Judaism is the traditional religion of the Jews. Though a Jew remains a Jew, even if he denies every tenet of Judaism (most Jews would make an exception of the one who becomes a Christian), no one can become a Jew except by formally accepting Judaism. This fact supplies the background of the present controversy in Israel on who is a Jew. Thus Judaism and Jewish history are inextricably linked.

Judaism and Christianity are the only two developments of Old Testament religion that have survived the crushing of the Jewish state in A.D. 70 and 135. The destruction of the Temple eliminated the importance of the priests and discredited the apocalyptists like those of Qumran, while the bloody end of Bar Cochba’s revolt (A.D. 135) meant the end of the nationalists. By A.D. 200 the views of the Pharisees, generally known as Rabbinic Judaism, had become binding and normative for all those known as Jews.


The restriction of sacrifice to Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C. and the growing dispersion of the Jews both East and West involved a fundamental change in religious outlook. Even when the Temple was rebuilt, the vast majority of Jews were unable to make effective use of it. Ezra seems to have represented the outlook of the best elements that remained in Babylonia, and his object was the making of the law of Moses as a whole rather than the Temple the center of religious life. The Temple was honored because the Law commanded it, but it was secondary for all that. This attitude was strengthened by the apostasy of many of the leading priests in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the scandals of the later Hashmonean high-priestly rule. While some, like the Qumran Covenanters, withdrew in despair from normal life to await an apocalyptic deliverance, the Pharisees set out to transform the nation.

Their main instrument was the synagogue which, by the middle of the first century B.C., was found in every Jewish community of any size. Here there grew up a nonsacrificial worship, and the reading and expounding of the Law became a center of its activity.

The underlying concept was simple; indeed Judaism is one more example of the danger of over-simplification in religion. The Torah (instruction is a better and fairer rendering than law) given through Moses was God’s supreme and final revelation; the prophets were merely commentators on it. When codified it was found to contain 613 commandments, 248 of them positive and 365 negative. The rabbis (Rabbi is a title of respect given to an expert in the Torah; he is neither a priest, nor a preacher, though in the modern synagogue he often performs the latter function) then surrounded these commandments with a “hedge,” that is, subsidiary commandments, the keeping of which would guarantee the keeping of the original commandment. For these enactments (“the oral law,” “the traditions of the elders”) they claimed as much authority as for the original written law.

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Though the destruction of the Temple was felt as a great blow, it is easy to see how this interpretation of the Old Testament, which had already so largely freed itself from the authority of the priests, was able to survive the disaster of A.D. 70. Under the leadership of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his successors the oral law was developed by analogy to cover every circumstance of life, even when the written law did not deal with it. The concept was entirely reasonable, once one granted that the purpose of the Torah was to control the whole of life.

By A.D. 200 the rabbis had persuaded, crushed, or driven out all in Jewry who disagreed, and had formulated the oral law in the Mishnah. This with the much longer commentary on it, the Gemara, completed about A.D. 500, forms the Talmud which, for an orthodox Jew, shares in the authority of the Old Testament, for it is the authoritative expression of what the Torah demands. It goes without saying that the Talmud has had to be adapted to meet the changing circumstances of later centuries, but every ride which the Orthodox consider binding goes back in principle to the Talmud.

The work of the rabbis meant that Jewish life and Judaism became virtually synonymous. Medieval Christianity and Islam strove to reach the same goal, but were less successful. For this there were two reasons. The rabbis were acknowledged by Jew and Gentile alike as rulers of the Jewish communities (there was no effective secular leader to compete with them); and because of increasing weight of discrimination and persecution, a whole-hearted acceptance of his religion was the only motive for keeping a man a Jew.


There were two other influences at work in the formative years between A.D. 70 and 200. Though from the middle of the ninth century Greek philosophy brought a rationalistic strain into Judaism which it has never lost, at the earlier date all such speculation was deeply distrusted (the memory of Philo of Alexandria would have been lost, if his works had not been copied by Christian scribes); in addition there was every effort to make it impossible for a Jew to become a Christian. As a result there is very little real theology in Judaism, and the Torah was exalted until it occupied a place almost as high as Jesus Christ does in Christianity.

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The Torah antedates the creation, Moses having been given merely a transcript of the heavenly original written in letters of fire. God chose Israel for his people in order that she might know and carry out the Torah. On the other hand, as a reaction against the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the gulf between God and man was increased, and the unity of God and his nature was affirmed in such extreme terms that especially after the entry of philosophical thought he became virtually the unknowable. Provided a man keeps the requirements of the Torah, it has always been assumed that his thoughts about it were correct. Indeed orthopraxy is a far more accurate term than orthodoxy to apply to Judaism.


The greatest weakness in Judaism is its diminution of the sense of sin. It has been a most effective barrier against gross sin, but it has seldom been able to help the one who has known himself the slave of sin. Its stress on the keeping of the Torah meant also stress on man’s ability to keep it, and this in turn meant a watering down of the absolute demands of the Law. The destruction of the Temple increased this tendency, for now there was no sacrifice to atone for shortcomings. Paul’s teaching that “through the law cometh the knowledge of sin,” and “that through the commandment sin might become exceeding sinful” has not only been incomprehensible to Judaism, but has made him the best hated of the New Testament characters.

Obviously in such a religion there has been much legalism, for the Jew has rejoiced that he has been given commandments to keep, and there has always been the temptation to see good in the mere keeping.

The rabbis have constantly stressed that the Torah should be kept out of devotion to its Giver. The Day of Atonement with its moving services have always kept the sense of sin awake. The sense of election, renewed annually for many in the Passover celebrations, has lifted the relationship to God above the level of arid legalism. Mysticism has repeatedly poured new life into Judaism, without making it pantheistic, to prevent legalism and rationalism from unduly separating God from human life. So in the history of Judaism there is a noble gallery of saints and martyrs.

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Medieval pressure on the Jew reached its climax when the first voices of the Renaissance began to be heard. As a result the Jew was almost untouched by it and also by the Reformation. It was only shortly before the French Revolution that all the pulsing life of Europe began to affect the ghettos of the West. It took emigration to America or the first World War before East-European Jewry really faced the modern world; and it necessitated the setting up of Israel to bring it to the Jewish slums of Moslem lands.


The effects on Judaism of this sudden and violent confrontation have been catastrophic. The present tensions in Israel with the religious parties are only one symptom of the impossibility for the orthodox Jew to come out into the modern world and yet bring the whole of his activity within the framework of the traditional Torah. The Jew who receives a secular education almost invariably loses any belief in the divine authority of the oral law and all too often in the divine inspiration of the written one. As a result the old monolithic Rabbinic Judaism has vanished.

We still find old-fashioned and sincere orthodox Judaism, but normally this is only in solidly Jewish districts where contacts, business and social, with non-Jews is kept to a minimum and where the children are given a traditional Jewish education with as few secular subjects as possible.


Very many religious Jews have adopted a position of compromise. As much of the law as is felt to be reasonable and practicable is maintained. The purely human origin of much of it is frankly acknowledged, but it is justified by its intrinsic value and its maintenance of Jewishness. In America such Jews are apt to call themselves conservative Jews; in Britain the majority of them still attend nominally orthodox synagogues, though the more extreme among them go to the Reform Synagogue, which must not be identified with the movement of the same name in America.

A small but growing minority in Britain and a much larger section in America have adopted the same position as the liberal or modernist in the church. They have moved the center of gravity from the Law to the Prophets, and the test of what should be kept from the past is whether it is found spiritually profitable. Their message is very near that of the Unitarians. In America they speak of reform Judaism, but in Britain it is more accurately designated liberal Judaism.

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As Judaism began to break down, many Jews threw themselves into the promotion of modern knowledge and into every movement that has claimed to promote social righteousness. In other words they have sought spiritual satisfaction in serving their fellow men. That their efforts have at times been misplaced is obvious, but that is no justification for the antisemitic slander that Jew and Communist are synonymous. There were many Jews among the liberals who fought against the tyranny of the Czarist regime, and some were members of the Communist party. But, as the state of Israel has shown, there are few Jews who have not learned what communism really means.

With the slackening of religious uniformity, the nationalism which has never died out in Jewry began to awaken and to express itself along secular paths. Liberal dreams of ending antisemitism and traditional longings for the land of promise fused in 1897 to create the Zionist movement which, 50 years later, saw its dreams fulfilled in the setting up of the state of Israel, and yet now in the very hour of fulfillment knows that this alone cannot bring soul satisfaction.

Yochanan ben Zakkai and his friends did their best to shut Jesus and the Hebrew Christian out of the Synagogue, but the Church by its lack of understanding, unholiness of living, and persecutions even more effectively shut the Jew out of the Church. The century and a half of the gradual breakdown of monolithic Rabbinic Judaism has been matched by the growth of Jewish missions and increasing contacts with devoted Christians in daily life. As a result the figure of Jesus is no longer unfamiliar to a majority of Jews, and the New Testament has become a reasonably familiar book to many. The number of genuine converts is steadily increasing, but the typical Jew still thinks conversion incredible. Among the reasons for this are the prevalence of antisemitism and racial discrimination in the church, stress on theological theory rather than on holiness of life, and the many divisions of Protestantism which the Jew looks on as a negation of true religion.

H. L. Ellison is the son of a convert from Judaism, and served 29 years as a missionary to Jews until he became tutor of Old Testament at London Bible College, a post he filled from 1949–56. He was Vice-President of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance from 1947–50 and Chairman of the Jewish Committee of the British Conference of Missionary Societies from 1947–56. The Christian Approach to the Jew and From Tragedy to Triumph (Studies in Job) are among his books.

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