Is Judaism One Religion?

By Weitzman, Steven | Moment, March-April 2018 | Go to article overview

Is Judaism One Religion?


Weitzman, Steven, Moment


A HISTORY OF JUDAISM Martin Goodman Princeton University Press 2018, 656 pp, $28.08

Surveys of religious literacy show that, as a group, American Jews do not know very much about the history of their religious tradition. In one recent poll, for example, fewer than half of those surveyed knew that Job was the biblical figure most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite terrible suffering. Only about four in ten recognized that Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher, was Jewish.

Now, thanks to Martin Goodman, a scholar of ancient Jewish history who is retiring this year as president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in England, readers have a new way to give themselves an intensive crash course in Jewish religious history. A History of Judaism distills three millennia of religious thought and experience into a single volume that extends from the biblical age to the present. At more than 600 pages, the book is no Judaism for Dummies. Its heft and information-packed paragraphs may be deterrents for some, but one won't find within a single volume a more comprehensive account of Jewish religious history.

As the author explains in the introduction, his subject is not the Jews but Judaism. His focus, in other words, is not politics or culture but religion--what Jews in different periods believed about God, the messiah and other supernatural beings; their understandings of scripture and religious law; practices such as prayer and martyrdom; institutions of worship such as the Temple and synagogue and the thinking of rabbis, mystics and religiously oriented philosophers. The book places the religious history of the Jews in relation to a broader history of the world, but only to the extent that the broader history shaped how Jews understood and enacted the covenant with God that they inherited from their ancestors.

There is no way to do justice to a book of this scope in a brief review. To pull together a narrative like this requires delving into many different subfields of Jewish history, and few scholars can match the breadth of Goodman's knowledge. To be sure, the book does reflect the particular contours of its author's expertise as a scholar of antiquity, with 300 pages devoted to ancient history and only 100 pages to the past three centuries, a period that includes the Enlightenment, Jewish emancipation, Darwinism and other scientific advances, America, Communism, the Holocaust, Israel, feminism and other developments that have transformed Jewish religious life. This is a book where an ancient Jewish thinker such as Philo of Alexandria, who exerted more posthumous influence on Christianity than Judaism, appears or is cited on dozens of pages, whereas modern thinkers such as Hermann Cohen and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook appear more fleetingly. But I have to admit--as a fellow scholar of antiquity--that I don't completely mind the ancient world getting such prominence, and Goodman does a first-rate job with the daunting challenge of tracing a global and increasingly multi-angled story into the medieval and modern periods.

Although the book is written with much authority, it is worth noting that it is a better guide to some subjects than others. Goodman aims to make room for--and treat fairly--the divergent understandings of Jewish tradition that have developed over the centuries. Following the narrative of the first-century historian Josephus, he gives a lot of attention to the different "philosophies" or sects that emerged by the end of the Second Temple period--the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. He carries the theme of religious diversity through his treatment of subsequent periods as well. For example, in describing how a network of scholars managed to spread their understanding of Judaism from the Babylonian rabbinic academies to the rest of the Jewish world, he highlights how this "rabbinization" led to new forms of religious diversity and dissension. …

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