There are enough assertions about the "essence of Judaism" to keep Jews and others arguing for another 3,000 years.
One of those essences is political. As I read the Hebrew Bible, and consider the holidays on the Hebrew calendar, Judaism provides a central sacred place to the history of the Jewish people, encounters with others, and survival despite the problems..
Passover is the most prominent feature of the calendar that celebrates Jewish history, in its case a wonderful story likely to be mythic. There is also Shavuot, Chanukah, the 9th of Av, with the modern additions of Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel Independence Day.
The political features of Judaism relate to that other "essence" of Judaism, which is tribal.
At the center of the enterprise is a people with a long history, set upon by others jealous of our existence, relative well-being, and Nobel Prizes. While Christians and Muslims are concerned with beliefs, Jews tend not to ask one another what they believe. They are Jews because they are Jews. Converts are a something else, affected by complexities in religious law and traditions.
The historical concerns of Judaism were prominent during our recent visit to the Galilee and Golan. At home we seldom visit any of the four synagogues within 100 meters. In the Galilee and Golan, however, it is difficult to avoid synagogues if the purpose is to walk and enjoy pleasant views, with an eye to historical significance. The Galilee and Golan were centers of the Jewish population that remained after the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as being important during the period of the Second Temple.
Israel''s Ministry of Tourism along with other government units and private donors provide resources for restorations, as well as facilities to put them on the tourist''s agenda.
The remnants in the Galilee and Golan came some years before the Enlightenment, the birth of Reform and Conservative movements, as well as Hasidic and other Haredi varieties of Judaism. Viewed in the long context, they lead us to ask about the orthodoxy of whatever is said to be "Orthodox Judaism."
High points of this tour were the remnants of Gamla, where Josehus himself organized an unsuccessful defense against the Romans, and the partially reconstructed synagogue at Um al-Kanatah, near the modern settlement of Natur. There we had the pleasure of an chance encounter with the restorer, who provided us with an explanation of the technology involved in knowing where to put each stone found in the rubble left from an earthquake in the 7th century, as well as the significance of the details reconstructed to date. Among his points was the lack of a separation between the sexes found in later synagogues.
We can mark the presence pf Jews in the Galilee and Golan without exaggerating their prominence. The region was always a mixture of peoples, sometimes antagonistic to the point of violence. There are archaeological remains of Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, local Christians, and various Muslim conquerors as well as Jews. Currently there are Arab, Druze, and Circassian villages, as well as Jewish cities, towns, kibbutzim, moshavim, and other settlements. The population in the region is 44 percent Jewish, 38 percent Muslim, 8 percent Druze, 7 percent Christian, and another 3 percent not identified by religion, including individuals who identify with Jews, but do not pass muster with the Rabbinate. (Statisticdal Abstract of Israel 2011, Chapter 2 Table 4)
There is much to see in the Galilee and on the Golan beside the remnants of Jewish and other settlements. It is arguably the most scenic of Israel''s geography , with decent restaurants and easy access to the burgeoning industry of boutique wines.
In the same spirit, it is appropriate to note that Judaism is more than a celebration of important events in the people''s history. Those with an inclination to moral norms ought to start with Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah where you find what Christians claim as the teachings of Jesus. Sceptics can look for their roots in Ecclesiastes, as well as the words of a great folk song (Turn, Turn, Turn).
Judaism now is involved with adversaries no less problematic than earlier enemies. Insofar as Muslim leaders promote the idea that the Jews never were prominent in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the Land of Israel, it is healthy for the spirit of a secular Jew to visit one or more of the old synagogues. And in light of Haredim whoi insist on the segregation of the sexes on buses and sidewalks, it is just as healthy to note the lack of a separate woman''s section.