Jews of the Middle East - Religion

Traditionally, people identified as Jews were those who adhered to the laws of the Pentateuch, as revealed by Moses, and who retained and read the Scriptures in Hebrew. They saw themselves as the descendants of the Hebrew patriarchs; even those who converted to Judaism were symbolically inducted into the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the twentieth century there are several groups who still define themselves in this way. One of these is the Samaritans, few in number (152 in 1901; 430 in 1970) who live in Nablus on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in Holon, Israel. Technically, they are not Jews, albeit Israelites, as the Samaritan Canon of Scriptures accepts only the Pentateuch and the Books of Joshua and Judges as divinely revealed, and they continue to practice animal sacrifice at Passover.

The Jews, in the sense of those who accept the full Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, include the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, who may have become isolated before the full crystallization of postbiblical Judaism, the Rabbinites, and the Karaites (Qaraites). These latter two groups can be understood only in relation to one another. The Rabbinites, who include the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world today, trace themselves back to the Pharisees of Judea, during the Maccabeean and Roman periods. The Pharisees and their successors developed a tradition of the interpretation of the laws of Moses, which became codified in the Talmudic literature. Many features of contemporary Judaism stem from this branch of Judaism including, among others, the substitution of fines and payment of compensation for body mutilation to enforce the lex talionis, lighting of candles to begin the Sabbath and holidays, the Seder ceremony to mark Passover, keeping Sabbath dishes warm, the Hebrew prayer book, and Talmudic study and argumentation.

During the seventh and eight centuries A . D ., those who argued that the Pharisaic-Rabbinic interpretation constituted a deviation from revealed Scripture formed a sect called the "Karaites" ("Scriptualists"). In the twentieth century Karaites lived in Lithuania, Crimea, and Egypt, although most of those in Egypt have emigrated to Israel or North America. In Egypt in particular, there was much contact between the Karaite and Rabbinite Jews, whereas relations between the two groups in czarist Russia were marked by tension, hostility, and social distance. Unless otherwise noted, the remainder of this article pertains only to Rabbinite Jews.

During the twentieth century, Rabbinite Jews have been divided into two groups: those who attempt to adhere to traditional beliefs and practices (traditionalists, Orthodox, orthopraxic) and those who, as "modems," no longer accept the Torah (the laws of Moses) as divinely revealed. In both Israel and North America, the latter are the majority, either alone or when counted in combination with individuals who do not observe the tradition strictly, regardless of their beliefs.

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