Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Judaism is the oldest of the monotheistic faiths. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one god. Judaism affirms the existence of the one God, Yahweh, who entered into a covenant, or agreement, with the descendants of Abraham, who were God's chosen people. Judaism's holy writings reveal how God has been present with them throughout their history. These writings are known as the Torah, or the five books of Moses. They are also called the Hebrew Scriptures, and are traditionally called the Old Testament by Christians. Other holy writings include Judaism's oral tradition, which is known as the Talmud when it is written down. This includes the Mishnah, which is the oral law.

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew patriarch Abraham (20th century? B.C.) founded Judaism. God (Yahweh) promised to bless his descendants if they remained faithful in worship. Abraham's line descended through Isaac, then Jacob (Jacob was also called Israel; his descendants came to be called Israelites). The 12 families that descended from Jacob migrated to Egypt, where they were forced into slavery. They were led out of bondage (13th century? B.C.) by Moses, who helped to unite them in the worship of one god, Yahweh. After wandering in the desert for forty years, Joshua led the Hebrews into the promised land that God had provided for them. This land was called Canaan, and the people who lived there were called Canaanites. The Hebrews conquered the Canaanites and took over the land.

Shortly after the Hebrews gained control of Canaan, a monarchy was established. Saul was the first king, and David and his son Solomon were his successors. This was a time of unity for the Hebrews, and by the end of Solomon's reign, a temple had been built that replaced the portable sanctuary that had previously been in use. After Solomon's death, the kingdom was split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Political conflicts with the Assyrians and the Babylonians resulted in the destruction of the temple and the exile of many of the Jews to Babylon.

When the Hebrews were finally permitted to return to their land, they were ruled by the Persians, then Alexander the Great, and finally by Egypt and Syria. When the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to stop the practice of Judaism, a revolt was led by the Maccabees, a Jewish family, and Jewish independence was finally won in 128 B.C. The Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E.

During this period the Sadducees (temple priests) and the Pharisees (teachers of the law in the synagogues) offered different interpretations of Judaism. Many smaller groups emerged as well, such as the Essenes, a religious order; the Apocalyptists, who expected divine deliverance led by the Messiah; and the Zealots, who were prepared to fight for national independence.

When the Zealots revolted, the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple (A.D. 70). The Jews were scattered into Diaspora (dispersion) and underwent persecution almost everywhere they went. Rabbinic Judaism, centered on Torah and synagogue, became the primary expression of faith. The Scriptures were arranged systematically, and the Talmud took shape from the oral tradition. In the 12th century Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher and physician, formulated the influential 13 Articles of Faith, including belief in God, God's oneness and lack of physical or other form, the changelessness of Torah, restoration of the monarchy under the Messiah, and resurrection of the dead.

Two branches of European Judaism developed during the Middle Ages: the Sephardic, based in Spain and with an affinity to Babylonian Jews; and the Ashkenazic, based in Franco-German lands and affiliated with Rome and Palestine.

After a respite during the 18th-century Enlightenment, anti-Semitism again plagued European Jews in the 19th century, sparking the beginning of the Zionist movement (the Jewish movement that believed there should be a Jewish state). One of the most central events in Judaism's modern history was the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, when more than 6 million European Jewish lives were taken. The founding of the state of Israel immediately after the war (1948) was important to the Zionist movement and to the millions who had suffered the persecution of the Nazis.

Jews today continue synagogue worship, which includes readings from the Torah, and prayers, such as the Shema (Hear, O Israel) and the Amidah (the 18 Benedictions). Religious life is guided by the commandments of the Torah, and includes observance of the Sabbath and other important rituals and holidays.

Present-day Judaism has three main expressions: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Reform movements, resulting from the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) of the 18th century, began in western Europe but took root in North America. Reform Jews are the most liberal, and they emphasize ethical and moral teachings. Orthodox Jews follow the traditional faith and practice with great seriousness. They follow strict dietary laws and observe the Sabbath with great care. Conservative Judaism, which developed in the mid–18th century, follows most traditional practices, yet tries to make Judaism relevant for everyone, believing that change and tradition can work together. Because the Torah assumes belief in God but does not require it, a strong secular movement also exists within Judaism, including atheist and agnostic elements.

In general, Jews are not missionaries, but they do welcome newcomers to their faith.

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