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Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions, largely due to its ability to travel, but it has had an even greater influence on two other world religions, Christianity and Islam.

A Community in Egypt and the Desert

No other culture has had a history like that of the Jews, and much of that is because it is practically impossible to pin them down. Indeed, an overwhelming theme of Judaism has been its emphasis on mobility, and therefore, it is little surprise that the story of the Jews begins far away from Jerusalem or any other center of Jewish culture. The community that would become the Jewish people began as the Israelites, a group of people who had been invited to live in Egypt because of the good work of Joseph in the Pharaoh’s court.

However, as the Israelite population grew in proportion to that of the Egyptians, it became clear that the new Pharaoh was no fan of so many foreigners in his land. As a result, he began discriminating against them.Ultimately, it was an Israelite who grew up in the Pharaoh’s own household, named Moses, who would first talk to the God of the Jews through a burning bush and be able to challenge the Pharaoh’s authority.

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Through plagues and military threat, the Israelites were finally able to escape the Pharaoh, but then were consigned to wander through the Sinai Desert for 40 years, all while Moses received guidance from a god that few of them really could comprehend even existed.

Laws

Few could comprehend God existed, that is until Moses brought down a set of laws from God that the Israelites would have to follow. In exchange for being held to a higher moral standard as God’s chosen people, the Jews would receive the protection of the one true God, as well as the right to settle in the Promised Land, an area set aside by God solely for them. The Israelites thought that a land described as full of milk and honey beat living in dusty tents any day and took the deal, even though the road to the Promised Land would be long and problematic.Indeed, whereas practically every other culture in history, especially ancient history, is best defined by what they built or where they lived, the Jews are best described by their laws. This is important because this time of wandering through the desert would not be the only time in history that the Jews would live a nomadic lifestyle. However, it would be the reason that they survived not only having their temple in Jerusalem, a shrine built to forever honor their relationship with God, destroyed not once but twice, but also hundreds of years of living without daily contact with other large Jewish societies, also called the diaspora.

Benefits of Portable Culture

Again, the reason for this is the emphasis that the Jews placed on their laws, which worked to separate them from other communities. Today, religious scholars try to come up with hypotheses explaining some Jewish principles in light of science, like that a prohibition to eat pork was to avoid parasites or that an avoidance of putting dairy products on meat was some early view on treating animals humanely. However, for the Jews, the answer was simple: Jews do that sort of thing to separate themselves from everyone else, because we are a community separated from everyone else.This is important, because remember, for only a few years of their history, including today’s heavily Jewish societies in Israel and Brooklyn, have Jews been able to live close to each other in large stable communities.

Sure, some European cities in the Middle Ages had Jewish neighborhoods, called ghettos, but these were under threat of expulsion for much of their history. However, for thousands of years, the only unifying cultural force in Judaism was the writing of the great scholars of the past. It is also for this reason that so much emphasis has always been placed on education in Jewish culture.

Influence on Later Religions

Despite the advantages of a portable religion, the greatest influence that Judaism has had on history has not been the staying power of its culture, but instead, the sway that it has on Christianity and Islam. After all, Judaism was the first religion to recognize that there was one God who expected humanity to follow a certain moral code. Christianity grew largely out of Judaism, with Jesus, the founder of Christianity whom Christians believe to be the embodiment of God on Earth, grew up in a Jewish household and studied as a Jewish Rabbi, or teacher.

Additionally, Islam constantly compares itself with Judaism as a religion based on a code of laws for humanity to follow and recognizes many of the great prophets of Judaism as prophets of Islam, as well.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we looked at how Judaism was revealed first following the Israelites’ stay in Egypt, and how it evolved to be a religion on the move. We examined the importance of law to the Jewish people, and how it helped to keep them mobile and, therefore, ensured their survival over the past 2,000 years.

Finally, we looked at how Judaism directly influenced both Christianity and Islam.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson on Judaism can help you to realize these objectives:

  • Explain the origins of Judaism
  • Discuss the laws and culture of the Jews
  • Consider the influences Judaism had on other religions

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