Judaism Today

Friday, April 10, 2009

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. The success of suggesting and putting into place these modes of religious life, and the literature that would develop in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, helped save Judaism as a living faith and as a living nation.

This new literature would almost become a second canon. A literature that would be produced to explain and enhance the Bible. Most importantly, adapting the Bible to this new reality. This would be the basis for Rabbinic Judaism. In many ways, for the Judaism that we all recognize today.

In the Middle Ages, new challenges would appear. The vast majority of Jews no longer resided in a Jewish homeland. They were dispersed throughout lands that were controlled either by Muslims or by Christian rulers. Not less important were the intellectual challenges to Judaism from theologians of both religions. This reality stimulated an enormous literary output, ranging from philosophical works, mystical literature, polemical work and the expansion and application of the existing legal system of Judaism. This system was constantly required to adjust and to answer new questions in new realities.

I should express that with all their differences involved, geographical and racial-ethnic, the vast majority of Jews throughout the world during the Middle Ages still followed the major guidelines and the practical structures of what was historical Judaism.

The Challenges of Modernity

Modernity, beginning with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and continuing with the major political changes of the 19th century, introduced totally new challenges to Judaism. For the first time, Christian society in Western Europe opened its gates to Jews. As a result, assimilation for the first time became an ever growing challenge to the Jewish world. Simply put, it became easy to assimilate. Jews had a lot to gain by assimilating. They could advance their career as never before.

Deriving from the general Enlightenment movement, Jews began to raise serious questions for the first time regarding the nature of their own religious believes. One major example is the critical study of the Bible, that by the 19th century was already going full steam. This is one of many factors that encouraged the establishment of circles of Jewish intellectuals striving to introduce the new fruits of this research into the lives and believes of the practitioners of Judaism.

Traditional Jewish practice and believe was now challenged by the new thought process, and in particular, by a reform Jewish movement that developed originally in Germany and then spread to other lands. The most most important points of Jewish law, which embraces not only the religious aspects but what you and I would call the secular aspects of life, were now placed in question.

Jewish Nationalism

In the 19th century, romantic nationalism became a dominant idea in Western European society and culture. People began looking for smaller ethnic and national entities in what once had been massive empires. This is a phenomenon that we had been living with during much of the 20th century as well. This caught on with Jews as well.

Interestingly, it caught on primarily with Jews who were rather secular in their orientation. That is not to say that more traditional Jews did not have this national bent to them. Traditional Jews believed that a restoration to the land would be God’s deed. It would be something carried out by some divine intervention. He would restore the people of Israel to the land. The Jewish national movement of the late 19th century claimed that this was an imperative for Jews, and that they could not or would not wait for God to carry this.

What you have here is a secular movement embracing a traditional approach to the land of Israel, but now interpreting it in modern secular language. This caused a major split within the ranks of Judaism. There were those Jews who claimed that by hastening the divine process you were showing a lack of faith. Do you not believe the promises that were made by God through the prophets, that at the end of days he would restore our people? Why can’t you wait until God does this? If you don’t wait, clearly this suggests lack of faith.

Does this restoration to the land supplant the religious behavior of Jews throughout the centuries? Are we returning to the land and at the same time returning to the past in history, or are we creating something new? Here, the ranks of Jews and its leadership were split. There were those who believed that this restoration to the land was a restoration to the biblical period. David Ben-Gurion was the great champion of the Bible. He thought that he was literally restoring Israel to its role among the nations in the image of the Bible.

Ben-Gurion did not realize that Judaism, over two thousand years, had picked up so much additional content and character. The years of dispersion required so many adjustments. These adjustments became internalized. They became part of Judaism. They were not an ad hoc temporary addition to get Jews through a difficult period until they returned to the land. They became part of Jewish religious believe, behavior and self-identity.

Many Jews returned to the land and understood that they are not quite the same Jews that left the land 2000 years ago.

This restoration to the land raised another major question within Judaism. What would the role be of Jews living outside of the land? Is this Judaism different from the Judaism of an Israelite? To this day, not one answer has been accepted by all Jews.

Jews would ask themselves: are we American Jews or Jewish Americans? The very questions existed already 2000 years ago in cities like Alexandria. There was a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, Philo, who clearly felt at home within Alexandria, and considered himself a citizen of the city of Alexandria; and yet he expressed his Judaism based on philosophical, spiritual and religious contents. Opposed to Philo, there were Jews living in Judea, who took arms against the Romans trying to restore political independence.

Here we see the different characterizations of Judaism in history. This is the secret of understanding Judaism. We all look back to the past. We share a collected memory, but we clothe into different aspects of that memory.