History of Judaism

Friday, April 10, 2009

Central to Jewish self-definition is a shared memory, or a connected path. The familiarity with that shared experience is essential for appreciating almost every aspect of Jewish religious thought and behavior. The development of Judaism was constantly linked to an ever changing world. We will try to delineate the stages of Jewish history, which of course goes back to the biblical period. That would be our first stage.

Our second stage would be the emergence of a post-biblical, or what we will call Rabbinical Judaism. This period defined much of what we today call Judaism.

We will focus on the formative stages of Judaism. Those that serve to this day as the historical frames of reference for almost all of Jewish ritual and behavior. In certain cases, even as models and hopes for a future restorative process. History serves as a stage for ongoing change. The past is fixed. At least we think it is fixed. Some scholars claim that there is one thing that God cannot do, he cannot change history, only historians can change history.

Not withstanding the fact that they are constantly reinterpreting history, for Jews there is a collective past that contributed enormously to their sense of unity, without which Judaism cannot be understood. The collective memory of Judaism is not just a sequence of events, but it is a story to be studied, to be transmitted, and in certain cases, even to be relived. Past and present come together in much of Judaism self-image. This has all sorts of practical manifestations.

For instance, the liberation or exodus of Israelites from Egypt is not only discussed throughout the year, but in a sense, it is relived on the Passover festival, with a ceremony where the participants literally immerse themselves in the events of that ancient deliverance. They even proclaim that in every generation a Jew should considered himself to have personally been redeemed from Egypt. In another example, Jews mourn to this day the destruction of their temples, events that took place thousands of years ago.

Jews at prayer frequently turn to the past as part of their supplication regarding the present or the future. For instance, if promises were made to the patriots, these promises now become arguments in petitioning God to have pity on their descendancy.

Judaism represents an ongoing and constantly changing saga. Each period left its distinct mark. While new expressions were constantly being added and taking the place of the old ones, nevertheless, the ultimates were never discarded.

  • Early Biblical Judaism: The Biblical period spans a period of 4000 years. It begins with the earliest roots of the patriotic family of Israel and its intimate initial relationship with God. The Bible records the stages leading to the emergence of Israelites as a nation, their liberation from bondage and their acceptance of a body of teaching.
  • Judaism Today: When the second temple was destroyed in the year 70 by the Romans, for the first time, Judaism encountered a major challenge to its very existence. Without a recognized and unified center, without access to sacrificial worship as the prime mode of religious expression, new systems and contexts for Jewish religious life were necessary.