what is Judaism, actually?



Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe.

Believe it or not, the modern concept of “religion” is a rather new construct. In fact, Judaism predates this concept by millennia. There is no exact equivalent to the word “religion” in Hebrew. The closest terms are “dat” (“law”) and “emuna” (“belief”).

The word “Judaism” itself doesn’t come from Hebrew, either.

Instead, the term “Judaism” is actually a variation of the Greek word “Hellenismos.” “Judaism” or “Ἰουδαϊσμός” [Ioudaismos] — is how the Greeks described all of the things that encompassed Jewish culture and spirituality.

According to Biblical scholar and rabbi Shaye J. D. Cohen:

“Ioudaïsmós [was not] reduced to the designation of a religion. It means rather ‘the aggregate of all those characteristics that makes Judaeans Judaean (or Jews Jewish).’”

In other words, Judaism is not a religion in the western or modern sense. It’s a word to describe all of the cultural and spiritual characteristics that make our tribe what it is.



For thousands of years at this point, our world has been culturally dominated by the two largest universalizing religions — Christianity (about 31 percent of the world population) and Islam (about 24 percent of the world population). By contrast, Jews form a meager 0.2 percent of the world population.

Unlike Judaism, which is an amalgamation of all of the spiritual beliefs, traditions, laws, customs, and societal structures (e.g. Cohanim, or the priestly class) of the Jewish nation, universalizing religions are religions that transcend ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national affiliation. For the purposes of this post, it’s important to understand that universalizing religions seek new members, as they believe everyone in the world will benefit from adopting their worldview, which they deem to be the “correct” worldview.

By contrast, Judaism doesn’t seek new members. While conversion is permitted, which is not the case for some other ethnic and closed religions, it’s meant to be a difficult process of naturalization into the Jewish nation (think of it almost as an ancient and more spiritual version of becoming a citizen of a different country).

While Judaism certainly emphasizes values that transcend the Jewish People — such as the pursuit of justice, which is a common theme — these values are not at the core of what Judaism is and they must be understood in their proper context. Judaism at its core is not a philosophy on how to be a better person, but rather, the culture and beliefs of a nation tethered to a specific land. The term “Jew,” in fact, is an English translation for the term “Yehudi” (Judahite), which quite literally means “someone from the Kingdom of Judah,” one of the two Israelite kingdoms. In other words, the term “Jew” doesn’t come from a religion, but rather, from a place.

While it’s beautiful and important to apply “Jewish values” into our lives, understanding Judaism as merely a set of values is a surface level mischaracterization of what Judaism is and isn’t. Unfortunately, many people — including Jews, particularly in the United States — seem to be misinformed when it comes to this issue.

Judaism is a culture and belief system inextricably rooted to a land (this is not to say that one has to support any Israeli policies). That’s why the Hebrew calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel, most Jewish traditions and holidays celebrate the harvest of the Land of Israel, and Israel is mentioned 2,507 times in the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible], among many other things.



The fact that Judaism is a closed practice means that Judaism is not for everyone, but it it also means that it is not for everything. In other words, there are boundaries to what Judaism is and isn’t. 

Slapping Hebrew terminology onto something that is not Judaism does not make it Jewish. For example: a mikvah (or mikveh) is a Jewish ritual bath. There are a number of reasons for which one would immerse in a mikvah, such as to spiritually purify oneself after the menstrual cycle or to prior to ascending to Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. 

Jewish Voice for Peace, which is not so Jewish and certainly not for peace, recently published a mikvah guide. Among their suggestions for ritual purification, they included what they call the “teacup mikveh”: 

Suffice to say, this “teacup mikveh” is so far past the boundaries of Judaism that it just isn’t Judaism anymore, and slapping Jewish terminology onto whatever this is doesn’t make it Jewish. In fact, I would strongly argue that using Jewish terminology for something like this is cultural appropriation. 

Similarly, there was recently an uproar in the Jewish community when Jewish Women’s Archive featured an interview with May Ye, a reconstructionist rabbi who (1) openly admitted to never experiencing anything related to Judaism until she entered rabbinical school, and (2) claimed that she decided to become a rabbi to be “a Jewish voice for Palestinian liberation.”

Regardless of your position on Israel/Palestine, becoming a token for a cause is just not a reason to become a rabbi. Rabbis should become rabbis because of their interest in learning Judaism, not because of a geopolitical conflict or a social justice cause. That’s not Judaism. 




Tikkun Olam, generally translated to “repairing the world,” is a concept in Judaism referring to actions intended to improve the world. In modern times, particularly post-civil rights movement in the 1960s, many Jews — especially in the United States — have conflated the term with social justice. Its original meaning, however, referred to “the repair of the individual soul damaged by the sin of violating or neglecting Jewish law.”

For many Jews, especially anti-Zionists, what critics call “Tikkun Olam-ism” has come to replace Judaism’s original identity. In other words, these Jews have understood their Jewish identity through the lens of social justice — not through the lens of Judaism. They’ve come to understand their Jewishness as a belief system to make the world better, which is not so different from how Christians and Muslims understand their own belief systems. But as illustrated earlier, this is a complete surface-level mischaracterization of what Judaism is and isn’t. 

In Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, @wandering_hasid explains that Tikkun Olam is the idea that “every Mitzvah [commandment] we perform…we get closer to our true self…we are ‘repairing’ in a mystical sense…releasing the Divine sparks to their source.” [Jewish tradition dictates that everything has a soul, from inanimate objects to plants to animals to human beings. A soul is a “spark of Godliness,” the very meaning and purpose of its existence, whether that “it” is a human being or a grain of sand.]

Adam Kirsch, head of the graduate program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University explains, “We have interpreted ‘the betterment of the world’ to mean the improvement of society in the name of social justice…I don’t mean to disparage this idea…but there is no doubt that this is not what our ancestors meant when they used the words Tikkun Olam.”

While applying “Jewish values” to make the world a better place is certainly a positive thing, our “actions to repair the world” are meant to be performed Jewishly and with Jewish motives, not for modern political motivations. Additionally, these actions should begin within us and should not come at the expense of the Nation of Israel, which would literally defeat the purpose of not just Tikkun Olam, but also of Judaism. 

Originally “Tikkun Olam-ism” was meant to reach disenfranchized Jews, to get them excited about Judaism by understanding through a lens that they were already familiar with (i.e. social justice), rather than through the lens of Judaism. Unfortunately, this is a mischaracterization that has backfired, as now many Jews have a distorted understanding of their own identity. In the next slides, I will point out two common lines that “Tikkun Olam-ists” have distorted and divorced from their original intent. 

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