Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!Psalm 133:1
If we were to ask a room full of Christians from all walks of life to explain what today’s Judaism is, I imagine we would get several different answers. Perhaps, the typical response would be that Judaism has three major sects: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism. Another less-understood fact might surface: many Jews do not embrace religion but consider themselves secular, atheists, or agnostic. Most Christians don’t understand that today’s Rabbinic Judaism was formed just before Jesus’s arrival upon the scene in Israel. Like within the Christian Churches with leaders teaching errors, for the Jewish people many are not practicing the faith of the one true God but the religion of their rabbis. For all of us just discovering these uncomfortable facts, as President John Adams once said, “Truth is a difficult thing.”
What is a Jew
What is Judaism?
The Religion of the Rabbis1
The term Judaism is often used to identify the faith of modern Jews as well as Old Testament Jews. For our purposes, the term is used to refer to the religion of the rabbis established around 200 B.C. and crystallized in A.D. 70. At this time, developments in rabbinic Judaism took place that distinguished it from the Old Testament faith. New institutions arose such as the synagogue (the house of worship and study), the office of rabbi (a leader holding religious authority), and the yeshivot (religious academies for training rabbis). One of the greatest changes came with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Sacrifices and the priesthood came to an end, and the rabbis became the authorities on spiritual and legal matters. Since the eighteenth century, three main branches of Judaism developed: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative.
Orthodox Judaism Orthodox Judaism upholds the divine inspiration of the Old Testament—giving greater authority to the first five books—and recognizes the Talmud as authoritative for interpreting the Jewish law. This branch continues to observe the traditional Jewish laws as practiced for centuries. An ultra orthodox sect within this branch is the Hasidic movement. This sect adheres strictly to the Law of Moses, and is a separatist group.
Reform Judaism Reform Judaism is the liberal wing. It was founded by Abraham Geiger in Germany in the eighteenth century (1810-1874). Geiger was influenced by the Enlightenment, and so viewed reason and science as authoritative. He rejected belief in revelation, messianic hope, and the promise of land. This branch seeks to modernize what are considered outmoded ways of thinking. The primary focus of Reform Judaism is the ethical teachings of the Jewish Law.
Conservative Judaism Conservative Judaism is considered the intermediate position between Orthodox and Reform. It was founded in the nineteenth century in Germany by Zacharias Frankel (1801-1875). Conservatives seek to practice the Law and the traditions, but cautiously reinterpret the Law and adapt their practices to contemporary culture.
The main Scripture in Judaism is the Old Testament. Views of divine inspiration vary between the different branches. Orthodox and Conservative schools view the Pentateuch (Torah as the most inspired part, the Prophets and Writings less so.) Another important book is the Talmud (The Second Torah or Oral Torah – N.M.) which includes the Mishnah and Gemara. The Mishnah consists of legal rulings, and was compiled around A.D. 200. The Gemara elaborates on the discussions of the Mishnah, and was compiled around A.D. 550. Most Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, consider the Talmud useful for giving instruction for life but not divinely inspired.
Judaism teaches that man is created in the image of God but without original sin. Study of the Torah can overcome our inclination to evil. A proper relationship with God comes through repentance, prayer, and obedience to the Law. Jews do not feel they need “salvation” but assume a standing with God through their heritage. Conservative and Reform Jews view salvation as the betterment of self and society.
Biblical Judaism – Karaite Judaism2
Karaism has been around since God gave his laws to the Jewish people. At first those who followed YHWH’s laws were merely called “Righteous” and it was only in the 9th century CE that they came to be called Karaites. The question of why God’s followers are today called Karaites is really a question of the origin of the other sects. At first there was no reason to label the righteous as a separate sect because there was only the one sect which consisted of the whole Jewish people. Throughout history a variety of sects appeared and it was only to distinguish the righteous from these other groups which caused them in different periods to take on such names as Sadducees, Boethusians, Ananites, and Karaites.
Biblical Period- The Righteous In the Biblical Period people are described as falling into two categories: the sinners and the righteous. Very often the people were led into sin by false prophets who claimed to be relaying the message of God. In some periods the majority of Israel followed the false prophets and those who remained loyal to YHWH were but a small few (e.g. Elijah at Mt. Carmel). God sent his prophets “from morning till evening” calling on the people to repent but all too often it was only by punishing the nation with a great calamity that YHWH could get them to listen. Much of Biblical history is a repeating of the familiar cycle of sin, punishment, repentance and rescue.
Second Temple period- The Sadducees and the Boethusians The first reference in the history of Israel to more than one sect takes place some 200 years after the close of the Biblical period, in the first century BCE. Various sources tell us of two opposing sects, the Sadducees (Zadokites) and the Pharisees. The Sadducees followed the Torah as it was written while the Pharisees believed in a second “Oral” Torah which they added to the real one. The Second Temple period saw the rise of several more sects among them another group which only followed the written Torah called the Boethusians and a sect which added several books to the Bible called the Essenes (a.k.a. the “Dead Sea Sect”).
Middle Ages- The Ananites and the Karaites In the early middle ages the Pharisees continued to thrive. They began to call themselves Rabbis and only used the name Pharisees when remembering historical events from the Second Temple period. In the 7th century the Islamic Empire swept the Middle-east. The Muslims had no interest in imposing Islamic religious practice on the Jews and gave them a degree of autonomy under a system known as the Exilarchate. The Exilarchate had been founded hundreds of years before under Sassanian rule but until now only had influence in Babylonia and Persia. Overnight the Rabbanites turned from a localized Babylonian phenomenon into a political power which stretched throughout much of the Middle-east. From the 3rd-5th centuries the Babylonian Rabbanites had developed a body of religious law known as the Babylonian Talmud which they now imposed on every Jew in the Empire.
Resistance to the Rabbinites was fierce, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire which had never even heard of the Talmud. The historians tell us of Jewish leaders whose resistance against the Talmud put them in direct conflict with the Islamic government, which had empowered the Rabbis and given them full authority over other Jews. One resistance leader who refused to accept the Talmud was named Abu Isa al-Isfahani and it is said that he led an army of Jews against the Muslim government. Other attempts to cast off the Talmud were also undertaken but all failed and the Rabbanites and their Talmud seemed unstoppable.
Then in the 8th century a last glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a shrewd leader named Anan ben David. Anan organized various non-Talmudic groups and lobbied the Caliphate to establish a second Exilarchate for those who refused to live according to the Talmud’s man-made laws. The Muslims granted Anan and his followers the religious freedom to practice Judaism in the way of their ancestors. Anan himself was not a Karaite; although Anan rejected the Talmud he used similar irrational methods of interpreting Scripture as the Rabbis, such as intentionally taking words out of context. Anan’s followers became known as Ananites and this group continued to exist down until the 10th century. On the other hand, those Jews who continued to practice the Tanach-based religion of their ancestors became known as Bnei Mikra (“Followers of Scripture”) which was also abbreviated as Karaim (“Scripturalists”), in English “Karaites”. This name derived from the old Hebrew word for the Hebrew Bible: Mikra, Kara. The name Karaim, meaning “Scripturalists”, distinguished these Jews from the camp of the Rabbis who called themselves Rabaniyin (“Followers of the Rabbis”) or Talmudiyin (“Followers of the Talmud”).
Now that we’ve had an overview of the Rabbinical Sects and Old Testament Only Believers – Karaite Jews, I think it is essential we understand the differences between them concerning the two Torahs!3 I was shocked to learn the rabbis teach there are two Torahs! Jesus never taught such a thing. I have no trouble rejecting such an idea. What do Karaite Jews think? Let’s find out:
The Jewish leaders who controlled the Temple in Jesus’ days were not Karaites. We have so much to learn if we want to understand our authentic faith as Believers, we Christians, and Jews. Yes, I included Jews. In Israel, you would be surprised how many Jews are secular and religious and have no idea about fundamental truths found in the Bible – their Scriptures. On the other hand, in America, I was in a Jewish/Christian Bible Study taught by a Rabbi. We talked about Hannukah, and I was surprised to learn none of the Jews in the study had ever read the books of Maccabees, the reason they celebrate Hanukkah! They were shocked to discover that Catholic and other versions of Christian Bibles contain these books. We were jointly studying the New Testament Book of Romans at the time! Go figure.
We will be very close to one glorious day when we discover all the hidden barriers blocking our unity. Be encouraged to start your own path of discoveries! Heaven is waiting. Halleluyah! Until then, may God bless you richly today and every day.
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Blessed be the Holy One of Israel always,
1. Judaism-What is it?, Patrick Zukeran,2005 Probe Ministries
2. Karaite Judaism -History of Karaism, The Karaite Korner
3. Concerning the Oral Law – Karaism vs. Rabbanism, In the Writings of Salmon ben Yeruham
4. Oral Law – Britannica
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