Key Figures in the Jewish Religion's History

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  • 0:02 Founders
  • 2:05 Strong Women
  • 3:16 Uniter and Preserver
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Major religious traditions don't just happen overnight. They take the input of many different people. This lesson looks at the roles of some of the most important people in Jewish history.

Founders

Like all great religions, Judaism traces its roots back to people who first explained the tenets of the religious tradition to the people. In Judaism, much like Christianity and Islam, these people are known as prophets because they were able to obtain messages straight from God. Judaism has several such prophets, although two of the most important are also two of the earliest.

Abraham is vital to the development of Judaism as he is really where the story began. Born somewhere around Ur in Mesopotamia, it was Abraham whom God addressed as the founder of His people. This was quite the claim because Abraham was already an old man by the time he became a prophet! Moreover, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to prove his faith. Abraham was willing to do so, placing his belief in God first, even though God prevented Abraham from actually killing his son. Abraham is so revered that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are often collectively referred to as Abrahamic religions, due to the important role he has in all three.

However, while the Jews may have descended from Abraham, he did not found Judaism as a belief system. Instead, that honor goes to Moses, a leader some centuries later who not only led the Israelites, as they were then called, out of Egypt but also gave them the system of laws that would set them apart from so much of the rest of the world. In fact, the famous Ten Commandments were among those introduced by Moses. Moses is held in the highest regard among Jewish people because it was he who not only protected the people but also gave them their identity.

Strong Women

Yet it isn't only men who are strong in the Jewish tradition. Ruth and Naomi emerge as examples of what it means to follow Jewish law as women. In fact, Ruth was originally not a Jew at all but actually converted to the religion after marrying Naomi's son. Then, tragedy struck, as the husbands of both Ruth and Naomi died, leaving both women as widows. This was a hard fate in ancient history because men were the ones who were considered economically responsible for families, while women were supposed to take care of the children.

What really sets Ruth apart is her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Famously, she said that she would not abandon her mother-in-law until the death of one of them. Naomi, too, was loyal to her daughter-in-law, and on at least one occasion, may have put her well-being ahead of adherence to the law. However, ultimately the two women were able to act justly and as real examples of women under Jewish law.

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