History and Development of Judaism

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Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. It is the oldest monotheistic (one god) religion and the oldest living religion in the West. Judaism preceded and greatly influenced Christianity and Islam, which are based on Jewish beliefs. The fact that it is so closely linked with the Jewish people makes the two inseparable in a way that say Christianity and the French are not. The relationship becomes even more intertwined and complex when the nation of Israel is entered into the equation. The words "Judaism" and "Jew" are derived from "Judah," the ancient Jewish kingdom of southern Palestine.

According to the BBC: “Judaism is the original of the three Abrahamic faiths, which also includes Christianity and Islam. Jews believe that God appointed the Jews to be his chosen people in order to set an example of holiness and ethical behavior to the world. Jews believe that there is only one God with whom they have a covenant. In exchange for all the good that God has done for the Jewish people, Jewish people keep God’s laws and try to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives. Judaism has a rich history of religious text, but the central and most important religious document is the Torah. Jewish traditional or oral law, the interpretation of the laws of the Torah, is called halakhah. Jews worship in Synagogues. Spiritual leaders are called Rabbis. Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in an attempt to wipe out Judaism. There are many people who identify themselves as Jewish without necessarily believing in, or observing, any Jewish law. [Source: BBC |::|]

Judaism remains an important religion even though it has a relatively small number of followers. There is an emphasis on divine will expressed in laws and ecclesiastical authority has traditionally been weak while written laws have been strong. In its conservative form Judaism has a number of rituals, laws and rules which are expected to be followed to the smallest detail but often the basis of these rituals is nothing more than tradition. Jewish scholarship has often been oriented towards interpreting these laws in a changing world and Judaism itself has been described a “reflection” upon Jewish history and tradition.

Websites and Resources: Judaism Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Origin of Judaism

Judaism was founded, if you go by the Bible and Torah, about 1300 B.C. by Moses when he brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai. It is said to have originated 3,800 years ago in Mesopotamia with Abraham, the founding patriarch of the tribes of Israel. Judaism. Abraham made an agreement with God to spread the doctrine of monotheism in return for leading Abraham to the promised Land of Canaan (Israel). The Torah of Moses is the source of most of the sacred texts. Jesus was a Jew and the sacred scriptures of Judaism are considered sacred by Christianity and Islam.

Evolution of Orthodox Judaism

Yehuak, the original Jewish word for God

Rabbi YY Rubinstein wrote for the BBC: “Judaism's beginning starts strangely enough without Jews. The Bible records twenty generations of humanity before the appearance of the First Jew, Abraham. His personality would act as a paradigm for his descendants who would eventually become the Jewish people. He was a religious revolutionary who refined his spirituality to such a degree that G-d spoke to him, in other words, he became a Prophet (although his wife Sarah became a greater Prophet) He was an iconoclast who openly challenged the universal beliefs of his time and insisted that there was only one G-d. He was stubbornly willing to give up his own life rather than compromise his beliefs. [Source:Rabbi YY Rubinstein, BBC, August 13, 2009 |::|]

“The people that would evolve from Abraham would have to manifest all of those qualities in order to perform the role that G-d had set for them. In fact the only time the Torah defines the nature of the Jewish people it is to identify them as a 'Stiff necked' or stubborn. Still, if G-d required a people to carry a message through Crusade, Inquisition, Pogrom, and Holocaust, stubbornness would be the essential character trait. |::|

In the 5th century B.C. , when the Jews were ruled by the Persians, the priest Ezra and the leader Nehemiah worked together to rebuild Jerusalem and to reorganize and reform Jewish communal life. They urged the Jewish people to renew their covenant with God and rid themselves of foreign and pagan influences. Some regard their efforts as the founding of Judaism. For the next 250 years Judea was a vassal state of Persia ruled by a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian leadership and a religious leader in the form of a high priest.

The term Judaism is first found among the Greek-speaking Jews of the A.D. first century. (Judaismes, see ii Macc. 2:21; 8:1; 14:38; Gal. 1:13–14). Its Hebrew equivalent, Yahadut, found only occasionally in medieval literature but used frequently in modern times, has parallels neither in the Bible nor in the rabbinic literature. [Source: Louis Jacobs, Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1990s, Encyclopedia.com]

Judaism and History

Christianity and Islam are historical religions, a concept alien to Buddhism and Hinduism, and all regard themselves as the legitimate heirs to the Holy Land. From a historical perspective Judaism is a branch on a tree of monotheism but for Jews there is no break between the period of creation, of Abraham, of the Pharisees and today.

Some religious historians divide the history of Judaism into five periods: 1) the Biblical period; 2) the post-the Biblical period, when Judaism became enshrined in the Talmud; 3) the Middle Ages, when religious philosophy and mysticism were at their peak; 4) the period when orthodoxy, neo-orthodoxy and Zionism took shape; and 5) the period after the creation of Israel.

The Jews are a real, historic people but how much their real history dovetail with the history descried in the Bible is matter of conjecture, speculation and debate. For many Jews, religion and history are one in the same and the history of Judaism has been a series of problems, defeats, suffering and exile of the Jewish people. This fate has traditionally been attributed to a failure to follow god’s will.

In recent years archaeological discoveries and scholastic research have shown how biblical texts may fruitfully be compared with traditions and historical episodes from the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Canaan, Assyria and Persia.

Although rarely in power the Jews were the dominate group in the Holy Land for centuries. The strategic location of Palestine (Israel) on the Mediterranean Sea between Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa has made it a highly sought after prize that a number of civilizations and peoples have fought over and occupied.

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Ancient Hebrew Inscription, 10 BC

History holds a high place in the lives among modern Jews. Events that happened thousands of years ago are treated like they happened only yesterday. “The few against the many” is a favorite Hebrew expressions describing the fate of the Jewish people and Israel. Schoolchildren are taught that the Jews and Israel have always been surrounded by hostile enemies and that they have succeeded as David did against Goliath.

Biblical History

The Torah (Old Testament), the holy ook of Judaism, is essentially the story of the 12 Hebrew tribes uniting under Moses to form a nation, and that story put in a universal connection with humanity. The early chapters of the Bible focus on the theme that man rejected God, unleashing a series of problems until finally God chose one man, Abraham, whose descendants were to form a faithful people that later followed Moses out of Egypt.

The Biblical kingdoms were relatively small and bit players in the Middle East in Biblical times. While Genesis is about mankind. The text that follows is mostly about the Jewish people. The early Bible follows the migration of the Hebrew people from Mesopotamia to Canaan (Israel) and then to Egypt and back to Canaan again. Some scholars view this as a physical migration of semi-nomadic people. Others interpret as a spiritual journey or both.

The religion practiced by the early people in the Bible was quite different from modern religions and can not be considered Judaism or an early form of Christianity. It featured sacrifices and other rituals that were more similar to the religions practiced by tribal peoples than by modern Jews or Christians.

"Israel" mean "he who struggles with God.” Jacob was given this name after he wrestles with an angel. Later it came mean to the Jewish people and the place which the Jewish people hope to return to in Palestine. Palestine is name that was used in classical antiquity and was resurrected after not being used for more than a thousand years.

Creation of Judaism

20120504-Torah open ii.jpg The evolution from Hebraism (a religion based only on the scriptures of the Old Testament) to Judaism (with rabbis and religion doctrine interpreted by these rabbis) was a slow transformation that began in the destruction of the Second Temple (A.D. 70) and the compilation of the “Mishnah” (Judaism’s first major canonical document following the Bible) in the A.D. second century. During this time Judaism absorbed new ideas and faced new problems, many resulting from war and dislocation.

Alexandria was a center of Jewish intellectual life as well as Greek, Roman and Christian intellectual thought. Jewish scholars such as Philo of Alexandria were deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, which helped them find a vocabulary and ideas to address some of the more abstract concepts of their religion especially when it came to God. By contrast scholars that stayed close to their roots in Palestine stayed truer to the Bible and conceptualized God in more human and anthropomorphic terms. The evolution of these two methods of approaching Judaism led to articulation of the more mysterious aspects of Judaism and a codification of its laws.

The creation of Judaism was the work of rabbis who reconstructed the religion of the Jews by interpreting the Torah in a world without a Temple based on oral traditions, families and synagogues. The record of these rabbis formed the basis for the Mishnah and the Talmud.

In the Middle Ages there were many Jewish sects. In some cases each had its own Talmud. In time the the Babylonian Talmud predominated over the others. These were later organized into codes of which the code of Maimonides (1135-1204) and Joseph Caro (1488-1575), known as “Shulchan Aruch” , became the most important.

Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism is historically the most widespread and most representative form of Judaism. Jacob Kat wrote in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: It accepts the canonized books of the Hebrew Bible as divine revelation and accords them uncontested authority. The same holds true of the substance of the oral tradition. Both written and oral law, however, are not simple sources to be directly consulted by the believer for guidance. Their interpretation lies in the hands of experts, that is, the sages or rabbis who are, in a more or less formal fashion, authorized by their predecessors. This uninterrupted transmission of oral law from teacher to student since the time of Moses is one of the cardinal tenets of the belief system of Rabbinic Judaism. [Source: Jacob Kat. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Encyclopedia.com]

The rules and content of interpretation are themselves included in the tradition and are relatively stringent when they touch upon practical affairs, such as moral, ritual, or civic matters (halachah). In the area of belief and dogma, however, the body of teaching (agadah) is less strictly defined in both method and in content. Both types of teachings were incorporated into the basic texts of Rabbinic Judaism — the Mishnah and the Gemara, which together constitute the Talmud (both the Palestinian version, edited in the third century, and Babylonian, edited in the fifth). The Mishnah is a terse summary, in Hebrew, of the full corpus of Jewish law as it had crystallized by the second century of the Christian era. The Gemara is a quasistenographic report, in Aramaic, of the discussions and lengthy elaborations of the Mishnah as they occurred in the Palestinian and Babylonian academies in the subsequent centuries. The text is further interspersed with lengthy discussions of formulated exegesis and folklore. The whole body of religious teachings is commonly designated by the name torah, a term which strictly speaking refers only to the first five books of the Old Testament, that is, the Pentateuch.

The authoritative Mishnah and Gemara were subjected to reinterpretation, partly as a consequence of the inherent dialectic of textual interpretation and partly as an outgrowth of religious–judicial decisions on new and problematic realities. From commentaries, novellae, and responsa, layer after layer was added to the law, and as a consequence the halachah was repeatedly codified. Correspondingly, religious thinkers brought its theoretical teachings into alignment with various contemporary philosophical systems. Both intellectual activities — juridical and philosophical — were dependent on interpretation of given sacred texts by qualified authorities and remained scholastic in nature.

Alongside these two branches of religious learning there developed since Talmudic times, especially during the Middle Ages, the esoteric lore of the mystics known as the cabala. Starting with gnostic-like ideas, it developed emanative theories of the godhead and reinterpreted much of the tradition in this light. The main book of the cabala is the pseudographic Zohar, written in Aramaic in thirteenth-century Spain and attributed to one of the Talmudic sages of the second century. Al-though opposed by some rationalists ever since and looked upon with suspicion by some hala-chists, it nevertheless found widespread acceptance, especially since the late Middle Ages, when it strongly influenced both religious thinking and practice.

Maimonides, Yehudah Halevi and Other Jewish Thinkers

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) is regarded as the greatest Torah scholar, the most important medieval Jewish philosopher and the most influential rationalist thinker of Judaism. He is the author of “The Guide to the Perplexed” and the Thirteen Articles of Faith and the source of many Talmudist and Rabbinic laws. Both Maimonides and the Muslim philosopher and scientist Averroes were born in the Spanish city of Cordova and it is said that they became good friends.

The Thirteen Articles of Faith of Maimonides are regarded as the basic dogma of Judaism. They are: 1) The existence of God, the Creator of All Things; 2) His absolute unity; 3) His incorporeality; 4) His eternity; 5) The obligation to serve and worship him alone; 6) The existence of prophecy; 7) The superiority of the Prophecy of Moses above all others; 8) The “Torah” is God’s revelation to Moses; 9) “The Torah” is immutable; 10) God’s omniscience and foreknowledge; 11) Rewards and punishments according to one’s deeds; 12) The coming of the Messiah; 13) The resurrection of the dead.

Bahya ibn Pakuda (Spain,11th century) was another famous Jewish thinker. In his book “Duties of the Heart” he espoused asceticism, denounced giving into one’s desires and developed a kind of Jewish Sufism and brought it to a large audience.

Yehudah Halevi (1080-1141?) is a great rabbi-poet and Jewish thinker who approached Judaism from a different perspective and is also considered one of the greatest Jewish poets. Born in Spain, he spent much of life in Palestine. In his work he stressed an intense, deeply personal love of God, fealty to the Jewish community and a desire for divine communion. Halevi was a outgoing physician and court poet. He wrote religious verse and secular poems and were liked by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Many of his poems dealt with spirituality, alienation and the longing for a homeland. Some of his poems, such as “Ode to Zion”, are still fixtures of Jewish religious services.

There was a famous series of theological debates between priests and rabbis in the 13th and 14th century sponsored by the Catholic church. The rabbis were in a no-win situation. If they lost they lost; if they won they risked being lynched by a mob. A famous duel between a Jewish convert to Christianity named Pablo Christian and Nachmanides of Girona, the most famous Talmudic scholar of his generation, took place in Barcelona in 1283. Nachmanides performed so well he was charged with blasphemy and forced to leave the country.


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Kabbalah Tree of Life
from Medieval times
The Kabbalah is the name given to Jewish mystical knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation and hinted at in the Talmud. It is concerned with finding hidden meaning in the Scriptures, reaching elevated planes and ecstatic states, delving into magic, and speculating on the coming of the Messiah. Kabbalah has been compared to Sufism, Islamic mysticism. The word Kabbalah roughly means “esoteric tradition” and more precisely “what is receives,” a reference to Moses receiving the laws of God at Mt. Sinai, and a word widely used on modern Israel to describe the reception desk at hotels, among other things.

Despite claims that Kabbalah is a form of mystical teaching practiced by Moses it in fact has it origins in medieval Europe. In 13th century Spain and southern France, Jewish scholars claimed they possessed secret scriptural knowledge that had originated with Moses and had been passed down orally over the centuries. These scholars and exegetes, later known as kabbalists, were focused primarily on two sections of the Torah that were forbidden by the Talmud to be discussed publically. The first is the description of Creation in Genesis and the second is a description in the Book of Ezekial of Ezekial’s vison of a cosmic chariot.

Kabbalah emerged at a time when Judaism was dominated by rabbis who set rigid, detailed laws that all Jews were expected to follow unquestioningly. Judaism at that time was based in moral rationalism and included a code of ethics. It emphasized the primacy of charity and discredited esoteric beliefs and pursuing deep issues such as the meaning of God. Kabbalists sought not only to define and characterize God but also to tap into his spiritual and cosmological power, a pursuit regarded by purists as heretical.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2024

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