Jews follow the religion of Judaism. There has long been debate over what being Jewish means. For example, from the Orthodox point of view, one has to be descended from a Jewish mother, or be a convert to Judaism, to be Jewish. However, the Reform movement also accepts those whose mother is not Jewish, but who have a Jewish father. There are many people around the world who describe themselves as Jewish without being actively religious, as a way of defining their racial or cultural identity. If one has to distinguish between Jews and other people, then those who are not Jews would be called Gentiles. The Star of David has been widely used as the most recognised symbol of Judaism since at least the 17th century CE.
The Jewish people have a long and dramatic history. Their religion has developed over a period of more than 4,000 years, going back to Abraham, who upheld what came to be the main principle of Judaism: monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. Jews believe that God made a covenant with Abraham, giving his descendants a special responsibility to keep his commandments. At a later time, God revealed his laws to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of the Torah. The events of Jewish history and the doctrines of the religion have had a profound influence on Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith, monotheistic religions which arose later in history and which locate their spiritual heritage within the Abrahamic tradition.
Judaism has developed under a great variety of circumstances throughout its long history, and in many different parts of the world. So it is no surprise that there is considerable variation in belief and practice amongst Jewish people. It could safely be said, though, that virtually all observant Jews, no matter their tradition, would accept the following: that God exists, eternal and without physical form; that God created the universe and continues to govern it; that God knows all thoughts and deeds; that God will reward the good and punish the wicked; and that God is the only one to whom prayer should be directed; that the prophets spoke truth; that Moses, greatest of these prophets, received the written and oral Torah.
The Tenakh (known more widely as the Hebrew Bible) is a collection of 24 books, written in Hebrew, arranged in three main sections: the Torah (‘teachings’) which makes up the first five books, contains the instructions which God gave to Moses; Nevi’im (eight books) and Ketuvim (eleven books) contain histories, poems, prophecies, hymns and sayings. The Talmud, another important set of writings, contains the thoughts of some 200 rabbis. In synagogues, the Torah is kept in the form of scrolls, mounted on two wooden rollers decorated with silver heads and bells, inside a symbolic cabinet called the ark. During a service, everyone stands as the scroll is taken out, showing their respect for the Torah and its significance in Jewish life, throughout history and today.
Worship, prayer & meditation
All devout Jews are obliged to pray daily. This is the key spiritual duty or commandment (mitzvah) which Jews are expected to honour as part of the covenant God made with their ancestors. Different Jewish groups have different styles of prayer and worship, individually and collectively. The Jewish prayer book is known as the siddur; it contains a variety of written prayers, including ones for blessings, praise of God, the well-being of the Jewish people and of the world, and the granting of holiness. This book may be used when praying in the home or at the synagogue. Services in the synagogue tend to be fairly informal, with worshippers coming and going. Judaism has a strong tradition of meditation, contemplation and mysticism, which also can be found in a variety of forms.
Although it can appear to the outside observer that Judaism is a very scholarly religion, deeply concerned with commentary and interpretation of ancient law, a lot of its attention focused on ancient times, it really attends to how one should live, and what one has to do in everyday life to bear out one’s beliefs. Jews cannot simply compartmentalise things into religious and non-religious topics. Most of all, Judaism focuses on how God’s plan for all creation is expressed in relationships, across history and in the present moment: between God and all humankind, between God and the Jewish people, between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, and between all human beings, down through the generations and all over the world today.
Probably the best known aspect of Jewish life is the keeping of the Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. It is the Jewish holy day, a day for rest and religious reflection. The beginning and end of the Sabbath are marked with observances that bring together the Jewish family and community. Jews follow specific dietary regulations, affecting what they are allowed to eat and drink. Jews will not eat any food from an animal that does not chew the cud, have split hooves and has been ritually slaughtered and prepared. Fish must have fins and scales (so, for example, they will not eat shellfish). Many Jews will not mix dairy and meat products in the same meal. Food which is acceptable to Jews is called kosher (meaning ‘fit’).
For most of is history, Judaism has accommodated a diversity of movements. Today, religious Jews fall into two broad groups: Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Differences between them can be seen in their everyday lives as well as in their forms of worship, though even these two groups show considerable variation within themselves. Orthodox Jews are traditional followers of rabbinic Judaism, although they diversify in belief and practice. Amongst non-Orthodox Jews, the moderate Conservative movement believes that laws and traditions can be adapted to suit the times but to a lesser extent than the Liberal, Progressive and Reform movements, which allow individuals degrees of greater freedom in relation to the traditions which they follow.
The Jewish year has many festivals and holy days, some solemn, others celebratory, most recalling events in Jewish history. Among the more sombre observances are New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which requires 25 hours of fasting in the synagogue, during which Jews seek divine forgiveness. During the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot), Jewish people erect tents or booths, open to the sky, symbols which remind them of God’s bounty. Passover (Pesach) celebrates the exodus from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses. The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) is an eight-day celebration in December, which is often an occasion when Jews may be joined by friends from outside their community.
The movement of Jews to various countries throughout history became known as the Dispersion. There are around 14 million Jews in the world, making it the 6th largest religion, with 0.22% of the global population. The largest Jewish population, of more than five-and-a-half million, is in the USA. Next biggest is Israel, with around four-and-a-half million (41% of the world’s total Jewish population). The most significant events in the recent history of the Jewish people have been the Holocaust, and the founding of the state of Israel, both occurring around the middle years of the 20th century. These have played a huge part in determining modern Jewish identity. Today, those Jews living outside Israel are said to be living in the Jewish Diaspora.
Jews in Britain
The 2001 census records 259,927 Jews in England and Wales, half of 1% of the population. Jewish settlers are known to have arrived in Britain after the Norman conquest (1066). The Jews were expelled by Edward I in 1290 and readmitted by Cromwell in 1656. In that same year the first synagogue was opened in Creechurch Lane, London. Most Jews in Britain are descendants of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, some fleeing anti-semitic persecution in the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1914, others escaping the Nazis in the 1930s. Since the mid-1950s a smaller number have arrived from Arab and East European countries. British Jews are mostly concentrated in Greater London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. Around 60% belong to Orthodox synagogues, 27% to Reform synagogues.
Jews in Leicester
The Jewish community of medieval Leicester ended in 1231, when all Jews were expelled from the city through the efforts of Simon de Montfort. There is no clear evidence of Jews here again till the late 1840s. The modern Jewish community of Leicester dates from 1874. This was revitalised by the influx of many Jews who came here in the 1940s to escape the wartime bombing of London, then chose to settle and raise their families here. In 2009 a book, website and touring exhibition entitled “Jewish Voices” was created to tell their story. The 2001 Census records 417 Jews in Leicester. Orthodox and Progressive congregations have their own places of worship. The Orthodox Synagogue in Highfield Street (which celebrated its centenary in 1998) is a Grade II listed building.