Judaism is the primal Abrahamic religion, progenitor of Christianity and Islam. These "Desert Monotheisms" appear to be unique among planetery religions in that they by-and-large reject the concept of a pantheon of human-like gods-and-goddesses in favor of an abstract G_d, without definite form. Although other religious traditions acknowledge the existence of such a form of the divine, usually most interaction is done with very different aspects. In this respect, the Desert Monotheisms are different and unique. It's worth noting this feature above almost all others when attempting to understand the perspective of believers of this tradition. Even Islam and Christianity have a human face, a being who in some way represents the Human Face of God, if only in folk belief.
Judaism begins with Abraham, a human (c. 2000 BC? although placed much earlier) being drawn into a perilous relationship with the divine. Over the course of a turbulent lifetime with many stark interactions with G_d, Abraham founds the Jewish people: a tribe which has made a deal with G_d. Over the next several millenia this tribe is (according to the tradition) lead through many trials, occasionally visited by prophetic leaders who refine the deal with Hashem ("The Lord" - a somewhat more polite way of saying YHVH), including Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) and various other figures.
Sometime around the Fall of the Second Temple - destroyed by the Romans - Judaism undergoes one of many significant changes in character, becoming dominated by the Rabbinical tradition. This vividly textual, and largely non-mystical movement has roughly the same effect on Judaism as having America require a law degree to run a church or practice meditation. It begins a process of cultural ossification, each generation of Rabbis adding to The Law in ways which remove freedom degree by degree. This process proceeds slowly and inexorably, like calcification of healthy tissues, set back by flowerings of mysticism and cultural renessances from time to time.
In the last couple of hundred years, the traditional belief in Tikkun Olam - healing the world, or completing the creation - mutated into widespread support for such world saving ideologies as communism. Pre-Holocaust, largely atheistic jewish social movements like the Bundists kept the core cultural values of Judaism alive within a purely political and social context, while at the same time more traditional Jewish cultural groups kept closely to their traditions and isolated from society at large, either by choice or through persecution (a massive part of the European Jewish experience for at least a thousand years).
The Holocaust changes the landscape entirely, splitting the Jewish world into three parts: the Diaspora - Jews outside of Israel, often with mild or no religious beliefs and weak cultural identity, the Israelis - an embattled warrior tribe of similar character to the Ancient Jews (at least juding from their decription of themselves in the Book), and the Hassidim - stereotyped (often accurately) as the guys in funny black hats, who cleave closely to much older forms of Judaic beliefe and are, by and large, extremely uninterested in worldly affairs. The Hassidim also are the guardians of what remains (a lot!) of the Jewish mystical tradition, from which Kabalah is drawn, and exist both within and without Israel.
The Jewish identity is a complex beast: not belief, but tribal lineage and (for men) initiation by circumcision appear to be defining factors in saying "who is Jewish." One can be a Jew, and believe nothing or another religion. Similarly becoming Jewish is not a matter of adopting a religious belief, but of joining a tribal group which may, if their story is to be believed, by in some sense a "Chosen People" - an intergenerational group with a special relationship with an aspect of the Divine. Given the caliber of the Jewish Experience in the twentieth century, I defy anybody to suggest that there is nothing going on here, although *what* is going on is clearly not anybody's personal property, or easily defined in human terms. To have a third of your population fed into ovens by Hitler, then to be granted your ancestral lands, yet still populated, within a ten year period is a mythic event on much the same scale as the story of Moses in Egypt, albeit with less special effects.
A lot is going on here. I think that's all that can be said while remaining relatively objective.
So what is the core of the Jewish Religion?
- There is an absolute, singular creator. No other gods are acknowledged.
- This creator singled out the Jewish People and made intergenerationally binding contractural deals with them. Whatever other people think about G_d is unrelated to this tribal experience of it. Religious duty is to keep these agreements, and to try and understand or know G_d, with this second task extremely secondary and optional.
- These deals specifically pertained to the Land of Israel.
- At some future point, Meshiach will come. Meshiach is the foundation of the Christian Messiah archetype, but significantly more complex: perhaps not an individual, but a time and a place? It's hard to say but it's a lot more complicated than Jesus Comes Back. This is an epoch ending event and basically represents the arrival of Heaven On Earth.
- When you die, you stay dead until God brings you back to life in the Messianic Age. Some Kabalistic traditions acknowledge Gilgul, a form of reincarnation, but that's a fringe belief.
- There are a set of traditional practices which can be observed outside of Israel and the Messianic Age: observing Shabat and other religious festivals, observing kashrut or the dietary laws and so on. An originally relatively simple system of observance has become baroque through two thousand years of Rabbinical interpretation, which leads to the complexity of Orthodox Judaism's practices around pushing baby strollers on a Friday night. There are also a set of practices, like Rebuilding The Temple, which happen in Israel in relation to the Messianic Age. But that gets complicated. Do human actions influence the coming of the Messianic Age? It's a hot topic.
- The Torah - the Book - contains the Word of G_d and is the source for all understanding of divinity. Argument about the nature of G_d must be founded on the Torah, and not on personal experience except as a guide to interpretation. The Book Is The Absolute Source. This is a more signficant point and is in many ways core to the religion and the tradition, but I cannot speak to it with any real understanding. Perhaps somebody will enlarge on this point or put it into correct context.
No discussion of Judaism would be complete without some thoughts on the nature of persecution in the Jewish experience. Since the execution of Jesus Christ the Jews have frequently been persecuted by people who believe that this particular Rabbi was, in fact, the Messiah. Troubling questions like "if that was the Messiah, where's the Messianic Age?" have been swept under the rug for Quite Some Time. However, the damage done, persecution of the Jews seems to have been a pretty regular occurance for most of the time since then, interspersed with periods of relatively peaceful integration. There is no rational explanation for this pattern but it is something that a Magician with an interested in Judaic technologies, practices or understandings should be aware of.
It is also worth noting that Kabalah may not, actually, remotely function as intended outside of a regular Jewish spiritual life and identity. The relatively simplistic understanding of the Tree of Life and Gematria which is prevalent in Western or Christian Kabalah is a fraction of the actual model and practice, and may not actually lead anywhere interesting from a Jewish perspective. For example, if one speaks Hebrew fluently, the gematria becomes like physics, poking around in the fundamental understructures of the mind. If one is not fluent in Hebrew, then it's a set of cute correspondences in somebody else's magical language...
It is unclear at which point in history Kabalistic technologies jumped from the Jewish world into the Western Magical Tradition but that was clearly an extemely significant event. Does anybody know more about when that happened?
Judaism's praxis - towards the Messianic Age - leaves little room for individual transcendence. The tradition of Tzadiks - saints - appears to have grown up around the phenomena without clear scriptural inspiration. Great mystical leaders like the Baal Shem Tov appear along side the main historical thrust of the tradition, and play a part, but are not integrated within it as, say, a Pope is integrated into the narritive of Christianity. History plays out with or without any given Tzadiks appearance or action. This is distinctly different from Hinduism or Buddhism, where an individual Guru plays a mandated function, each carrying a few beings to enlightnement with them. Without a clear conception of what spiritual "advancment" achieves it's unclear why individual spiritual effort matters at least in the grand scheme of things. Again, this point needs clarification, but compare and contrast to Christianity, where being "Saved" is the reason for individual spiritual effort, or Hinduism or Buddhism's attitudes towards individual enlightnement. Big difference, subtle implications. It may be that in Judaism, spiritual advancement is a pragmatic act with effects reaching only as far as the individual life of the practitioner, and those they directly effect.
Hell of a stub. I'm going to see if I can't get a Rabbi I know to tighten it up a bit.