Judaism does not easily fit into common Western categories, such as religion, race, ethnicity, or culture. This is because Jews understand Judaism in terms of its 4,000 year history. During this stretch of time, Jews have experienced slavery, anarchic self-government, theocratic self-government, conquest, occupation, and exile; they have been in contact, and have been influenced by ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenic cultures, as well as modern movements such as the Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism. Thus, Daniel Boyarin has argued that "Jewishness disrupts the very categories of identity, because it is not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these, in dialectical tension." Unlike most other identities (including other races and religions) Judaism is not a self-enclosed and bounded phenomenon (A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity 243-244).
Two things distinguish Judaism from the other religions that existed when it first developed. First, it was monotheistic. The significance of this belief is not so much the denial of other gods. Although this element is fundamental to Rabbinic Judaism, according to most critical Bible scholars the Torah often implies that the early Israelites accepted the existence of other gods. Rather, the significance lies in that Judaism holds that God created and cares about people. In polythestic religions, humankind is often created by accident, and the gods are primarily concerned with their relations with other gods, not with people. Second, the Torah specifies a number of laws to be followed by the Children of Israel. Other religions at the time were characterized by temples in which priests would worship their gods through sacrifice. The Children of Israel similarly had a temple, priests, and made sacrifices -- but these were not the sole means of worshipping God. In comparison to other religions, Judaism elevates everyday life to the level of a temple, and worships God through everyday actions.
By the Hellenic period, most Jews had come to believe that their God is the only God (and thus, the God of everyone), and that the record of His revelation (the Torah) contains within it universal truths. This attitude may reflect growing Gentile interest in Judaism (some Greeks and Romans considered the Jews a most "philosophical" people because of their belief in a God that cannot be represented visually), and growing Jewish interest in Greek philosophy, which sought to establish universal truths. Jews began to grapple with the tension between the paticularism of their claim that only Jews were required to obey the Torah, and the universalism of their claim that the Torah contained universal truths. The result is a set of beliefs and practices concerning both identity, ethics, one's relation to nature, and one's relation to God, that privilege "difference" -- the difference between Jews and non-Jews; the differences between locally variable ways of practicing Judaism; a close attention to different meanings of words when interpreting texts; attempts to encode different points of view within texts, and a relative indifference to creed and dogma.
The subject of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is an account of the Israelites (also called Hebrews) relationship with God as reflected in their history from the beginning of time until the building of the Second Temple (approx. 350 BCE). This relationship is generally portrayed as contentious, as Jews struggle between their faith in God and their attraction for other gods, and as some Jews (most notably, Abraham, Jacob -- later known as Israel, and Moses) struggle with God. Modern scholars also suggest that the Torah consists of a variety of inconsistent texts that were edited together in a way that calls attention to divergent accounts (see Documentary hypothesis).
While Judaism has always affirmed a number of other Jewish Principles of Faith, it has never developed a binding catechism. It is difficult, or impossible, to generalize about Jewish theology, because Judaism itself is non-creedal; that is, there is no dogma or set of orthodox beliefs that Jews believed were required of Jews. Josephus emphasizes laws rather than beliefs when he describes the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherance to traditional customs).
A number of formulations of Jewish beliefs have appeared, most of which have much in common with each other, yet they differ in a number of ways. In the last two centuries the Jewish community has divided into a number of Jewish denominations; each has a greatly different understanding of what these principles are. Most of Orthodox Judaism generally holds that the principles are unchanging and mandatory, non-Orthodox forms of Judaism generally hold that these principles have evolved over time, and thus allow for more leeway in what individual adherents believe. These topics are discussed more fully in the article on Jewish Principles of Faith.
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