When you think about Judaism, what comes to mind? When I was growing up, we had a menorah in our house that we’d light for Hanukkah even though we weren’t Jewish, and I remember Adam Sandler’s famous song about all the famous people who are Jewish (which we included at the bottom!) As a child, I also knew that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. Other than that, my knowledge of this 3,500-year-old religion was pretty limited.
As we begin our journey into world religions, we of course need a solid foundation in what we as Christians believe. (If you missed our Crash Course in Christian Doctrine, you might want to check it out first.)
Next, I thought it would be good to start with the oldest monotheistic religion, the one highlighted so heavily in the Old Testament. Although there are great similarities between Judaism and Christianity, these two religions are also quite different, particularly on key issues, like who Jesus was and how to be saved.
Alright, Mama Bears, strap on your world religion seatbelts! You are about to get a crash course in Judaism.
A Brief History of Judaism
Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in history, getting its start more than 3,500 years ago around 1800 B.C. What is incredible is that Jewish people1One quick note before we dive in: you will see that we use the phrase “Jewish people” quite often, and you may ask yourself “Why not just say “Jew?” Thanks to World War II and Naziism, the succinct label “Jew” now has baggage attached to it and is viewed by some to be an offensive word because the word “Jew” was used as a pejorative. This is obviously not the case for every Jewish person, but we are seeking to be sensitive and out of respect and to avoid offense, we’ve tried to limit our use of the word “Jew.” have maintained their ethnic identity for thousands of years! Judaism’s founding father is Abraham because of his covenant with Yahweh where Abraham promised to worship Yahweh alone and to reject all other gods (Gen 15).
Jewish people also recognize Moses as an important prophet in their history because more than 400 years after Abraham lived, Moses delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exo 13-14). God also provided Moses with the 10 Commandments (Exo 20). Jewish people have faced oppression and hardship throughout their history, from slavery in Egypt (Exo 1-13) to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 to modern day horrors like the Holocaust. Despite these difficulties, the Jewish people have persisted and continue to serve Yahweh faithfully.
Judaism is unique in that it is both a religion and an ethnic identity, thus we must not assume that just because a person identifies as Jewish, that they are a practicing Jew. Those who are of Jewish ancestry and choose to actively participate in the Jewish religion are referred to as practicing or Orthodox Jews. Jewish individuals who have converted to Christianity are called Messianic Jews (a phrase usually preferred to “completed Jew”) and those who do not practice the Jewish religion, but still claim Jewish heritage can be called “Secular Jews.” The phrase “Christian Jew” is also not preferred, as many historical Jewish persecutions took place at the hands of Christians, either as macro-persecution (like during the Crusades) or micro-persecutions (like being labeled “Christ-killers” when immigrating to the U.S.).
A Comparison of Judaism and ChristianityWhat are the similarities and differences between Christianity and Judaism? Click To Tweet
Abrahamic religions. Judaism is, in many ways, the closest world religion to Christianity. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the largest Abrahamic religions, which means that their followers are descendants who can trace their religious lineage back to Abraham and the God he worshiped. (Gen 17:6-8)
Monotheism. Both Christianity and Judaism are monotheistic religions and believe in only one God, though the definition of monotheism varies between the two religions, as will be seen below.
Prophets. Christian and Jewish people believe that God has used prophets to reveal His will. Indeed, many of the books in the Old Testament were written by prophets.
Spiritual Realm. Christianity and Judaism both teach about an unseen spiritual reality, which includes the existence of angels and demons, as referenced in both the Old and the New Testaments. (Gen 6:4; Gen 16:7-12; Gen 18:2; Job 1-2; Mk 3:22; Eph 6:12; Rev. 15:7).
Prayer. Members of both religions believe in prayer to God (Yahweh).
Sabbath. Both Christian and Jewish people keep the Sabbath in recognition of God’s day of rest after He created the earth in six days, although Sabbath for each religion occurs on different days (Sabbath is Saturday in Judaism and Sundays for most Christians.). Interestingly, the shift from Saturday to Sunday happened after Jesus’ resurrection as a sign by Christians that they were no longer following Jewish customs.2For more information, see Elesha Coffman, “When did the Christian church switch the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday?,” Christianity Today (Aug 2008), https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/when-did-christian-church-switch-sabbath-from-saturday-to.html (last accessed April 28, 2018),
The Bible. Both Christian and Jewish people use the Old Testament as part of their holy scriptures, but in addition to the Old Testament, Christianity includes the New Testament. Jewish people also use a prayer book called the Siddur, as well as the Talmud.
Jesus Christ. The biggest difference between the Jewish people and Christians is their view on who Jesus Christ was. This is mostly due to the fact that Judaism does not include the New Testament as part of their Holy Scriptures. According to Christians, Jesus Christ was the Messiah of whom prophetic scriptures like Isaiah 9:6-7 and Psalm 2 describe. Jewish people differ in their interpretations of who Jesus was. Most Jews, with the exception of Messianic Jews, deny that Jesus was the Messiah described in Old Testament prophecies because the qualifications of attaining political power were not evident with Jesus of Nazareth. Most Jewish people do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The followers of Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that he was the Messiah for the Gentiles.3Pinchas Lapide, Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1979), 79.
The Trinity. The Shema, a daily prayer recited by Jewish people, comes from Deuteronomy 6 and begins with “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). Jewish people believe in God, but not a Triune God. For Jewish people, the idea of a Trinity is a violation of pure monotheism. They believe that the Holy Spirit is divine inspiration and one of God’s attributes or characteristics, but not a part of the Godhead, and Jesus was not the Son of God.
Christians believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons and consists of the Father, (Philippians 1:2), the Son (Titus 2:13), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). (For further explanation, see the section on the Trinity at https://mamabearapologetics.com/crash-course-christian-doctrine/.)
Salvation. The main difference between Jewish and Christian salvation is that Christianity is a grace-based salvation, while Judaism is a works-based salvation. Jewish people believe that salvation is attained by following the rules as set forth in Jewish Scripture, as well as blood atonement through the sacrificial system. The ultimate goal of most Jewish people is to be a good person, which they believe is someone who follows the rules set forth in Jewish Scripture.
Christians do not believe that good works can achieve salvation. Salvation is a free gift through faith in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. Good works are emphasized as evidence of salvation, but not a means to salvation. (Isa 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24; 1 Jn 2:2; Rom 5:2)
Christians believe that salvation is available only through Christ’s death and resurrection (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). As we noted in our article about Christianity, Scripture says salvation is a free gift through faith, not works. James consistently refers to faith and works as separate things. Christians should still strive to be like Christ, which includes doing works because Christ did. Also, faith without works is dead, but the works should be an outpouring of our faith, not something we do to achieve salvation.
Afterlife. Both Christian and Jewish people believe in hell, but Judaism teaches that hell is only a temporary place for purification. Purified Jewish people go to Gan Eden to be with Yahweh (Gen 13:10 and Eze 31:8-9 reference the garden of God.). Christians believe in eternal heaven and hell, as revealed in Scripture (Matt 10:28; Matt 25:46; Jn 5:24; Jn 11:25-26; Rev 21:8).
The Law as outlined in the Old Testament. Judaism adheres to the law as prescribed in the Torah, minus the animal sacrifices, executions for not keeping the Sabbath, and a few others. Christians believe that the law was fulfilled by Christ as written in the New Testament (Rom 6:14; Gal 3:11-12; Acts 15:11).
Common Misconceptions about Judaism
Are all Jewish people the same? Can they eat pork? What is Messianic Judaism? Here are some common misconceptions about Judaism. #worldreligions Click To TweetMisconception #1: All Jewish people are the same. Just like there are denominations in Christianity, there are denominations in Judaism. Some of the more common denominations of Judaism include Reformed, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. There are also a couple of mystical approaches to Judaism, including Kabbalah and Hasidism. In addition, some Jewish people consider themselves Jewish only by birth, meaning that they do not practice the religious traditions of Judaism. Generally, Jewish birthright is traced through the mother’s family line, also called matrilineality. The exception is priesthood lineage, which is through the father.
Misconception #2: The only Scripture in Judaism is the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). The Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) has three sections: the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch), the Nevi’im (books of the major and minor prophets), and the Ketuvim (the remaining books of the Old Testament). Jewish people also use a Siddur, or prayer book, during holy days, while at synagogue, and when reciting their daily prayers. Although Christians tend to use spontaneous prayer, most Jewish people will use pre-written prayers from the Siddur. Finally, Jewish people study the Talmud, which covers oral tradition and rabbinic teachings.
Misconception #3: No Jewish person can eat pork. This is true for those who keep kosher, but not all keep kosher throughout the year (perhaps going kosher only on holy days like the Passover). We’ll talk about this more in the question and answer article about Judaism next time, so keep an eye out for it!
Misconception #4: Messianic Judaism is the same as traditional Judaism. They are not the same, primarily because of their views about Jesus (Yeshua). Traditional Jewish people do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but Messianic Jews do. It could be most helpful to think of Messianic Judaism as a combination of Judaism and Christianity. Messianic Jews accept Christ’s sacrifice as the means to salvation and reject the ideas of the Sinai Covenant, something still followed by traditional Jewish people. Messianic Jews who do follow the Sinai Covenant understand that it was Christ’s atoning work, not their adherence to the laws, that will ultimately save. For Messianic Jews, Jesus is the fulfillment of messianic prophecies. They also believe they are more Jewish than traditional Jewish people because they recognize that Jesus was Jewish and do not deny his role in salvation and atonement.
What can Christians learn from Judaism?How can we as Christians learn from the strengths of the Jewish religion? Click To Tweet
Piety. Although this can vary from person to person, religious Jewish people follow a rich tradition of prayer, Scripture reading, and keeping the Sabbath. They also fast regularly to show their commitment to God. Christians don’t always attend church weekly, let alone pray often or read their Bible regularly, and as believers and followers of God, these should be natural occurrences in our daily life.
Family. Another aspect of Judaism that Christians should take note of is the importance of family. The family unit is one of the most central priorities for members of the Jewish faith. Jewish holy days are observed with family members, and it’s not unusual for families to enjoy a Sabbath meal with each other weekly. This is not to say that family isn’t important in Christianity, but family is of utmost importance for Jews. It should be for Christians, too. After all, Paul wrote “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).
Community. Along with strong familial ties, Judaism celebrates strong community ties. For Jewish people, this is a religious obligation. It is encouraged that Jewish people celebrate holy days with one another, attend synagogue together, and contribute charitably to those in need within their community. Christians could learn from Jewish people in this area by getting to know their neighbors and making it a priority to attend church with their fellow Christians. Keep in mind that the Christian church is described as a community in Scripture (Rom 12:4-5).
Perseverance and Resilience. Christians should reflect on the Jewish people’s ability to persist despite intense trials, including the Exodus of the Bible, the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Crusades, and the Holocaust, just to name a few. I do not mean to imply that Christians have not persisted through their own trials in history, but the Jewish people are survivors who recognize their triumphs (and pain) through various holy days and days of remembrance. Judaism teaches its people to be resilient by showing them how their ancestors persisted. Christians should take the time to recognize those heroes in our history who have overcome intense trials to carry on the faith.
Before we wrap up, I want to mention that even though your kids may not ask you about the nitty-gritty details of Judaism (or any other religion we address in this series), it is still important that you educate yourself, as you are doing now, so that you are ready if and when they do ask questions.
For those Mama Bears who have young children who like the show Super Why!, I found an episode that covered a lot of what we talked about in this article. It’s available on Netflix (Season 3, Episode 20: “Judith’s Happy Chanukah”).
Stay tuned for my next article, which will address the most common questions kids (and adults) ask about Judaism, such as whether Jewish people celebrate Christmas, the purpose of a bar- or bat-mitzvah, why Jewish people don’t write out God’s name, the meaning behind several Jewish holy days, and much more!
Special thanks to Gibson Stone, Jerimiah Richardson (who is our Mama Bear podcast editor, attends a Messianic seminary, and is married to a Jewish woman), as well as one other who asked to remain unnamed.
Lindsey Medenwaldt is Mama Bear’s Executive director and our resident expert on world religions. She is a perpetual student, so in addition to her M.A. in Apologetics and Ethics from Denver Seminary, she has a J.D. and a Master’s in Public Administration. She’s been married to another apologist, Jay (aka, the Psych Apologist), for 13 years, and they have three incredible daughters, ages 13, 10, and 7.