The article has been prepared as a resource for students undertaking a focus study of Judaism as a religious tradition. It takes into account the following elements of the Syllabus:

1. Students learn about

  • Historical basis of the belief system
  • Following in the world today
  • Important places
  • Important scriptures
  • Role and acceptance of dissent
  • The nature of power within the belief system
  • Gender roles
  • Continuity and change
  • Tradition and cultural heritage
  • The impact of technology
  • The impact of globalisation
  • Change and resistance to change
  • Impact on the wider society on a national and global level

2. The Future

Students will explore future issues related to the focus study belief system by:

• evaluating continuity and change in relation to the belief system
• identifying views about the future of the belief system
• examining the impact of the belief system upon the future
• examining the relationship of the belief system to peace and conflict in the world.

3. The fundamental concepts of:

society, culture, persons, environment, time and the concepts of power, authority, gender and technology within the Belief System

4. The key concepts to be integrated across Belief Systems are:

• values • beliefs • continuity • customs • norms • change• language • symbols • worldviews• philosophy • ideology • globalisation• ritual • hierarchy • power structures• life cycle • myth • conflict.



Jews believe in a single God, without shape or form, who is both the creator and ruler of the universe, and who prescribes a moral law for humanity. The concept has been described as “ethical monotheism”, since it joins a Divine concern for the perfection of humanity with the idea of a single omniscient God. It is a concept which has been adopted by Christianity and Islam with various modifications.

The monotheistic idea has its foundation in the Biblical account of Abraham dedicating himself and his descendants to God. (Interestingly, both Christianity and Islam describe themselves as “Abrahamic” faiths.)

Later Abraham’s grandson Jacob figuratively wrestles with an angel, symbolising the struggle of finite beings to comprehend the idea of an incorporeal, eternal and infinite God. Jacob is given the name “Israel” – “he who wrestles with God” – and Jacob is promised descendants who will become the “Children of Israel”, and are promised a “Land of Israel”.

Thus Judaism from its origin should be seen as rather more than a philosophical faith or a belief system. It might be described as a religious culture, originating in the historical narrative of the Jewish people. Each aspect of the belief system is then developed in the course of a national history.

The “Torah” – the Moral Law

The next critical stage in the development of Judaism, the idea of a Divine moral code, follows the Exodus. After centuries as slaves in Egypt, the People receive the Law in the Sinai desert. The principles are incorporated in the “Five books of Moses” known as the Torah, which become the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The 613 moral commandments which can be found in the Torah include the Ten Commandments.

The Temple

Some four hundred years after the Exodus, in about 1000 BCE, Jewish life in the Land reached a peak of achievement with the Kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Judaism now celebrated festivals of national pilgrimage, and a liturgy comprising the inspired poetry of the Psalms was sung in a Temple administered by hereditary priests and scribes and musicians.  (The name “Cohen” means “priest”, and the tribe of “Levi” are the descendants of the scribes and musicians.)

The Prophets

Judaism found another dimension as its spiritual leaders coped with rise of the ruthless imperial powers of Assyria and Babylon, both centred in modern Iraq. The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel were deported by the Assyrian conqueror in 722 BCE, and in 586 BCE the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. One response was the majestic literature of the Prophets, thundering against immorality, visualising peace on earth, and foreseeing the end of the conquering empires and the restoration of Zion.

The Hebrew Bible

When Cyrus of Persia permitted the rebuilding of the Temple and a return of Jewish leadership from exile in Babylon, Ezra established the public reading of the Torah, which still continues as a central part of the Synagogue service. The 120 “Men of the Great Assembly” brought together the sacred literature which had been written during the preceding thousand years and began the task of establishing the canon of the Hebrew Bible (described by Christians as the “Old Testament”).

The Sages and the Sanhedrin

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1.14)

This is one of the sayings of Hillel the Elder (c.60 BCE – c.10CE) included in the collection of aphorisms known as the “The Ethics of the Fathers”. This is a tractate, or section, of the Talmud, which comprises a few hundred wisdom sayings by seventy-two sages between the first century BCE and the second century CE. In about 20 BCE, during the reign of Herod “the Great”, Hillel became President of the Sanhedrin, an assembly of 71 sages which operated both as a political assembly and as the superior court.

The Sanhedrin followed rules of evidence which ensured that leniency prevailed and that the death penalty was rarely if ever imposed. Adultery, for example, could be proved only by the evidence of two eye-witnesses to the event. Sophisticated rules protected married women and prevented exploitation in property and financial transactions. The Court was also opposed to the Herodian puppet kings and the Roman procurators who sold the right to collect the Roman taxes to “tax-farmers” who used ruthless force to oppress the population with confiscatory taxation. Indeed the Court made a point of simply refusing to accept the evidence of a tax-collector.

Rabbinic Judaism

In 70 CE the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Rome celebrated its victory by building of the Arch of Titus, which still stands in the Forum. The centrepiece of the Arch shows the legion in its triumphal procession in Rome, bearing the sacred objects of the Temple, including the golden candlestick – the Menorah – which is described in the book of Exodus.

As the ritual of Temple worship came to an end, it was replaced by the Synagogue service, and an order of prayer was established by the sages, who came to be known as “Rabbis” (literally “my teacher”). The Rabbis also taught that in addition to the written law there is a supplementary Oral Law, equally divine in its origins, which is ascertained by a process of interpretation, and which was eventually codified in the Talmud. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who personally witnessed the destruction of the Temple, described those who supported the concept of the Oral Law as the “Pharisees.”

The Jewish Dispersion

Meanwhile a second Jewish revolt was defeated by the Romans in 135 CE. The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that 580,000 Jewish soldiers were killed and over 900 villages and towns destroyed. The Emperor Hadrian decreed that name “Judea” should be replaced by the name “Syria Palestina”, or “Philistine Syria”, and a temple to Jupiter was built in Jerusalem, which was re-named “Aelia Capitolina”.  The dispersion of the Jewish people as captives, slaves and refugees was accelerated.

Jewish communities appeared in the countries of dispersion, and the literature, philosophy and liturgy of Judaism have continued to develop.


There are approximately 14 million Jews in the world:  5.7 million in Israel, some 6 million in the US and about half a million each in the UK, France, South America and the former Soviet Union.

The first Jews came to Australia as convicts with the First Fleet. Since then Jews have arrived in Australia in each generation, many as refugees from persecution. There are presently about 110,000 Jews in Australia. About 45,000 live in Sydney, and about 50,000 in Melbourne.

Jews in Australia

Since the first fleet, there have been successive waves of Jewish immigration, with Jews arriving in Australia as convicts, as economic immigrants, and as refugees.  Countries of origin, more or less in order of arrival, have included Britain, Poland, Russia and Germany, various countries in central Europe and Asia (with significant groups from Hungary and Shanghai), and in recent times the former Soviet Union and South Africa. However, while each group on arrival reflects some of the cultural characteristics of their countries of birth and education, Jews generally see themselves ethnically as part of a single Jewish community.

At the same time a long Jewish history of dispersion and adaptation results in a relatively speedy assimilation to Australian cultural norms.  Individual Jews have therefore made important contributions to Australian life, with two Jewish Governor-Generals, a Jewish Governor of NSW, Jewish Chief Justices of the High Court and the NSW Supreme Court, and a Jewish commander in chief in Europe in the First World War.


The Land of Israel

“To live as a free people
In our own land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem”

These are the concluding words of the national anthem of Israel. It is called “The Hope” and it sings of the hope of two thousand years for the restoration of the Land of Israel and a life of freedom and peace for the Jewish people. Israel is seen both as the historic national home of the Jewish people and as the “Promised land” of religious belief.

Modern Zionism reflects the Biblical longing for the restoration of Zion, and it emerged as a practical organised movement in Russia in the 1880’s. Young people set out for the swamps and deserts of Turkish Palestine, determined to restore the land to its ancient fertility and to lead the way for a Jewish return.

An independent Israel is also seen by Jews as a homeland providing safety and refuge. As the threat to the Jews of Europe became increasingly apparent after Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany in 1933, the gates of Palestine under the British Mandate were progressively closed to Jewish immigration.  At a Red Cross conference on Refugees at Evian in 1938 the Australian reaction was typical: “Australia does not have a real racial problem and is not desirous of importing one”, although Australia did in fact agree to accept 9000 refugees, which was one of the largest quotas.

On 29 November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly resolved to partition the territory of British-mandated Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. In May 1948 the British Mandate was terminated, the State of Israel was proclaimed.

Israel is a very small country. It is 424 km in length. Its east-west width varies from 114 km at its widest to 14 km at its narrowest point. In an Australian context, Israel’s land area would occupy an area from Wollongong to Newcastle in length and Sydney to Parramatta in width.

Israel’s population of 7 million comprises approximately 5.7 million Jews (about 80%), and 1.3 million Arabs (about 20%). Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens enjoy equal voting rights and complete equality before the law. There are Arab political parties, several Arab members of parliament and an Arab judge on the Supreme Court bench.

To both Israelis and world Jewry, Israel’s survival and security are of paramount emotional and spiritual significance. It is the universal hope of the Jewish people that Israel will prosper and live in peace.


“By the waters of Babylon,
There we sat, there we wept,
When we remembered Zion…
If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget its skill.”

Twice in ancient times the Jews had a Temple in Jerusalem. The First Temple was built by King Solomon on Mount Moriah (now known as the “Temple Mount”) and dedicated in about 950BCE.  It was destroyed in 586BCE by the Babylonians. The leaders of the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon, which became a renowned seat of Jewish learning.

The building of the Second Temple began after the return from Babylonian exile in 516 BCE. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE after a four-year war in which the Jews revolted against Roman oppression. The Romans celebrated their victory by constructing the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the treasures of the Temple, including the Menorah described in the Book of Exodus, being carried by the Roman legions in triumph.

Only a remnant of the western wall of the Temple remains, known as the Kotel (‘Wall’), and it is the most sacred site in Judaism.

For the last 19 centuries Jews have prayed for the restoration of the Temple. However, when the modern State of Israel was founded in 1948, the Western Wall came under Jordanian control and no Jew was allowed to pray there or to enter East Jerusalem.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel reunified Jerusalem, the places that are sacred to each of the three monotheistic faiths are freely accessible for worship to their followers.  The Kotel has thus been available to Jews as the most sacred place for prayer.  However, the ritual use of the Temple Mount (the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock) is, under Israeli law, controlled by the Islamic Authority. Also the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sacred to a number of Christian denominations, is traditionally held by a Muslim.


The central point of Judaism is the Hebrew Bible, described by Christians as the “Old Testament”. In Hebrew it is described by the acronym Tanach, since it is divided into three sections: Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Books of the Prophets) and Ketuvim (Holy Writings).

The Bible is not so much a religious text as a library of inspired literature, comprising a great storehouse of history, law and legend, of poetry, philosophy and prophetic insight. Its books were written, edited and gathered together over a period of nearly a thousand years, ending in about 200 BCE. The Hebrew Bible represents a significant Jewish contribution to human civilisation.

Torah (literally “teaching”) describes the first five books of the Bible, which are traditionally of Divine origin. It is often translated as the “Law”, and it provides Judaism’s basic moral and ethical principles and its system of beliefs. Over time, the term Torah has come to stand for the teachings and traditions of Judaism as a whole.

The Biblical Torah gave rise to many commentaries, interpretations and codes of conduct passed down by word of mouth, and eventually collected in written works, in a process of legal interpretation and commentary described as the “Oral Law”. Literary elaborations also appeared as Midrash (lit.“Guide”).

A codification of the Oral Law was completed at the beginning of the third century CE in the written compilation of the Mishnah (lit. “repetition”) in Galilee. The Mishnah is a collection in logical order of the legal and ritual rulings of the leading commentators, often differing and recorded side by side, and interspersed with history, legend and moral and religious philosophy. Further commentary on that Code continued during succeeding centuries in Galilee and in Babylon (with the Babylonian commentary considered more authoritative) culminating in an edited combination of code and commentary known as the Talmud (Learning), a work of 63 volumes completed in the 6th century CE.

A Jewish literature of liturgical poetry and religious commentary has continued throughout the Dispersion, reaching great heights of achievement in medieval Spain and in the Rhineland and later in Eastern Europe. It continues as part of a living Jewish tradition.


Dissent and Doctrine

Judaism has no fixed body of metaphysical doctrine or “dogma”, although the twelfth century writer Moses Maimonides did promulgate “Thirteen Principles of the Faith”. Although the Principles appear in the daily prayer book, they include a number of principles which are accepted by some and rejected by others. Indeed dissent on such matters of belief is not generally an important issue in Judaism in the same way as it is for the various Christian churches.

Dissent and Legal Interpretation

The Talmud itself is a monument to discussion and disagreement, with differing views of Jewish law held by the various sages often recorded side by side. However the Talmudic view is that the Biblical law may be developed and interpreted only by processes of reasoning which maintain respect for the Law’s divine origin. There are therefore limits to the acceptance of dissent and the capacity for legal and cultural change within Orthodox Judaism.

On the other hand Judaism has no central power in religious matters. Congregations have traditionally depended on rulings by renowned Rabbis of accepted wisdom and learning to provide rulings on questions as they arise. These rulings, sometimes described by the Latin word responsa, meaning “answers”, are often collected in books which become useful sources.


The Biblical narrative

Throughout the Biblical narrative there is a distrust of autocratic government and an insistence that rulers must be subject to the law. Deuteronomy 17 prohibits kings from “multiplying” horses, wives, or gold and silver. Verses 18-20 preserve the rule of law which protects the liberty of the subject:

“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law…that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping…these statutes and doing them, so that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren.”

The books of Kings and the Prophets are also full of examples of prophets standing up to kings and reminding them of their duties to God and to the people. See particularly the long passage in 1 Samuel 8-10, where Samuel warns the people of the dangers of an autocratic monarchy.

Jewish organisations

Jewish congregations are self-governing entities, often representing a distinctive ideological or cultural variety of Judaism, and attract congregants who share that particular approach or background.

Congregations are totally independent and are usually administered by elected Boards of Management which employ, and occasionally dismiss, Rabbis and officiating ministers. The final power in all matters relating to the Synagogue therefore rests with the Board and the Congregation in general meeting.

Most communities also have a Beth Din (“House of Justice”), consisting of a Rabbinical panel, to settle disputes within the community and supervise religious divorce and the provision of Kosher food.

The Jewish democratic tradition is also evident in the role of elected lay institutions such as the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, which are characterised by vigorous debate and discussion. The Board is accepted as the representative body of the Jewish community as a whole, and it follows a tradition established by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in the seventeenth century.


Like most of the major religions, Judaism is traditionally patriarchal. However
in Progressive and Conservative congregations gender is a non-issue. These congregations have women as Rabbis and officiating Ministers, and women participate in all the Synagogue rituals, including the Bat Mitzvah, on an equal basis. In the United States a majority of Jews are affiliated to Progressive congregations.

A majority of Jews in Australia, whether strictly observant or not, are affiliated to orthodox synagogues, and in these congregation gender plays an important role in ritual matters.

The traditional principle is that women are free from the “obligation” to perform most of the ritual commandments (the mitzvot), with the exception of those specifically reserved for women, such as the lighting of the Sabbath candles.

They are therefore limited in their participation in the synagogue service in orthodox congregations. Men and women are separated in the synagogue, with the women generally seated in a gallery above the men, although some newer synagogues place men and women in equal but separated positions.

Orthodox women are not “called to the Torah” to have passages read on their behalf and to pronounce the ritual blessing. Similarly they do not have the related honours of opening the Ark and carrying the Torah scrolls. Orthodox girls therefore have a different ceremony to the boys’ Bar Mitzvah in which the boy chants the weekly portion of the Torah and the Prophets in the traditional melody during the Sabbath service. Orthodox girls often have a joint non-traditional ceremony involving recitations, although there are also some orthodox Synagogues which allow for ceremonies in which a Bat Mitzvah girl chants the weekly portion outside the context of the Sabbath service.

There is a movement among orthodox women to find ways for women to have the spiritual satisfaction of carrying out ritual functions in ways which are consistent with Jewish law. One example is the growth of synagogue services for women only (with men excluded by a ritual barrier) at which women are permitted by Jewish law to perform all of the rituals usually carried out by men. Services such as these enable orthodox girls to have a full Bat Mitzvah.

Since baby girls do not enter into the covenant of circumcision, the tradition is that they are named by their father in a special blessing during the Reading of the Law in the synagogue. New ceremonies have also been developed in which the baby girl is admitted as a “daughter of the covenant” at a special celebration in the home.

However the reality is that none of these ritual distinctions carry over into Jewish family life, with women generally regarded as fully equal partners, and encouraged to engage fully in economic and professional life. There is, however, a small section of the ultra-orthodox community where women are expected to engage only in particular professions such as teaching.

See the article on Jewish Feminism on www. for examples of orthodox women’s activism, and also the article on Nehama Liebowitz, a leading woman teacher and philosopher.

Marriage and Divorce

Jewish marriage is contractual, being effected by the parties themselves in a ceremony in which groom places a ring on the bride’s finger, pronounces the formula “Behold you are consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and of Israel”, and delivers a marriage contract to her which sets out the groom’s obligations.

In recent years the marriage ritual is generally modified by the bride also placing a ring on the groom’s finger, and pronouncing a slightly different formula. The marriage contract is also varied  to include a reference to the mothers as well as the fathers of the bride and groom.

In the case of divorce it is necessary for the parties to have both a civil divorce and a Jewish divorce if either wishes to remarry under Jewish law. When the Book of Deuteronomy was written (traditionally in the 14th century BCE, and certainly by 650 BCE), there was already a provision in Jewish law for divorce by a husband delivering a Bill of Divorcement to the wife. In the 11th century CE Rabbi Gershom of Mainz declared that no wife could be divorced without her consent, with the effect that Jewish law now provides only for divorce by consent of both parties. This differs from the Australian law which gives power to the Family Court to dissolve a marriage which has irretrievably broken down, even if one party disagrees.

A serious problem arises if the husband refuses to release the wife to enable her to re-marry and have legitimate children, and this has been the source of an extensive Rabbinical jurisprudence. Interestingly the medieval rulings were generally more liberal than the modern rulings have been, with the medieval Rabbinical Courts being both willing and able to compel husbands to deliver the Bill of Divorcement. As the 12th century philosopher Moses Maimonides put it: “A woman is not a slave, to be forced to live with someone she hates.”  Modern Rabbinical Courts, on the other hand, stress the sanctity of marriage, and are often more reluctant to make orders requiring recalcitrant husbands to grant a divorce. They also lack the necessary legal enforcement powers to compel a husband to take the necessary action.


There is an inevitable tension between an emphasis on tradition and heritage on the one hand, and a desire to ensure continuity by adaptation to current social conditions and ideological attitudes. In Judaism the resolution of this tension is reflected to some extent in a division between Orthodox, Progressive and Conservative streams of Judaism. It should be noted, however, that Jews generally regard themselves as belonging to a united yet pluralistic “People”, belonging to a single community, rather than separate denominations.

Orthodox Judaism is distinguished by its maintenance of the traditional forms of worship in the Hebrew language and of the traditional observances as prescribed by the Law. The Orthodox view is that the biblical law may be developed and interpreted only by processes of reasoning which maintain respect for the Law’s divine origin.

Orthodox synagogues are self-governing, and often represent a distinctive ideological or cultural variety of Orthodoxy and attract congregants who share that particular approach or background. A majority of Jews in Sydney, whether strictly observant or not, are affiliated to Orthodox synagogues.

Chassidic Judaism (”ch” as in loch) is an Orthodox Jewish revivalist movement. It emphasises spiritual intensity and joy in worship, as well as Messianic expectation. Chassidim, and some other “ultra-orthodox” groups, are sometimes differentiated from other Orthodox Jews by their wearing of distinctive clothing.

Progressive Jews regard the “sacred heritage” of the Torah as evolving and adapting over the centuries and continuing to do so. However the Progressive movement has gradually modified its original revolutionary stance, and now places somewhat more emphasis on traditional observance. The 1999 “Platform” of the Progressive movement emphasised the study of the Hebrew language and the sacred texts, commitment to Israel, the full equality of women and the acceptance of all regardless of sexual orientation.

Some of the ideological distinctions between the Progressive and the Orthodox are reflected in the form of the Synagogue service. The English language is used for parts of the Progressive services, which often features a mixed choir. Progressive services are adapted and shortened and are conducted with somewhat more decorum than Orthodox services, which often accommodate individual praying and occasional conversation. Men and women sit together in the Progressive Temple, both participate in all aspects of the service, and women rabbis may officiate. There are two Progressive (“Liberal”) Temples in Sydney. Significantly the Temple Emanuel in Woollahra has recently changed its name to the Emanuel Synagogue, as a symbol of a more traditional approach
Conservative Judaism comes midway between Orthodoxy and Reform, intellectually liberal in matters of belief, but conservative in matters of religious practice. It attempts to combine a positive attitude to modern culture, acceptance of critical secular scholarship regarding Judaism’s sacred texts, and also commitment to Jewish observance. Conservative study of the holy texts is embedded in the belief that Judaism is constantly evolving to meet the contemporary needs of the Jewish people.

The Conservative service follows the traditional liturgy, and is mainly in Hebrew and similar to Orthodox services. However, as in Progressive Judaism, men and women sit together and share equally in synagogue services, prayers and rituals, and both men and women are ordained as rabbis. There is one Conservative Synagogue in Sydney.


The national and religious historical memory is reinforced by the festivals and fasts which form an important part of the Jewish calendar. One important element in the maintenance of Jewish tradition is universal observance of the Passover as a festival of freedom, in a home ceremony which recalls the delivery of the Jewish people from centuries of enslavement.

There are four such festivals ordained in the Torah, three of which are described as “pilgrim festivals”, recalling the ancient pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the universally observed New Year’s Day of repentance and renewal. There are also fast days remembering national tragedies, the 25 hour fast of the Day of Atonement, and further festivals celebrating post-biblical historical events.

The Sabbath is observed as a day of rest and worship on Saturday as the seventh day. The Synagogue service features the reading of the Law from a handwritten Torah scroll. The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday night, and it is welcomed at a family ceremony in the home, including the traditional Friday night family dinner which is very widely observed in the community.

Indeed many Jews who would not describe themselves as religious believers, identify as part of the Jewish people. Most such secular Jews accept Jewish values, ethics and concerns as well as observing some festivals and fasts and rituals in the home as part of their cultural Jewish heritage. Many belong to synagogues or temples.

The community also places great emphasis on Jewish education. A majority of Jewish children in Sydney and Melbourne attend Jewish day schools, and for others there are Sunday schools and weekly classes in government schools. Important elements in Jewish education include a basic knowledge of the Hebrew language, the religious liturgy, and the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history.



The spread of information on the internet has had both positive and negative impact. Information Technology provides a facility for the provision of a large volume of religious source material, and for Jewish learning and discussion. On the negative side, the internet also provides a medium for vicious antisemitic propaganda, and it is difficult to enforce legal remedies for such vilification.

Observant Jews also use modern technology to assist in maintaining their observance. One example is the existence of automatic Sabbath lifts which stop on every floor in multi-storey hotels, and there are other similar technical strategies for assisting Sabbath observance.


The Jewish people have lived in dispersion throughout the world for two thousand years, and before that they experienced periods of slavery and exile in the major centres of Egypt and Babylon. Adaptation to varying cultures is therefore a basic element in the Jewish experience, and adaptation to a global economy is similarly not an unfamiliar experience for a people with a history of engaging in international economic activity, based on individual and communal contacts.

Another result of the experience of dispersion has been the development of cultural variations around the central core of the Jewish tradition. The Yiddish language, for example, is a blend of German and Hebrew, with variations in pronunciation and vocabulary reflecting different eastern European influences. Ladino, the spoken language of the Sephardim, blends Hebrew with Castilian Spanish, and there is similarly a Judeo-Arabic language spoken by the Jews of the Arab world. All of these languages, written in the Hebrew script, have their own literature and each cultural group has a distinctive musical heritage.


As noted above, the Jewish idea of “Ethical Monotheism”, of a divine moral law, has been adopted by both Christianity and Islam. In the case of Christianity, this relationship with Judaism involves the incorporation of the Hebrew Bible into the Christian literature as the “Old Testament”, and some Christians also refer to a “Judeo-Christian ethic”. In the case of Islam, various elements of the Hebrew Bible, with adaptations and variations, are incorporated into the Koran, and Jews and Christians are also recognised as “People of the Book”.

The result has thus been an underlying influence on the basic values of both the “Western” and Islamic civilisations. On the other hand the adoption of aspects of Judaism in both religious cultures is counterbalanced by claims to supersede Judaism, by both religions, and each according to its own doctrines.

Meanwhile, as mass migration creates national multi-religious societies, new adjustments are taking place, and the history of hostility between religions is hopefully being replaced by a desire to learn from and respect the religious traditions of others. Judaism, which traditionally refrains from claiming an exclusive “truth” and recognises that there are many culturally appropriate paths to an understanding of the divine, is well placed to participate in these new developments.


Evaluating continuity in relation to the belief system

Since Judaism is seen as the religious culture of the Jewish people rather than as a body of doctrine, the continuation of the people and its identity in each succeeding generation is seen as one essential element of Jewish continuity. It follows that while intermarriage is actively discouraged, the Jewish community wholeheartedly accepts incoming partners who join the Jewish people by a process of conversion. This is particularly important in the case of incoming wives, since the religious identity of the child is determined by descent from the mother.

In fact the level of intermarriage is relatively low in Australia when compared to other larger overseas communities outside Israel, which is surprising given the smaller demographic availability of Jewish partners. One explanation is the success of the Jewish schools in attracting the majority of Jewish secondary students. Another is the Australian multicultural philosophy which encourages ethnic groups to maintain their separate cultural and religious identities, subject to an over-riding commitment to Australia. It is an approach which is particularly suitable for Jewish communities, which have a long history of full adaptation and commitment to their host societies, while retaining a strong sense of Jewish identity.

Identifying views about the future of the belief system

There are a number of different explanations for the survival of the Jewish people for some four thousand years, despite military defeat and continuous persecution, when many other nations and powerful empires have become historical memories.

One traditional explanation transforms historical events into allegorical form by contrasting two Jewish responses to the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. One response, the response of Masada, was described in detail by the contemporary historian Josephus Flavius in The Jewish War. A group of “Zealots” escaped from Jerusalem to Herod’s fortress-palace in the desert by the Dead Sea, and held out against superior Roman forces for many months. Eventually a massive ramp was built to reach the top of the cliff face, and the defenders committed mass suicide rather than surrender.

An alternative response was the response of Yavneh. It is said that a renowned Rabbi was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin and taken to meet the Roman commander Vespasian, who later became Emperor. The Rabbi requested permission to establish an Academy of religious learning in Yavneh, between Jerusalem and the coast, and this was granted. The academy at Yavneh and its Rabbinical successors preserved the rulings of the previous centuries, and also created a new structure of communal worship, ritual and law to fill the gap resulting from the loss of the Temple. After some two hundred years of study and creative activity, the debates and conclusions of the Rabbis were collated in Galilee into a code of law and religious practice known as the Mishnah, later extended by commentary into the Talmud. The result was a newly-built contribution to the preservation of the Jewish religious culture in the face of overwhelming imperial force.

The traditional view of Jewish survival is thus to compare the inevitable failure of Masada to the eventual, if moderate, success of Yavneh. Nevertheless, in modern times, the Jewish conclusions are entirely different. In the 21st century the comparison is now between the memory of being of a dispersed and homeless people, helpless in the face of the barbarity of its persecutors, and the hope inspired by the restoration of the Land of Israel.

The impact of the belief system upon the future

As the religious culture of a small people, Judaism makes no claim to universal “truth”. While it accepts converts after a lengthy process of enquiry into their sincerity, it seeks neither converts nor religious influence. It follows that Judaism as a religion seeks only to inspire its own followers on a path of “Tikkun Olam”, the “repair of the world”. Individual Jews will therefore have their personal impact on society in applying and advocating the social principles implicit in the Jewish culture.

The relationship of the belief system to peace and conflict in the world

The Biblical Prophets dreamed of a world at peace, with all nations submitting to the will of the Almighty. (See particularly Isaiah, Chapter 2 for the classical statement of this prophecy, which now appears over the door of the United Nations building.)

Of course this vision does not equate with total pacificism. The Jewish teaching is that peace and conciliation should always be sought. However this is not the same as the appeasement which encourages an aggressor to make more demands, nor does it rule out physical resistance to a threat of destruction.


Additional information on the key concepts can be found under Judaism Studies See also Judaism and Peace for more detail on this particular subject.

The writer has attempted to ensure that the material is accessible for the full range of students, whilst still retaining content which is challenging to able students. Teachers may wish to adapt the material to the needs of their student group.

Students undertaking a Depth Study related to Judaism may wish to contact the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Speaker Service (02 9360 1600) to be directed to primary source material.


© Ian Lacey AM 2009