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Judaism and the Jewish People

Judaism and the Jewish People
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Judaism and the Jewish People

THE JEWISH PEOPLE descend from nomadic tribes in the Middle East. In the 13th century BCE they establish towns and villages in the present-day area of Israel. Jewish kingdoms and states are centered around Jerusalem, the site of the Temple. Judaism, the religion that evolves in this period, demands ethical behavior, individual responsibility, tolerance and social justice.

Jews believe in a single god, prohibit human sacrifice and practice communal worship. Many of the teachings of Judaism enter into Christianity and Islam and influence other religions and cultures. Judaism does not encourage conversions but has always accepted converts from other religions.

In the Diaspora, the two thousand years of Jewish life in dispersion, Judaism develops into many different trends: mystical movements like the Kabbalah that search for hidden meanings and mysteries in the Biblical texts; pietistic movements like Hassidism that hold simple faith and intensity of religious experience higher than scholarship; and rationalistic schools of theology that explain the scriptures by the logic of reason and history.

Communities in the Diaspora provide the framework for Jewish life: synagogues, schools, bathhouses and kosher food. Communities are often isolated, having little or no contact with groups in other countries. But Jews continue to use the same Biblical texts and prayers and adhere to the same religious laws.

When Jews are granted equal rights and begin to live outside of Jewish communities, Judaism loses its unifying force. Modern religious movements develop, abandoning the common bases of traditional Judaism. In countries where no legal or social barriers exist, Jews begin to assimilate, and many embrace a secular identity. After the Holocaust, the idea of a common history and fate again gains strength among Jews.

The Jewish Diaspora and Israel

THE FIRST JEWISH communities outside of Israel are established during the Babylonian Exile (700 BCE). Jews also settle on the Arabian Peninsula and in Egypt. After the Jewish revolts against the Roman occupation (66-135 CE), Jews are banned from living in Jerusalem and Judea. Under Byzantine rule (324-640 CE), Christianity is introduced in Israel and many anti-Jewish laws are enacted. By the 6th century, Jews have become a minority in their own land. After the Arab conquest, the Jewish population declines further. At the time of the first crusades (11th century), only a few thousand Jews remain in Israel.

Jews for many centuries form the only religious and ethnic minority in the countries they settled in. They live in their own communities separate from the general population under special laws and restrictions. They use the Hebrew language or dialects that combined Hebrew with the language of the country: Yiddish among Ashkenasim, Jews who originally settled in Germany; Ladino among Sephardim, Jews who have migrated to Spain, and Judeo-Arabic among Jews in North Africa.

Despite their enforced separateness, Jewish communities in the Diaspora adopt many customs of the surrounding cultures. Integrating non-Jews into the community through marriage is common practice. Many also convert to Christianity or Islam. As a result, Jews in the Diaspora usually are members of two cultures (Jewish and Arabic, for example) and also resemble outwardly the surrounding population.

Jewish communities in Moslem countries, in Spain and Portugal, prosper culturally and economically, despite some restrictions. Jews in Christian Europe are subject to oppression, persecution and sporadic expulsions alternating with periods of relative peace and prosperity. Sephardim and Ashkenasim develop different customs and religious practices over the centuries.

With emancipation, the granting of equal rights, and the diminishing role of religion, Jews begin to integrate fully into the societies they have lived in for hundreds of years. For many, Jewishness becomes a secular and national identity. In the 19th century, Zionism, a Jewish national movement, proposes a return to Israel and the re-establishment of a Jewish state. In 1948 this new state is founded. Millions of Jews emigrate to Israel, but a majority of the Jewish population continues to live in the Diaspora.

The First Crusade

DURING THE FIRST 700 years of Christendom, Jewish communities in Europe are rarely placed in direct physical danger. But the situation changes when, in 1095, Pope Urbanus calls for a crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the hands of the Muslims.

On their way to Jerusalem, the crusaders leave a track of death and destruction behind in the Jewish communities along the Rhine and Danube. "Because," as they exclaim, "why should we attack the unbelievers in the Holy Land, and leave the infidels in our midst undisturbed ?"

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