Judaism to 1800

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Judaism to 1800

As a religion developing over three millennia, Judaism changed, diversified, and acculturated to many cultural and spiritual environments, while maintaining at the same time some basic characteristics. In the following, an attempt is made to describe both the continuities and the variations characteristic of the various forms of Judaism up to 1800.

Four main concepts organize the majority of the developments in this period: memory, corporate personality, performance, and order. A traditional form of mentality, Jewish culture has been oriented toward an accumulative understanding of the development of literature and has preserved much of the earlier forms of literature, though strongly reinterpreted, as part of homogenizing enterprises in search of cohesion.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, Judaism developed into a complex ray of processes that combine biblical, rabbinic, and speculative trends in different ways and proportions. The biblical trend is represented by materials that constitute the biblical literature of the first millennium b.c.e. and is concerned basically with what happened in history and what is the best religious behavior, understood as the commandments of God.

The rabbinic trend deals with literatures, primarily interpretive narratives that began to appear in the first millennium c.e., that aim to explicate the biblical materials: the Mishnah (compiled c. 200 c.e..) and the Talmuds (Palestinian, c. 400, and Babylonian, c. 500) deal with the codification of the biblical commandments, and with detailed explanations of how to perform them, while most of the Midrashic literatures interpret the historical parts of the Bible, that is, what happened and how, and what is missing in the elliptic biblical style.

During the second millennium c.e., philosophical and mystical forms of Judaism emerged. These can be described as speculative, since they put a stronger emphasis on the question why than did the biblical and rabbinic writings. Drawing from a variety of Greek, Hellenistic, Arabic, and Christian sources, and sometimes even from Hindu ones, more comprehensive accounts of the meaning of Judaism, including new theologies and anthropologies, were articulated by Jewish thinkers.

Forms of Memory

Identity is a matter of memory. Selective as both individual and collective memory is, it moves to the center those events and acts that are conceived of as most important. Naturally these change with time. For example, in biblical Judaism the remembrance that the Israelites belong to God, who saved them from Egypt, was a major religious concern. Rituals that celebrate this belonging, like the donning of the phylacteries, the special garments known as tallith, the mezuzah, and circumcisionwhat I call the "envelope of reminders"were emphasized and remained part and parcel of later forms of Judaism. Rabbinic literature, however, conceived of the will of God as embedded in the Torah, or inlibrated in the way H. A. Wolfson understood this term, and the memorization of the Torah moved to the center of rabbinic spirituality. To be sure, the biblical ideals did not disappear, but the structures of remembrance and reminders in rabbinic literature became more complex.

These two forms of Judaism envisioned the approach to the divine as involving the entire human personality. The anthropology that inspires these literatures is more integrative, meaning that they take into consideration the importance of both bodily and psychological aspects of man. In medieval forms of Judaism, a third form of memory becomes important, in which remembrance was less mediated by concrete activitiesrelated to the "envelope of reminders" or the study of the canonical bookbut was related to thinking and concentrating on God as an intellectual concept, on nature as the manifestation of his attributes, and on God's names.

The biblical, rabbinic, and contemplative/mystical (or speculative) stages of Judaism convey quite a similar picture: remembrance and forgetting represent the two poles of the positive and negative evaluations, which are applied to those values that organize the different types of Judaism surveyed above. In the Hebrew Bible, the will of God is the central religious factor, and it informs the course of history, especially the Jewish one. Therefore, the Israelites see in history, though not in it alone, a manifestation of the divine will; and the remembrance of this will and its linkage to the fate of the Jewish nation is crucial. The change in history, in the form of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, constitutes a formative moment that should be remembered in order to make the linkage with the redeeming God. Most of the literature created in the biblical period is concerned solely with a sacred history, while the more general events that took place after the destruction of the Second Temple were conceived of as peripheral from the religious point of view, a view shared by rabbinical, philosophical, and kabbalistic authors. Historical writings are scant and played a marginal role in the general economy of Judaism.

Concepts of Corporate Personality

Biblical forms of Judaism share a concept of a unified mythical body of the people of Israel, made up of the individual Israelites. Identity is attained by participation in the broader group, which is the main bearer of identity. In the pseudepigraphic intertestamental texts, and in many Hebrew discussions from late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Israel is sometimes described as an angel appointed over the nation. In rabbinic literature, this corporate personality was sometimes called Knesset Yisrael, the assembly of Israel, a concept close to the contemporaneous Ecclesia, and Kelal Yisrael, the entire people of Israel, was described by dicta like "All the [individuals belonging to] Israel are friends" or alternatively, "are warrant of each other." One of the main assumptions in this layer of thought is the common experience shared at the Sinaitic revelation, on the one hand, and the concept of an elect people on the other hand. This corporate personality is understood both as an organic internal cohesion and as separated from all the other nations. In some kabbalistic forms of Judaism since the Middle Ages, this cohesion is portrayed as depending on a union between Israel, God, and the Torah. Some more philosophically oriented forms of Judaism conceived of man as essentially the intellect and, consequently, of Israel as an intellectual attainment.

The destiny of this corporate personality is imagined to be a central issue of human history in general, and the vicissitudes of the Jews are related to their disobedience of the divine imperatives, which attracts divine intervention in the course of history and nature. Thus matters related to exile and redemption, including the various concepts of Messiah, are related to the centrality of corporate personality. According to some rabbinic views, the exile is not only a matter of the Jewish people, but God tooor sometimes his presence, the Shekhinah participates in it. The historical vicissitudes are seen not as accidents, unrelated or meaningless events, but as part of a broader story that gravitates around the ritual order, namely the fulfillment of the divine will by a very definite national entity, whose emergence and continuity is one of the main concerns of these literatures

The Centrality of Ritual Performance

In most of its historical forms up to 1800, Judaism was a halakocentric religion. The main religious activity was the performance of the 613 commandments, addressed to the God of Israel. Halakah, a central concept in traditional Judaism, stands for the regulations of the details of religious behavior. Made up of interpretations of biblical and then rabbinical discussions, halakah represents the most vast and influential literature in Jewish culture. However, while addressing the concrete aspects of performance, it rarely addresses the religious goals of this behaviorthese questions are discussed in the speculative literatures. Until modern Judaism, halakic behavior was the basic skeleton of Jewish life, though the detailsthe customs and much more their meaningchanged over centuries.

The two main religious rituals performed in public, prayer and reading of the Torah, are paramountly vocal. The halakic regulation to recite them is an essential part of their performance. (Anthropologically speaking, any thick description of Judaism should pay close attention to the role played by the voice in the communal rites.) However, as far as the vast majority of members of communities are concerned, there is no reason to assume that an awareness of any of the above three models was instrumental in significantly shaping religious experience. What is described in the literature deals primarily with conceptualizations and experiences of small elites, rather than with widespread understandings of Jewish practices. Indeed, according to some few examples, in which the vocal aspects of prayer were conceived of as secondary, preference was given to the mental aspects of prayer, as implied for example by Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 11351204) and his followers. Adding important forms of spiritualized versions of Judaism, this Neoaristotelian thinkerand before him the eleventh-century Bahya ibn Paqudahhad a strong impact on some aspects of the internalization of religious life in Judaism.

Nevertheless, the more common experiences, based on vocal religious activities, created communities that were characterized, at least for those periods in which the rites were performed, by a shared sonorous ambiance. More than the praying, Jews were united by their sharing the same semantic worldthey became a group by experiencing a rhythm of life punctuated by the same sounds. Eminent representatives of more intellectually inclined versions of Kabbalah and Hasidism even attributed a surplus role to loud recitation, rather than a mere compliance with a halakic regulation. This means that, despite the acceptance of axiologies, which elevated mental processes to a very high status, even outstanding representatives of elite Jewish mysticism (though not all of them) maintained the importance of vocal activities rather than devalue them, as some philosophers did. More interesting than this apotheosis of the loud study of the Talmud and the mouthing of the Torah, which continued classical rabbinic regulations, is the ascent of the loud study of kabbalistic books. For example, evidence has emerged regarding the loud study of the book of the Zohar in northern Africa beginning in the late sixteenth century.

Though there can be no doubt that loud study and prayer were intended to improve the memorization of the studied textunlike the halakic reading of the Torah and prayerthe result was the same: sounds became an integral part of ritual in rabbinic academies as they were in synagogues. The active participation in the formation of a sonorous ambiance that encompasses the entire community with an actualization of canonical texts may be considered a formative experience for the group. The sonority created during these Jewish rituals distinguishes them from the greater solemnity that is characteristic of many rituals related to reading of sacred texts. The sonority is not a unison of coordinated voices that are consonant to each other. Musically speaking, it more often resembles cacophony than symphony. Indeed, the traditional study of the Torah or prayer, and even the ritualistic loud reading of the Torah, often took place in an ambiance dominated by discordant voices. This participation in very loosely coordinated vocal activity is characteristic of a community that cooperates in a major project, but allows, or at least bears, the individuals that study and pray in their own rhythms.

Different Forms of Order in Judaism

In the context of Judaism, order refers to a sequel of homogenous signs, events, or actions whose knowledge and enactments have meanings beyond their immanent one.

Biblical and rabbinic literatures.

In the biblical and rabbinic literatures, three types of order are discernible: the ritual, the literary, and the historical. The ritual order, which is the most important, is shared by the two bodies of literatures. The assumption is not only that the Jewish rites are quintessential from the religious point of view, but also that their performance has wider implications, like the descent of rains, according to the biblical view, or the enhancement of the divine power according to the rabbinic view. However, it is not clear how precisely the affinities between performance and wider effects are related. The absence of detailed and systematic explanatory discussions is characteristic of the apodictic propensity of rabbinic writings.

The literary orderwhich refers to the intense and repeated study of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmudbecame a central preoccupation among Jews, and even God was imagined to participate in it. Torah, the Hebrew language, and divine names were conceived of as perfect beings that were used in order to create reality and that might also be used by man in order to impact reality. Though the biblical texts and, later on, the rabbinic ones embody both ritual and literary order, the literary order has a specific dimension, that of dense textuality. This means that not only the messages but also the precise details of the document that conveys them, are of paramount importance.

The common denominator of these types of order is the centrality of human action and fate in the universe, that is, the historical order. Objective structures that are not primarily oriented toward the well-being of manlike the invisible Platonic Ideas or the Aristotelian God as intellectcannot be considered quintessential from the religious point of view. Furthermore, while the Greek conceptions of the cosmos were basically static, gravitating around concepts of perfections, the Jewish orders, which have human fate as the main topic, are much more dynamic.

Speculative literatures.

The nature of intermediary structureslike divine attributes, known as middot, the divine Glory, decadic structures, or angelic structuresand their specific orders play only secondary roles in the biblical and rabbinic literatures, but they are manifest in literatures that were, for the rabbinic authors, secondary, like the Heikhalot literature, or some forms of Jewish magic from late antiquity, like Sefer ha-Razim (Book of the mysteries). These forms of order are basically nonconstellated, that is, they operate without substantial speculative superstructures or orders.

Most of the Kabbalists were religious figures whose conservative propensities were amply testified in their literary activity and sometimes in the records of their lives. They contributed to the emergence of types of ontological concatenations (linkages or chains) between various aspects of reality in manners unknown to or marginal to rabbinic Judaism. The concatenation of supernal orders and rites created structures similar to myth-and-ritual views, although the supernal orders do not uniformly assume the form of mythical narrative.

Jewish speculative literatures that emerged in the Middle Ages, including works on Hebrew grammar and on poetics, and first accounts of scientific thought in Judaism, were in a constant search for comprehensive forms of order. This was also true of philosophical works, including the first systematic descriptions of the divine realm, of human psychology, and of the concept of nature. Attempting to organize the various views on some of those topics found in early Jewish literatures, medieval Jewish thinkers used categories previously absent from Judaism. Words for theology, metaphysics, psychology, nature, and science, did not exist in the Hebrew and Aramaic of biblical and rabbinic literatures, so the use of these categories of thought necessitated linguistic innovation. Some Jewish thinkers had to attenuate the more personalistic, voluntaristic forms of order. Different as the various forms of Jewish philosophy, grammar, science, or kabbalistic literatures are, they share nevertheless a pathos for stable forms of order operating not only in the realm of objective nature, but also in the structure of language and of the human psyche, and in the realm of religious activities.

The idea of sympathetic affinities between the different levels of order created modes of integration that were new to Judaism. Not only was the world conceived of as an organized universe, a cosmos, but also even God was attracted within this integrated system and was conceived of as a part of it. This was already obvious in the Greek systems in which God or gods were not only generative but also paradigmatic concepts: Aristotle's metaphysics, which describes God as an intellect, created an axiology in which the human act of intellection becomes paramount. Sympathetic magic of Neoplatonic and Hermetic extraction, which relates human acts to astral processes, is another example of an integrated system. Both modes of integrated thought were adopted in some forms of medieval Judaism, including by different forms of Kabbalah.

The pathos for integrated orders also generated more specifically Jewish expressions. The most widespread is the assumption, found in the theosophical-theurgical school of Kabbalah, that human actions, the commandments or the mitzvot, correspond to the divine structure, designated as a system of ten sefirot (or creative forces). This dynamic correlation presupposes the possibility of the impact of human acts in the lower realm on the higher entities, that is, a theurgical impact. In another example, each of the supernal divine attributes was conceived of as governing a corresponding celestial sphere, a theory I call theo-astrology.

The Kabbalists thought they possessed knowledge of forms of order unknown to, or hidden from the eyes of, other Jewish masters, and that this knowledge, and the use of it were part of their superiority as religious persons. Unlike the rabbinic treatment of the mitzvot as basically nonconstellated by metaphysical structures, most Kabbalists subordinated them to supernal entities and processes, thus creating more comprehensive frames. This tendency to create hierarchies and ontological chains of being by connecting in an active manner between analogical levels of reality is especially evident in the philosophical and kabbalistic resort to the concept of hishtalshelut, or shalshelet, terms pointing to intradivine chains of emanation. Many of the Kabbalists created an imaginaire of the universe permeated by many concatenations, analogies, occult affinities, detailed sympathies, intricate subordinations, and hierarchies, most of which are absent from the rabbinic literatures. What is characteristic of many of these emanational chains is their flexibilitythat is, their dependence on human religious acts belowand thus their vulnerability. Unlike the idea of the great chain of being (described in Arthur Lovejoy's classic study), which is characterized by its static naturethat is, its total independence of human actsmany of the kabbalistic descriptions assume mutual influence between the performance of the ritual and the supernal constellations that govern that performance.

The transition between the biblical and rabbinic literatures and the medieval speculative literatures, thus, is characterized by the transformation from a nonconstellated to a constellated approach. The different speculative constellations constitute different forms of attributing meaning to modes of religiosity that were more concerned with shaping a religious modus operandi than with establishing systematic worldviews. These creations of meaning were attained by constructing narratives that confer on ritualistic acts and on mystical techniques the possibility of transcending the situation of relative disorder in the external world, in the human psyche, or within divinity, thus attaining a superior order. Far from avoiding the strictures of the rabbinic life, most Kabbalists actually added customs and demanded a more intense performance of all the religious precepts understood as being fraught with special mystical valences. This effort of attributing special import to human religious deeds has much to do with the process of creating new systems of affinities evident in the voluminous kabbalistic literature dealing with the rationales of the commandments.

See also Dialogue and Dialectics: Talmudic ; Judaism: Modern Judaism ; Mysticism: Kabbalah .


Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988/

Idel, Moshe, and Mortimer Ostow. Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the Thirteenth Century. Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1998.

Kraemer, David Charles. The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Myers, David N., and David B. Ruderman. The Jewish Past Revisited: Reflections on Modern Jewish Historians. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Ruderman, David B. Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001.

Zolty, Shoshana. And All Your Children Shall Be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History. Northvale N.J.: Aronson, 1993.

Moshe Idel

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