Judaism and the Jews: All you Need to Know

The followers of Judaism (literally, Judah-ism) are called Jews. Based on a recent estimate by Deming (2015, 270-71), there are about 14 million Jews in the world. The majority of the Jews reside in Israel and the United States, each having about 6.2 million Jews. Next to these two countries is France, which has about 600,000 Jews (many of whom were migrants from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia). Canada has around 420,000 Jews and the United Kingdom has around 360,000. The rest of the Jews are scattered in other areas of the world. On another account, Matthews (2010, 237) estimates the population of Jews in the following areas: Worldwide: 15,118,000; North America: 6,169,000; Africa: 238,000; Asia: 5,350,00; Europe: 2,017,000; Latin America: 1,137,000.

The terms “Judaism” and “Jew” were derived from the word Judah, which was the name of the fourth of the 12 sons of Jacob. Each of the 12 sons of Jacob became the ancestor of a certain tribe. The tribe of Judah, therefore, was one of the 12 tribes of Israel (for Jacob was also called Israel). Originally, the term “Jews” (“Yehudi,” in Hebrew) thus referred to the members of the tribe of Judah. But later on, the tribe of Judah, along with some other tribes (those of Benjamin and Levi, brothers of Judah), became part of the Kingdom of Judah when the Kingdom of Israel was split into the Northern Kingdom, which became the Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, which became the Kingdom of Judah. The Kingdom of Israel was later on conquered by Assyria (in 721 BCE) and the 10 tribes constituting it were exiled from the land. They dispersed and were consequently assimilated by other peoples. The Kingdom of Judah, whose tribes traced their lineage to Israel, was left (though after a century and a half this kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians). In any case, from then on, the term “Jews” was used to refer to the members of the Kingdom of Judah, and no longer just to the specific tribe of Judah.

While the followers of Judaism are called Jews, it must be noted, however, that in the present usage of the term, “Jews” does not necessarily refer to followers or converts of Judaism. There are Jews nowadays who belong to another religion (say Christian Jews) or who do not belong to any religion at all (some are even atheists). This is because one becomes a Jew either by ancestry or by religious affiliation or conversion. In terms of ancestry, one is automatically a Jew if both one’s parents are Jews. In the case of mixed marriages, there are traditional and liberal views.Traditionally, one becomes a Jew if one’s mother is a Jew regardless of whether one’s father is a Jew or not. Liberally, one can also be a Jew if one’s father is a Jew even if one’s mother is not, so long as one chooses to be a Jew. In terms of ancestry, one becomes a Jew regardless of whether one follows the teachings of Judaism or not. On the other hand, in terms of religious affiliation or conversion, one is a Jew if one professes to the faith of Judaism or if one is converted to Judaism through a formal process. Thus it can happen that one becomes a Jew even if one has no Jewish ancestry (see De Lange 2000,1-25; Rich 2012 for a more thorough discussion of this topic). In our discussion, we shall, however, limit our use of the term “Jews” to mean followers or converts of Judaism.

Jews are also called Hebrews and Israelites. They are called Hebrews because they are descendants of Abraham (the grandfather of Jacob) who was called a Hebrew. They are also called Israelites because they are descendants of Jacob, who was also called Israel (see below how he got this name). In this light, the term “Israelites” means “Children of Israel,” but Jews also take this term to mean “God’s chosen people.” Non-Jews, on the other hand, are called Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.