Q. Was Avraham/Abraham (forefather of the three Abrahamic faiths) the first Jew?
A. It’s not accurate to say he was a “Jew” or “Jewish,” but he was an ancient archetype and primogenitor, called Avraham Avinu (אברהם אבינו), “our father Abraham” in Jewish tradition.
Nowadays, the word Jew is the demonym of the People whose story is told in the Hebrew Scriptures [Tanakh], so loosely it is used to describe Abraham and his offspring as patriarchs of that nation, even though strictly it refers to members of the tribe of Judah or residents of the region of Judea.Rabbi Gidon Ariel
Abraham and Sarah’s progeny begot the twelve tribes of Israel, which led to b’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) receiving the Torah at Har Sinai (Mt Sinai).
The ancient ancestors of the Jewish people were called Israelites, Hebrews and Judeans (Yehudi/singular, Yehudim/plural).
The English term Jew originates in the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi, meaning “from the Kingdom of Judah.”
Q. What was the one thing Abraham did that set him apart from surrounding cultures?
A. According to the bible, Abraham spoke with GD and had direct conversations with GD.
Q. Were Abraham and the Israelites the founders of monotheism?
A. Maybe yes, maybe no. Some believe Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that originated about 4,000 years ago, to be the first monotheistic faith. Zoroastrianism was the religion of all three Persian dynasties, until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century A.D. Zoroastrianism is thought to have influenced Judaism and Christianity.
Abraham came from a polytheistic family and culture. His father, Terach, made idols to sell in his idol shop. In Midrash, Abraham smashed all of his father’s idols and ran off his customers after having an epiphany that the GD he spoke to was the One and Only GD of Israel.
Q. Was male circumcision unique to the Israelites?
No. Male circumcision was common, but not universal. It was practiced by the ancient Egyptians and Semites in the lands south and east of the Mediterranean. There’s also evidence that male circumcision was a practice among the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations.
It was known to be practiced in the Middle East by the 4th millennium BCE, when Sumerians and Semites moved into the area known as Mesopotamia (Iraq). An early record of male circumcision was found carved into the Egyptian tomb of Ankh-Mahor at Saqqara, dated around 2400–2300 BCE.
Greek historian Herodotus, 5th century BCE, listed Colchians, Ethiopians, Phoenicians and Syrians as male circumcising cultures. He also noted the Egyptians cited “cleanliness” as their reason for male circumcision.
Q. What makes the Brit Milah, Covenant of the (male) Circumcision, unique to the Jewish people?
A. In the Torah, Brit Milah is a covenant GD made with Avraham. That belief framed it as a Divine covenant and perpetual bond with GD from ancient times to Judaism today.
Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations.GOD to Avraham: Genesis 10-27
Male circumcision became a significant identity marker for the Israelites in 586 BCE, when the Babylonian Empire destroyed the Temple and took the Judean/Israelite population captive into Exile. Torn from their homeland it was a unifying practice, not shared by the Babylonians.
Q. When did Judaism as we know it start to emerge?
A. The Babylonian Exile was a critical time in the formation of Judaism and monotheism. After about 70 years in Exile, a small group of Judeans returned to Israel to rebuild the Temple, trying to recreate the life they once knew. In Exile there was no Temple, kings or high priests. By necessity, the Israelites had to re-envision GD as a universal and abstract deity, who could be worshipped outside the Holy Land without Temple trappings. The idea of a single GD uniting K’lal Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) really took hold and evolved during the Exile.
Q. Was this the period when Judaism as we know it was established?
A. No, but the concept that all the Israelite people were united by the Torah (a single book), no matter what happened or where they were, is the foundational core of Judaism today. Public prayer also began to take root during this period, which set the tone for public prayer as a Jewish practice. Preserving the religious peoplehood became a hallmark of the Jewish people over thousands of years of exile.
Q. What part of the Hebrew bible is the Torah and when was it written down?
A. Torah refers to the first five books of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. According to Jewish tradition, the oral Torah was given to Moses by GD on Mt Sinai.
The final version of the written Torah was believed to have been recorded as a complete and consolidated body of work during the Babylonian exile (c. 539 BCE).
Q. Israelite Religion VS Modern Judaism: What’s the Difference?
A. Israelite religion had two different Temples in Jerusalem (that were both destroyed) and the Mishkan. Judaism is a modern, mainstream religion with seminaries, synagogues and congregations.
B. The Israelite religion had high priests that ruled the Temple and all the Temple rites. Judaism has ordained male and female clergy (rabbis and cantors), serving in the same capacity as pastors or ministers. Cantors are ordained vocalists who sing or chant liturgical music and prayer.
Moreover, ordained clergy are not required. Many Jewish congregations are lay-led by “prayer leaders.” Any member well-versed in the Hebrew prayer service and over bar or bat mizvah age, can lead services. Likewise any vocalist well-versed in Jewish liturgical music can serve in a cantorial capacity.
C. The ancient Israelites brought offerings of animals, crops, meals and incense to the Temple to worship GD. In Judaism GD is served through prayer and the performance of mitzvot (i.e. charity, Shabbat observance, good deeds, ethical conduct, self-improvement and world repair (social justice).
D. The Israelite religion had a hierarchy presiding over sacred texts. In Judaism all the sacred texts are open to everyone to own, study, interpret and discuss.
Q. Did the ancient Israelites readily embrace monotheism?
No, the ancient Israelites struggled with the One GD concept. Some believed GD was the Supreme Creator GD, but it was okay to worship lesser gods. They were divided and often conflicted. The idea of One GD that was the only GD of Israel, really solidified during the Exile, when a strong unifier was crucial to survival.
Judaism as we know it today was a process, not an event, that developed over millennia.