Judaism: An Overview
JUDAISM: AN OVERVIEW
Judaism is the religion of the Jews, an ethnic, cultural, and religious group that has its origins in the ancient Near East, has lived in communities as members of collective polities and as individuals throughout the world, and now numbers about thirteen million people, chiefly concentrated in the State of Israel, North America, and Europe. However, not all Jews practice Judaism as a religion; nor does every form of Judaism constitute a religious expression. Judaism as a religion has since its emergence held to a belief in one God; believed that the Jewish people are bound to God by a sacred covenant; and read, interpreted, and followed what it sees as the terms of that covenant in God's revelation in the form of the Torah. But Jews' conceptions of God have ranged from extreme anthropomorphism to forms of pantheism; the idea that the covenant obliges Jews especially and personally has been challenged by certain Jewish religious movements in modern times; and ways and implications of interpreting the Torah have varied greatly, even in the most common forms of Judaism.
It is impossible to separate the history and description of Judaism from that of the Jewish people. Defining and describing Judaism for a reference work on religion therefore presents several questions, many of which do not arise when describing most other religions. How does one identify the Jewish people—a political, social, and religious entity that has ranged from antiquity to the present, that is not limited to one geographic region, and the members of which do not always agree on what constitutes membership in their community? Does this definition preclude any doctrinal or behavioral definition of Judaism? When members of that community depart from a set of beliefs or practices but still consider themselves Jews, are they still adherents to Judaism? Does one accept internal definitions of Judaism and Jews, or does one draw conclusions from the historical range of Jewish history?
Questions are not limited to those that concern identifying the Jews as an entity and simply describing their culture, the way one might define a geographic region such as southern India or ancient Mesoamerica and describe its indigenous religions. For Judaism as a religion has carried within it a concept of Jewish peoplehood. This concept is knit into the fabric of its myths, rituals, and theology. The Jewish people, usually designated as Israel in Jewish theological and mythic discourse, stands at the center of almost all major religious expressions of Judaism through the notion of a covenant between Israel and God. Religious conversion to Judaism entails not only joining a creed, set of rituals, and community, but an extended family as well: it is customary in Jewish legal and ceremonial practice for a convert to designate his or her parents as Abraham and Sarah, the progenitors of the Jewish people. Moreover, modern secular nationalist definitions of Judaism, such as Zionism, have drawn heavily from those religious conceptions of Jewish peoplehood and could not have developed without them. A few modern expressions of Judaism have sought to minimize or reconfigure the place of Jewish peoplehood in Judaism. Most notably some sectors of the Reform movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to redefine Judaism as a form of ethical monotheism open to all. However, a closer look at these expressions shows that they usually saw the dissolving of boundaries between Jews and non-Jews as the outcome of an enlightened, utopian future and furthermore saw Israel as a distinct entity charged with the mission of spreading Mosaic religion to the larger world.
In the light of the centrality of peoplehood in Judaism's conception of itself, the major historical entries on Judaism that follow will focus not only on myths, rituals, theologies, ethics, and factions that make up stages of Judaism but political and demographic data as well. After a brief discussion of criteria by which historians of religion can survey this subject, this article will proceed to a description of some of the major historical stages, themes, and practices that constitute Judaism.
The term Judaism first appears in Hellenistic Jewish literature, most prominently 2 Maccabees (a narration of the Judean revolt against the Seleucid Greeks in the second century bce), where the word Ioudaïsmos seems to identify the ways and practices of the Jews in contradistinction with those of the "barbarians" (which in 2 Mc. 2:21 actually means Greeks). There Ioudaïsmos is contrasted with Hellenismos, the ways and practices of the Greeks that the Maccabees' Jewish opponents wished to follow. Thus the term Judaism began as a way of distinguishing itself from the other. Likewise the Hebrew term Yahadut appears occasionally in the Middle Ages with a similar valence. In all of these premodern examples, Judaism refers to the whole of a religious behavioral system and is not given a substantive, doctrinal definition. From the Hellenistic period until the dawn of modernity, Jews would be most likely to describe their practices, beliefs, and theological thinking as Torah. This word originally meant "teaching" and in its simplest common meaning applies to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch). However, as shall be seen, the term came to encompass nearly the entirety of Judaic religious discourse.
It is in modern times that the word Judaism came most commonly to denote a full-fledged religious system that could be compared with Christianity, Islam, and other religions. From the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century it became common for Jewish thinkers to identify an "essence of Judaism," which consisted mainly of a set of doctrines authentic to the eternal character of Judaism as a religion. Books such as Leo Baeck's The Essence of Judaism (1961/1948) and Abba Hillel Silver's Where Judaism Differed (1987/1956) sought not only to present Judaism as a set of creeds and norms but to distinguish it from Christianity and other religions. Likewise much Jewish historiography in the nineteenth century was concerned with what was essential and nonessential to Judaism in Jewish history. As a result historians such as Heinrich Graetz dismissed large movements in Jewish history and thought as unjüdisch (see Biale, 1982).
This tendency was balanced by the efforts of historians of Jewish literature such as Leopold Zunz and Moritz Steinschneider, whose principal motivation was to uncover and catalog as many textual and cultural sources as possible. In the latter half of the twentieth century historians such as Gershom Scholem (who once described himself as a "religious anarchist"), Salo Baron, and others sought to describe Jewish cultures in their widest variety, privileging virtually no central idea or spiritual phenomenon over others. So too Jacob Neusner, describing the Jewish religious landscape in late antiquity, sees the major documents and genres of Jewish literature as constituting discrete "Judaisms" and not as one entity. Scholem's historiography, rejecting normative criteria for admitting phenomena into Jewish history, encompassed not only the Qabbalah but expressions of Judaism widely considered heretical, such as the messianic movements surrounding Shabbetai Tsevi and Jacob Frank, the extreme anthropomorphism of the Shiʿur Qomah literature of late antiquity, and "Jewish Gnosticism."
The earlier generation's effort at distinguishing the unique aspects of Judaism, however, was also paradoxically an attempt to place Judaism on a parity with other "world religions," especially Christianity. By describing it primarily as a set of doctrines, this discourse made Judaism a philosophical or spiritual system that could be compared with other systems of its class. This, no less than the status of Judaism as the spiritual ancestor of Christianity and Islam, granted Judaism pride of place in encyclopedias, textbooks, and other large-scale comparisons of Western religions.
Other historians and theorists of religions also had their uses for Judaism. For some historians of early Christianity and the matrix of first-century Judaism that produced it, Judaism was portrayed as a civilization whose nomocentrism, casuistry, and parochialism could be contrasted with early Christianity's spirituality, sincerity, and universality. For anthropologists from James Frazer (Folklore in the Old Testament, 1988) and W. Robertson Smith (Religion of the Semites, 2002/1956), Judaism could be held up to examination as an example of the persistence of ritual patterns, such as food taboos and sacrificial values, that also characterized "primitive" religions. From the nineteenth century, which saw the birth of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scholarly study of Judaism, historians of Judaism responded with a counterdiscourse that sought to prove that within Judaism's legal structure lay profound ethical and spiritual truths. Whereas, as mentioned above, this movement sometimes resulted in the tendency to gloss over aspects of Jewish history that did not conform to Western rationalist ideals of religion, this effort also succeeded in uncovering a sophisticated philosophical and literary civilization within the vast Jewish manuscript collections of Europe and the Middle East. With the increased integration of the study of Judaism into the Western academy, historians and critics have come to challenge conceptions of Judaism forged in these early conflicts. In addition, some students of the major non-Western religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, have come to see Judaism as a comperand for such themes as exile, scholasticism, purity, and discourse of sacrifice.
This has resulted in a productive tension between the effort to identify elements of Judaism that are enduring and indispensable on the one hand and on the other the tendency to see no form of Judaism as alien to the historian. It has led to synthetic studies tracing key motifs and ideas through long stretches of time; has brought to light genres, theological and experiential trends, and ritual patterns that otherwise might have been neglected; and keeps students of religion conscious of the complexity of their subject. It is likewise productive for an overview such as this, for it makes both writer and reader aware of the value of generalizations as well as their limits.
After a brief discussion of what constitutes Jewish identity in Judaism, this article will be organized historically, with an eye to understanding what each historical episode in the history of Judaism has contributed to the religion and culture as it stands in the early twenty-first century. This history will be described in five major stages.
- The biblical period, second millennium to 536 bce. In this period the Israelites coalesced into a divided kingdom under a Davidic royalty and a priestly caste. During this time the worship of YHWH rose to become the defining characteristic of Israel's religion and the Temple in Jerusalem the most important place of sacrifice and sacred space. In this period as well the scribes, priests, prophets, and poets dedicated to that God composed the writings that would become the Hebrew Scriptures.
- The Second Temple period. After a fifty-year period of exile, the leadership of the nation of Judah returned from exile under Persian rule (538 to 333 bce). With the advent of Greek, then Roman control of Judea and the introduction of Hellenism (333 bce to 70 ce), political, economic, and cultural upheavals led to the formation of a Diaspora in the Greco-Roman world and the rise of competing sects and communities within Judea. During this period the writings of the biblical period were increasingly treated as a canon and were subject to diverse methods of interpretation. The civil strife that beset the commonwealth in the first century culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 ce.
- The rabbinic period, 70 ce to the sixth century. With the destruction of the Temple, a class of nonpriestly leaders called rabbis sought to construct a system whereby the worship of God centered around the study of the Torah as interpreted by its authoritative transmitters, the rabbis, and according to which the performance of individual commandments (mitsvot) could lead the person to a beatific life after resurrection. During this period synagogues became the primary locus of worship, and early forms of Jewish magic and mysticism took shape.
- The medieval period, sixth to sixteenth centuries. During this period Jews increasingly lived in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East among Christians and Muslims. This encounter with the two major religious civilizations that saw themselves as daughter and successor religions to Judaism produced tensions and new forms of discourse. Under Islam, Jews developed an extensive literature of systematic philosophy and secular poetry; under Christianity, Jewish intellectuals produced innovative systems of textual and legal interpretation.
- The early modern and modern period, seventeenth to twenty-first centuries. During this period Jews in the Middle East and North Africa were affected by the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire and the colonization of those parts of the world by European countries. In eastern Europe new religious trends such as the Hasidic movement and the Talmudism of the Vilna Gaon changed the face of Jewish life. From the early nineteenth century onward Jews in the West increasingly became citizens of modern states, not members of autonomous Jewish communities. In some states in western Europe and in America it became possible for Jews to leave Jewish communities and disavow any Jewish identity without converting to another religion. By the twentieth century it also became possible to abandon Judaism as a religion while retaining a Jewish identity. During the modern period the religious denominations Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, and Reconstructionism formed over differences in the status and interpretation of Jewish law, the nature of revelation, and the role of the Jewish people in the modern world. In this period, in response to the growth of modern European nationalism as well as the rise of political anti-Semitism, the Zionist movement formed around the idea that the Jews could only find safety and fulfillment as a nation by returning to the Land of Israel.
Each historical stage will not be described comprehensively. Rather, those major elements of each period that contributed most to later stages will be emphasized. For more complete accounts, the reader is referred to the other major articles in this section. The article will conclude with a description of some of the most important forms, themes, and practices in contemporary Judaism, noting differences among the denominations where relevant. These include basic theological tenets, practices and rituals, and principles of ethics and polity.
Who Is a Jew?
The Hebrew Bible most often uses the word Israel, Yisrael, in such formulas as Bene Yisrael, "the children of Israel," or ʿAm Yisrael, the people of Israel. This term for the Jewish people has persisted in legal and religious discourse. Individually a Jew is known in Hebrew as Yehudi, Jew, or Yisrael, "member of Israel," the latter used principally to designate an individual in legal language from the Mishnah onward. However, the term Israel also refers to the kingdom that, according to the Hebrew Bible's historiography, formed when the descendants of Jacob (Israel) settled the land of Canaan, appointed kings, and in 722 bce formed a separate kingdom from the southern Kingdom of Judah. Since this kingdom was conquered in 586 bce and its leaders exiled, what remained was Judah. By the third century bce its inhabitants became known as Judeans or Ioudaïoi. As a result of this history it is customary in English to use the term Israelite when referring to the people of biblical times before the Babylonian exile (that is, the second millennium to 585 bce) and to use the term Jew to refer to the people after that period.
The criteria for membership in the Jewish people have not always been clear. In ancient Israel citizenship in the geographic and political entities that formed Israel and Judah were synonymous with being a member of the people. From the time of Ezra in the fifth century bce onward (see Ez. 9), Jewish law has prohibited intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. From at least the first century ce to the early twenty-first century it has been agreed that any child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. However, some scholars have suggested that Jewish communities as late as the Hellenistic period considered the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to be a Jew. At any rate the matrilineal definition held sway in Jewish law from the early rabbinic period until modern times. In the twentieth century the Reform and Reconstructionist movements declared that being the child of a Jewish father is sufficient to make one a Jew on condition that the parents raise the child as a Jew. However, this definition is controversial and is not accepted by the Orthodox and Conservative movements. The other way one becomes a Jew is by conversion. Since late antiquity, conversion in Rabbinic Judaism has been a legal procedure that involves accepting Judaism, circumcision for all males, and ritual immersion for all converts. That procedure thus changes the status of the individual and he or she is considered Jewish in every way. Whereas the Law of Return of the State of Israel grants citizenship to all Jews, the definition of the Jew for those purposes is still a matter of controversy, involving religious, political, and sociological considerations.
The Biblical Heritage
While the religion of ancient Israel differed in many dramatic ways from the Judaism that emerged from the Hellenistic era onward, several of the central ideas that were to define Judaism as a religion in this earliest stage of Judaism originated in this period. Two of the most fundamental are the sacred history of the Jewish people and the idea of their covenant with the one God. The narrative of the Torah, together with the "historical" books of the Bible, such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and the books of Kings, tell a story of the foundation, growth, and tribulations of a nation guided by its relationship to God. (God is known by several names, both generic and specific, in the Hebrew Bible; chief among them is a four-letter proper name whose original pronunciation is lost but whose letters correspond in English to YHWH. Based on some early sources, scholars often use the pronunciation Yahweh for this name.) This nation, according to Genesis, began with God's call to Abraham to go forth from his Mesopotamian homeland to form a holy nation (Gn. 12). In Genesis 17, God appears to Abraham as El Shaddai. He then makes the following charge to Abraham: "Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous." He further stipulates that He will assign the land of Canaan to his children, and as a sign of that covenant Abraham is to circumcise himself and his male children. This practice is called brit milah, the covenant of circumcision.
The idea that a covenantal relationship exists between God and the children of Abraham is a driving force behind biblical and postbiblical Jewish theology and has informed every stage of Judaism. This covenant, like many political and religious treaties in the ancient Near East, is one of suzerainty, a solemn contractual relationship between unequal parties. At the same time it implies mutual obligations. In return for Israel's obedience, God will preserve the people and allow them to prosper. As a result, in biblical narration and prophetic rhetoric, Israel's misfortune was understood as a result of the nation's failure to live up to its terms in the covenant.
The covenant is tested and renewed several times in biblical narrative. It is tested when, in Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, thus putting the prospect of his having an heir into jeopardy (this, and not the ordinary love of father for son, was probably the source of the tension in the story for ancient readers, who were acquainted with the practice of sacrificing the first born). In Exodus 19–20, at Mount Sinai, God lays out, in the fashion of ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties, the terms of the covenant as they apply to the Children of Israel most permanently and dramatically through Moses, the paradigmatic prophet. The people, descendants of Jacob and his brothers who had settled in Egypt, had been liberated from slavery by God's intervention. God sets out the terms of their future relationship:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
After the people declare their acceptance of the covenant, the details of Israel's obedience are set forth in the Ten Commandments and the law code that follows. Those laws entail monolotry, that is, the requirement that Israel worship no god other than YHWH, social norms, and observance of the Sabbath. A result of the foundational status accorded to the Sinai experience, legal relationships tend to have deep emotional consequences in Judaism. One important biblical term for God's love of Israel is Ḥesed, which refers to the love that arises from God's fulfillment of his part in the covenantal relationship (see Ps. 136). Another poetic motif is that of marriage, a contractual relationship that carries strong emotional implications; for example, in the Book of Hosea the Sinai experience is seen as the honeymoon between Israel and YHWH. Israel's worship of other deities is depicted as adultery, and God's willingness to forgive the people is likened to the love of a forgiving husband.
The master narrative of the Hebrew Bible continues with its depiction of the people settling in Canaan under Joshua's leadership and forming a confederation of tribes led by a series of charismatic "judges," which then grows into a kingdom ruled by royalty descended from David. This kingdom divides into two, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In 722 bce Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, leaving Judah alone in the south. In 587 bce Judah too was conquered by the Babylonians and its leaders exiled. They returned in 538 bce under the Persian emperor Cyrus, who allowed them to rebuild the Temple and install a local government.
The early episodes of this grand narrative that weaves through the Torah and the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible do not always correspond with what historians can reconstruct of the early history of the Israelites. But after this narrative was codified in the Hebrew Bible and interpreted by generations of Jews from the postexilic period onward, it played a central role in determining not only Israel's self-conception but its ritual system, legal structure, and eschatology. The books that became the Hebrew Bible took shape over several centuries from the dawn of the first millennium bce to the second century ce. The bulk of the Torah and the historical and prophetic books were probably composed from many sources during the period of the Judan monarchy, between the tenth and sixth centuries bce.
Historians thus now present a complex picture of a society that emerged from diverse origins in the Fertile Crescent and came, in the first few centuries of the first millennium bce, to understand itself as a nation unified by common ancestry and divine election. The Bible as it now exists is the product of a group of scribes, priests, and poets loyal to the cult of YHWH and so excludes much of the religious tendencies of ancient Israelites, including women. Archaeological finds of extrabiblical documents and close readings of the Hebrew Bible itself suggest that religion for some of ancient Israel's inhabitants included worship of deities such as Asherah, YHWH's consort; human sacrifice; and other phenomena condemned or ignored by biblical writers. Likewise students of the religion of ancient Israel believe that the Israelite idea of God evolved from a henotheistic religion to a monotheistic one. That is, ancient Israelite religion developed from a system whereby one local deity, YHWH, was believed to be a supreme God and further demanded excusive loyalty to one whereby only one God existed and all others were illusions. It became the common way of understanding God in the Hellenistic period. Even then, however, most Jews until modern times have believed in the existence of superhuman beings, such as angels and demons.
Integral to Israelite religion, like all Mediterranean religions in antiquity, was the system of sacrificial worship and seasonal pilgrimages. After several centuries this system came to be concentrated in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the climate of the Judean hills, a central concern was rain and the harvest. The festival system revolved around the agricultural cycle of that region. There were three major pilgrimage festivals. Pesaḥ, Passover, was a spring lamb sacrifice which was combined with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Ḥag ha-Matsot. Shavuʿot, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after Passover, celebrated barley and wheat harvests and the offering of the first fruits. In time two of the festivals came to be associated with historical events. Sukkot commemorated Israel's sojourn in the Sinai Desert. The commandment to live in temporary harvest huts (sukkot) was associated with the tabernacles in which the Israelites lived in the wilderness. The spring festival of unleavened bread, Passover, commemorated the exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites had no time to let the bread rise in their haste to escape. By the rabbinic period the Shavuʿot became associated with the revelation at Sinai. The fall season began with a convocation of the nation at the beginning of the calendar year in Tishri (known by the rabbinic period as Roʾsh ha-Shanah) and, most important, a solemn sacrifice to cleanse the Temple of impurity and a day of fasting and atonement for sins (Yom Kippur).
Daily and seasonal offerings of slaughtered animals, grain, and fruits took up most of the activity in the Temple. Biblical stories make it clear that the sacrifice of animals on the altar was particularly pleasing to God if the individual who was sacrificing met with favor. In Genesis 8:20–22 Noah, having been spared the Flood, offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving. YHWH inhales the pleasing aroma of the burning meat and decides never again to doom the earth because of humanity's sins. On the other hand the prophets, often critics of the political authorities, warned that God would not accept the people's offerings if the sacrificers had not made provisions for a just society.
The sacrifice for Yom Kippur is another good illustration of the phenomenology and ritual system of biblical Israel. In Leviticus 16:2 God instructs Moses, "Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die, for I appear in the cloud over the cover." In this passage God is conceived as localized but volatile. His abode is in heaven, and he is able to come to earth under specific ritual circumstances. Those circumstances involve the presence of a sacred space—in this case the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle or Temple—that the deity is able to inhabit. Nor is God invisible. In this case he comes enclosed in a cloud. Indeed there are several instances in which God is seen directly; the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel have divine visions, and at Sinai, Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel "saw God, and ate and drank." At the same time direct encounter with the divine presence is a dangerous thing, and some biblical traditions think of the sight of God as fatal. In Exodus 33 God, replying to Moses' request to see him, says, "No one can see My face and live." Those who do see them, such as Isaiah, are frightened that they will die as a result (Is. 6:5).
What makes the encounter possible is observance of a system whereby ritual impurity, caused by such sources as corpses, dead reptiles, seminal flux, and menstruation, is purged from the Temple precincts, especially by means of water, sacrificial blood (which purges the sacrificial altar), and the purifying ashes of a red heifer. The creation of a pure space on earth allows God's presence to descend from the pure environment of the divine abode and bestow on the people the blessings of a complex agricultural society: safety from enemies, rain and prosperity, and children to carry on the family economy. But the terms of the covenant make that presence conditional on Israel's loyalty to YHWH as well as its observance of the ethical norms expected of God's people. In the period of the monarchy, a class of prophets warned the nation that divergence from those norms would result in God's withdrawal of that presence and military and political disaster.
The sociopolitical system of Israel too was sacralized. According to the Books of Samuel, the unsuccessful reign of the first king, Saul, gave way to the dynasty of David, who is anointed (mashiaḥ) by the prophet Samuel. David's descendants are seen by biblical narrative and by subsequent Jewish tradition as the only rightful heirs to the kingship. The prophets were critical of the kings for their failure to produce a just society as well as their tendency to allow worship of other gods, and some anticipated a time when a righteous Davidic king would usher in an era of peace and reverence.
In 722 bce the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel, exiled much of its population, and dissolved it as a political entity. In 587 bce the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and exiled its leaders. Fifty years later, under the Persians, they returned to reformulate a Jewish commonwealth under priestly leadership. Historians believe that this period, from the time of exile to the end of Persian rule in 333 bce, was when key Judaic ideas were formed. Increasingly YHWH was seen not only as Israel's special deity but the only true God. It was probably during this period that diverse written and oral traditions of the ancient Israelites were gathered together to form the Torah and several of the central scriptural writings that became Judaism's sacred canon.
The Second Temple Period
The conquest of the Persian Empire, including the Land of Israel, by Alexander in 333 bce changed Judaism deeply and irrevocably. The Persians had been content to rely on local leaders and their cultures to preserve stability in the provinces they ruled. The Greeks on the other hand brought with them deep transformations in the nature of ancient societies. The effect of the exportation of Greek economic, social, and cultural patterns, called Hellenism, transformed the Mediterranean basin into an integrated economy. The instrument of that transformation was the polis, the Hellenistic city-state, which was used as a model for local governments. The polis carried with it a political structure based on the rulership of a local elite or boule; an economic program based on increasing urbanization and export of goods to other regions of the empire; and a cultural program based on Greek language, rhetoric, and religion—the latter spread through the teaching and interpretation of Homer and identification of local gods with the Greek pantheon.
Judea was not a major center of Hellenistic political or economic activity, and so the process of Hellenization came slowly there. In the late fourth century and early third century bce gradual changes in architecture, demographic patterns, and cultural styles could be discerned. With the conflicts between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid successor empires to Alexander in the second century ce, Judea became a contested area because of its location between Egypt and Syria. Eventually Judea was ruled by Rome, who installed Herod, a descendant of Iduminean converts, as a client king. Roman economic and military pressure on the province of Judea as well as internal conflicts came to a head in 66 ce with a revolt against Rome. The revolt was suppressed by Romans with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 ce. By the first century as well there were substantial communities of Jews living in the Diaspora, that is, outside of the Land of Israel. There were Jews in many of the Greek-speaking communities of the Mediterranean, especially Alexandria, Rome, and Asia Minor. There was also a flourishing Jewish community in the Persian Empire, in Mesopotamia.
In Judea the changes in economic, social, and cultural organization brought on by Hellenism thus accelerated in the second and first centuries bce. With them came increasing divisions within the society and differences of opinion about how God's word should be interpreted and followed. One effect of Hellenization was increased urbanization. This meant that Jerusalem, a modest community surrounded by the Judean hills, became a major regional center of economic and cultural as well as political activity. Another effect was cosmopolitanism. Each local government in the Hellenistic economic communities was called on to contribute to the trade in goods, pay taxes, and carry out political affairs in Greek. This entailed getting a Greek education and being conversant with Greek cultural norms and religious values, including exposure to Greek mythology and philosophy. The political leadership of Judea would therefore be increasingly associated with Hellenistic style and cultural symbols. Another result of Hellenization therefore was greater disparity in the social and cultural status of various sectors of society: rich versus poor, priests versus nonpriests, and urban versus rural. Some also saw these social differences in terms of a struggle between Hellenists, those inclined toward integrating Greek culture with their own, and anti-Hellenists, those who saw Greek ways of life as threats to the monotheism, legal norms, and ritual traditions of the Jews. These struggles came to a head in 167 bce, when, after a period of unrest in the wake of political scandals in the Temple administration, the Ptolemaic emperor Antiochus IV imposed Seleucid rule on the Temple and turned it into a polytheistic shrine. This precipitated a revolt led by Judah Maccabee and his family. Their victory is commemorated in the holiday of Ḥanukkah, which celebrates the dedication of the Temple after the Maccabees retook it in 164 bce. The Hasmonaean dynasty that then ruled Judea, first as a short-lived independent commonwealth and then as local rulers under the Seleucids, also provoked dissatisfaction. One therefore sees in this period a wide variety of religious communities ("sects") with political, ritual, and theological agendas.
The evidence for these social, cultural, and religious trends comes from a number of sources in addition to archaeological findings. One of the most important is the historian Josephus, a former priest of the first century ce who had joined the Roman army during the revolt against Rome and wrote several valuable historical and polemical works in Greek. There are also extant literary works written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Some of these were translated into Greek and other languages and attained a canonical or deuterocanonical status in some Christian communities. Others, like the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), survived in Hebrew as well as in Greek. One of the most valuable resources for an understanding of this period is the corpus of writings found in the Judean desert, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, the library of a sectarian community formed in the second century bce. However, these sources present difficulties for the historian. Josephus wrote his history with political and ideological goals in mind, and the apocryphal and sectarian writings, often written in a highly symbolic language or attributed pseudepigraphically to biblical personae, are cryptic about the historical circumstances of their composition.
The Book of Ben Sira, written at least thirteen years before the Maccabean revolt, provides a window into the type of piety that characterized the religious elite of the early Hellenistic period. This book is valuable because it was written by an individual, Yehoshuʿa Ben Sira, who signed his name to the book. The author was a priest who also apparently taught in the scribal schools of Jerusalem, perhaps in the Temple precincts. He wrote the book in the tradition of scribal wisdom, an ancient Mediterranean literary tradition represented in the Hebrew Bible by such works as Proverbs and Job. The Book of Ben Sira presents a type of piety in which the cultivation of wisdom, identified as practical social skills and, most important, the study of Torah, combines with reverence for the Temple and its personnel. The latter is represented by the figure of Simon, son of Yoḥanan, high priest from 219 to 196 bce, who is depicted in rhapsodic poetry performing the daily sacrifice. Important to Ben Sira as well was reverence for the heroes of Israel's history, who are praised in an extensive encomium for their willingness to follow God's word and build Israel's institutions.
But this harmonious picture of a pious nation was not shared by all religious communities that formed in the wake of Hasmonaean rule. From Josephus as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls and later sources one can outline the main features of several of the sects and movements that flourished from the second century bce to the fall of the Temple in 70 ce. One of the most important was the Pharisees, who are depicted in strikingly different ways in Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature. They are depicted by Josephus as a group that had much support among the general population and whose relationships with the ruling classes were unstable. The New Testament depicts them polemically as hypocritical intellectuals interested in the intricacies of ritual, especially ritual purity. The rabbis considered them their spiritual ancestors, sages who preserved traditions of Torah handed down from Moses, and defended them from heterodox sects such as the Sadducees. From these disparate portraits, a few commonalities emerge. The Pharisees held legal and ritual traditions that were not written down explicitly in Scripture, they counted priests and nonpriests in their ranks, and they were interested in extending purity rituals beyond the boundaries of the Temple and the officiating priests.
In rabbinic literature and in Josephus the opponents of the Pharisees are known as Sadducees. This term, which comes from the name of the priest Zadok (see 1 Kgs. 1 and Ez. 40–48), designates a group that represented the families from which the high priests and principal officiants in the Temple were drawn. One can suppose that they represented the interests of the aristocratic priesthood and differed with the Pharisees on points of law. Josephus says that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
The Sadducees left no texts, but the writings survive of another group that took Zadokite lineage seriously, the Qumran community, whose library was deposited in caves near the Dead Sea. This library, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, tells about several things at once. The writings of the tightly organized community that preserved them yield a portrait of a sectarian eschatological community and its concerns. At the same time writings from what is now the biblical canon, apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature, and liturgical poetry help round out the picture of the range of religious expressions in Greco-Roman Judea.
The Qumran community also demonstrates the growing prominence of two facets of Judaism: scripture as an object of interpretation and increasing concern with the eschatological future and the end results of historical process. This community, which may have been formed by Zadokite priests and their sympathizers who had been deprived of political power in the Temple establishment, formed soon after the Hasmonaean dynasty took hold. A legal epistle thought to be from the early history of the sect (the so-called halakhic letter or 4QMMT) suggests that the founders of the group split with the priestly establishment in Jerusalem over interpretations of Temple procedures and other legal and ritual issues. The group grew into a highly structured separatist sect that sought to live in accordance with its leaders' interpretations of Scripture. The most important function of this group, which saw itself as the true Israel, was to prepare its members for a future in which the forces of light, the sect and the angelic warriors, would fight on their behalf with the forces of darkness, the wicked nations of the world, Temple officials and priests whom they opposed, and the angels of darkness. For this purpose they were organized into a kind of Temple in exile, observed high standards of ritual purity, and held a liturgy in which they depicted the angels holding sacrifices in the heavenly camps in conjunction with their counterparts on earth.
Scripture, its interpretation, and the creation and preservation of new literary works were important facets of Qumran sectarian life. The sect developed the genre of pesher, in which a detail from a biblical book was taken to prophesy about current events. The sect also made innovations in interpretation of the laws of the Torah. For example, they extended the idea of ritual impurity to hold that an individual could be contaminated by committing such social transgressions as theft and false witness. These innovations were formed by a council of inspired interpreters (moshav ha-Rabim), whose founder was known as the "righteous teacher" (moreh tzedek).
In fact in this period one can locate what James Kugel has called "the rise of Scripture" (Early Biblical Interpretation, 1986). Although the Torah became the core of the Jewish canon by the Persian period, it was in the second and first centuries bce that the canon began to coalesce and the interpretation of Scripture became a major issue. Writers composed works of "rewritten Bible," such as Jubilees, in which troublesome questions about biblical characters and concepts could be addressed through narrative. Rabbinic literature remembers the disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as focused largely on differing interpretations of biblical law. The manuscripts found at Qumran include all books of the Jewish canon except for Esther.
From Qumran there are also examples in Hebrew and Aramaic of Jewish apocalyptic literature, a genre that otherwise would have survived largely in Greek translations and secondary translations into other languages of early Christendom. In this genre the secrets of the cosmos as well as the secrets of history are revealed to a human hero, usually a biblical figure such as Enoch or Ezra. The protagonist is often taken up to heaven and given a "guided tour" of its wonders. At this point the secrets of history are revealed to him by means of symbols that are interpreted by his heavenly guide. Usually these secrets not only demonstrate that the prior history of Israel has depended on a group of select pious people but that in the future there will be a day of reckoning when the forces of good, led by God and his armies, will defeat the forces of evil, on earth and in the supernatural realm. The genre may have its roots in Near Eastern wisdom tradition, in which cataloging the things that make up the cosmos played an important part. These works may also reflect dissatisfaction with the political and religious situation of the time, which, the writer implies, will be rectified in the time to come. The biblical book of Daniel, written during the crisis in the second century bce that led to the Hasmonaean revolt, is an example of this genre.
Apocalyptic literature established certain ideas that were to influence esoteric and political trends in late antique and medieval Judaism: the idea that the boundaries between heaven and earth are permeable and the idea that history will end with a catastrophic battle between good and evil. The former idea survived in the literature of merkavah mysticism, which depicted rabbis ascending to heaven and gazing at the divine throne. Jewish apocalyptic literature influenced early Christian literature and was written occasionally in Hebrew well into the Middle Ages. Apocalyptic eschatology influences Jewish messianism even in the twenty-first century. Josephus, Philo (see below), and rabbinic literature also tell that there was an increasing diversity of opinion about the afterlife, a subject of no great importance to biblical writers. Whereas the Sadducees apparently did not believe in an afterlife, the Pharisees believed that at the end of time the dead would be resurrected. This became a central tenet of rabbinic Judaism.
The Greek-speaking Diaspora communities also left a literary legacy, which was forgotten by the rabbinic leaders in the Land of Israel but was preserved by the Christian community. Greco-Jewish works from the Hellenistic period include novelistic expansions of biblical works, such as Joseph and Aseneth, and apologetic works in the form of epistles, such as the Letter of Aristeas, and in the form of pseudepigrapha, such as the Sibylline Oracles. The Greek-speaking Jewish community in Egypt also produced the first major Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, who used middle Platonic metaphysics and Stoic allegorical hermeneutics to argue that the Torah was a supremely philosophical work.
When the Romans installed their own local officials in Judea in 6 ce, the political climate became more turbulent. While Herod, Rome's client king, had embarked on an elaborate building program that made Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple into one of the empire's great cities, oppressive taxation and dictatorial rule turned many against Rome. At the fringes of society, groups of zealots and dissenters advocated militant revolt against Rome and its Jewish representatives in Jerusalem; others took their promises of an imminent "kingdom of heaven" to small communities of followers. Most of these groups claimed that their leaders were the mashiaḥ, the righteous king foretold in the books of the prophets. Political enemies of the Roman order were often crucified, which most of the Jewish populace took as an indication that those individuals could not have been the victorious king to which those prophecies referred. However, two of those movements did carry dramatic consequences for the Jewish people and its religion. In 33 ce and the following decades one such movement, centered around Jesus of Nazareth, survived its leader's execution and went on to include non-Jews among its members, eventually forming the Christian community. In 66 ce another, more militant movement of zealots allied with other Jewish forces initiated a war against Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 ce. In 132, another revolt against Rome led by Simon bar Kokhba broke out. It was repressed in 135 by the emperor Hadrian, who turned Jerusalem into a pagan city and renamed Judea Palestine.
The Destruction of the Temple and the Rise of Rabbinic Judaism
Judaism as it is known in the early twenty-first century is largely a product of the first centuries after the destruction of the Temple in the Jewish revolt against Rome. It was following this event that many of the primary institutions, individual practices, values, and teleological underpinnings of classical Judaism were formed or refined. To be sure the defeat of the Jewish commonwealth by the Romans was a human catastrophe, but beyond the physical suffering it caused, it had profound religious and political significance. According to Jewish cultic theology, by which the Temple was the locus for God's presence on earth, the loss of that Temple meant the absence of that presence from the world. The Babylonian Talmud (b. Bava Batra 60b) paints a portrait of groups of first-century ascetics who abstained from meat and wine in mourning for the Temple. The apocryphal Book of Baruch reflects the response of apocalyptic communities that saw the cataclysm as a challenge to their eschatological expectations.
The centuries following the destruction of the Temple also saw the rise of the rabbinic movement. The Hebrew term rabbi means "my teacher" or "my master." In the New Testament, Jesus is occasionally addressed as rabbi, and the title appears as an honorific term in ancient inscriptions. In this discussion, however, the term rabbi refers to a class of leaders who came to define the character of Judaism for centuries to come. These scholars, who traced their heritage to the Pharisees, were not necessarily priests but laymen who held that by a life of study of the Torah, observance of the commandments, and ethical action the individual Jew could gain salvation in the form of resurrection in the messianic era. This system of everyday observance of a comprehensive system of sacred law, which came to be known as halakhah, depended on its constant teaching and refinement by masters—the rabbis—who considered their extrabiblical traditions to have been handed down as Torah from Sinai. These traditions came to be known as the Oral Torah.
The rabbis of late antiquity produced a series of texts and traditions that became a kind of second canon for Judaism. The Mishnah, compiled in 200 ce, sets forth rabbinic law and related matters in statements and formulae attributed to the sages of the Second Temple era and of the first two centuries ce. Whereas the rabbis considered rabbinic law to be based on Scripture, the Mishnah does not generally frame its laws as biblical commentary but rather states them in independent, apodictic form. Rabbinic study of the Mishnah resulted in the redaction of the great compendia of Mishnaic commentary, tradition, and lore known as the Talmuds. The Palestinian Talmud was redacted in the early fifth century and the Babylonian Talmud in the early sixth century.
The Babylonian Talmud became the source of legal decision, intense study, and reverence for most of the world Jewry in the Middle Ages and remains so for traditional Jews. As a result when people speak of "the Talmud," they are often referring to the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud's commentary to the Mishnah is called the Gemaraʾ. Besides commenting on the meaning and implications of the Mishnah's laws, the Gemaraʾ discusses the relationship of the Mishnah to Scripture and extra-Mishnaic sources and includes tales of the sages, biblical exegesis, and folklore. While it is a commentary to the Mishnah, the Gemaraʾ often takes the form of an ongoing conversation among sages, many of whom lived centuries apart from each other. This conversation is moderated, as it were, by an anonymous Aramaic text (called the stam ) that can take the role of a skeptical observer, asking questions regarding opinions presented, pointing out contradictions and logical inconsistencies, and arranging source materials for comparison. This method of presentation can be considered a kind of dialectical argumentation about traditional sources for exegetical purposes.
Rabbinic scriptural exegesis, called midrash, found its way into compilations that were completed from the fourth century to the early Middle Ages. These compilations contain specific elucidations of the biblical text but also include postbibical legends, homilies, and discourses on biblical themes. Some of these were close readings of legal texts from the Torah (midrash halakhah), and others were more homiletical and narrative (midrash aggadah). In midrash one can occasionally find elements of the sort of theological speculation that might appear in systematic philosophical treatises in other cultures.
If one takes the Mishnah as the first systematic statement of rabbinic Judaism, one finds several striking ways in which it seems a departure from forms of Judaism that flourished in the Second Temple period. The first unit, or Mishnah, of the text, tractate Berakhot (Blessings) 1:1, indicates to the reader that new actions, notions of authority, and interests are in play:
From what time is the Shemaʿ recited in the evening? From the time when the priests enter to eat of their terumah [a portion of the harvest donated to the priests] until the end of the first watch. These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages say, Until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says: Until the rise of dawn.
The form of the passage and its social implications deserve mention. It begins with a question, which is answered immediately after. But this answer itself contains a detail—the end of the period when the Shema may be recited—that does not go unchallenged. What follows is a three-way controversy in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabban Gamliel seem to stand against the entire community of sages. The Mishnah then conveys a sense of multivocality as well as the impression that revelation is a matter of dialectic. When one turns to the subject matter, one notices that the passage refers to rituals that would be understood by the rabbinic Jew if not the outsider. The Shemaʿ is the recitation of the declaration of God's unity in Deuteronomy 6:4 and accompanying scriptural passages. It is an essential part of the statutory liturgy for the individual (at least for men) in the evening and morning. Whereas the text to be recited is from the written Scriptures, the commandment to recite it in prayer is not. Indeed the whole tractate Berakhot, which specifies the order of prayers to be said on a daily basis, presupposes whole spheres of ritual law not anticipated in the Bible. The same can be said for such rituals as the lighting of candles and blessing of wine on the Sabbath. The Mishnah then relies on whole areas of law, such as rituals and regulations for the Sabbath, expansions of the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, and procedures for marriage and divorce, that are not set out explicitly in Scripture.
It is therefore obvious that rabbinic Judaism relies on sources other than the written Bible for its authority and way of life. But at the same time it considers itself to be acting out God's will as expressed in the Torah. The argument for this authority is made most eloquently in the opening passage of the tractate Avot, "Fathers," a kind of manifesto of early rabbinic Judaism: "Moses received Torah from Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly" (M. Avot 1:1).
The text goes on to introduce the sayings by sages of the Great Assembly and continues with statements of a succession of sages until the later generations. This myth is a dramatic illustration of the idea of tradition. Revelation is not given anew to each sage or generation. Rather, it has come to Israel from Moses and has been transmitted through the succession of masters and disciples. Yet the Torah is not simply a document passed from one pair of hands to another. It is associated with a process by which the Torah's wisdom is elaborated by each successive generation. Human agency and wisdom thus play an essential role in the rabbinic theory of revelation. But more than that, since the agency is that of a succession of sages, this wisdom is cumulative. This distinguishes the rabbinic mode from the apocalyptic, in which the revelation is given by an angel to an individual, who is then charged to write it in a book that is made available to the community. By its inclusion of the sages from Moses to the later rabbis in its account of the transmission of Torah, Avot reinforces the authority of the rabbinic class. But this tractate does more than legitimize the rabbis. It sets the tone for a type of Judaism in which the act of study, epitomized by memorizing the words of the sages, becoming their disciple and watching their actions, and acting out those teachings in everyday activities, becomes a primary form of worship.
Returning to the first Mishnah in Berakhot, one also notices a curious historical dimension. The Mishnah was redacted in around 200 ce, 130 years after the Temple was destroyed and about 65 years after a revolt against Rome in 132–135 ce resulted in severe repression of Jewish teaching and rituals. Yet the Temple, where the priests enter to eat of their contributed produce, is alluded to in the present tense. In fact fully one-third of the Mishnah (the divisions of purities, holy things [covering sacrificial law], and some portions of tractates dealing with Passover and other rituals) concern the Temple and its rituals and laws. There are a few possible explanations for this anomaly. One is that the Mishnah is a utopian document, drawing an ideal picture of a redeemed society in which the Temple is restored and the sages have ultimate jurisdiction over their performance of the rituals. Another, proposed by Jacob Neusner, is that the framers of the Mishnah wished to assure the community that had endured historical catastrophe that life could go on as if that catastrophe had changed nothing. One must also remember that in the beginning of the third century sacrifice and sacrificial institutions were the norm and not the exception in the Mediterranean. It may simply have been inconceivable to describe a ritual and legal system without including the description of a Temple.
Yet for the rabbis the proper substitute for sacrifice was not to be found in the concept of sacred space but in sacred actions. Yoḥanan ben Zakkʾai, one of the founders of the rabbinic movement, is said to have declared, "We have another means of atonement, effective as Temple Sacrifice. It is deeds of loving kindness." Other statements assert that the study of sacrificial law, enshrined in the Mishnah and related sources, was equivalent to the performance of those sacrifices. Prayer in the synagogue was also considered to be a form of sacrifice. A famous rabbinic statement (y. Ber. 4:1 [7a]) declares prayer to be "the sacrifice in the heart" (Avodah ba-Lev). According to the Palestinian Talmud, when a prayer leader was called upon to begin the prayer service, the congregation would call, "Perform our sacrifice" (y. Ber. 4:4 [8b]).
The shift from a culture of sacrificial worship to one of prayer was part of a larger phenomenon: the shift from an emphasis on collective religious action to greater attention to individual religious action. To be sure the rabbis maintained a strong sense that the community of Israel was obliged to carry out its terms of the covenant and that it would be rewarded in the messianic future with the nation's return to the Land of Israel under divine sovereignty and the rebuilding of the Temple. At the same time rabbinic Judaism was structured around the idea that each individual was obliged to perform certain individual religious commandments, called mitsvot, by which he or she would gain merit. (While women had a place in this system, they were not held to the same specific mitsvot and were largely excluded from participation in the public dimensions of rabbinic life.) That merit would earn that individual resurrection in the messianic era or "world to come." Thus such actions as saying blessings before wine and bread, wearing phylacteries (tefillin), and giving to the poor functioned in several ways. They constituted mitsvot that contributed to salvation; they served as acts of witnessing God's sovereignty on earth; and they could be considered as bringing something of the divine presence to earth, an idea that Max Kadushin called "normal mysticism." Indeed there are statements in the Talmud that "wherever two speak words of Torah together, the Shekhinah [the indwelling presence of God] hovers over them." Such statements are an indication that some rabbis' conceptions of the divine presence had shifted from one that was localized and required special conditions to one that could be manifest in subtle ways at any place.
In pursuit of the proper way to carry out the mitsvot, the rabbis developed or codified significant innovations in ritual and civil law. For example, the dietary laws (kashrut) of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 specify the animals that may and may not be eaten. In addition biblical law (Ex. 23:19, 34:26; Dt. 14:21) prohibits boiling a kid in its mother's milk. The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that mixing any meat and milk products, including fowl, was prohibited (see M. Hul. 8:1). Other innovations addressed prohibition of carrying beyond the household on the Sabbath by allowing a community to construct a temporary boundary (eruv) that effectively turned an entire city into one household. (M. Eruv.)
In the sphere of civil legislation, rabbinic law codified the use of a marriage contract (ketubah) that specified the property rights of each party in the case of divorce. Rabbinic society did not deviate radically from the patriarchal norms of the Greco-Roman world. However, in the rabbinic legal system women were given a circumscribed set of rights and protections. One the one hand women are legally dependent on men when their status is that of daughters and wives. However, they gain their independence in the event of the death of the husband or divorce and therefore are granted full economic status in those circumstances.
The rabbis sought to expand their influence on the Jewish populations of Palestine and Babylonia through a system of courts governed by rabbinic law. It is not known to what extent the influence of this system took hold, but it was helped by the close alliance of the local Jewish authority, called the patriarch (nasi), with the rabbis. This was accompanied by a growing network of disciple circles and academies (yeshivot), which produced a form of dialectical reasoning preserved in the Talmuds.
Other spheres of cultural production intersected with the rabbinic class and were influenced by it. The synagogue emerged as an important institution during this period, particularly in Palestine. The synagogue (both the Greek word and the Hebrew term bet kenesset mean "place of assembly") began in the Second Temple period primarily as a place for study (although in the Diaspora synagogues were often called proseuchē, places for prayer). However, with the Temple in ruins, the synagogue became the primary locus for worship. There were many conceptual and practical differences between the Temple and the synagogue. Unlike the Temple, a synagogue could be built practically anywhere and could be of any size. Its space was not delineated as sacred in the same way as the Temple's. Whereas only priests were allowed to enter certain precincts of the Temple, nonpriests were allowed anywhere in the synagogue. (It is not clear to what extent women were allowed to participate; there is evidence for women being leaders of some Diaspora synagogues, although rabbinic literature specifies no liturgical or social role for women in the synagogue. Although the rabbis saw prayer as the "sacrifice of the heart," no animal sacrifice took place in the synagogue. Prayer could be led by any male Jew of the age of majority as long as he was fluent in the liturgy. By the sixth century ce synagogues, especially in the Galilee, had become prominent buildings decorated with fine sculptural stonework and colorful mosaics depicting central themes in Judaism's sacred lore.
The liturgy of the early synagogue has survived in the form of the liturgies of Jewish communities and in the form of manuscripts of prayer literature from the Middle Ages. In the ancient synagogue prayers were composed by prayer leaders who were considered to be representatives of the community and who improvised the texts of the prayers around rubrics predetermined by halakhah. In these prayers they expressed themes that were emphasized less in Talmudic literature, including the longing for the messianic era, the need for rain and prosperity, and the idea that Israel's patriarchs have accumulated merit (zekhut avot) on which the community can draw to plead for God's favor. In addition a substantial literature of liturgical poetry, known as piyyut (from the Greek poetes ) flourished from the fourth to the seventh century. This ornate, allusive genre of synagogue poetry, composed by authors such as Yose ben Yose and Yannaʾi, whose artistry earned them fame in Palestinian synagogues, served to embellish the standard liturgy with its recondite language, alliteration and acrostics, and references to themes popular among preachers and storytellers of the time. It is not known how closely the synagogue and the rabbinic school (bet midrash) were related. Synagogue literature and iconography draw on rabbinic midrash and law, but there are some interesting departures in emphasis and details. Most likely there were synagogues in which the community did not necessarily identify closely with the rabbinic movement, such as the synagogue in Sepphoris, which seems to reflect priestly interests, and others that did, such as the synagogue in Rechov in the northern Galilee, where passages from the Palestinian Talmud were used for the mosaic floor.
Other forms of Jewish religious behavior and literature from this period have come down from archaeological and manuscript sources. A corpus of Hebrew and Aramaic texts tells stories of how great rabbis, such as Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael, ascended to heaven. In these texts the rabbinic heroes travel arduously through seven "palaces" or hekhalot, warding off the fierce angelic guardians, and finally reach the divine throne, which is conceived, in the manner of the visions of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, as a great chariot (merkavah) on which God is seated, surrounded by an angelic choir. The texts then state that anyone who fulfills the moral and ritual requirements for ascent may do the same. Other texts in this corpus give recipes for conjuring an angel known as the Prince of the Torah (Sar ha-Torah), who will impart to any man a prodigious memory and make him a great rabbi. Gershom Scholem, the founder of the modern study of Jewish mysticism, saw its authors as mystics who cultivated visions of the heavens and recorded their experiences as narrative and hymnology.
These texts were not written by the rabbis to whom they were attributed, but who their authors were is still a matter of debate. Most likely they were Jews who stood outside the rabbinic elite but shared some of its values. This literature is closely related to another corpus that is well attested in writings from this period: the literature of early Jewish magic. From ancient Palestine and its environs about three dozen amulets written on silver, lead, and copper foil survive. These amulets are formulaic incantations in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Jewish Greek adjuring angels and demons for such purposes as healing, love, and protection. A far larger corpus—indeed the single largest corpus of Jewish inscriptions from late antiquity—consists of hundreds of clay bowls found in the Mesopotamian region (Jewish Babylonia) on which Aramaic incantations are written. In these artifacts Jews address their daily needs by invoking divine power to command the intermediaries, using the powerful name of God as their authorization and weapon. The rabbis too believed in angels and demons and in the efficacy of magic, but these practitioners seem to have operated outside of their jurisdiction.
If late antiquity represents a formative period for classical Judaism, the Middle Ages represents the period of its consolidation and expansion. It was in this period, beginning with the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries ce, that rabbinic Judaism spread through the influence of Talmudic academies and legal authorities to the Jewish population of the Diaspora. It was also in this period that new forms of discourse, especially philosophy and mysticism, took hold as significant ways of expressing Jewish religiosity.
By the ninth century a majority of Jews lived in the Diaspora. Jewish communities were scattered throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, especially Iran, Iraq, and North Africa, and had begun to form in western and central Europe. Both regions were dominated by the religions, Islam and Christianity, that saw Judaism as their precursors. This was an ambiguous legacy. On the one hand the Judaic heritage of both religions offered possibilities for dialogue and influence. Christianity was monotheistic; revered Hebrew Scriptures, which it accepted into its canon as the Old Testament; and held that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Islam made monotheism a central tenet of faith; understood Jewish biblical heroes, such as Abraham and Moses, to be prophetic forerunners to Muḥammad; and saw Ishmael as its progenitor. At the same time both religions considered themselves to have superceded Judaism with superior revelation and means to salvation. In particular Christianity saw Jews as having rejected the kingship of Jesus and therefore subject to rebuke or worse. Islam, which considers Jews and Christians to be "People of the Book," granted Jews and Christians the status of protected minorities (dhimmī), which assured them physical security while preventing them from attaining full status in Muslim society. Christianity since Augustine had developed a theology of tolerance of Jews. However, in practice Jewish communities could be welcomed into Christian lands or persecuted by Christian rulers, depending on the political and religious circumstances. So too in Islamic countries both the principles of subordinate status and tolerance were honored in the breach as well as in the observance.
The transformation of the southern Mediterranean into an Islamic region had deep consequences for Judaism. With the Muslim Empire centered in Baghdad in the eighth century, the political center of Jewry also shifted to Iraq—Jewish Babylonia—where a thriving Talmudic culture had produced a class of rabbinic scholars and legislators located in yeshivot in Baghdad. These eventually set the religious and halakhic agenda for Jewish communities, making rabbinic law the prevailing legal system throughout the Islamic world. This hegemony did not go unchallenged. Beginning in the eighth century a movement called Karaism opposed the authority of the Talmud and the rabbinic class, insisting on independent inquiry and a reading of the biblical text unmediated by Rabbinic interpretation. This movement gained a substantial following in Egypt, Palestine, and other Jewish communities before the eleventh century, and although the Karaite community is a small minority within Jewry, it still exists. The consolidation of rabbinic authority resulted in an increasing tendency toward disseminating legal rulings and toward legal codification. This took the form of halakhic epistles (responsa), Talmud commentaries, and eventually independent legal codes such as the Mishneh Torah of Moses Maimonides.
The first Muslim centuries were also a period of great cultural ferment. Islam's emphasis on the Qurʾān and its language brought with it intensive Arabic and scriptural study. Translations of Greek philosophical works brought philosophical concepts and methods into dialogue with Islamic monotheism. Mystical and pietistic movements sought direct experience of the divine. Judaism in the Islamic sphere was profoundly affected by these developments as well. Although philosophy had been introduced to the Hellenistic Jewish community of Alexandria through Philo, he left no mark on rabbinic Judaism in Palestine and Babylonia. However, in the intellectual environment of Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries, Jewish philosophy took hold for the first time. Jewish philosophy had begun largely as a way of defending rabbinic Judaism from freethinkers and Karaites who challenged rabbinic ways of thinking. However, by the eleventh century in Babylonia and Spain philosophical training and inquiry had become much more sophisticated. Moreover internal considerations impelled philosophical thinking among a Jewish elite in the Muslim world, especially in Spain from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. The prosperity of Spanish urban society during this period fostered the rise of intellectual classes dedicated to the ideal of adab, an Arabic term for proper social behavior and education. The adib, the cultured Mediterranean gentleman, had a profession such as law, trade, or medicine; acquired a traditional education, in the case of the Jewish adib in Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew grammar; learned to write sacred and secular poetry in Arabic or Hebrew; and also received a scientific education, which included philosophy. Philosophy in this period took on a particularly cosmopolitan tone. The Jewish philosopher Shelomoh ibn Gabirol (1020–1057) wrote The Fountain of Life, which was eventually translated into Latin though the original Arabic was lost. For centuries scholars debated whether it had been written by a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. Philosophy was designed not only to stimulate the religious thinking of these intellectuals but to protect them from religious doubt. Philosophy thus brought with it an ambivalence to Jewish tradition. On the one hand it strengthened concepts such as monotheism, the soul, and religious discipline. On the other hand it left open questions of whether biblical stories and traditional lore stood up to the rigorous demands of philosophical reasoning.
The philosophical patterns that prevailed during this period were influenced by several trends from the previous few centuries. From the kalām came the idea that God's unity was absolute; from Neoplatonism came the notion that creation was a process of emanation from a pure, spiritual, infinite God to physical matter; and from Aristotelianism came the idea of God as the unknowable unmoved mover. The greatest and most eloquent exponent of Jewish philosophy was Moses Maimonides (1135/8–1204), a physician and legal authority who was born in Spain but spent his adulthood in Egypt. Maimonides not only wrote philosophical works of great depth but attempted to codify philosophical principles in his monumental manual of halakhah, the Mishneh Torah. The tractate that begins that work, the Book of Knowledge, holds that it is a primary mitzvah to believe that God is one, unchangeable, and that he possesses no bodily form. Furthermore because God is unchangeable and not dependent on any other being, he cannot be affected by human action or prayer. These principles, formulated in elegantly rabbinic Hebrew, were notable as well for their departure from prephilosophical Jewish conceptions of God and his relationship with the world. The anthropomorphism familiar to readers of biblical and rabbinic literature gives way to a concept of a God who is utterly abstract and formless. For Maimonides as well prayer and the mitsvot are forms of religious discipline essential to the education of the moral person rather than direct interactions with a God who responds to the individual by guaranteeing salvation personally. The purpose of Judaism is to produce the ideal individual, the prophet, who achieves consummate knowledge of God through philosophical contemplation.
The medieval Jewish philosophical tradition ebbed by the fifteenth century, especially with the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Although some works continued to be read, medieval Jewish philosophy was largely rediscovered by nineteenth-century German Jewish scholars who saw in it antecedents for their own rationalism. It has therefore continued to be of interest not only to intellectual historians but to modern Jewish thinkers such as Hermann Cohen, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik. But the most lasting effect of medieval Jewish philosophy has been the idea of Jewish philosophy. The idea that Judaism can be examined and explained through the same methods used to address other philosophical issues lies behind much influential Jewish thought of contemporary time.
Jewish philosophy, however, did not affect the majority of medieval Jews, who continued to live by the way of life, rituals, sacred stories, and forms of piety of prephilosophical Judaism. Fortunately a good deal of information about medieval Jewish culture in the Mediterranean is accessible thanks to the discovery a century ago of the Cairo Genizah, a storehouse of discarded Jewish manuscripts that contains everything from autographed letters from Maimonides to children's writing exercises. From the Genizah one can reconstruct a portrait of Jews as individuals and as communities steeped in biblical language and lore, looking up to Talmudic scholars for guidance and legal redress, concerned enough about divine disposition to their fate to take part in the Jewish magical tradition, and devoted to the life of the synagogue.
By the twelfth century another form of Jewish thought was taking shape in southern France and northern Spain among small groups of intellectuals and pietists that stressed the mystical contemplation of the divine nature. This form of mysticism picked up threads of esoteric lore and philosophy that had been circulating in the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages and fused it with the Neoplatonic cosmology of medieval philosophy. Its adherents held that this form of mysticism had been passed down through esoteric tradition along with the exoteric Torah. They thus gave this form of religiosity the name Qabbalah, "tradition."
In the late thirteenth century qabbalistic literary creativity flourished in Spain, where speculative and richly symbolic writings were being produced. Moses de Leon, aided perhaps by some of his close associates, wrote a massive mystical commentary to the Torah called the Zohar, or Book of Enlightenment, which eventually became the most revered Jewish text after the Bible and the Talmud. The qabbalists were concerned about some of the effects of the new Maimonidean philosophy. If God did not need human prayer and virtue, they reasoned, what motivation would they have to do the mitsvot ? If human beings can attribute no positive characteristics to God, as the Aristotelian Jewish philosophers had argued, how can God be worshiped meaningfully? For Maimonides, the love of God consisted of the wonder and awe that struck the enlightened devotee upon contemplation of the facts of God's creation and sustaining vitality. However, the qabbalists insisted that God did in fact have positive attributes that could be known by the person who understood how they were encoded in Scripture.
The qabbalah therefore developed a complex symbolic system in which God's attributes were unveiled in a process of ten emanations (sefirot) of the divine vitality from his infinite unknowable essence (En Sof) to his final manifestation (Shekhinah). The idea of the sefirot emerged as a highly effective way of expressing divine attributes. They could be understood as parts of a divine body, as colors, as metaphysical principles, as cognitive and emotional facets of God's personality, and as letters of the divine name. For the Zohar, the Torah is not simply a book of stories and laws but an intricately coded treasury of mystical secrets, a kind of autobiography of God's manifestation of himself. The sefirotic system also addressed an important philosophical problem in an ingenious way. According to the philosophers, one could no longer conceive of God anthropomorphically. Maimonides considered the anthropomorphic language of the Bible to be an accommodation to the limitations of the human imagination; thus the expression "the hand of God" was a figurative way of speaking of divine power, which makes for all reality. The qabbalists likewise did not think of God as having a physical, anthropomorphic form. Rather, the "body of God" was the arrangement of the sefirot. Thus the right arm of God stood for the sefirah of supernatural mercy (Ḥesed) and so on. That hand was not merely a metaphor using the human hand as a symbol for a divine attribute—it was the real, supernal arm, the original to which the human arm, modeled in God's image, referred. In addition the Qabbalah introduced a new dimension of gender to the idea of God. The divine body was described as possessing male and female sides and male and female anatomy. Relationships between those male and female aspects were likened to the longing of men and women for each other. In the premessianic era God's male and female aspects were in exile from each other, only to be reunited in the age to come.
By contemplating the lower world, by searching the Scriptures, and by ecstatic contemplation, the qabbalist sought to gain a direct experience of the inner life of the godhead. At the same time qabbalists believed that knowledge of the inner workings of the sefirot enabled the mystics to draw down divine power for their own spiritual and material benefit. There was also an explicitly ecstatic dimension to the Qabbalah, epitomized especially by Abraham Abulafia, who instead of the theory of the sefirot developed such techniques as contemplation of Hebrew names and letter combinations with the goal of reaching the state of prophecy.
The resilience of this system is attested by the growth of Qabbalah from a small circle of mystics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to its prominence as a form of Jewish theology in the later medieval period and early modern period. With the expulsion of the Jews from Christian Spain in 1492, the Qabbalah spread to exiled communities in North Africa, Turkey, and Palestine. In the town of Safed in Palestine in the sixteenth century charismatic teachers such as Isaac Luria redrew the Qabbalah's cosmology and eschatology to construct a system whereby the individual, through the performance of a mitzvah fortified by meditation on divine names, could bring redemption and repair the broken pieces of the divine body. This system, which offered the worshiper a powerful motivation to perform the commandments, was popularized in subsequent centuries and is still deeply influential, especially in Middle Eastern Jewish communities. Through the Hasidic movement, the principal Jewish mystical movement of modern times, through modern scholarship, and through contemporary interest in mysticism, the Qabbalah continues to affect Jewish thought and practice.
Smaller Jewish communities existed in northern and central Europe from the ninth century, when they had been invited by Charlemagne to participate in the economy of the new empire. Longstanding communities were established in France and Germany, called Ashkenaz in Hebrew (a name that came to designate all of northern, central, and eastern European Jewry). However, with the crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, relations between Jews and Christians took a turn for the worse. The massacres of Jews by crusading armies and Christian mobs and expulsions by local rulers left a deep imprint on these communities. Bitter poetic laments were written, describing how Jewish victims of these riots chose to martyr themselves and their families "for the sake of sanctifying the divine Name" (ʿal qiddush ha-Shem ). However, there were also long periods of quiet if tense coexistence. Scholars are increasingly finding evidence of dialogue and mutual influence, both positive and negative, between European Christians and Jews.
The Ashkenazic communities distinguished themselves particularly in two areas of culture. The first was textual study. The region produced important schools of biblical exegesis. The most famous exegete of this community was a French scholar from Troyes named Shelomoh ben Yitsḥaq (1040–1105), known by the acronym Rashi. Rashi pioneered a type of terse, incisive biblical interpretation that focused on the peshat, or contextual ("plain") meaning of the text. His use of rabbinic midrash was highly selective, intended to draw out contradictions and nuances in the biblical text itself. Rashi's commentary is still an indispensable component of traditional study of the Torah. Rashi applied similar methods to his monumental Talmud commentary, which is still printed alongside of the Talmud text in nearly every edition. Rashi's method in his Talmud commentary was to draw out the essence of each position in the debates that constituted the main subject of the Talmud texts, without taking a clear position on the issue being discussed.
Rashi's grandson Yaʿaqov ben Meʾir Tam and his contemporaries pioneered a more wide-ranging and daring method of exegesis, which sought to probe each piece of the Talmud text for every possible internal contradiction and connection with other areas of the text. Over the next two centuries their successors compiled the work of several generations of this school of exegesis into "supplemental" commentaries (Tosafot), one of which is now printed opposite Rashi's in traditional editions of the Talmud. This method of exegesis was accompanied by a great deal of halakhic innovation, a trend encouraged by the structure of the Ashkenazic communities, which were more decentralized than the contemporary Spanish and Middle Eastern communities. Research suggests that this time and place saw an increasing textualization of Judaism, that is, it was the written text and its implications more than the way of life practiced by sages that came to determine how the law was shaped and followed.
A second important religious development of the early Ashkenazic community was one that affected a small group of elite Jewish scholars in twelfth- to thirteenth-century Germany. This group, called the German pietists or Ḥaside Ashkenaz, drew on a spiritual heritage that included the creation of liturgical poetry and collection of esoteric and magical lore. This group cultivated a type of austere pietism characterized on the one hand by the willingness to speculate on the mystical implications of the magical and visionary traditions of the Talmudic period and on the other hand an insistence on supererogatory discipline and punishment as a form of spiritual purification.
Early Modern and Modern Judaism
It can be said that the changes to Judaism wrought by modernity were no less drastic than those wrought by the destruction of the Temple in the first century. By the twentieth century several conditions of Jewry were no longer valid. Jews were no longer living in autonomous communities governed by local Jewish leaders under the control of non-Jewish governments. In many countries Jews had full rights as citizens along with their non-Jewish neighbors. Halakhah, including civil law, was no longer binding on Jews. Jews were not exclusively religious; in several countries it was possible to abandon belief in God and still consider oneself a Jew. Many who were religious no longer saw themselves as carrying out an unchanging, sacred way of life that went back to God's revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai but as a religion in which they themselves could be agents of change. Finally, it was possible to leave the Jewish community entirely without converting to another religion—what sociologists and community leaders alike have come to call "assimilation." By the second half of the twentieth century two other radical changes had taken place. European Jewry was no longer a large part of the world's Jewish population, having been all but exterminated by Nazi Germany. There was also a Jewish state, Israel, with a democratically elected government, an army, and a national language, modern Hebrew.
These changes, however, did not come to all Jewish communities at the same time. For a small group of elite Jews in Germany, modernization came with the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, when liberal intellectuals contemplated giving Jews equal rights. For eastern European Jews, glimmers of modernity could be sensed in the eighteenth century, but several of its defining ingredients—science, secularism, liberalism and socialism, and nationalism—came only with the end of the nineteenth century. For Jews in the Muslim world, modernity was a product of colonialism, as it was to their Muslim neighbors. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were also periods of great Jewish migration, from Europe to America (and prewar Palestine) and from the Middle East and North Africa to Israel.
It is difficult to say in what ways the tremors of the Enlightenment shaking western Europe were felt by the Jews living in Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine in the eighteenth century. But an important movement did change the nature of Judaism in those regions. Jewish communities at this time were still self-governed. The elite's authority rested on a network of yeshivot that stressed a rigorously intellectual approach to Talmud study. While this leadership accepted the principles of Qabbalah and revered the Zohar, mystical experience was not a priority. In this atmosphere Jewish healers and preachers flourished. Some of them were known as baʿale shem, masters of the (divine) name, that is, experts in the names of God that the magical tradition uses to achieve its ends. One of these figures, Rabbi Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer (1700–1760), was known as the Good Master of the Name or Master of the Good Name, the Baʿal Shem Tov. He inspired a movement of spiritual revivalism whose adherents were known as Hasidim, "the pious" (this movement is not to be confused with Ashkenazic Ḥasidism, the pietistic movement of early medieval Germany described above). The movement spread, initially under the leadership of Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezhirich and then under charismatic leaders known as tsaddiqim, throughout eastern Europe.
Hasidism has been characterized, especially in the popular imagination, as an outpouring of simple religious enthusiasm, celebrated by singing, dancing, and heartfelt prayer. This image belies the complex theology and symbolism that Hasidic leaders developed in speculative writings as well as in stories and sermons. Hasidism took the qabbalistic ideas in new directions. Hasidic thinkers adopted a panentheistic approach to God's relationship with the world; that is, the universe existed within the infinitude of God's vitality and only existed in and of itself because of God's decision to create a boundary between himself and his creation. The earlier Lurianic Qabbalah had also argued that God needed to contract himself in order to create the world. But that movement presupposed a transcendent God who is apart from creation. Hasidism's notion of God was far more imminent. For Hasidism the human soul also carries within itself a model of the divine personality, and if one brings those inner sefirot to consciousness, it is possible to cleave to God. This process of attachment to the divine essence, known as devequt, is the constant goal of the Hasid. For the Hasidic movement, all actions—study, eating, prayer, and song—have the potential to raise the individual to a state of devequt. While the Hasidic leaders were usually well educated, studied Talmud, and were dedicated to halakhah, they also sought to address elements of the populace who did not have access to the elite centers of learning. They did so through the charismatic appeal of the tsaddiqim, through an emphasis on achieving devequt through everyday actions, and through skillfully wrought stories celebrating the Hasidic leadership and its way of life.
Another important dimension of the Hasidic movement was how it dealt with the longing for the messianic age that has characterized Judaism since the rabbinic period and that becomes especially potent in times of crisis. A century earlier the Jewish world had been convulsed by the failure of a popular messianic movement surrounding Shabbetai Tsevi. In the person of the tsaddiq, the Hasidim found a figure that took up something of Shabbetai's role of intervening between the ordinary man and God's will to redemption. Yet for most of the Hasidic movement, the tsaddiq was not the messiah himself but an extraordinarily endowed man who might one day "force the hand" of God to bring redemption. The Hasidic movement thrives in modern times, although most of its original population was decimated in the Holocaust. Several branches of Hasidism are known for their traditionalism, seeking to preserve the Hasidic way of life by maintaining their communal institutions and schools, ways of dress, and tightly knit social structures. However, the movement has also been influential. Hasidic thought has formed an important foundation for the theologies of modern Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Arthur Green. In addition the Lubavitch movement, under the direction of Menachem Schneerson (1902–1994), initiated a major outreach effort after World War II to bring unaffiliated and non-Orthodox Jews into the Hasidic way of life.
In western Europe and the Western Hemisphere modernity affected Judaism more directly and with permanent consequences. Enlightenment thinkers in emerging modern states, especially Germany and France, argued that Jews should be granted full rights of citizenship. Eventually those states did relax restrictions on the personal, political, and professional rights of Jews. However, this came at the price of Jewish autonomy. It was a price that many Jews were willing to pay, and in Jewish intellectual circles in Germany, declarations of loyalty to the state could be heard. Modernization also meant that modern ways of thinking, such as individualism, liberalism, and science, could influence Jewish thought. Many Jews in Europe sought to change Judaism itself in a conscious way. Thus began the Reform movement in Germany in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The movement was begun by small circles of rabbis and laypeople and became a significant feature of Jewish life in Germany (and to a lesser extent in Britain, where it was called Liberal Judaism). Eventually it spread to the United States, where it grew exponentially in the atmosphere of almost unlimited religious freedom that Jews experienced there.
The goal of the Reform movement was to refashion Judaism into a religion that could take its place alongside the (post-Reformation) Christianity of its day, a religion that would also make sense to the growing numbers of Jews entering modern European society, speaking German, and acquiring a scientific and humanistic education. The Reformers declared that the Talmud and halakhah were no longer binding, that Jewish rituals, practices, and liturgy had to be remodeled to suit modern sensibilities, and that the Jews did not constitute a national group. To these ends they promoted changes in basic practices, doing away with aspects of traditional Jewish law, introducing prayers in the vernacular of the secular society, and applying historical methods of studying Judaism and Hebrew literature. At the same time Reform Judaism saw itself as carrying out a divine mission to spread ethical monotheism to the world and to use the freedom granted the Jewish people to carry out principles of social justice in the public sphere. The movement rejected the idea of a personal messiah, hoping instead for an ideal future when, as an American Reform prayer-book put it, "unbelief shall disappear and error be no more."
This movement did not go unopposed. A group of modernized Jews committed to halakhah argued that it was still possible to participate in modern society and observe Jewish law at the same time. The Orthodox movement, founded in the early nineteenth century in response to the Reform movement, took as its motto Torah im derekh erets, that is, full observance and study of the traditional Torah combined with a worldly occupation and demeanor. Thus, they argued, it was possible to wear modern clothes as long as one's head was covered according to tradition, to hold a job as a doctor or a lawyer, to observe Sabbath the way halakhah demanded, and to marry or divorce according to the dictates of Jewish civil law.
A third alternative was proposed by Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), who founded Historical Judaism. For Frankel and subsequently for the Conservative movement in the United States, Judaism was best understood as a historical and national group. The preservation of Jewish culture and heritage was an essential goal of modern Judaism. Historical and Conservative Judaism held to the structure and centrality of the halakhah. However, halakhic change was permissible under controlled circumstances. Halakhic decision-making in the Conservative movement took into account modern scholarly textual criticism and the historical context of a legal issue, as well as changing circumstances. The movement grew in the United States with the mass immigration of Jews in the early twentieth century from eastern Europe. This community, unlike the German Jews who had formed Reform congregations in the mid-nineteenth century, were comfortable with the traditional liturgy and practices, but wanted the freedom of mixed seating and a more open approach to halakhah. One leader of the Conservative movement, Mordecai Kaplan, inspired by American pragmatism and twentieth-century social theory, broke with the theism and traditionalism of the movement and placed Jewish peoplehood at the absolute center of Judaism as a religion. For Kaplan, the collective spirit of Judaism, which he defined as an "evolving religious civilization," was the guiding force; personalistic and particularistic definitions of God were eschewed in favor of one that saw God more abstractly as "the power that makes for salvation." The movement Kaplan founded eventually became a separate American denomination of Judaism.
Yet all western European Jewish and American Jewish movements share many characteristics out of necessity. While the Orthodox might insist on practicing Jewish civil law, in the modern Western state such practice is ultimately a voluntary affair. The focus of Jewish life in North America and Europe is ritual, both at home and in the synagogue, which modern societies have designated as definitively private spheres.
The upheaval in Judaism that modernity caused has also given rise to an almost unprecedented degree of creativity in the religious sphere. Jewish philosophy was revived in post-Enlightenment Europe. Rationalists such as Moses Mendelsohn and Hermann Cohen took up the medieval intellectual tradition; existentialists such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig addressed Jewish theology from the standpoint of the condition of modern humanity. This tradition continues in Israel and North America, where such trends as poststructuralism and feminism inform Jewish religious thought. Ritual and liturgical creativity was a hallmark of the Reform movement, although not its exclusive provenance.
In the twentieth century two cataclysmic events shaped the nature of Judaism, not to mention the Jews as a nation: the attempt in 1941–1945 by Nazi Germany to exterminate world Jewry, what has come to be called the Holocaust; and the rise of Zionism, the settlement of Palestine by Jews, and the founding in 1948 of the State of Israel. The effects of both events are now essential elements not only of Jewish national life but of Judaism as a religion.
In western Europe, modern anti-Semitism, as opposed to most forms of premodern hatred of Jews, was directed not only at isolated and traditionalist groups of Jews but at those Jews who had integrated into Western society. In eastern Europe anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) accompanied the first stirrings of modernity in the early twentieth century. This and the influence of modern nationalism spawned the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. The movement was based on many principles central to Judaism as a religion, such as Jewish peoplehood, the hope for the nation's return to the Land of Israel in the messianic era, and the Hebrew language, which from the first century to modern times was used almost exclusively as a literary and liturgical tongue. There was also a religious Zionist movement, based on the principle that Jewish life, including the halakhah, could only be lived most fully in the Land of Israel and that the active return to the Land of Israel would be the first step in the messianic redemption. But there was also a revolutionary secular element to the movement. Inherent in Zionism was the idea that Jews would bring their own salvation rather than waiting for the Messiah. The movement also had a social and cultural dimension. Zionists sought to create a nation of "new Jews" who were not dependent on Gentiles for safety and livelihood but able to defend themselves militarily, work the land, and return to the vitality of biblical Israel. Since most of the early Zionist activists had received traditional educations and knew biblical and Talmudic literature thoroughly, they drew on those sources in their efforts to create a Jewish culture that was authentically Jewish yet radically different from that of the Diaspora. At the same time Zionists were for the most part starkly divided between secular and orthodox; a nonorthodox Zionist movement never took hold (the Reform and Conservative movements have small growing branches in Israel, but they are comparatively new developments). In Israel and North America most Jewish religious movements see the founding of the State of Israel and its survival under threats to its security as religiously meaningful events. A modern prayer for the welfare for Israel calls it "the beginning of our promised redemption." For some this takes on a specifically messianic connotation, and for others it is a more general wish for Israel to be the religious and cultural center of world Jewry.
European anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust (a term that came to be applied to that catastrophe in the 1950s and 1960s). Nazi Germany's attempted genocide of the Jewish people succeeded in wiping out the cultural and religious centers of European Jewry, including many of the major Hasidic communities, the most important yeshivot, the German academic seminaries of Jewish studies, and thriving communities of poets, writers, and theaters in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and elsewhere. On the surviving Jewish communities in North America, Israel, and Europe, this had several major effects. One was to galvanize support among Jewish movements for the State of Israel. Whereas some Reform Jews had opposed Zionism on the grounds that Judaism was most properly a religious not a national group, the Reform movement increasingly embraced Zionism and indeed ideas of Jewish nationhood. The strands of the Reform movement in North America that had since early in the twentieth century asserted Judaism's ethnic dimension were thus strengthened. In modern Orthodoxy too the element of religious Zionism has become more prominent from World War II to the twenty-first century.
Another effect has been a process of theological searching. The Holocaust seemed to break the paradigms of theodicy set by earlier generations of Jewish theologians. It could not be reasonably said that the millions of pious Jews who died in the death camps were being punished for their sins; nor was it any consolation to know that they would be rewarded for their martyrdom in the world to come. Much thoughtful meditation has been applied to these problems, but two approaches in particular have struck a chord with American Jews. Elie Wiesel's narrative works and essays stress the postwar Jewish community's responsibility simply to bear witness to the world, remember the victims and how they were victimized, and eschew easy lessons. Emil Fackenheim's response is to declare that there is a new commandment: "It is forbidden to grant Hitler any posthumous victories."
In the early twenty-first century religious Judaism in North America has inherited the denominationalism of the past two centuries, but other social and religious trends have rendered the structure of the community more complex. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, groups of young Jews, many of whom had been raised in the Conservative and Reform youth movements, began expressing their dissatisfaction with the large institutions and ethos of the major denominations by forming small, informal communities called ḥavurot. In these communities, no hired Rabbi or cantor presided over worship services or supervised education and programming. These communities were also deeply influenced by the egalitarianism and feminism of the postwar left as well as what they saw as the spontaneity and spirituality of the Hasidic movement. Some of the ḥavurot are independent; others are associated with the Jewish Renewal movement. Thus those Jewish denominations begun in the nineteenth century look quite different in the early twenty-first century. In the wake of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, practically no sector of religious Judaism accepts the notion that the Jews constitute a purely religious group—that is, a community defined only by common beliefs and not by common ancestry and tradition—and not a national or ethnic group. After World War II a major concern of all Jewish movements has been the worry that Judaism will disappear. Anti-Semitism is seen to present a physical threat to the Jews as a people, and conversely, it is feared that in an open society Jews will assimilate into the larger culture, intermarrying with non-Jews and leaving their religion and culture behind. This anxiety lies behind the arguments made by the major movements. Orthodoxy sees its dedication to halakhah, dietary laws, intensive traditional education, and commitment to religious Zionism as an effective way to fight assimilation. Nonorthodox movements argue that without adapting to the changing needs of society, Jews will be alienated from Judaism.
Israel is a different case. It is paradoxically a country with a secular Jewish majority in which orthodox institutions and authorities form part of the political and legal structure. One consequence of this structure is that religious and political movements are often closely related. Another result is that nonorthodox denominations are far smaller in Israel. Nonetheless, small groups of secular Israeli intellectuals that have formed to discuss what constitutes the "Jewish bookshelf"—a kind of Jewish canon for secular Israelis—include Jewish religious literature in that discussion. In addition, Israelis who have been influenced by travel to India or by New-Age spirituality form informal groups seeking religious experiences both inside and outside the framework of Judaism. More significant is the influence of large-scale immigration of Jews from Muslim countries in the 1950s. Those communities had not been divided deeply between orthodox and secular factions. As a result, Israelis of Middle Eastern background are often more sympathetic to religious traditions yet not always identifiable as Orthodox by conventional western criteria. The full consequences of this influence have yet to be determined.
Other trends are affecting Judaism at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One is feminism, which has affected the social, ritual, and theological life of contemporary Judaism. Especially since the 1960s Jewish feminists have argued for full equality both in Jewish communal life and in religious status. For nonorthodox movements, this has meant that after years of struggle women have won full participation in rituals, ordination as rabbis, and parity in Jewish law. For some orthodox communities, it has meant testing the boundaries of the halakhah. Jewish feminism has also resulted in a reexamination of Jewish theology and religious symbolism. This has taken several forms. One result is the interest in reexamining Jewish history from a feminist perspective, both to find historical precedents and alternative myths and symbols and to present a thorough critique of patriarchy within a Jewish cultural context. Another result is a reconsideration of gender in Jewish concepts of God. Jewish feminists have explored alternatives to masculine images and language for God. For example, some draw on elements of the Qabbalah that refer to the female within divinity (especially the idea of the Shekhinah) ; others believe that these categories will have to be redrawn considerably before they meet criteria for inclusive language. Jewish feminism has also resulted in the creation of new rituals or the reinvention of old ones. Thus the naming of a female baby becomes a (non-surgical) equivalent of brit milah ; likewise, the New Moon celebration has become an occasion for Jewish women to gather for new ceremonies.
Another important trend that is affecting religious affairs all over the world is the rise of traditionalist, "fundamentalist," and militant religious movements. In Jewish communities this can be seen in the renewed vitality of traditionalist communities, such as Ḥasidim, that in the mid-twentieth century seemed on the verge of extinction. These trends are also in evidence with the growth of a movement of baʿale teshuvah, Jews who "return" to Orthodoxy from nonaffiliated or nonorthodox backgrounds. In Israel, where politics and religion are inseparable, traditionalist religious parties and messianic movements have taken up a higher profile in public life. At the same time small numbers of Jews in North America who have not had a strong loyalty to the major denominations have become interested in spiritual trends, such as the Jewish Renewal movement, that adopt qabbalistic ideas and symbols but stress inner, personal goals.
However, certain constants prevail in contemporary Judaism, each of which can be seen as an inheritance from the long history described above. One common theme in religious Judaism, in all of its denominational manifestations, is the structure of a covenant between Israel and God. For traditional Jews, the terms of the covenant are to be found in the halakhic process, and understanding its details is vital to living a life devoted to God. For some nonorthodox movements, the covenant is the beginning point that initiates a process of dialogue with the tradition and the world.
Another constant is the Torah. The rabbis (M. Avot 5:22) said, "turn it over, turn it over, for everything is in it." Legends tell of how the Torah is literally as large as the world itself. Over the centuries the meaning of the term Torah has come to expand from individual biblical teachings, to the core of the canon, to traditions memorized and taught by rabbis and their disciples, to the entire Judaic tradition. Judaism sees Torah not simply as a body of textual material, but a form of activity. The Torah is read ritually in Hebrew in the synagogue from a scroll; the Oral Torah, written down in the Talmud and Midrash, is the focus of dialectical study and interpretation; and whether praying or making ethical decisions, religious Jews see themselves as translating the Torah into action.
It can be said that action, more than belief or inner experience, is seen as primary to Judaism. Ritual observance, whether in the synagogue or at home, remains a defining characteristic of Jews as individuals and as a community. Jewish religious communities are more likely to come together and divide over matters of ritual and practice than on theology or doctrine. Action can take the form of halakhah, observance of rituals, and engagement in social and ethical issues. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, the experiential dimension has been emphasized increasingly by many communities; however, this dimension is usually associated with ritual and contemplative practices.
The persistent relevance of these themes are embodied in ritual, which often resonates particularly deeply with religious Jews. The Passover Seder can be taken as emblematic of the interplay of these themes in the way it illustrates the layers of history, interaction of myth and ritual, and affective nature of Jewish practice. The Seder is a meal held on the holiday of Passover, which celebrates Israel's liberation from slavery in Egypt. In the Torah (Ex. 12:1–28), an annual commemoration of the Exodus is prescribed as a reenactment of the original event. It consists of a lamb sacrifice eaten hastily by a family in the household; in time the sacrifice was linked to pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Temple, the sacrifice was no longer offered. However, by the time of the Mishnah the Passover celebration had become a meal in which symbolic foods were eaten and discussed and the biblical story of the Exodus was told and interpreted. For example, the participants not only eat the unleavened bread (matsah ) and the bitter herbs (maror ) as prescribed in Ex. 12:8, but explain their meaning as the bread eaten in haste by the Israelites and a symbol of the bitterness of slavery. Thus the participants internalize the historical experience both through the senses and discursively. As the Haggadah, the traditional narration for the Seder, puts it, "In every generation one should see oneself as having come out of Egypt." The Seder has become one of the most popular Jewish rituals in modern times, celebrated in homes not only by all religious denominations, but by secular Jews as well. For traditional Jews, the Seder has symbolized redemption and divine sovereignty; for many modern Jews, it represents national solidarity and political freedom. The ritual thus manages, in a series of gestures, to combine thought and action, history and the present, and the extraordinary and the everyday.
Amoraim; Ashkenazic Hasidism; Conservative Judaism; Covenant; Dead Sea Scrolls; Halakhah, article on History of Halakhah; Hasidism; Israelite Religion; Jewish People; Jewish Religious Year; Jewish Renewal Movement; Jewish Thought and Philosophy; Midrash and Aggadah; Mishnah and Tosefta; Oral Torah; Orthodox Judaism; Patriarchate; Pesher; Qabbalah; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity; Reconstructionist Judaism; Reform Judaism; Sadducees; Synagogue; Talmud; Tannaim; Torah; Tosafot; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Jewish Worship; Zionism.
The best reference work for the study of Judaism is the Encyclopedia Judaica, 16 vols. (Jerusalem, 1971), although the earlier Jewish Encyclopedia, 12 vols. (1901–1906) is still of value. An excellent survey of the history of Judaism, balancing historical detail with religious ideas, is Robert Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought. A briefer, up-to-date historical survey is Raymond P. Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood (New York, 1998). Judith Baskin (ed.), Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (Detroit, 1991), is especially useful for understanding the history of women in Judaism. An excellent introduction to the most important Jewish religious texts is Barry Holtz, Back to the Sources (New York, 1984). Harvey Goldberg, Jewish Passages (Berkeley, 2003) is a substantial description of the rituals of Jewish life that takes anthropological and historical methods into consideration. Two fine works on Jewish liturgy are Ruth Langer, To Worship God Properly (Cincinnati and Detroit, 1998) and Lawrence A. Hoffman, Beyond the Text (Bloomington, 1987).
On Jewish philosophy from antiquity to the twenty-first century see Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman (eds.), History of Jewish Philosophy (London, 1997). The seminal work on Jewish mysticism, and one of the most important modern works of Jewish scholarship, is Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1941). Other important studies of the Qabbalah and other types of Jewish mysticism are Moseh Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, 1988) and Elliot Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines (Princeton, 1994).
The biblical period
The best introduction to biblical religion, especially as a background for understanding Judaism, is Jon D. Levenson's Sinai and Zion (New York, 1985). Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God (San Francisco, 1990; Dearborn, 2002) is also valuable. An important essay on the conception of God that underlies biblical ritual is Baruch A. Levine, "The Presence of God in Biblical Religion," in Jacob Neusner (ed.), Religions in Antiquity (Leiden, 1968), pp. 71–87. Susan Niditch, Ancient Israelite Religion (New York, 1997) is also notable for its consideration of archaeological data and the history of women in biblical Israel.
The Second-Temple and Rabbinic periods
Two valuable introductions to Judaism from the Persian period to the end of the talmudic period are Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition (Hoboken, 1991) and Martin S. Jaffee, Early Judaism (Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1997). Lawerence H. Schiffman's Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (Philadelphia, 1994) is a comprehensive introduction to the literature of the Qumran community; John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (New York, 1984; Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998) is an excellent description of apocalyptic literature. An important statement on the Mishnah and how it reflects the earliest stage of Rabbinic Judaism is Jacob Neusner, Judaism, the Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago, 1981). Solomon S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York, 1909; reprint, 1969) is a collection of essays on Rabbinic thought that can still be read with profit. In Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE (Princeton, 2001) Seth Schwartz presents a provocative challenge to conventional understandings of Judaism in the Rabbinic period.
On women and gender in Rabbinic Judaism see Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? (New York, 1988); Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice (Boulder, 1998); and Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel (Berkeley 1993). For the history of the ancient synagogue, Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven, 2000) and Steven Fine, This Holy Place (Notre Dame, 1997) integrate archaeological finds and textual research. Baruch Boxer, The Origins of the Seder (Berkeley, 1984) demonstrates the significance of the Passover Seder for the history of rabbinic Judaism. On Merkavah Mysticism, see Peter Schäfer, The Hidden and Manifest God (Albany, 1992).
The Middle Ages
For a social history of Jews in the Middle ages see Mark R. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross (Princeton, 1994). S. D. Goiten synthesized the enormous range of sources found in the Cairo Genizah into a fascinating and comprehensive portrait of a medieval Jewish community in A Mediterranean Society (6 vols., Berkeley, 1971). On medieval Jewish philosophy see Colette Sirat, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge and Paris, 1985) and Julius Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964). For the Qabbalah see the works of Scholem, Idel, and Wolfson cited above. On the spiritual world of medieval Ashkenazic intellectuals see Ephraim Kanarfogel, Peering through the Lattices (Detroit, 2000).
The modern period
An excellent portrait of the pioneers of Jewish modernity in Germany is Michael A. Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (Detroit, 1967). Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz's The Jew in the Modern World (Oxford, 1980) is a valuable anthology of documents. For Judaism in the Middle East, see Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (Philadelphia, 1991). For Judaism in the United States, see Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: a History (New Haven, 2004). Charles S. Liebman's The Ambivalent American Jew (Philadelphia, 1973) also contains many good insights. For an overview of Zionism see Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (New York, 1989).
Among the many modern theologies of Judaism, several stand out as having made an impact on contemporary Judaism and are attentive to many aspects of Judaic experience. Though difficult, Franz Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption (1930; trans. by William W. Hallo, New York, 1971) presented a system describing Judaism as a process of creation, revelation, and redemption that has been very influential. Abraham Joshua Heschel's God in Search of Man (New York, 1955) emphasized the experience of "radical amazement" and his poetic work The Sabbath proposed the values and worldview embodied in the Sabbath as an antidote to the sterility and cruelty of modern society. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man and "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Modern Judaism 2:3 : 227–272) are important existential reflections from the modern Orthodox perspective. While not a work of theology per se, Elie Wiesel's works, especially Night (New York, 1972), have set the agenda in the starkest terms for Jewish considerations of the Holocaust. For two influential statements see Richard L. Rubenstein's After Auschwitz (Indianapolis, 1966) and Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World (New York, 1982). Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai (New York, 1990), is a pioneering work of Jewish feminist theology.
Translations of major Jewish texts
Translations of most of the major Rabbinic texts are available; classic translations of the Mishnah, Babylonian Talmud and Midrash Rabbah (the principal Rabbinic commentary on the Torah and five other books) are The Mishnah, translated by Herbert Danby (Oxford, 1933); The Babylonian Talmud, 35 vols. (1935–1948; reprint in 18 vols., London, 1961); and Midrash Rabbah, 10 vols., translated by Harry Freedman et al. (London, 1939). A preliminary English translation of the Palestinian Talmud is The Talmud of the Land of Israel, translated by Jacob Neusner (35 vols.; Chicago, 1982). The Mishneh Torah, the great legal code of Maimonides, has been translated as The Code of Maimonides, 16 vols. to date (New Haven, 1949–). The best translation of Maimonides' philosophical magnum opus is The Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1964). A translation of the Zohar into English that combines poetic language with critical acumen has been undertaken by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar (two volumes published so far; Stanford, 2004–). The Jewish prayerbook (siddur ) is an important source of information on Jewish values, implicit theologies, and sacred literature. The best translation of the traditional prayerbook is Daily Prayer Book, ha-Siddur ha-Shalem, translated by Philip Birnbaum (New York, 1949). The Passover Haggadah, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York, 1969), is a good translation of the traditional text for the Passover Seder.
Other works cited in this entry
Baeck, Leo. The Essence of Judaism. Translated by Irving Howe and Victor Grubwieser. London, 1936; revised edition, New York, 1948.
Biale, David. Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.
Frazer, James. Folklore in the Old Testament. New York, 1988.
Kadushin, Max, Worship and Ethics. New York, 1963.
Kugel, James L., and Greer, Rowan A. Early Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia, 1986.
Silver, Abba Hillel. Where Judaism Differed. New York, 1956; reprint, Northvale, N.J., 1987.
Smith, W. Robertson. Religion of the Semites. New York, 1894; reprint, New Brunswick, N.J., 2002.
Michael Swartz (2005)
"Judaism: An Overview." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/judaism-overview
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