Understanding Judaism

Judaism, one of the oldest religions in the world, was founded over 3,000 years ago, though the date of origin is unknown. Abraham, a patriarch of Judaism, was the original promoter of the central idea to the Jewish faith: the belief that there is only one God. Abraham’s son Yitshak (Isaac) and grandson Jacob (Israel) are also referred to as the patriarchs of Judaism. Jacob’s twelve sons were to become the twelve tribes that later developed the Jewish nation.

Judaism introduced the idea of monotheism to a region saturated by religions of multiple gods. The Jewish faith sees its followers as a people with a covenant relationship with their God. If the Jewish people were faithful to their covenant, God promises material and spiritual blessings, including a Messiah who would restore the prominence Israel enjoyed during the reign of King David.

As one of the oldest religions, from the account of creation to the faith of Abraham to the Law of Moses and the kingdom of David, Christianity and many other religions draw from the teaching and ethics of Judaism and the God of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).

Beliefs & Sects

Judaism was established on the belief and principle that there is only one all-powerful, all-knowing and omnipresent God, who is just and the creator of mankind and the universe. God’s law, the Torah, as given to Moses on Mount Sinai, reveals His nature and His will for his children, the Jewish people.

The different sects of Judaism, more commonly referred to as “movements,” are based on the original teachings of Judaism but reflect their responses to the modern and secular cultures of Europe and the United States. The three major movements today are Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism. Within each movement there are differences in belief(s) where further divides of each sect can be found. This is true for both the traditional and the more modern movements. For example, there are various sects within the Orthodox movement and there are additional movements including what is referred to as the “reconstructionist” that can also be considered.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional movement of modern Judaism. The Orthodox believe the entire Torah- including both the Written (the Pentateuch) and the Oral (the Talmud) was given to Moses by God and should remain authoritative for modern life.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism is the most liberal movement of modern Judaism. Reform Jews believe in introducing innovation while preserving tradition, in order to embrace diversity and to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt. Reform Judaism in the United States is organized under the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism falls into a moderate position between the Orthodox and Reform movements. Conservative Jews seek to allow for modernization within their faith, while maintaining tradition, however not to the extent of Reform Jews.

Death & Mourning

When death occurs, there are many Jewish traditions, customs and rituals that individuals use as a guide and follow relating to the caring and preparation of the body pre-burial, the actual burial and service at the cemetery, along with the week-long mourning period (or “shiva”) that follows. Most notably, Judaism’s structured period of mourning, which contains various stages for grieving, is considered extremely helpful, because each stage focuses on honoring and commemorating those who are gone, yet it gives appropriate time and ways to grieve and cope with loss. –Excerpted with permission from shiva.com

After Life

The Torah and the Talmud focus more on earthly life and actions, more so than beliefs and the afterlife. Emphasis is brought on fulfilling one’s duties to God and one’s duties to their fellow man. Following these commands brings rewards, failing to do so brings punishment, but whether or not the rewards and punishments continue after death is not important. Judaism allows for much speculation on views toward the afterlife, and no one view has been officially adopted.

One commonly accepted belief is that there is a heaven (Gan Eden) for the righteous and a hell (Genion) for unrighteous Jews and Gentiles. Souls in Genion are punished for up to 12 months, after which they move on to Gan Eden, or are to stay longer in Genion. This belief is the basis for the Jewish mourning tradition of asking for blessings for a deceased loved one for 11 months, not wanting to imply that the deceased would need to reside in Genion for the full twelve.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

A Jewish funeral usually occurs within 24 hours after the death; however, in the modern world, there is allowance and acceptance to delay the burial for mourners to travel and for appropriate arrangements to be made. The traditions, rituals and customs for Jewish burials provide that the body is buried in a plain wooden casket. According to Jewish law, the body is washed and not embalmed. The casket is usually closed and the funeral service conducted by a rabbi is usually short, reflective and solemn.

At the graveside of a Jewish funeral, it is a common tradition, along with a sign of respect and love to the deceased, for the mourners and friends to participate in the actual burial. Today, many people place a few shovels of soil onto the casket to symbolically follow this tradition.

After a Jewish funeral takes place, the immediate family (i.e., spouse, parents, children and siblings) are considered the mourners. The immediate family begins sitting shiva. The family remains at home, in a shiva house; prayers, including the Mourners Kaddish, are recited; and traditional mourning practices, customs and rituals are followed. During the Jewish shiva, the community, extended family, friends and colleagues visit a shiva home during designated times to make a shiva call. –Excerpted with permission from shiva.com

Grief & Mourning

Understanding the treatment of death in Judaism according to the Jewish faith and following customs may help with the coping process. Regardless of whether a life is taken by natural causes, the death occurs early in life or even through unforeseen events, it is important to know that in Judaism, death is not treated or considered a tragedy but rather as part of the cycle of life. A traditional viewpoint is that every life event, including death, happens for a reason even though it may be difficult at the time. Judaism’s process and steps for caring for a body and the honor and respect afforded to the departed leads towards a celebration of the life of loved ones no longer with us following the grieving period. –Excerpted with permission from shiva.com