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Judaism is the faith of the Jewish people, who believe that God revealed himself through Abraham, Moses and other prophets. The faith came to be called Judaism after the sixth century B.C. and was centered in Jerusalem. Jews have endured severe persecution throughout their history, particularly in the Holocaust, during which the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. There are between 5 million and 6 million Jews in the United States, and about 14 million worldwide.


TORAH is the name for the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Jews also commonly refer to the entire Hebrew Bible as the Torah. (Tanakh is the technical name for the Hebrew Bible, but even Jews don’t use the term frequently.) The Hebrew Bible has the same content as the Christian Old Testament, but it numbers and arranges some of the books differently. There are 24 books in the Torah, arranged in three sections: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The Old Testament splits some books into two, so that there are 39 books, and changes the order. Different translations of the Torah are preferred by different groups within Judaism.

TALMUD is a collection of ancient rabbinic commentary that elaborates on how to follow the rules set out in the Torah. It was written from the third to fifth centuries. Orthodox Jews consider it as important as the Hebrew Bible.

MIDRASH refers to explanations and stories about the Torah written during the first millennium. It suggests interpretations and fills in the gaps between the details and stories laid out in the Torah.


The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and end 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Passover, celebrated in late March or early April, commemorates the freeing of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses’ leadership. Families typically observe Passover with a meal called a seder, in which the story of the Exodus is retold. Hanukkah, also called the Jewish Festival of Lights, lasts for eight days and celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians in the second century B.C. Hanukkah usually falls in early or mid-December. Most congregations also observe Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in March or April.


There are three major branches of Judaism. They divide theologically on whether they believe the Torah was written by God or written by people:

  • Reform Jews believe that the spirit of Jewish law can be adapted to the time and place, so they tend to emphasize social justice issues more than dietary laws. They are the largest branch in America and the smallest in Israel. They are represented in the U.S. by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The Religious Action Center speaks out on public issues. The Union for Reform Judaism says that the Torah was written by people but inspired by God.
  • Orthodox Jews practice strict adherence to traditional Jewish laws based on the Bible, including the kosher dietary laws that prohibit such things as eating meat and dairy products together. They are the smallest branch in America and the largest in Israel. Most U.S.Orthodox congregations are represented nationally by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, with most of its rabbis members of the Rabbinical Council of America. Orthodox tradition holds that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses, letter by letter.
  • Hasidism is a movement within Orthodox Judaism founded by 18th-century mystics. Men wear beards, sidelocks, black hats and long coats.
  • The Chabad-Lubavitch movement is a branch of Hasidism that emphasizes reaching out to nonpracticing Jews.
  • Conservative Jews follow a middle path between Reform and Orthodox Judaism and are the second largest branch in both America and Israel. They are represented by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly.
  • Reconstructionist Judaism is a very small, liberal branch of Judaism that emphasizes culture and community and rejects some tenets of traditional Judaism. It is represented by the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

There are hundreds of Jewish organizations that focus on a combination of religious, political and social issues.They include:


  • The number of Jews in the U.S. and worldwide is declining. Jews are focusing on reducing rates of intermarriage, which often results in children who are not raised as Jews; encouraging childbearing; strengthening Jewish education for children and adults; countering attempts at conversion; and reaching out to secular Jews who are not observant.
  • The generation of Jews who survived the Holocaust is dying out, adding urgency to how the experience is described and relayed to younger generations. Anti-Semitism continues to be an issue in the United States and worldwide.


  • Jews observe their Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. In fact, all days on the Jewish calendar run from sundown to sundown.
  • Jewish congregations worship in synagogues and temples. Many Reform congregations use the latter term, while Orthodox and many Conservative Jews believe the word temple can refer only to the temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. and which Jews hope to rebuild. Do not call a Jewish congregation a temple unless it uses that word in its name.
  • Be aware that Judaism is as much a culture as a theology. Most Americans who consider themselves Jewish have little or no affiliation with any synagogue. Modern Jewish literature sometimes describes Judaism as a “peoplehood,” reflecting the combination of faith, inherited tradition and culture. So one can be a secular Jew, though “secular Christian” makes no sense.
  • Reform Jews ordain women as rabbis, but Orthodox Jews do not. Conservative Judaism also has female rabbis, though far fewer than Reform.
  • Many issues of importance to Jews involve a mix of political, religious and social factors. Be aware that religion is part of conflicts such as those in the Middle East, but that the high number of secular (or cultural) Jews means that religion is not necessarily the only, or most important, factor.
  • Messianic Jews, who believe that Jesus is the Messiah that Jews await, consider themselves Jewish, but the vast majority of Jews don’t. This is a highly sensitive issue, and journalists should refrain from listing Messianic Jewish services in the same category as other Jewish services or referring to them in stories without explanation. Messianic Jewish leaders use the title of rabbi, which is offensive to traditional Jews.