What makes a religion a world religion? Is it the number of adherents? Is it the political and social clout of its followers? Is it the uniqueness of its beliefs and practices? Is it something else?
In most conversations about the major religions of the world, there is one group that seems to be different than the others. Judaism. While other religions have a billion or more followers (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism), Judaism has a mere 14 million worldwide. Why then, is Judaism on the list? While scholars will debate the fine points, Judaism is often considered a major world religion because its influence is wildly disproportionate to its size. Not only has the political and cultural fabric of the West been shaped by Jewish thought, the two largest religions of the world – Christianity and Islam – trace their roots to Judaism.
But what is Judaism? What is the core of Jewish belief and practice? As with other world religions, there is internal diversity, but most if not all forms of Jewish life and faith consider the Torah to be foundational. The Torah has multiple layers. Strictly speaking, the Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. However, Torah can also refer to the entirety of Hebrew scripture. Finally, Torah can refer to God’s will and wisdom.
For our purposes, we will consider the Torah to be the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and we will explore a few of its key teachings. Although there is no official creed of Judaism, the Shema essentially plays that role. The Shema states, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Here we see the two great themes of Judaism – the monotheistic nature of God, and the expectation of total love and loyalty toward him.
A more systematic and practical expression of the same truth is found in the Ten Commandments:
- You shall have no other gods before me,
- You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything,
- You shall not misuse the name of the Lord,
- Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,
- Honour your father and mother,
- You shall not murder,
- You shall not commit adultery,
- You shall not steal,
- You shall not give false testimony, and
- You shall not covet.
Notice how the first four commandments are focused on a person’s relationship with God, and the last six are focused on a person’s relationships with others.
If you have been following these world religion summaries on this site, you may have seen a pattern. In general, monotheistic religions start with God and then form their ethical/religious behaviour in response to him. In contrast, however, polytheistic (or nontheistic) religions often start with human experience and then subsequently form their picture of the divine.
In terms of your worldview, what is your “starting point”? What is your foundation for belief?