ost Christians in the United States have grown up with Jewish neighbors, classmates, and friends. But their understanding of Judaism is usually limited to their reading of the Old Testament and the holiday in December called Hanukkah. Some of us were taught in Sunday school that Judaism teaches salvation by works. Many wonder how on earth Jews cannot see that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. In this essay we will see that religious Jews typically don’t think in terms of being saved; that even when they do, they don’t believe they got into the covenant because they deserved it; and that they think they have biblical reasons for rejecting Jesus as messiah.
But first, let’s get an overview of numbers and groups. How many Jewish people are there? And into what groups are they divided?
Numbers and Kinds
Today there are roughly 15 million Jewish people worldwide, with 5 million in Israel and 6.5 million in the United States. Of the latter, 1.6 million are in New York State, and the vast majority of those are in New York City.
So you can see what a tiny religious group this is: six-tenths of 1 percent of the number of Christians (2.3 billion) and 1 percent of the number of Muslims (1.6 billion). But this has always been the case, even before the Holocaust. The Jewish population in the world has always been small in comparison to their overwhelming significance as a religious people. I say “overwhelming,” because their religion not only “invented” monotheism—at least after the prehistoric rise of polytheism—but it became the mother of both Christianity and Islam, the largest religions in the world.
In the United States, as in Israel and other countries, Jews are divided into two groups—religious Jews and secular Jews. The former believe in God and perpetuate the Jewish tradition in a variety of ways. The latter have either rejected the idea of God entirely or else, while still believing in God, do not believe that the Jewish tradition is the best or only way to God. Yet they take pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish people, including their spiritual creativity.
Religious Jews in the United States are generally divided into three movements: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. These are three different responses to the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century intellectual movement that tended to reject religious tradition and embraced secular reason as the guide to all of life, both religious and secular.
The differences started in nineteenth-century Germany. Reform Jews accommodated themselves to Enlightenment culture, reducing their religion to what they thought simple and reasonable—ethical monotheism (there is one God, and we should live moral lives). They used organs in worship (a modern musical instrument then), prayed and preached in German (not Hebrew), discarded prayer shawls and head coverings, let men and women sit together (this was new), and eliminated some kosher dietary rules. They also rejected Zionism, the movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people.
The Orthodox reacted against Reform, thinking the latter had sold out to modern culture. They prayed for the ultimate restoration of Zion (ancient biblical Israel), regarded the whole Tanakh (Old Testament) as God’s Word (the Reform thought only those parts that agreed with Enlightenment values were inspired), used only Hebrew in their services, forbade instrumental music in worship, separated men and women in the synagogue, and insisted that women cover their heads.
Conservatives, you might say, split the difference. Some have called them “right-wing modernists.” They believed that Jewish ritual is the heart and soul of Judaism, but they sympathized with Reform innovations. So they compromised by using mostly Hebrew in their services, allowing some instrumental music, and letting the sexes sit together.
As these movements developed into the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, Reform and Conservative Judaism came to resemble each other more and more, to the point that today both movements have agreed to ordain as rabbis sexually active homosexuals and lesbians. It is for this and other reasons that many observers say there are really only two main groups in today’s Judaism, traditionalists and modernists. Perhaps the best way to understand today’s Judaism is to see how these two camps differ on eight central Jewish ideas: Torah, God, morality, human nature, Israel, religious ritual, the world to come, and messiah. Milton Steinberg outlined these differences more than sixty years ago in his book Basic Judaism, but the dividing lines are still there today.
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