A new book about the history of Judaism Apr 1, 2018 14:26:32 GMT -5
Post by shira on Apr 1, 2018 14:26:32 GMT -5
A History of Judaism
By Martin Goodman
Princeton, 623 pages, $39.95 ( it is now about $26 on Amazon. I just ordered it )
IN THE TALMUD, a pagan asks the first-century B.C. sage Hillel the Elder to teach him the whole Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel replies with the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary; go and learn.” In Hillel’s time, Greek skepticism and the Roman Empire had the Jews on the back foot. His dictum remains popular in our skeptical time, which also prefers reason over revelation, and the armed truce of “interfaith” tolerance over open hostilities. But consult the redaction of oral law in the Mishnah (ca. 200), and you get a different answer. In Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers,” the world rests on three pillars: “Torah, avodah, gemilut hasadim.” While the third principle, “acts of loving kindness,” has remained stable from Hillel’s day to ours, avodah (“service”) has beentransmuted from priestly sacrifices to communal prayer, and Torah has been transformed by extension.
Even in Hillel’s time, however, Jewishness had three legs: peoplehood, religion and culture. Martin Goodman’s “History of Judaism” is a learned and illuminating treatment of only the second leg, but this magnificently lucid account will become the standard reference for a generation. Mr. Goodman, a professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, sketches every figure, defines every movement and captures the “kaleidoscopic variety” of Judaism’s modulating expressions without losing sight of its living core. He is an invaluable guide to the faith that has led the Jews like the pillar of fire that guided Moses and the Hebrews in the desert.
By Hillel’s time, the age of prophecy was over. The canon of the Hebrew Bible had formed—the Greek wisdom of Ecclesiastes was in, but the Greek wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) was out. The Shema, the daily prayer whose title means “Listen!,” had been the stuff of Judean amulets for centuries: “Hear O Israel, The Lord is Our God, The Lord is One.” And Platonic doctrines about the soul and the afterlife had been reconciled with the core principles of monotheism. But we and the rabbis of the Mishnah are divided from Hillel and ancient Judaism by the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70.
The temple at Jerusalem, Mr. Goodman writes, had been “the primary link between Israel and God,” just as Solomon had envisaged. It had been one of the architectural “wonders of the Roman Empire,” and its quasi-Homeric sacrifices of bulls and sheep attracted “non-Jewish tourists as well as masses of Jewish worshippers.” Its destruction by Titus’s legions led to the fall of the Judean state and its priesthood—and to the rebuilding of Judaism.
The synagogue, “one of the most striking religious innovations in antiq-uity,” already existed as a secondary institution; public reading from the Torah had been instituted by Ezra the Scribe in the fifth century B.C., after the return from Babylon. There was also an existing diaspora, including large Jewish communities at Babylon, Rome and Alexandria. But the synagogue soon became the primary link to God, and the dispersion of his people was now theologized as Galut, a repeat of the Babylonian Exile, on a larger and more lasting scale.
The rest really was commentary. Torah still meant the Five Books of Moses and the right living they engendered, but it also came to mean the layers of study and interpretation that surround the “common core of all later forms of Judaism” like the insulation around a nuclear reactor. Rabbinic Judaism, forged amid philosophical challenge and physical destruction, preserved this core into the modern age. The sparks still flew upwards.
Doctrines expressing Judaism’s core beliefs developed slowly, throughlayers of interpretation. The Bible had explained God within a sacred history of kinship, as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The Hellenistic era forced Judaism to develop a consistent worldview—consistent, that is, with the universalism of Greek philosophy and Roman power. The result was disagreement over purity, calendars and Sabbath observation; speculation about demons and angels; discordant prophecies about the ”immediate and eschatological future”; and bitter debate about the “value of martyrdom” as well as the “expectation for life after death.”
The sparks now flew outwards. In the first century, the “dramatically different theological complexions” of Judaism led to the sectarianism of revolt, civil war and Christianity. Mr. Goodman excels in sifting the partial evidence we have about groups like the long-haired Nazirites, the sociable Haverim, the stringent Essenes and the Yahad group at Qumran, whose reverence for their deceased “Teacherof Righteousness” Mr. Goodman compares to the attitudes early Christians held toward Jesus.
Meanwhile, the heirs of Hillel developed the synagogue, the liturgy and the Gemara (the hermeneutic analysis of the Mishnah with reference to the Torah and later rabbinic traditions). Around the year 500, they compiled their findings, the halakhah,or legal “way,” into the Babylonian Talmud. Hillel and his contemporary Shammai survive in “very schematic form” as the progenitors of a dialectical rivalry, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.
While the Talmud stabilized Judaism, the study of Talmudic method fostered a “dynamic tradition” of interpretation, in which rabbinic poskim(“deciders”) expanded the halakhah through responsa, “answers.” Stimulating questions arose not just from the challenges of Christianity and Islam, but from neo-Aristotelian philosophy and the recurrent mystical impulse within Judaism. Medievalmassacres by Christians demanded a theology of martyrdom; the kaddish prayer for the deceased entered the Ashkenazi liturgy. Eastern Jews adopted the Muslim habits of headcovering and visiting saints’ tombs, or were influenced by the neo-Platonist themes of Sufism. “In marked contrast to the strict controls on theological speculation in contemporary Christian circles,” Mr. Goodman writes, “and the necessary restraints for rabbis themselves when ruling on halakhah, it was possible to dream with little restraint about the nature of the divine and its secret revelation through the enigmatic words of scripture.” Nor did Judaism penalize “failure to depict correctly the nature of the divine world” with automatic accusations of heresy.
Thus mystical speculation developed dialectically with rabbinic law. While the great medieval commentators, Rashi on the Talmud and Maimonides on Jewish law, were clarifying the plain meaning of the halakhah, their rabbinic peers were creating the speculative mysticism of the Zohar. While Isaac Luria expounded the kabbalah following the expulsion from Spain, Joseph Caro updated the practical application of halakhah in the Shulchan Aruch code of laws (1563). In the 18th century, while Polish Jews followed charismatic Hasidic leaders, Lithuanian Jews followed the intellectual austerities of the Gaon of Vilna.
The consensus broke down in 19thcentury Europe. When the Reform Jews of Germany adopted the privatized religious model of Christianity, another German Jew, Samson Raphael Hirsch, responded with the new traditionalism of Orthodoxy. In the U.S., a third stream, Conservative Judaism, tried to reconcile Reform aspirations with Orthodox rigor. Further minorities responded with the secular heresies of Zionism and socialism.
Judaism did not die in the Holocaust, nor was it superannuated by Zionism. Today, Judaism is the state religion of nearly half the world’s Jews. The diaspora has never been so well connected to the land of Israel; the internet, like the printed Talmud in the 16th century, standardizes “norms and expectations” as it spreads them. Hebrew literacy has never been so high, and the “extraordinary fecundity” of ultra-Orthodox Jews is tipping the demographic balance. So far, the Jews’ “consistent thread” of grudging tolerance for one another’s opinions has held.
Citing Josephus, the historian who witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple, Mr. Goodman advises “reticence in predicting what will happen in the next century.” Meanwhile, the first responsa on the halakhah of space travel already have been issued.Mr.Green is a historian and critic.
This magnificent account of Jewish belief should become the standard reference for a generation.
RABBI Gamaliel teaching, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, ca. 1350.