Judaism Today

Everything changed for Jewish religion when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70. This is illustrated in the ancient rabbinic volume Sayings of the Fathers. We are told that Simon the Just, who lived prior to the destruction of the Temple, "used to say: By three things is the world sustained: by the Law, by the [Temple] service, and by deeds of loving kindness". Former Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Hertz comments that "the Temple service" originally meant the "Sacrificial cult of the Temple". After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism had to come to terms with the fact that one of the sustaining pillars of the world — sacrifice — had been removed. So, in the same chapter of Sayings of the Fathers, we read that Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel who lived in the second century taught that the world is sustained "by truth, by judgement, and by peace".
Though Judaism is often described as the oldest established religion, predating Christianity by some 1,500 years, this idea rests on the false assumption that Judaism today is a continuation of the religion of the Old Testament. Nicholas de Lange, in his book Judaism, says, "There is no longer a widely accepted yardstick against which any particular belief or practice, any sect or ideology, can be measured. There are many different expressions of Judaism, each claiming authenticity for itself but none recognised as definitively authentic by the others".

This article outlines both the unifying elements and major differences within contemporary Jewish thought.


When the Mishnah says that "Moses received the Law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders..." it is not referring to the ten commandments but to the "Oral Tradition", an unwritten explanation of "the meaning enshrined in that Text, as expounded and unfolded by the interpretation of successive generations of Sages who made its implicit Divine teachings explicit".

There is, of course, no biblical warrant for the claim that two laws — one written and the other oral — were delivered to Moses at Sinai. Nevertheless, belief in the divine origin of the "Oral Law" has persisted to this day. The Mishnah and Gemara, which together comprise the oral tradition in written form, have in practice usurped the authority of Scripture.

In Jews and Christians: the Myth of a Common Tradition Jewish author Jacob Neusner admits that modern Judaism is not based on the Bible alone, "Christianity is the religion of the Bible ... Judaism is the religion of ... the Talmud". Judaism has added to the Scripture a body of tradition which is accorded equal authority with the Word of God. Christianity alone accepts the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and practice.


In common with other faiths, Judaism is ultimately a religion of self-effort. "Every man, Jew or not, is believed to be responsible for, and capable of, attaining his own salvation", writes Leo Rosten. "The highest contribution [to] the universal salvation of mankind", says Rabbi Isidore Epstein, "must come from the individual". The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, declared in a broadcast on BBC Radio that the glory of Judaism is "the freedom of the will" so that "the greatest sinner by an act of the will may become the greatest saint".

The Messiah

Throughout the past 2,000 years, as Jesus himself predicted (Matthew 24:5), a number of Messianic pretenders have arisen and some have attracted large groups of followers. But whatever Jews may, or may not, believe about the Messiah, most are certain of one thing: Jesus did not fulfil that role.

If a Jew knows anything about the Messiah, however, it is that he will inaugurate a reign of universal peace when nations will beat their weapons of war into agricultural implements (Isaiah 2:4) and wolves will lie down with lambs (Isaiah 11:6-9). But apart from some members of the Lubavitch sect, Jews know nothing of a Messiah who must "suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:1-3). Though the last Lubavitch Rebbe, hailed as "King Messiah" by many of his followers died three years ago, some of his disciples believe he will yet rise from the dead if only they have sufficient faith.

Orthodox Judaism – Going by the Books

Orthodoxy regards itself as the only true Judaism, maintaining that the Torah came as a divine revelation at Sinai, hence the words of the Law are divine and fully authoritative. However, according to the Orthodox Authorised Daily Prayer Book, "Torah" is not simply the Ten Commandments. It "is variously used for the Pentateuch, the Scriptures, the Oral Law, as well as for the whole body of religious truth, study and practice". The Orthodox Jew’s life is governed by "Torah" in this broad sense and the Orthodox man must conform his life to the propositions and rituals of rabbinic tradition, including the rules of Sabbath observance, dietary laws and prayer three times a day.

Reform Judaism – Changing with the Times

Reform, or Liberal, Judaism sees itself as the most progressive branch of modern Judaism. It seeks to be relevant to each new generation, relying on reason and experience, rather than Torah, to determine truth. Ethics are more important than ritual, so that the movement represents a highly individualised and non-authoritarian approach to religion. Torah is observed not because it is "from heaven", but because it is meaningful to religious experience.

Reform began in the last century because it was assumed that scientific man could no longer accept the revelation of Torah as factual and binding. Hence changes in ritual law and worship were encouraged: kosher dietary laws were abandoned, prayers were translated from Hebrew into the vernacular, the organ was introduced into the synagogue and services were shortened. Some Reform congregations even began to worship on Sunday rather than on the Sabbath.

Today the Reform movement is active in inter-faith dialogue and in the 1970s the movement began to ordain women rabbis of whom, in the UK, Julia Neuberger is the most prominent.

Conservative Judaism – Preserving the People

Many European Jews were uncomfortable with the radical changes introduced by Reform Judaism, and Conservatism arose as a new movement at the end of the nineteenth century to emphasise the positive historical elements of the Jewish tradition.

Solomon Schechter (1850-1915), who became a leading figure in the Conservative movement, stressed the need for commitment to tradition, but with modification if necessary. Schechter urged that preservation of the Jewish people was the way to achieve both tradition and change. Lay people have considerable influence, particularly in instituting change. Some congregations, for example, permit the use of a musical instrument while others do not. Some stress keeping dietary laws while others reject them.

Chassidism — A World of Tradition

Characterised by their distinctive style of dress, including black coats and ear locks and their demonstrative form of worship, the strictly Orthodox or Chassidim boast a strict adherence to rabbinic tradition in every area of life. "Tradition", says the Mishnah, "protects the Law." Founded in eighteenth century Europe by Baal Shem Tov, there are numerous Chassidic sects around the world each led by its own Rebbe or Tzaddik. Each Rebbe has his own way of teaching and living and his own interpretation of the Chassidic tradition. Unlike other rabbis, the Rebbe possesses absolute authority. He is the mediator between God and his followers. His word is absolute and his followers will vie with each other for even a portion of the food he has touched. The most influential Chassidic sects today are Lubavitch and Satmar.

Secular Judaism — Doing their Own Thing

Nicholas de Lange defines secular Jews as "Jews who identify with Judaism but reject its religious dimension... it has developed no coherent ideology, and has no specific institutional base ... It does appear though that many people who describe themselves as secular Jews often have a strong attachment to traditional features of Judaism, including what are normally considered to be religious rituals (emptied, of course, of their religious meaning)".

Messianic Jews — the True Judaism

Marginalised and ostracised by their fellow Jews, those Jews who believe in Jesus can justly claim to be the true heirs of Moses and the prophets. They believe that the Scriptures of both Testaments are God’s revelation and to add to them, or subtract from them, is a grave error. Whereas all expressions of post-temple Judaism reject the necessity of the temple offerings and see Messiah as little more than the bringer of universal peace, Messianic Jews continue to affirm the necessity of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and believe all that the prophets have said concerning Messiah. They are "the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Messiah Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (Philippians 3:3).

This article first appeared in the Autumn 1997 issue

© Christian Witness to Israel      +44 (0) 1865 887830   •   charity registered nos: 271323/SCO41720  •   site map