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Introduction, Workshop 5: Judaism 1—The Birth of the Abrahamic Tradition

In "Building Bridges," a Tapestry of Faith program

The Jews started it all—and by "it" I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings ... we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives. — Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels

Jewish people number only 14 million worldwide (about two-tenths of one percent of the world's population, or one of every 500 people), yet Judaism is one of the major religions. As the first of the Abrahamic religious line that birthed both Christianity and Islam, Judaism's legacy encompasses at least 3.6 billion people, well over half the population of the globe. Considering the theological, cultural, and political reach of these three faiths across the world's geography, many scholars, such as Thomas Cahill, argue that the influence of Judaism reaches nearly every person who shares our planet.

Judaism and Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalism acknowledges our Jewish and Christian faith heritage as one of our Sources. In our contemporary society, Unitarian Universalists share with Jews strong values for education, equality, religious freedom, and social justice, grounded in a theological position that human agency matters in our own fates and the fate of our world. Further, both Jews and Unitarian Universalists believe we have a responsibility to act to make a difference. Congregations affiliated with religiously liberal branches of Judaism often cooperate with Unitarian Universalist congregations in social justice work, as well as in practical matters, sometimes sharing facilities.

Unitarian Universalism has many members who grew up ethnically, culturally, and/or religiously Jewish. Some may identify as both Jewish and Unitarian Universalist, while others may view themselves as simply Unitarian Universalist. In your congregation, there may be UUs with Jewish background who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with the group. Invite these members to speak from their own, individual experience; do not present anyone as a spokesperson for all UU Jews, or for all Jews.

A Range of Jewish Expression

Judaism in the U.S. today has secular participants (culturally Jewish) as well as adherents who represent a wide range of religious observance. Many, but not all, identify with an institutionalized movement in Judaism—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist. Jews may or may not belong to or attend a synagogue. Judaism has fundamentalist expressions in Orthodox and Chasidic communities which remain close-knit; adherents strictly observe laws given in the Torah (the five books of Moses, or, Old Testament) as interpreted by scholars and leaders of their branch of Judaism. Traditional Judaism asserts that the Torah contains 613 commandments, and many Orthodox Jews try to follow all 613 as literally as possible. The detailed rules for keeping a Kosher household and diet are among these—for example, the biblical injunction against cooking a calf in its mother's milk dictates separate dishware for dairy meals and meat meals in a contemporary Kosher home.

Strictly observant Judaism may not make sense to youth: You might point out that, for some people in many different faiths, living strictly by the rules of their religion strengthens both their faith and their identity in ways they find meaningful, even necessary. The terms "People of the Book" and "People of the Law" date back many centuries to a time when Jewish observance was generally fundamentalist in this way. However, these terms rightly capture an enduring value of study and inquiry across all branches of Judaism—another value shared with Unitarian Universalism.

It may also be worth pointing out that while Jews of European (Asheknazi) heritage comprise a majority among Jews in the U.S., if not the world, Judaism also encompasses large Sephardic (non-European) communities across North Africa and the Middle East as well as non-European communities in India, Ethiopia, Uganda, and China. There are African American Jewish congregations in the U.S., and converts to Judaism from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Israel — A Flashpoint

Study of the Jewish faith may spark youth's comments or questions with regard to Israel, its right to exist, its role in international politics. It is important to clarify, first, that Judaism is both a religion which anyone may explore, practice, or embrace in faith and a people with a long history which recently includes the formation of a homeland, the modern State of Israel. Explain briefly that Israel's establishment in the Middle East was arranged by the U.S., Great Britain, and France following the Allied defeat of Hitler's Nazi Germany. Youth probably know that under the Nazi regime, six million European Jews were exterminated along with numbers of political dissenters, homosexuals, and others. They may not know that Europe's Unitarians also suffered, including Norman Capek, the Czech Unitarian minister who created the flower communion ritual many Unitarian Universalist congregations use today. As needed, explain that Jews in the U.S. today—indeed, around the world—vary widely in their feelings about the concept of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, their attachment to the State of Israel, and their support for the actions of the Israeli government.

In adult, political discourse, controversy about Israel can serve as a flashpoint for stereotypes about Jews, particularly the wrong beliefs that Jews have special powers to advance their needs over other peoples' or that Jews think they matter more than other people. You might explain that when Judaism calls itself "the Chosen People," this phrase reflects a Jewish faith tenet. Religious Jews believe God, speaking through Abraham and then Moses, chose the Jewish people to shoulder the responsibility of doing God's work on earth—that is, to promote justice and well being, and act as stewards to earth and all life on it. Whether and how this Jewish tenet informs the State of Israel's political actions may be a topic worthy of exploration.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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