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What Is Jewish Theology?

By Micah MacBride
Updated May 23, 2024
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Jewish theology is the study of the nature of God and the meaning of divine laws within the framework of Judaism. This involves studying the canonized religious texts of Judaism for both explicit and implicit directions from God as well as studying the writings and commentaries of past Jewish religious authorities. Theology is a branch of philosophy, so theologians use these resources, in addition to their own reasoning, to answer questions of religious practice and everyday conduct for Jews.

The major religious texts of Judaism can be broadly divided into the written law and the oral law. The written law takes the form of the five books of Moses, also known as the Torah, which Judaism holds to be the literal text that God gave to the Jewish prophet Moses atop Mount Sinai. According to Jewish tradition, in addition to giving Moses the written law, God told Moses how to interpret the text. What God told Moses is referred to as the oral law, and it remained an oral tradition of stories and sayings until it was later codified in the Talmud. The writings of both the major and minor prophets accompany the Torah and Talmud in the canonized texts of Jewish theology.

Jewish scholars treat Jewish theology in the same way that any academic treats his or her area of study: an ongoing conversation between the scholars of the present and the scholars of the past. In searching for the answers to questions of Jewish life and religious practice, they read the major religious texts of Judaism and look for passages that address the questions for which they seek answers. These scholars then look for common threads and themes that connect the sometimes contradictory passages that they find. Jewish scholars also read and analyze the works of Jewish scholars who researched and wrote on similar topics in the past. They then take their own insights into the textual evidence that they find, as well as the arguments of past scholars on the subject, to produce a reasoned argument as to why a particular answer answers a particular religious question.

These answers and arguments combine to create a collection of knowledge about Judaism that educates Jews about the nature and practice of their religion. This knowledge can address highly practical issues, such as what Jews can and cannot do on the Sabbath day. It also addresses abstract and intellectual aspects of Judaism, such as the Jewish conception of the nature of God.

Part of Jewish theology is the approach that scholars of certain schools of thought take when interpreting textual evidence and the insights of past scholars. Conservative schools of Jewish thought produce Jewish scholars who believe in a literal interpretation of textual evidence and the writings of past Jewish scholars, and scholars who belong to more liberal schools of thought believe that evidence and religious arguments need to be reinterpreted in light of changing times and philosophical trends. These differing schools of thought will produce the same answers to some religious questions but different answers to other religious questions. These differing answers to religious questions can lead to different movements and branches within Judaism.

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