Judaism is based on the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud, as well as on Jewish law called Halakha. Judaism exists in various branches and a large number of varieties.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion. It is based on the written teachings of the Torah and the oral teachings discussed in the Talmud. Jewish law, called Halakha, draws on both the written and oral teachings of Judaism and on Rabbinic rulings over the centuries. The Halakha is a set of rules. A compilation of these rules can be found in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law most commonly used by religious Jews as a framework for the conduct of their everyday life.
Branches of Judaism
Judaism in Switzerland, as in other countries, consists of various branches that each interpret certain teachings and laws of Judaism in different ways. This means there is no uniform or standard version of Judaism, but a broad spectrum of different practices.
At one end of this spectrum we have the strictly observant communities who follow an orthodox or strictly orthodox lifestyle. Their everyday life is clearly regulated by Jewish law, or Halakha. In order to keep their traditions alive, many orthodox or strictly orthodox Jews wear the same kind of clothes as their ancestors did in Eastern Europe, and also grow and keep long sidelocks. Other strictly orthodox Jews, often those from a Western European background, cannot be distinguished from non-Jews by their hairstyle or clothing.
In the modern orthodox branch of Judaism, Halakha rules are also observed, but its adherents are outwardly less easily recognisable. Some wear a kippah (a brimless cap), others don’t. The majority of Jewish communities in Switzerland pursue a modern orthodox approach, particularly the unified communities («Einheitsgemeinden») such as the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich, die Communauté Israélite de Genève and the Israeltische Gemeinde Basel. These are also the three Swiss Jewish communities with the largest number of members. As mentioned above, Halakha rules are generally observed, particularly the Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. These communities are, however, open to various interpretations of Jewish religion and culture. In the unified communities, there is a particularly large bandwidth regarding religious practice, ranging from strict adherence to a modern orthodox way of life to a lifestyle in which Halakha is largely ignored.
Secular Jews form the majority within the Jewish communities in Switzerland. Some of them nevertheless observe certain religious rules and traditions, for example by having their children circumcised, celebrating Jewish holidays and abstaining from pork. For others, religion plays no role in their lives, whereas certain Jewish traditions and cultural elements are retained.
Who is Jewish?
From a statistical point of view, anyone calling themselves a Jew counts as such. According to the definition of orthodox Judaism, only a Jewish mother can pass on her religion to her children, whereas liberal Jews also accept transmission of Jewishness through the father. In none of the branches of Judaism does it matter whether the person concerned practices Judaism or not. If someone is born a Jew, they remain a Jew. Judaism has never been a proselytising religion. Nevertheless, it is basically possible for a non-Jew to convert to Judaism through a longish process known as Giyur, at the end of which a rabbinical court decides on his or her acceptance within the Jewish community.
Jews around the world
Today there are around 14.5 million Jews worldwide. Over 80% of them live either in Israel or the USA. Switzerland counts around 18,000 Jews, thereby ranking 18th in the world in this respect. Jewish populations of more than 18,000 can be found in 19 countries, including Canada, Australia and several European countries such as France, the United Kingdom and Germany. A majority of Jews are secular, yet maintain certain Jewish traditions. In other words, they cannot outwardly be recognised as Jews and live a secular life while still observing certain religious practices. Jewish communities differ from one country to another in terms of their history and also their concentration in certain (usually urban) hubs. The number of strictly orthodox Jews is estimated at 10% of Jews overall. Strictly orthodox hubs can be found particularly in New York, London, Manchester, Antwerp, Strasbourg, Vienna and Zurich.
This article can provide only a basic introduction to the many shades and features of contemporary Judaism. For more details, please refer to the SIG fact sheets on the topic of religion and to the bibliography below.
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan 2017: Judaism. History, Belief and Practice, London: Routledge.
Segal, Eliezer 2008: Introducing Judaism, Oxford: Taylor & Francis.
Wylen, Stephen 2000: Settings of Silver: An Introduction to Judaism, Mahwah: Paulist Press.