The Jewish people: religion and culture

Judaism and the Jewish people have never been a monolith. Diversity of custom and philosophy is recorded throughout Jewish texts and legal codes. Judaism traces its origins back to the Iron Age land in the Southern Levant, and the 12 tribes of Israel that descended from Jacob. It is a monotheistic faith ̶ based on the belief in a single, all-powerful God, who provided Moses and the Jewish people with a set of laws or commandments to live by. However, faith is not always a feature of the life of Jews today, and it remains a hard to define mixture of peoplehood, faith and way of life.

The Temple was the central site of Jewish worship in Jerusalem, where pilgrimage would be made at least three times a year and where sacrifices would be offered. The first exile from Jerusalem and destruction of the first Temple occurred around 586BCE when the leadership of the community were led off to Babylon. The Iraqi Jewish community thus considers itself the first diaspora community and until the 20th century maintained a significant Jewish presence. The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans around 70CE and diaspora communities slowly became the norm, although communities remained in the land of Israel. With the destruction of the second Temple, Rabbinic Judaism really came into its own, transforming Jewish custom, festivals and theology to adapt to a world without sacrifices and the focal point of Temple worship. This process continues to the present day, with Jewish texts and learning exploring what Judaism can mean in the world and the communities Jews find themselves living in, while drawing on the ancient wisdom of all that has come before.

It was during the Roman rule of Judea that Jewish communities began to take root in Europe, though the Italian Jewish community is thought to have begun in the city of Rome around 139BCE. The Italian Jewish community considers itself to be the oldest in Europe. Jewish communities began appearing across Europe around 2000 years ago, at times enjoying relative prosperity, as well as suffering persecution and oppression ̶ themes from which would re-emerge in the antisemitism of Nazism, as well as in more recent times, such as Holocaust denial and the circulation of other antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Jewish customs, foods, liturgical music and cultures reflect the many places Jews have lived and made homes, whether in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa or more recently the Americas and Australasia. Jews of Europe are known as Ashkenazim, Jews from Spain and Portugal are called Sephardim, and Jews from the Middle East and North Africa are known as Mizrachim. Unique communities can also be found in China, India, Ethiopia, Uganda and many other places around the world.

While diversity from place to place was common throughout Jewish history, in the 19th century Europe also saw the emergence of various Jewish denominations or movements, which responded to the Enlightenment and the emancipation offered by the Napoleonic Empire. Emancipation granted civic rights and meant that for the first time Jewish people were permitted to be both Jews and citizens of the nations they lived in (previously, countries designated Jewish people’s nationality as ‘Jew’). Reform Judaism emerged as an attempt to allow Jews to live both as modern citizens and as modern Jews, Chasidism emerged as an offering of spirituality that was accessible to all, while Orthodoxy attempted to protect Jewish life and resist a slide into assimilation. Movements have continued to emerge since the 19th century, particularly in the Ashkenazi world. No matter how assimilated Jews became across Europe, with the emergence of Nazism anyone with detectable Jewish ancestry was treated the same, and fell victim to Nazi persecution.

Text by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers