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What do Jewish people believe in? How are Judaism and Catholicism related? Learn about the Jewish religion, history, practices and culture in this article written for Catholic teens.

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The Jewish People:
Our Ancestors in Faith

by Kevin Regan

Recent world events call renewed attention to the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These three faiths are connected in numerous ways, but it is their differences that spark the most heated discussions. Youth Update has treated Islam in another issue. Judaism, addressed here, is the earliest of the faith traditions to honor one God alone.

What is Judaism? It is a religion, a tradition, a history and a story.

Judaism can be seen as the religion of a people united by their belief that God spoke to their father Abraham declaring his descendents as God's chosen people. Judaism is a tradition of beliefs, religious practices and moral living that expresses the fidelity of the Jewish people in responding to God's call. Judaism is the history of a people who attempt to follow the will of God through exile, persecution and the establishment of a homeland. Judaism is a story of a people formed and guided in life by their relationship to their God.

This issue of Youth Update focuses on Judaism, the religious predecessor of Christianity. As Catholic Christians, what can the story of Abraham and his descendants teach us about our faith and our religious beliefs?

Abraham and Sarah Say Yes

The story begins with the attention one man and his wife gave to the signs God placed within their lives. They heard God's word and believed it. God promised that they would have a child from whom a great people would develop. In the dialogue between this man and woman with God began the story of the Jewish people.

Others followed the example of Abraham and Sarah. These were the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Jewish people. A long procession of prophets and priests, peasants and kings, heroines and warriors followed.

In the stories of these women and men, the stories of Judaism and Catholicism coincide. Both religions embrace these ancestors and share one path to God until the birth of Christ. In an age when some people misuse religion as division, knowledge of shared traditions can lead to peace.

Peoples of the Book

Judaism discovers the stories that reveal God's presence in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. You know it as the Old Testament. Although there are some differences in these two texts (as read by Christians and Jews), much is held in common by people of both religions. Because Catholics—like Jews—rely on Holy Scripture as one source of their knowledge about God, we are both known as "people of the book."

Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is a primary meeting place between Christians and Jews. Jews do not accept the Christian Scriptures as part of their faith. These, as you know, tell the story of Jesus, the Son of God, his life, death and resurrection.

But both Catholics and Jews revere the Hebrew Bible. Stories of creation, the call of Moses and the Exodus, the story of Ruth and Esther, the challenge of the prophets and the power and beauty of the psalms inspire people of both religions.

Revelation is God's gradual uncovering of what God's will is for us and what kind of a God it is who calls to us. The great Jewish thinker Martin Buber said their common Scripture was the place where Christian and Jew could listen together to the voice that speaks there.

Like a song lyric repeated for its importance to a musical piece, monotheism or belief in one God is a primary theme of Judaism. This belief is sacred to all Jews. The statement of monotheism is called the Shema. It is found in the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4. It reads, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord alone!"

Often stories include promises or agreements that people make with one another. Judaism emerged from the covenant or agreement the Jewish people made with God through Abraham and renewed with Moses. The people expressed their faithfulness to God by keeping the commandments that made God's will known to them.

The Ten Commandments are the best known of the 613 commandments given by God to Moses as a sign of the covenant. These commands are found in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch.

Whenever stories are told, many versions develop. We may need to look to others for clarification in order to grasp the truth of the story. The richness and beauty of the Torah are made visible through the interpretations of the rabbis. These religious leaders are experts in Jewish law and have written down their understandings of the Torah and the ways Jews should practice their religion.

This can be compared to the way your teacher interprets a difficult passage of literature. Your parents often interpret their expectations of you—especially ones that you don't understand.

The Mishnah and the Talmud are a collection of these interpretations of the Torah by the rabbis. These guide the Jewish people in following God's will. Christians share belief in the Ten Commandments as one way to follow the will of God.

History Honored

Jewish history, which records their tradition and their experience, is often called salvation history. It records both God's presence in the story of the Jewish people and the attempt of the people to follow God's commands.

This view of history is a revolutionary insight of the Jews. They recognized God's presence and action in history, in the course of human events. To live an ethical life, to do the right thing, is seen by Judaism not as an option for humans but as the will of God.

Other peoples, like the American Indians, located God first of all in nature. Place was sacred. Mountains, trees and rivers were part of the web that joined all of life. In Judaism, history—human activity—is ripe with the presence of God. Obedience to the Torah, celebration of the rites of passage and holy days and keeping of the Sabbath are human actions with divine dimensions.

This can be seen in the story of the Exodus, which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Through the leadership of Moses, God led the Jewish people out of slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. This event of liberation is celebrated in the great holy day of Pesach or Passover. The Seder meal is still the center of the celebration.

This story of freedom from slavery connects Jews and Christians. We know that Jesus celebrated the Passover. The Christian Passover or Paschal Mystery is celebrated on Easter. On this day, Christians celebrate the victory of Jesus over sin and death through the power of his resurrection.

Through Baptism, Catholics believe they are united with Christ in his victory over death and in his promise of lasting life. In the eucharistic celebration, a thanksgiving feast, Christians are fed with the new Lamb of God, Jesus the Christ.

In Judaism, the holy presence of God is accompanied by awe and wonder on the part of the people. You may have heard the statement, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Fear is the human response to being in the holy presence of God. Awe, wonder and astonishment may be closer to the reality described.

The Jewish people are so awestruck by God's presence, so full of reverence for God that they will not even say the divine name and will only write it in an abbreviated manner. This sense of awe and wonder is the result of paying attention to the world and God's action in it.

Prejudice and Persecution

Although freed from slavery at the time of Moses, the Jewish people were not to remain free. They were captured and exiled from their homeland many times. The history of the Jewish people is one of exile, persecution and liberation. The attitude of hatred toward the Jews, which motivated persecution, is called anti-Semitism.

In 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the second Jewish temple. The Jewish people were exiled from Jerusalem from this time until the middle of the 20th century. The remains of the temple destroyed by the Romans are called the Western Wall (sometimes called the Wailing Wall by others). It is the most sacred site for prayer or pilgrimage for Jews throughout the world and is pictured on the front of this Youth Update.

From the time of the exile by the Romans until 1948, Jewish people were forced to live as guests in places claimed by others as their home. Sometimes they were treated well. In Muslim Spain, for instance, Jewish poets, philosophers and scientists flourished.

At about the same time Columbus journeyed to this land, however, tens of thousands of Jews were forced to leave Spain. They were later forced to live together in ghettoes in Italy and Germany. Still more were killed in the pogroms of Russia during the 19th century.

The greatest persecution took place in what those who are not Jewish call the Holocaust. Six million Jews were killed, one third of the Jewish population. Jews call this mass murder of innocent people the Shoah, or the catastrophe.

Such an unimaginable tragedy has placed challenges before Jewish people and all who believe in a loving and all-powerful God. Shoah survivor Elie Wiesel argues that the horrors of the past must not be forgotten but must be studied to help us judge well at the present time.

The Catholic Church too has added to the persecution of Jews. The Crusades and the Inquisition are but two examples. Pope John Paul II has asked the Jewish people for forgiveness for the sins of the Catholic Church in persecuting Jews.

After World War II, Jews fled from Europe to the Middle East to claim a homeland. The land that became the State of Israel was the place where God's revelation came to the chosen people. It was the land of Exodus, the place where King David established the capital, the site of the two great temples.

Because of this, as well as the Shoah and other complex reasons, the State of Israel became a reality.

In 1948, the United Nations created the State of Israel from land claimed by Palestinians. Since that time, the Israeli people and the Palestinians have been in conflict. The journey of the Jewish people continues in the challenge of claiming a homeland yet living in peace with their Palestinian neighbors.

Traditions Connect

You may ask how the Jewish people held together as a people while scattered in so many diverse places on the earth. Some of you may have family members who are separated from you by many, many miles. You keep family bonds healthy by celebrating— traditions, coming together for— holidays and trying to keep in touch with members of the family. The Jewish people did a similar thing.

Because their traditions flowed from religion, the practice of their religion was the way to keep alive their shared identity. Prayer in homes, fidelity to the Torah and Talmud, holding Sabbath day services at the synagogue and celebrating rites of passage and holy days are among the ways that the people remained of one heart despite their separation.

The home is the center of Jewish family life and the first school of Jewish religious life. Just as a crucifix or picture of Mary may be found in a Catholic home, a mezuzah may be found at the entrance to a Jewish home. This small container holds within a scroll on which is written the Shema.

The religious practices of blessing food, singing songs of thanks and praise to God, lighting ceremonial candles and wearing prayer shawls or head coverings (yarmulkes) bring family activities into the joyful light of honoring God's holy presence. Incidentally, the food eaten at meals must be kosher or prepared in accordance with rules found in the Torah.

The practice of honoring God in the home extends on the Sabbath (Shabbat) to the synagogue. The Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday with the blessing of the Sabbath candles. Someone at the table will hold up a cup of wine and chant the Kiddush or blessing of sanctification.

On Saturday there is a service at the synagogue and Torah study. There may also be a festive meal, prepared before the Sabbath. As God rested on the seventh day of creation, so the people rest and reflect on wonderful deeds God has accomplished in their lives. It is a time to enjoy the company of family and to experience freedom from the responsibilities and concerns that occupy the work of the week.

Catholics are invited to rest and pray and attend the celebration of Eucharist on Sunday, the day of Christ's resurrection. It too is to be a Sabbath, a day of rest, reflection and spiritual renewal. Catholicism, like Judaism, celebrates key events in the life of its members. These celebrations might be called rites of passage. Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders are sacraments in the Catholic Church which celebrate the particular way Christ is present in the passage from one stage of life to another. Circumcision, Bar or Bat Mitzvah (son or daughter of the commandment), marriage, death and grieving are rites of transition for the Jewish people.

Believers at Heart

You now recognize some elements of the story of those who are your ancestors in the faith. It is faith that led Abraham and Sarah to follow God's lead, as it is faith that leads you to follow the way of Jesus. As God's will has directed the journey of the Jewish people, so may it set our hearts on fire for love of our God.

A final story recalls how the people of Judaism are guided on their journey. Once there was a very old traveler on the way to a holy site high in the Himalayan Mountains. An innkeeper remarked, "How will you ever reach your destination in these mountains in this terrible weather?"

With a look of confidence and a voice full of wisdom the traveler replied, "My heart is already there, so it is easy for the rest of me to follow."

The story of the Jewish people is one of a people whose heart is centered in doing God's will. They follow their God with hearts aflame with the fire of God's love.

Judaism's Four Expressions

Jewish people throughout the world continue to listen to the voice of God. Visit www.jewfaq.org for more about branches of Judaism.

ORTHODOX JEWS believe in strict observance of Jewish law found in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud. Orthodox Jews believe that the truth of the Torah is final so practices flowing from it do not change. Some would say that ultra-orthodoxy is a distinct expression of Judaism.

CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM holds to the traditions of the rabbis, the Torah and Talmud and the Mosaic Law but tries to present them in a way more intelligible to modern believers. An example is an adaptation of dietary laws. More than half the Jews in the United States embrace Conservative Judaism.

REFORM JUDAISM took root in the 19th century, and represents a further attempt to reconcile traditional Judaism with modern life. The recognition of women rabbis and the use of English instead of Hebrew in the Sabbath services are examples of such changes or reforms.

RECONSTRUCTIONIST JUDAISM is the youngest and smallest of the four branches, founded in the 20th century.


You say that Catholics call it the Old Testament, but Jews do not. Why?


For the Jewish people, what we call the Old Testament is the only Testament. It is Christians who use the word old to distinguish the two parts of their sacred text or Bible: the Old and the New. The terms Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures are preferred in interfaith conversations, because they do not infer a relationship that isn't recognized in the Jewish faith.


In an earlier version of this issue, you used the abbreviations C.E. and B.C.E. What do they mean?


C.E. stands for the "common era" that Judaism and Christianity share. B.C.E. means "before the common era." Jews adopted the terms as alternatives to the widely used terms B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or Year of the Lord), which both assume that Christ's birth is the central event of history. Since this publication is directed to Catholics, B.C. and A.D. are preferred.


Why don't Jewish people like the word Holocaust to describe what happened to them?


The word holocaust is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe a burnt offering to God. They see no holy motives such as that in the horrors of the Shoah.

Kevin Regan, who has also written on Catholics and Muslims (Y0502), teaches at LaSalle Academy in Providence, Rhode Island. This Youth Update was inspired by an interfaith teen dialogue in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, begun by Lisa Calderone-Stewart, associate director for youth ministry, with the aid of a grant from Valparaiso University. Henry Reyes and Jenni Oliva, parish youth ministers in Milwaukee, Judi Longdin, director of the Milwaukee archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Office, and Heidi Rattner, of the Interfaith Youth Conference of Milwaukee, also offered advice.

Catholic youth who had participated in a teen interfaith dialogue in the Milwaukee Archdiocese reviewed this issue: Ryan Foti (17), Tom Jensen (17), David Dean Osburn (17), and Jonathan Roberts (16). Leah Fiasca (16), from Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid, and Sam Levine (16), from Congregation Beth Israel, both in Milwaukee, also assisted.


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