Book: Judaism— Revelation of Moses Or Religion of Men?

Most people, including Christians, carelessly assume that Jews are the modern-day equivalent of the biblical nation of Israel. In fact, one of the most significant misrepresentations in Judaism is the fallacious claim that the Jews are the sum total of the people of Israel. Scripture, however, shows that authentic Jews are descendants of the distinct nation of Judah, which was composed of only three of the twelve tribes that originally made up the ancient Kingdom of Israel. As for the remaining tribes, Jewish and Christian scholars alike have relegated them to the pages of history, claiming that their assimilation into various Gentile nations has rendered them nonexistent. But is this so? Who were the Jews anciently? And by what criteria is a person considered Jewish today?

As can be easily shown from the Old Testament, the original nation of Israel was composed of twelve tribes. Following the death of Solomon, the nation was divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom, referred to as Judah, the “House of Judah,” or by its capital, Jerusalem, was made up of three tribes—Judah, Benjamin and Levi—blended as if one. Hence, in II Kings 17:18, Judah is said to be the only remaining tribe after the northern kingdom was removed. In close proximity to Jerusalem, the tiny tribe of Benjamin was practically considered part of Judah. The Scriptures also show that the tribe of Levi, because of their association with the Temple, settled with Judah.

The northern kingdom, referred to as Israel, the “House of Israel,” or by its capital, Samaria, was composed of the remaining tribes. The half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were each counted separately, thus making a total of ten tribes. For their evil in God's eyes, the entire “house of Israel” was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in the 6th century BC and never allowed to return. In fact, pagan peoples were brought in to take their place as the tribes settled into the lands of their captors (II Kings 17:23-24). In Matthew 10:6, Jesus instructed His disciples to take the message of the Gospel to these “lost” sheep, which proves that both their identity and whereabouts were known to the early church. (The so-called “lost ten tribes” had by this time migrated into parts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles, forming well established communities; for more information on the identity and location of the modern-day tribes of Israel, please visit the Web site

The nation of Judah—referred to as “the Jews” for the first time in II Kings 16:6, where they are actually at war with the northern kingdom—also went into captivity (II Kings 24:10, 14), only to return some 70 years later to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Ezra refers to the returning exiles—those of “Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites” (Ezra 1:5)—as Jews of Judah (Ezra 5:1). In the most literal sense, a Jew may be viewed as a direct descendant of the tribe of Judah (the term “Jew” is a derivative of the Hebrew “Judah”). In common biblical usage, however, Jew had come to refer collectively to those who were of the nation of Judah. In Esther 2:5, Mordecai is said to be a Jew of Benjamite lineage—showing that even in foreign lands the term was likewise used. In a similar case, the apostle Paul claimed to be a Jew (Acts 21:39), when he was actually of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5). Thus, in first-century Palestine, the term “Jew” carried no particular religious connotation, but referred to one who was native to the area of Judea.

Today, a “pure” Jew—one who can actually trace his lineage to the ancient “House of Judah”—is a rarity. In Judaism Discovered, Michael Hoffman notes that “contemporary Jews are mostly ..... of mixed race. A substantial segment of [even] so-called Israeli Jews today are ..... genetically indistinguishable from their Arab neighbors” (p. 838). He adds that the overwhelming majority of Jews in America are actually descendants of East European tribes that converted to Judaism in the middle of the 8th century. In fact, Jewish scholars readily acknowledge that throughout history such conversion has “accounted for a substantial part of Jewish population growth” (

Indeed, as Hoffman suggests, it was with the spread of Judaism that the identity of a “Jew” has come to be associated with religion rather than genetics or nationality. On this point, he writes that, today, “the heirs of the Pharisees are discerned not by racial or ethnic criteria but by a supremacist ideology” (p. 838). Yet, while anyone can “convert” to Judaism and become a “Jew,” the issue is a bit more complex. Unlike most ethnic groups, being Jewish can be a matter of race or religion.

Being Jewish—Race or Religion?

In Orthodox Judaism, Jewish identity has traditionally been based on strict matrilineal descent or genuine religious conversion. In modern, secular usage, Jews include 1) those born to a Jewish family regardless of religious practice; 2) those who have some Jewish ancestral background or lineage (even if not strictly matrilineal); and 3) those without any Jewish ancestral background who have formally converted to the practice of Judaism. Also, the term “ethnic Jew” is used to describe a person of Jewish parentage who does not practice Judaism but still identifies strongly with Jews culturally and fraternally (

It is important to note that a person born to non-Jewish parents who believes and observes every law and custom of Judaism is still considered a non-Jew until he has undergone the formal process of conversion. Once this process is completed, the individual is held to be as much a “Jew” as one born to Jewish parents. However, a person born to a Jewish mother who is an atheist and never practices the Jewish religion is still a Jew, even in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. Likewise, one who is born Jewish and practices Judaism can convert to another religion and still maintain their status as a Jew. In this regard, being a Jew is a matter of race, strictly based on lineage.

But when it comes to Judaism—a religion of thought and culture, and not of race or nationality—being a Jew centers on formal conversion. “Common ancestry is not required to be a Jew. Many Jews worldwide share common ancestry, as shown by genetic research; however, [one] can be a Jew without sharing this common ancestry, for example, by converting.” This is how numerous African-Americans and Asians have become “Jews” (

Branches of Modern Judaism

In modern Judaism, there are three main groups: Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. Several minor groups and subgroups also exist. On the “right” is Orthodox Judaism, which is purely rabbinical and Talmudic in nature. Only Orthodox Jews accept the absolute authority of the Talmud, and generally see themselves as practicing normative Judaism as opposed to being part of a particular movement. Subgroups include the ultra-Orthodox, the so-called “Modern” Orthodox, and various Hasidic movements.

On the “left” is Reform Judaism, a relatively modern movement in which the use of phylacteries has been abandoned, synagogue services have been shortened, and various prayers and rituals considered “useless” have been discarded. Sometimes referred to as Progressive Judaism, the movement originated in Germany as a backlash against Orthodoxy; its goals were to integrate Jews into society and encourage the personal interpretation of the Scriptures.

In the center is Conservative Judaism, which emerged in America as largely a mix of Orthodox and Reform ideals. In theory, the Conservative movement (which is hardly conservative) sought to liberalize elements of Orthodox theology (such as dietary laws) while restoring some of the more traditional practices abandoned by Reform Jews. As opposed to being a narrowly defined school of thought, Conservative Judaism is actually a broad religious movement with a wide range of beliefs and practices—many of which are more liberal than what is acceptable in Orthodoxy, yet more conservative than what is allowed in the Reform movement.

As noted, only Orthodoxy accepts the authority of the Talmud. In Exploring the World of the Jew, John Phillips writes that both the Reform and Conservative movements have “debunked the myth that the Talmud was inspired.” According to Phillips, both movements were ultimately intended to allow Jews to practice a form of “Judaism” in which they could be comfortable in a Gentile world (p. 75). Similarly, Karaite Jews disregard both the Talmud and rabbinic opinion, maintaining that it is the responsibility of each Jew to study the Scriptures for themselves. Unlike other Jewish groups, Karaites determine Jewishness through the paternal line.

According to Hoffman, Judaism is the “religion of Orthodoxy” (p. 142). From their perspective, Orthodox Jews are the sole practitioners of authentic Judaism. Thus, Reform and Conservative Jews do not enjoy the same legal status as do Orthodox Jews in the State of Israel. Hoffman notes that “conversion to Judaism within the Israeli state is only recognized [by the state] if [the conversion rites are] performed by the Orthodox Rabbinate” (p. 141). Thus, conversion to Reform or Conservative Judaism presents an ongoing problem for those wanting to become “Jews” in the Jewish state.

In spite of the rifts caused by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox branches of Judaism are currently experiencing renewed growth. According to historian Yaakov Wise of the University of Manchester, Reform Judaism is shrinking in numbers while Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are increasing. “Ultra-Orthodox British and American Jews are set to outnumber their more secular counterparts by the second half of this century.... [Moreover,] European ultra-Orthodox Jewry is expanding more rapidly than at any time since World War Two. Almost three out of every four British Jewish births are ultra-Orthodox.” If the current trends continue, says Dr. Wise, “profound cultural and political changes” will take place among British and American Jews. According to Wise, the ultra-Orthodox population in America is expected to double every 20 years.

The State of Israel is experiencing similar changes. Wise notes that “by the year 2020, the ultra-Orthodox population of Israel will double to one million, and make up 17 percent of the total population” (Hoffman, p. 142; from “Majority of Jews will be Ultra-Orthodox by 2050”; University of Manchester (England) press release, July 23, 2007).