Jewish Population: (2006) World: 13.1 million; Israel:5.3 million;
United States (est.): 5.3 million; Canada, 373,0001.
Jewish Denominations in North America: Orthodox: 17 percent;
Conservative: 33 percent; Reform: 22 percent; Unaffiliated: 28 percent
Who Are the Jewish People?
According to Scripture (see
Gen. 12:1-2; 17:20-21; 21:12; 28:3-4, 10-17; Acts 7:8), they are the
descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and of those who have joined
themselves to the Jewish people as proselytes. They are not to be defined,
therefore, in terms of race, politics, or religion. They constitute an ethnic
group, or, to use a biblical phrase, "the house of Israel." Although the
lineage in Scripture was patrilineal, in the intervening centuries, lineage has
been based upon the mother. Most unsaved Jewish people would further exclude
from their definition those who have accepted Jesus as Messiah. Messianic Jews
(or Jewish Christians) would not, of course, agree. They would argue that faith
in Jesus (in Hebrew, Yeshua), the hope of Israel and the King of the Jews,
rather than diminishing their sense of Jewishness, enhances it. Some would add
that since the synagogue did not confer Jewishness upon them, neither could it
take it away.
The Jewish people of North America are not united by organizational
structure, theology, or political party. Of the 72 percent who are affiliated
with a synagogue, less than 10 percent attend synagogue on a regular basis.
While it is true that religious observance in the home is more important than
corporate worship, it is also true that many are involved in secularism, New
Age religions, and some even in Buddhism. Most are aligned with liberal social
and political agendas. There is, however, a growing conservative movement that
is emphasizing family values, capitalism, and conservative principles.
Categories and Denominations
Judaism is usually
classified in three denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Orthodox
Judaism, however, fall into two broad categories: Modern Orthodox and Hasidim.
The Modern Orthodox are usually more academic, while the Hasidim are more
mystical. One of the more "high profile" groups within Hasidism is the
Lubavitch (also called Habad). Hasidic men usually wear black or dark gray
suits and always wear skullcaps (in Hebrew, kippah; in Yiddish, yarmulke).
Orthodox Jews insist on traditional Judaism, with few accommodations to
Reform Judaism (not "Reformed" Judaism), on the other hand, has embraced
modernity, liberalism, and humanism in an effort to enhance a sense of
relevance. Although there is a variety of beliefs within Reform Judaism, it
generally maintains a more inclusive position regarding feminism,
homosexuality, and agnosticism.
Conservative Judaism "fills the gap" between Orthodox Judaism and Reform
Judaism. This is the largest denomination within American Jewry, and it is
important to point out that "Conservative" applies to their approach to
religion and should not be seen as a political label. Their desire is to make
allowances for modern culture, while "conserving," as far as possible,
traditional Judaism. Again, there is a variety of perspectives within
Conservative Judaism. Some conservative synagogues are closer to Orthodox
Judaism, while others are closer to Reform Judaism. There are other, smaller
groups within Judaism, but these are the principal ones.
In the midst of such diversity, it is almost impossible to generalize
regarding their beliefs. Therefore, the only way to understand the beliefs of
any particular Jewish person is to speak with him or her directly. It should
also be noted that Judaism emphasizes behavior, not doctrine.
Nevertheless, acknowledging that there will be exceptions at every point,
the following summary may be helpful in understanding the beliefs of the
majority of the Jewish people of North America.
The Nature and Sufficiency of Scripture
Orthodox Judaism holds a very high view of the inspiration of the Hebrew
Scriptures. Jewish people most often use an acronym, Tanakh, to refer to what
most Christians call the Old Testament. The text is the same in Hebrew,
although the order of the books is slightly different and there are occasional
differences in the numbering of chapters or verses. While the Tanakh is viewed
as the Word of God, Judaism accords different levels of inspiration to the
different divisions within it. Torah, the five books of Moses, is viewed as
being inspired by God; the Prophets have a slightly lower level of inspiration;
and the Writings have a level of inspiration that is lower still. Reform
Judaism holds a very liberal view, seeing the Scripture as little more than
folklore and the collective wisdom of the Jewish people refined through the
centuries. Conservative Judaism would hold a mediating position.
Scripture, however, is certainly not seen as sufficient-- it is incomplete
without the "Second (or Oral) Law." This Oral Law is mostly embodied in the
writings of Jewish traditions found in the Talmud. The Talmud is a set of
books, composed of the Mishnah and several commentaries. It is printed in such
a way that each portion of the Mishnah is printed on the same page with its
commentaries. One popular compilation of the regulations of the Talmud is the
Shulchan Aruch, which gives summary guidelines for the ordering of a Jewish
home and lifestyle.
Not only is the Scripture insufficient without the Oral Law, Judaism
maintains that a greater authority is to be accorded to these traditions.
Judaism teaches that even if a voice from heaven contradicts the consensus of
the sages, it (the heavenly voice) is to be rejected.
The defining verse of Scripture for rabbinic Judaism is Deuteronomy 6:4,
commonly referred to as the "Shema" (Hebrew for "hear"): "Hear, O Israel: The
Lord our God is one Lord." The key word in this verse proclaiming the oneness
of God is a Hebrew word that allows for a composite unity. For example, it is
used in Scripture of a man and his wife ("one" flesh) and of evening and
morning ("one" day). The Shema notwithstanding, Judaism has increasingly used
another word to describe God--a word that means absolute and unqualified
singularity. God is seen as primarily transcendent, and for many Jewish people,
God is more impersonal. For some, He has become little more than a
philosophical construct or an impersonal force.
Judaism's view of humanity is influenced more by the biblical account of his
creation in the image of God than the account of his fall through disobedience
and sin. Consequently, Judaism offers a lofty humanism, which is essentially
idealistic and optimistic. The alienation between God and man is overcome by
man as he reaches toward God. Martin Buber, well known Orthodox Jewish
theologian and author, says that, "it is the faith that struggling man, in his
moral effort, can climb the steep hill which leads to God."2
Rabbinic Judaism also insists on the absolute freedom of the human will. One
Jewish author has said, "in the act of atonement, both God and man co-operate .
. . , but in the forefront stands the work of man accomplished by his own
Judaism is motivated by a desire to do God's will. Judaism believes God's will
is primarily found in the Mosaic law, as it has been elaborated and applied to
changing circumstances through the centuries. In rabbinic Judaism, good and
evil are always possibilities for man, but his dignity and basic goodness
requires that he be free to tip the scales in either direction, and his
inclination is to choose the good. Therefore, Judaism is optimistic about one's
ability to do God's will, and sin is not generally a major concern.
With the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the sacrificial
system ended. This was one of the greatest crises in the long history of the
Jewish people. It necessitated the reconstitution of Judaism, for the
sacrificial system was foundational to the Mosaic Covenant. Scripture taught
that man's approach to God could only be indirect, (i.e., through the blood of
sacrifices). Judaism reversed itself on this point and began to teach that one
could approach God directly.
Since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, at least three positions have
developed within Judaism regarding atonement for sin. The most common view is
that repentance, prayer, and good deeds provide atonement. It is also held that
the sufferings of the Jewish people, as a whole, provide for their own
atonement. This is based on the understanding of the Suffering Servant in
Isaiah 53 as the people of Israel. Finally, there is the view that the Jewish
people will automatically have a share in the world to come by virtue of being
Jewish. In any case, there is no concept of a need for regeneration. If a
Jewish person has strayed from God, it is only necessary for him to "return"
(the Hebrew meaning of "repentance") and walk in God's ways.
The emphasis that Christians have placed on Jesus as the Messiah has forced the
issue into the background in rabbinic circles. Within Judaism, opinion
regarding the Messiah is varied. Judaism allows for concepts of the Messiah in
both personal and impersonal terms. Some understand the Messiah as a future
political or military deliverer. Others, however, understand the Messiah as a
golden age of peace and prosperity. Finally, some conceive of the Messiah in
nationalistic terms, as the modern State of Israel.
Although Orthodox Judaism retains the belief in a personal Messiah and He
figures prominently in the liturgy, He does not occupy a leading role in
contemporary Jewish thought. Furthermore, the other two positions are even
further removed from the concept of a personal Messiah. In spite of this
divergence of opinion within the ranks of rabbinic Judaism, they are in essence
all agreed in this: Jesus is not the Messiah. A Jewish Christian scholar
characterizes the synagogue's position like this: "With the Messiah or without
the Messiah, to Judaism the Kingdom of God is in our hands; it is for us to
establish it upon this earth."4 Thus, "The Kingdom of God is not
God's kingdom, but man's kingdom where God has been made King."5
Some have argued that it is not so much what Judaism affirms that is important,
but what it denies. A central tenet of rabbinic Judaism is a denial that Jesus
is the Messiah, much less, that He is God. Since the historicity of Jesus is
difficult to deny, Judaism has embraced Him only as He is divested of deity and
of His role as Messiah. When Jewish scholars speak of reclaiming the Jewishness
of Jesus, they most often refer to the Jewish learning and concepts which Jesus
expressed, but admit no authority or originality to Him. He was simply a humble
Jewish reformer and teacher. Such a teacher only needs to be "reclaimed" as an
obscure footnote in Jewish history. A Jesus that does not need to be rejected,
however, does not need to be reclaimed.
No event since the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70 has so traumatized the
Jewish people as the Nazi holocaust. Yet, the horror of Hitler's genocidal
depravity also affected the theology of the Jewish survivors, because it
crashed headlong into their worldview, as described above. As Christians, we
might expect that the holocaust would have challenged their view of man as
good. Yet, strangely, instead of asking, "How could mankind have committed such
unspeakable evil?" they ask, "Where was God when the six million died?" Their
belief in God was more vulnerable than their belief in man. The biblical
teachings concerning sin and the afterlife, where the injustices of this world
will be made right, were de-emphasized in rabbinic Judaism. Consequently, a
significant number lost their faith in God in the aftermath of Auschwitz.
Witness to the Jewish People
The claims that the New Testament makes regarding Jesus stand as the central
issue between traditional Judaism and Christianity. They are denied by the
former and affirmed by the latter. Some charge that Christianity's claim that
Jesus is the only way of salvation is a denigration of Judaism. However,
Christianity's affirmation is no more a denigration of Judaism than Judaism's
denial is a denigration of Christianity. We should all be seeking God's truth
regarding atonement for sin and a lifestyle that is pleasing to Him.
Most Jewish people view Christianity as a Gentile religion that has no
relevance to them. When a Jewish person places his trust in Jesus for salvation
and is baptized, the Jewish community considers that he has turned his back on
his people and has become a Gentile. It is therefore important to communicate
that our desire is not that our Jewish friend would become a Gentile, but that,
as a Jew, he or she would find atonement for sin and discover a personal
relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Humility, prayer, and genuine compassion must characterize Christian
witness. Far too often Jewish impressions of Christianity have been
characterized by arrogance, superiority, and a disregard for Jewish culture.
Paul warns against this kind of Gentile pride in Romans 11:13-32.
Use terminology that emphasizes the Jewishness of our faith. For example,
instead of "Christ," which is based on the Greek word for "the Anointed One,"
use "Messiah," which is based on the Hebrew. Instead of the "Old Testament,"
refer to the "Hebrew Scriptures."
Use verses from their Bible in discussing topics like: sin (see Ps. 14:2-3;
51:5; Eccl. 7:20; and Isa. 59:1-2), atonement (see Lev. 17:11 and Isa. 53:5-6),
Messiah (see Isa. 53; Dan. 9:16; and Mic. 5:1 [v. 2 in our Bible]), and faith
(see Gen. 15:6; Num. 21:7-9; and Joel 2:32 [3:5 in our Bible]).
1Source: American Jewish Yearbook 2006 [www.ajcarchives.org]
2According to Jakob Jocz in his The Jewish People and Jesus
Christ (London: SPCK, 1962, p. 269).
3Dr. Max Dienemann, as cited by Jocz, p. 274.
4Jocz, p. 285-286.
5Jocz, p. 285.
Jim R. Sibley, Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies, A Ministry of Criswell
College, Dallas, TX