Great World Religions: Judaism

Course No. 6103
Professor Isaiah M. Gafni, Ph.D.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
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Course No. 6103
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Course Overview

What is the essence of Judaism? Is it the Ten Commandments, given by God to Israel at Mount Sinai? Or is it the totality of teachings in the Hebrew Bible? Or is it symbolized by something outside the Bible? However Judaism is defined, the beliefs, practices, attitudes, and institutions of Jews through the ages display a striking diversity, despite the fact that all would ascribe to a common heritage.

Professor Isaiah M. Gafni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem addresses these and other issues as he explores the ever-changing 4,000-year-old saga of Judaism, one of the world's most ancient and influential religions.

More Than a Faith

Indeed, as Professor Gafni points out, Judaism is something more than a religion. Christianity and Islam are faiths, or systems of beliefs, that embrace diverse communities and ethnic groups throughout the world. Although Judaism also adheres to particular beliefs and practices, many Jews would nevertheless consider the designation of Judaism as a religion as far too narrow or confining a categorization.

Where Does the Term Judaism Come from?

Consider the origin of the word "Judaism":

  • In the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, what came to be called Judaism is practiced by a people that are referred to as the nation of Israel.
  • The Israelites believed their destiny was linked to a faith in God and to God's promise to give a particular land to the offspring of Israel's founding patriarch, Abraham, who lived around 1800 B.C.E.
  • Abraham had a son Isaac, who had a son Jacob, who had a son Judah.
  • King David, a descendant of the tribe of Judah, founded a dynasty that would rule over Israel for four centuries. The kingdom would ultimately go by the name of Judah.
  • The word appears for the first time in the Second Book of Maccabees, composed 1,700 years after Abraham, as the designation of a way of life maintained by those people linked to the land of Judaea (the Roman name).

Hence, from the beginning, Judaism meant a people defined by a place as well as an ethnic and religious heritage.

Judaism from Within

Throughout the course, you will study Judaism from within—as it was understood by its adherents in the past and by those who practice or identify with Judaism today.

The lectures cover the critical stages of Jewish history; the centrality of such books as the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Mishna; and the manner in which the Jewish calendar and Jewish law, or Halakha, define daily life.

The course also illustrates how Judaism reinvented itself by embracing the rabbinical tradition after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and considers the thinking of such philosophers as Philo of Alexandria and Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century C.E. scholar whom Professor Gafni calls "the star of this series."

The final lecture turns to the issue of how Judaism deals with the outside world. How does it handle converts to Judaism? How does it manage its dual but potentially conflicting missions: to be true to itself as a people chosen by God, and to be a spiritual example to the world, a "light unto the nations"?

Digging Deeper into Judaism

These are some issues you will encounter:

  • Among many Jews today the Hebrew Bible is known by the Hebrew acronym TaNaKH, which is composed of the first Hebrew letters in each of the three component parts of the Bible.
    The first part is the Torah, or five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch
    The second is Nevi'im, which is Hebrew for "prophets"
    The third is Ketuvim, Hebrew for "scriptures."
  • Judaism's calendar is arguably the most important unifying factor in what is otherwise a frequently fragmented religious community. The key to the calendar is that it is both lunar and solar. Months are defined by the period from one new moon to the next, while the year is adjusted with periodic "leap months" to keep it in accord with the seasons.
  • Judaism has no dogma or creed in the Christian sense. The most famous attempt at forming a set of principles was made by the philosopher Maimonides, replying to a convert's request with this 13-point list:
    1. The existence of God
    2. God's unity
    3. God has no corporeal aspect
    4. God is eternal
    5. God alone, and no intermediaries, should be worshipped
    6. Belief in prophecy
    7. Moses was the greatest of prophets
    8. All of the Torah in our possession is divine and was given through Moses
    9. The Torah will not be changed or superseded
    10. God knows the actions of Man
    11. God rewards those who keep the Torah and punishes those who transgress
    12. Belief that the Messiah will come
    13. Belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Even the most zealously practiced Judaism of today is radically different from the biblical representation of that very same tradition. Why? The break came with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the 1st century C.E. In the aftermath, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai created an alternative system based on a spiritual, decentralized, mobile leadership, without priests or a temple, and focused on prayer instead of animal sacrifice.

The idea of a Messiah has wielded enormous influence on much of Jewish history. The nature of this belief has been constantly in flux—from a restorative notion that envisioned a return to the old glory of Israel to a utopian image that encompassed all nations and pictured a total revision of the laws of nature, where animals that are natural enemies would become friendly neighbors.

A Skilled Storyteller

An award-winning teacher and scholar, Professor Gafni is the Sol Rosenbloom Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has taught for more than 35 years. He has frequently served as a visiting professor at American universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Brown.

Professor Gafni begins Lecture 1 with the following story:

"To present Judaism in a few short lectures is no mean feat, and I am reminded of a story that appears in rabbinic literature.

"It's a story of a potential convert to Judaism who approaches two rabbis. Their names were Hillel and Shammai, and he asks them, 'Teach me all of Judaism as I am standing on one leg.' Now, the first rabbi, Shammai, has no patience for such a frivolous request, and he bangs him over the head with a rod that he happened to have in his hand. The second rabbi, Hillel, answers him with one line claiming this is Judaism (I will not divulge that line until later in our first lecture), and then he says, 'Everything else is commentary. Now go and learn it.'

"I was reminded of that story because I wonder whether Shammai had not chosen the more prudent approach."

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    What is Judaism?
    The goal of this course is to present Judaism as it is perceived by its adherents and practitioners. This opening lecture attempts a definition, or essence, of Judaism. The beliefs, practices, attitudes, and institutions of Jews through the ages evince a striking diversity, yet all would ascribe to a common heritage. x
  • 2
    The Stages of History
    This lecture begins delineating the stages of Jewish history and the evolving nature of Judaism. The major portion of this lecture addresses the earliest and formative stages of Judaism, those that serve as historical frames of reference for much of Jewish ritual and behavior and, in certain cases, as a model for a future restorative process. x
  • 3
    The Jewish Library
    The aim of this lecture is to describe the literary works, beginning with the Bible, that fashioned and constantly directed Jewish behavior. Other writings to be discussed include the Mishna and Talmud; midrashic commentaries and homiletic expansions of the Bible; and the phenomenon of responsa literature. x
  • 4
    The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
    If the faith and behavior prescribed by Judaism are derived from the Bible, why is the Judaism we encounter today so different from the biblical representation of that religious tradition? The answer will lead us to a discussion of the origins and tenets of rabbinic Judaism and the paths of Jewish religious expression. x
  • 5
    Jewish Worship—Prayer and the Synagogue
    This is the first of three lectures that sets out to describe the ways Judaism manifests itself in the lives of its adherents. This lecture addresses the emergence of prayer as a major means of religious worship. What do Jewish prayers contain? When are they conducted? In what language? Attendant to this discussion is a history of the synagogue, its design, and functions. x
  • 6
    The Calendar—A Communal Life-Cycle
    Judaism has a fixed calendar, accepted by all groups practicing Judaism, that determines holidays and is the most important unifying factor in a frequently fragmented community. After presenting the fundamentals of reckoning the Jewish calendar, this lecture goes through the year, stressing what, how, and why Jews celebrate. x
  • 7
    Individual Life-Cycles
    Judaism finds expression at all major stages of an individual's life. This lecture presents the major rituals and rites of passage that accompany boys and girls, men and women, from birth to death. In this lecture we look at questions about gender-specific obligations and distinctions in historical Judaism and recent changes in branches of the Jewish community. x
  • 8
    God and Man; God and Community
    As with so many aspects of Judaism, the perception of the deity cannot be reduced to one accepted creed. This lecture touches on issues of Judaism that have appeared throughout history: knowledge of God; God as creator or the God of Israel; free will, fate, and determinism; reward and punishment; and the afterlife. x
  • 9
    Philosophers and Mystics
    The first part of this lecture discusses Jewish philosophers of a variety of ages and cultural environments. The second portion is devoted to the mystical branch of Jewish thought, Kabbalah. The profound impact of the latter would be felt with the appearance of new forms of religious and communal organizations, with one major example being the appearance of Hasidism. x
  • 10
    The Legal Frameworks of Judaism—Halakha
    This lecture addresses the ideology of the legal system known as Halakha. Orthodox Jews recognize the divine authority of Halakha as a critical foundation of Judaism; others have either tempered this understanding or consider it outmoded. x
  • 11
    Common Judaism—or a Plurality of Judaisms?
    That there are many representations of Judaism has been a constant factor throughout its history. With the element of faith, Judaism also represents an ethnic community, which adds cohesiveness based on nonspiritual foundations. This brings us to a brief discussion of denominations in Judaism today and the current challenge to unity. x
  • 12
    Judaism and “Others”
    The biblical notion of the "election" of Israel by God has been a source of constantly changing interpretation. The idea of a universal salvation through adherence to Judaism is clearly absent. The ethnic component of Judaism did not represent an impenetrable barrier, and converts were happily accepted. This discussion brings us full circle, again addressing the questions raised in the first lecture. x

Lecture Titles

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  • Download 12 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
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DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 6 CDs
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Isaiah M. Gafni

About Your Professor

Isaiah M. Gafni, Ph.D.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Dr. Isaiah M. Gafni is the Sol Rosenbloom Professor of Jewish History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. and has taught for more than 40 years. He was formerly the Director of the Mandel Center of Jewish Studies at the university and also previously served as Director of Graduate Studies at the university's Rothberg International School. He has been a visiting professor at numerous American...
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Great World Religions: Judaism is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 31.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Judaism On One Foot Professor Gafni has undertaken to present 3500 years of Jewish history, philosophy and practice in six hours of lectures. To do so, he necessarily has to paint concepts with a very broad brush. For those with limited exposure to Judaism, the overview will be helpful. It is presented without a predetermined slant toward any single perspective of modern Jewish practice.
Date published: 2019-01-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good primer. Lacks visuals. Engaging presentations and content, but this course was created without many visual aids. Perhaps it would be possible for The Great Courses to edit in better maps, charts, artwork and photos to make the video version more valuable. Otherwise, order the audio version.
Date published: 2016-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Survey for Those of Us Who Know Little video download version As many have commented, this is a very good starter course. For me, it was very instructive and helpful, as I had formulated many ideas of Judaism based on only my limited interactions with Jews and a few Jewish communities. And of course some reading. The history filled out many of my educational gaps, but I found more interesting the discussion by professor Gafni revolving on whether or not Judaism was a religion or an ethnicity fascinating. I was also enlightened by the discussion of the types of Judaism, not only of today, but over the years. For example, my ideas of what constituted orthodox, conservative, reformed, etc. have now been corrected, and for the better. Dr. Gafni is a most enthusiastic and active presenter (one reviewer does take note of his 'pacing'), something that I found helpful. Further, I must take exception to the review that comments that he talks non-stop. I found plenty of places where the professor paused for significant amounts of time, and I never felt that his pace was too fast. My curiosity has been heightened and I would like a more in-depth course. In the meantime, I'll try professor Gafni's other course. Recommended
Date published: 2016-02-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nice course for basics The course is taught by Isaiah M Gafni PhD who has a first hand knowledge of the subject. He is a professor of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, you can't get any clor to ground zero than that. He also has a second course titled 'Beginnings of Judaism' which is also very interesting. Within the time allotted he covers quite a bit of information and does so in a manner that makes the time fly. It is not hard to follow what is being said, and the course book helps to follow along. And no he doesn't have a Jewish accent, such a business if he did..
Date published: 2015-01-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The professor never takes a breath Perhaps the professor of this course thought that he could squeeze more information into this lecture if he rushed through, I don't know. I felt like I was listening to one long run on sentence. There was no breaks in his speaking. No time to digest what he was saying. This course was also disappointing, because I really did not get a sense of the religion. He spent so much time trying to explain why there are different interpretations, I never really got a sense of the whole, just parts. He needed to slow down, even if that meant cutting out information he felt was important. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of information and there was no time for me to come up for air.
Date published: 2014-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Introduction to Judaism This was an awesome course. This was the first course I've heard from Dr. Gafni, but it will not be my last because after hearing this course I searched for more lectures by Dr. Gafni and found that he has one more set. Consider me sold. I learned something during every lecture. That usually happens, but with Dr. Gafni it seemed enlightening to me. He obviously loves the topic and presented it well. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2014-02-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Real Scholarship, Wonderfully Eccentric Prof I belong to a group of retired people who take great courses together. We have studied, art, history, music and now religion. This time around we decided to do ALL of the Worlds Great Religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. I am going to leave our overall rating for each course in each of the five reviews I am writing here. Our final order as it turned out is the same order in which we viewed the courses: Judaism (4 Stars), Christianity (3 Stars), Hinduism (3 Stars), Hinduism (1 Star), Buddhism (No Stars), Professor Gafni was by far the best of the group. A practitioner of the faith he represents and presents he is both a fervent believer and a scholar. He is also a lot of fun. We liked him. We enjoyed him. What Isaiah do this week- wonderful stories from Rabbinical tradition which caused us to laugh and to ponder. He provides an excellent analysis about the nature of the literature, about how the People of the Book came together, about the enduring themes. There were times when the complexity of the material muddled his presentation but overall he managed to provide us with a lot to think about. As a group we were very familiar with Judaism and Christianity and we believed his challenge was to bring us something new. He did. Again and again. So bravo. One other point. The Professor did not seem to use notes. He kept interacting with his viewing audience and his energy was catching. After each of the lectures we have an informal discussion. Of the five courses it was in his courses that our discussion went the longest. Improvement needed: Please Great Course, more visuals. We need to see as well as hear. Images, carefully selected, say a lot.
Date published: 2014-02-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Basic course This is a very basic course. If you have little to no knowledge about Judaism and the history of the Jews as a people, this is a good foundation. As others have commented there is little reference to Jewish religious tenets and how comtemporary Judaism views modern families, such as single parents; gay parents; children out of wedlock; homosexuality; transgenders. Dr. Gafni talks about the inclusiveness of Judaism, but gives no examples for the current day. It would also be helpful to learn how various forms of Jewish practice differ from each other. Recommend the CD if you are distracted by lecturers who constantly pace.
Date published: 2013-03-11
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