the people called the Jews. Nevertheless, a Jew may share in the beliefs of Judaism about God and yet not feel a strong tie to Jews who regularly attend synagogue. A Jew may feel proud of the Jewish heritage and yet not agree with many Jewish interpretations that attempt to describe that heritage. A Jew may even feel a part of the Jewish people and not believe in God. Even the question of who should be considered a Jew is hotly debated.
What, then, binds all people who claim to be Jewish into one people? Just what is Judaism and what does it mean to be Jewish?
What follows is a short introduction to the meanings of Judaism, its...