Paul Mendes-Flohr. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Judaism had its beginnings some 3,800 years ago in Mesopotamia, today part of Iraq, with Abraham, the founding patriarch of the tribes of Israel. Judaism is a monotheistic faith affirming that God is one, the creator of the world and everything in it. God is also a transcendent being above and beyond the world and is thus without material form, and yet he is present in the world. His will and presence are especially, but not exclusively, manifest in his relationship with Israel (the Jewish people), to whom he has given the Torah (teaching), stipulating the laws that are to govern their religious and moral life, by virtue of which they are to be “a light unto the nations” (Isa. 49:6). Accordingly, Jews understand themselves as a chosen people, bound by a covenant with God.
In Judaism faith is less a matter of affirming a set of beliefs than of trust in God and fidelity to his law. Faith is thus primarily expressed “by walking in all the ways of God” (Deut. 11:22). These ways are specified in God’s revealed law, which the rabbis, or teachers, appropriately called the Halakhah (walking). The commandments of the Halakhah embrace virtually every aspect of life, from worship to the most mundane aspects of daily existence. The precise details of the Halakhah are but adumbrated in the Torah, and they require elaboration to determine their contemporary applicability. This process is ongoing, for the Torah must be continually reinterpreted to meet new conditions, and the rabbis developed principles to allow this without violating its sanctity. The modern world has thus witnessed the emergence alongside traditional, or Orthodox, Judaism various movements—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—that have introduced new criteria for the interpretation of the Torah and for Jewish religious responsibility.
As early as 597 B.C.E., with conquest by Babylonia, the Israelites were exiled from their homeland. Over the centuries the Jewish Diaspora came to include communities throughout the world but particularly in the Middle East, around the Mediterranean, and in Europe. In modern times Europe was the center of Jewish religious and cultural life until more than two-thirds of European Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The center of Judaism then shifted to the United States and to the State of Israel, founded in 1948. Today there are smaller Jewish communities in Canada, Central and South America, and Australia, as well as several European countries.
Judaism traces its origins to Abraham, who in the judgment of most scholars lived in the eighteenth century B.C.E.Jewish tradition regards Abraham as the first person to have believed that God is one. At the age of 75 Abraham was commanded by God to leave Mesopotamia and settle in the land of Canaan: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation” (Gen. 12:1-2). His descendants were to be called the Children of Israel, and the country they were promised the Land of Israel. Only much later, in the Hellenistic period (333-63 B.C.E.), were the Israelites called Jews.
According to the Bible, the history of the Israelites was determined by their relationship to God, which was sealed by two events. The first was the Exodus of the enslaved Israelites from Egypt, where they had settled after a famine had blighted the Promised Land. The deliverance of the Children of Israel from servitude marked their birth as a nation. Previously they had been a loosely knit group of 12 tribes, descendants of Abraham. God’s intervention on their behalf was understood to be an act of love and undeserved grace, solely the fulfillment of a promise he had made. Acknowledging that its existence was owed to God, Israel was henceforth beholden to him. The Exodus story, which the Israelites were enjoined to remember through constant retelling, thus constituted Israel’s understanding of itself as a people destined to serve God in love and gratitude.
The second event shaping the spiritual history of Israel occurred some three months after the Exodus. Wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites stopped at the foot of Mount Sinai when their divinely appointed leader, Moses, ascended the mountain. He returned with a decree from God calling upon them to enter into a covenant (brit). The people agreed, after which they experienced God’s presence in “thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” (Exod. 19:16). Through Moses, God bestowed the Ten Commandments, proclaiming the people’s duties to him and to their fellow humans. Overwhelmed by the experience, the people beseeched Moses to serve as their mediator with God. He obliged them and ascended the mountain once again. What followed was an extensive body of divine decrees, which Moses recorded in the books called the Torah and submitted to the people. With this act a covenant between Israel and God was established. The Mosaic Covenant is generally understood to be a renewal and elaboration of the original covenant between God and Abraham, confirmed by his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, but this time with the entire House of Israel.
Some 230 years after the Israelites returned from Egypt, they built the Temple in Jerusalem. This was the central site of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage and for the bringing of sacrifices as an expression of submission to God, as thanksgiving, and as atonement for sins. The Temple rites were conducted by a hereditary priesthood. In 587 B.C.E. the Temple was destroyed by the conquering armies of Babylonia, which resulted in the exile of most of the Israelite nobility and leadership. It was apparently during the Babylonian Exile that the institution of the synagogue as a house of prayer began to emerge. In 586 the Persian king Cyrus, who had defeated the armies of Babylonia, gave the exiles permission to return. Many, however, remained in Babylonia, which, together with Egypt, where Jews had also voluntarily settled, became the first community of the Diaspora. Those who did return found not only the Temple in ruins but also a dispirited people, bereft of spiritual leadership, who had neglected the Torah and had mixed with the heathen population and adopted their culture and religious practices.
The reconstruction of the Temple, which was rededicated in 516 B.C.E., failed to reassert the authority of the Torah. It was not until the return of two leaders that the process of assimilation was decisively reversed. The scribe and priest Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 458, and three years later the Persian overlords appointed Nehemiah governor of the province of Judea. Together Ezra and Nehemiah set out to uproot pagan influences and to reform the life of the Jewish community. Nehemiah instituted civil regulations ensuring social justice and the rule of law. Ezra, who, according to the traditional account, was authorized by the Persian king to impose the laws of the Torah on the community, annulled the marriages with heathen wives and introduced strict observance of the Sabbath, including a ban on business transactions. Perhaps most important was his codification of the Torah as the five books of Moses, which were read and expounded before the people at the Sabbath afternoon prayer and during the morning prayers on Mondays and Thursdays. Overseeing the people’s solemn rededication to the Torah and its study, Ezra was said to be a second Moses, and his comprehensive program of reform laid the foundation for what was to become known as rabbinical Judaism.
The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. found the Jews prepared to face the tragedy. A body of teachers and expositors of the Torah—the rabbis—was solidly in place. The synagogue, established in virtually every community, replaced the Temple as the focus of ritual and prayer. Led by Johanan ben Zakkai, the rabbis transferred many of the rites and ceremonies that had belonged to the Temple to the synagogue, where they were often recast as symbolic gestures. Sacrifices were replaced by acts of charity and repentance. The rabbis also recognized that, with the decentralization of religious authority, it was urgent to fix the biblical canon. Hitherto, aside from the Torah, the corpus of sacred writings had been fluid, with several competing versions. By the end of the first century the biblical text was sealed, with 31 books organized according to three parts—Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Hagiographa), collectively known by the acronym Tanakh.
Sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, Simeon Bar Kokhba led the Jews in a revolt against their Roman overlords. After three years the tenacious and valiant forces of the revolt were put down, and Bar Kokhba himself was killed in the last decisive battle, in the summer of 135. (According to one account, he was taken captive and enslaved.) In the aftermath the Jews were banished from Jerusalem, and Jewish ritual practices, including circumcision, study of the Torah, and observance of the Sabbath, were prohibited. The spiritual leadership was summarily executed, and most of the remaining Jewish population fled. The Romans quickly repopulated Judea with non-Jews, and the Land of Israel, aside from Galilee, ceased to be Jewish.
The fugitives from Judea scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Joined by scholars, these Jews spread to Asia Minor and westward to Spain, Gaul (France), and the Rhine valley, where they organized self-governing communities. Those Jews remaining in the Land of Israel also slowly reorganized themselves. The Sanhedrin (Greek for Council of the Elders), which formerly had its seat in Jerusalem, was reconstituted in Jabneh (Yavneh) as the supreme representative body in religious and communal affairs. The institution continued until the early fifth century, when the Roman authorities abolished the office of the presidency of the Sanhedrin.
With the vast majority of the Jews living outside the Land of Israel, many in distant lands, the rabbis referred to the emerging Diaspora as the Exile, as a tragic national and religious state of homelessness. While many answers were given to explain the indignity and spiritual dislocation wrought by the Exile, the rabbis were united in their faith that God would redeem the exiles and regather them. This redemption was associated with the advent of God’s appointed deliverer, the Messiah, who would be chosen from among the descendants of King David. A redeemed Jerusalem became the symbol of the hope for the coming of the Messiah, who would herald not only the liberation of the Jews from Exile but also the establishment of the universal kingdom of God upon earth. The messianic age would witness the perfection of creation and of the human order. The rabbis also taught, however, that in Exile the Jews were not utterly bereft of God’s providential presence. Earlier God had told the Israelites, “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will go down with you into Egypt and surely bring you again” (Gen. 46:3-4), and he accompanied the Jews in Exile. This teaching allowed the Jews to develop a creative spiritual and religious life while they mourned the desolation of Zion, or Israel, and new centers of Jewish life emerged throughout the Diaspora.
The Babylonian Diaspora, whose origins date to the destruction of the First Temple and the decision of most of the exiles not to return, was the oldest and largest settlement of Jews for at least the first thousand years of the Exile. By the second century C.E. the Jewish community of Babylonia had reached between 800,000 and 1.2 million, constituting from 10 to 12 percent of the total population. Under the leadership of an exilarch (head of the Exile), a hereditary office occupied by descendants of King David, the Jews enjoyed religious freedom and communal autonomy. The exilarchs ruled according to the Torah and Halakhah and encouraged the establishment of rabbinical academies (yeshivas), which initially acknowledged the authority of the academy in Jabneh and elsewhere in the Land of Israel. But with the decline of Israel, the Babylonian academies became the center of Jewish learning and culture. They produced the commentary on the Mishnah (collection of oral teachings on the Torah) known as the Babylonian Talmud, a labor of seven generations and hundreds of scholars, who completed their task in approximately 500, and communities throughout the Diaspora turned to Babylonian rabbis for guidance. The preeminence of the Babylonian Jewish community lasted until the tenth century, when it was superseded by centers of Jewish learning in the West.
The establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine (ruled 306-37) marked a turning point in the life of Western Jewry. Christians had an ambivalent attitude toward Jews. On the one hand, Jews were the people from whose midst Jesus and the first apostles of the church came, and they were the living custodians of the Old Testament, which contained the prophecies of the advent of Jesus as the Messiah. On the other hand, Jews were despised for rejecting Jesus. Despite the resulting history of antagonism, which often occasioned discrimination and persecution, there was also a rich cultural exchange. Early Christians adopted many Jewish beliefs and practices. The Gregorian chants of the Orthodox Church, for instance, are said to bear traces of the music of the Temple, and the structure of the Christian liturgy and many of its prayers are derived from Judaism, as is the practice of baptism. Medieval Jewish scholars took Greek philosophy, a knowledge of which they had acquired under the tutelage of Islamic sages, to Christian Europe. In turn, Christianity exercised an influence on popular Jewish religious practices, music, folklore, and thought, especially mysticism.
Within Christian Europe, Jews developed an intellectually and spirituality vibrant culture. Communities in southern Italy, where Jews had lived since the second century B.C.E., were particularly creative in composing liturgical poetry in Hebrew, and they thereby laid the foundations of what was to be called the Ashkenazi rite, a term designating the Jews who lived in medieval Germany and neighboring countries. In northern France and on the eastern banks of the Rhine, important centers of rabbinical scholarship crystallized in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The comprehensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud by the French rabbi Rashi (1040-1105) continues to serve as the basic text of a traditional Jewish education. In the second half of the twelfth and in the thirteen centuries, these communities produced highly original mystical theologies, collectively known as Hasidei Ashkenaz. The Jewish communities of Provence, in southern France, and of Christian Spain witnessed not only a flowering of philosophy, biblical exegesis, and Talmudic learning but also the un-folding of a mystical literature that culminated in the composition of the Zohar (“Book of Splendor”) in the thirteenth century.
In the wake of the Crusades of 1096, 1146-47, and 1189-90 and of the Black Death in 1348-49, however, the situation of the Jews in Europe steadily deteriorated. Whole communities were massacred, and others were expelled. By 1500, except for isolated communities in France and Italy, western Europe was virtually empty of Jews. By then Jewish life was largely centered in the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, where a unique brand of Ashkenazi piety and learning developed, and in the Islamic world.
Under Muslim rule, which spread rapidly from the far corners of Persia to Spain, Jews on the whole enjoyed a less precarious lot than in Christian Europe. The very fact that some of the most important works of Jewish philosophy and even of Halakhah were written in Arabic, whereas in medieval Europe Jews wrote exclusively in Hebrew, illustrates the degree to which they were integrated into Muslim culture. Islamic philosophers, who revived the dormant thought of the Greeks, recruited disciples among Jews, the best known being Maimonides (1135-1204). The efflorescence of Jewish culture reached its height in Muslim Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, which was a golden age of Talmudic scholars, poets, philosophers, and mystics.
The Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain in the twelfth century led to the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the fifteenth century. Jews were allowed to remain in Spain only on the condition that they convert to Catholicism. Among the converts, however, were those who secretly maintained allegiance to their ancestral faith and who, as a consequence, later became subject to the Inquisition. Most of those who refused to convert sought refuge in Muslim countries, their descendants becoming known as Sephardic Jews, from the Hebrew name for Spain. Beginning in the late sixteenth century there was a steady stream of Jews from Spain and Portugal, popularly known as Marranos, who settled in the Netherlands, where they returned to Judaism. Members of this community founded the first Jewish settlements in the New World.
Hence, on the threshold of the modern era the Diaspora was in the midst of a radical reconfiguration. Sephardic Jewry was establishing itself throughout the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, where it became the dominant constituency in Jewish cultural life. A much smaller but dynamic Sephardic community was established in the Netherlands and its colonies in the Americas. Ashkenazic Jewry was overwhelmingly concentrated in eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Lithuania. The remaining Jews of Germany slowly began to recover. This process was encouraged by the Protestant Reformation, which in alliance with nascent capitalism adopted a more pragmatic and thus tolerant attitude toward Jews. In time democratic forces led to the political emancipation of the Jews and their integration into the social and cultural life of Europe.
The effect on Judaism was far-reaching. The Jews’ embrace of the Enlightenment and of liberal culture gave birth to new expressions of self-understanding and of religious belief and practice. One of the tragic ironies of the integration of Jews into modern European culture and society, however, was the intensification of anti-Semitism. Virulent opposition to the civic and political parity of the Jews, which for the most part was based on secular and not religious grounds, culminated in the fanatic hatred of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis) and in their efforts in the Holocaust (Shoah) to exterminate all Jews. More than two-thirds of the Jewish people of Europe, a third of Jews worldwide, were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. The survivors sought to rehabilitate themselves in the State of Israel, established in 1948, or in Jewish communities unscathed by the Holocaust, particularly in North and South America.
Principally a way of life, Judaism emphasizes religious practices rather than articles of faith. Upon his descent from Mount Sinai, Moses explained to the Children of Israel, “And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today …” (Deut. 10:12-13). Judaism thus began not with an affirmation of faith but with an acceptance of what the rabbis came to call “the yoke of the Torah.” Even the Ten Commandments stress basic duties rather than principles of faith. Implicit in the Torah and its teachings are, of course, fundamental beliefs, for example, the belief in God as recorded in the declaration “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4), which is incorporated into the morning and evening prayers.
In Judaism heresy is thus defined as denial of the existence of God and of his oneness. Nonetheless, the rabbis did not formulate a binding statement of Judaism’s principles of faith. The philosopher Philo (c. 20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) was the first to attempt the outline of such a statement. Focusing on the creation narrative in Genesis, he enumerated five essential articles of Jewish belief: the eternal existence and rule of God, the unity of God, the divine creation of the world, the unity of creation, and divine providence that extends over the whole world. Philo’s summary of the Jewish creed had virtually no resonance in subsequent theological discourse, however.
From time to time other Jewish philosophers, like Philo prompted by the need to explain and defend Judaism in the face of rival faiths, sought to formulate a succinct statement of essential beliefs. But it was only the philosopher and rabbinical scholar Maimonides who, in the twelfth century, succeeded in formulating a statement of Jewish doctrine that obtained an authoritative status. In his commentary on the Mishnah, he delineated the “Thirteen Principles of Faith”:
- Belief in the existence of God
- Belief in God’s unity
- Belief in God’s incorporeality
- Belief in God’s eternity
- Belief that God alone is to be worshiped
- Belief in prophecy
- Belief that Moses was the greatest of the prophets
- Belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses
- Belief that the Torah is unchangeable
- Belief that God knows the thoughts and deeds of each human being
- Belief that God rewards and punishes
- Belief in the coming of the Messiah
- Belief in the resurrection of the dead
These principles were soon incorporated into the prayer book as the hymn “Yigdal” (“May He be magnified … “), which in 1517 was supplemented by a more elaborate prose explication in the form of a personal attestation of belief (“I believe in perfect faith …”).
With their inclusion in the traditional liturgy, the “Thirteen Principles” thus gained the status of an official catechism. Maimonides even went so far as to claim that anyone not subscribing to all of the principles of faith, even if the person observes the laws of Moses, will not have a share in the world to come. To underscore the overarching significance he attached to the principles, Maimonides held that an utter sinner, although he or she will be appropriately punished, will share in the world to come if the principles are affirmed. For Maimonides, then, a Jew is defined by what he believes and not by what he does, which amounted to a radical revision of Judaism. It is, therefore, not surprising that many rabbis and philosophers disputed the authority of the “Thirteen Principles,” contending that they were not as basic and essential as Maimonides contended. For instance, the Spanish philosopher Yosef Albo (c. 1380-1444) argued that there are only three basic doctrines constitutive of Jewish belief: the existence of God, divine revelation, and divine reward and punishment. Another Spanish philosopher and biblical scholar, Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), questioned whether it was necessary at all to formulate articles of belief. To his mind the faith implicit in the observance of the Torah was sufficient. He concluded nonetheless that Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles,” although not to be construed as dogma, might be helpful for those unable to comprehend on their own the theological presuppositions of the Torah and its commandments.
Although Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles” as formulated in the liturgy are still affirmed by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, they are subject to interpretation. Reform Jews have periodically formulated alternative statements of the essential Jewish beliefs, but by and large they continue to endorse the first five, namely, the existence of God, that he is one, that he has no bodily form, that he is eternal, and that he alone is to be worshiped.
Moral Code of Conduct
Judaism does not distinguish between duties toward fellow human being and duties toward God. The Hebrew Bible and the rabbis regard moral and religious duties as inseparable. The emphasis is on attaining holiness, on “walking in God’s ways” (Deut. 10:12-13), thus allowing his presence to dwell in one’s midst. Through Moses, God told the Children of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2), which is recited today by observant Jews in their morning and evening prayers. This commandment is followed immediately by the injunction to honor one’s parents and to observe the Sabbath. The weave of moral and ritual duties is maintained in a long list of commandments, from measures to aid the poor and secure their dignity to proper worship at the Temple, from fairness in commerce to the avoidance of pagan rites, from respect for the stranger to the sanctity of the firstfruits (Lev. 19:3-37), the earliest products of the harvest that are offered to God. A person attains holiness by observing the commandments and laws of God. As God is manifest only through his deeds, so a person is beckoned to imitate those deeds (Deut. 10:17-19).
The prophets, and the rabbis after them, typically warned that ritual piety unaccompanied by moral deeds is unacceptable to God. As the prophet Micah taught, “With what shall I approach the Lord, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings? … He has told you, O man, what is good / And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice / And to love goodness / And to walk humbly with your God …” (Mic. 6:6-8). But while upholding the primacy of morality over ritual, it was not the intention of Micah, or of any other prophet, to distinguish moral from religious virtue. The biblical conception of social responsibility as the axis of the ethical life was incorporated by the rabbis into the Halakhah. The rabbis elaborated biblical injunctions, codifying in great detail alongside the Jew’s ritual duties the ethical principles of justice, equity, charity, and respect for the feelings and needs of others.
When asked to identify the overarching principle of the Torah, the rabbis pointed to its moral dimension. Hence, according to a Midrash on Leviticus 19:18, “Rabbi Akiva [c. 50-c. 136] said of the command, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ that is ‘a great principle of Torah.'” Rabbi Hillel (c. 70 B.C.E.-c. 10 C.E.) formulated the same principle with psychological insight: “What is hateful unto yourself do not to your fellow human being. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study.” Implicit in these encapsulations of biblical morality is that the ethical life requires sensibilities that often must go, as the rabbis would put it, “beyond the letter of the law.” To love one’s neighbor or to avoid treating one’s neighbor in a manner that one would find repugnant—offensive, hurtful, humiliating—when done to oneself, requires a sensitivity that cannot be legislated.
The religious significance of the moral teachings of the Torah was summarized by a sixteenth-century rabbinical scholar from Prague, Judah Loew, popularly known as the Maharal. Through adhering to the moral teachings of the Torah, the Maharal taught, a person imitates God’s ways and thus realizes his or her destiny as a being created in the image of God. Moral behavior, therefore, draws a person to God. Conversely, immoral conduct distances a person from God. The nineteenth-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observed that “the Torah teaches us justice towards our fellow human beings, justice towards the plants and animals and the earth, justice towards our own body and soul, and justice towards God who created us for love so that we may become a blessing for the world.”
Judaism is a text-centered religion, the writings it regards as sacred constituting a vast library of thousands of volumes. Its foundational text is the Hebrew Bible, which is divided into three parts: the Torah, forming the five books of Moses (also called the Pentateuch); the Prophets (Nevi’im); and the Writings (Ketuvim or Hagiographa). Jewish tradition holds the Torah to be the direct, unmediated Word of God, whereas in the Prophets men said to be divinely inspired speak in their own voices, while the Writings are considered to be formulations in the words of men guided by the Holy Spirit.
Alongside the Torah and the other books of the Bible there developed an elaborate commentary explicating their teachings. This commentary was initially not written, but since it was regarded as divinely inspired, it was called the Oral Torah. Over the centuries the Oral Torah expanded to such a degree that it could no longer be contained by sheer memory. Hence, around the end of the second and the beginning of the third century C.E., Rabbi Judah the Prince (that is, the head of the supreme rabbinical council) compiled a comprehensive digest of the Oral Torah. This work, known as the Mishnah, assumed a canonical status. Written in Hebrew, the Mishnah is a multivolume work covering such subjects as the laws governing agriculture, Temple service, festivals and fast days, marriage and divorce, business transactions, ritual purity and purification, adjudication of torts, and general issues of jurisprudence. The Mishnah does not confine itself to Halakhic, or legal, matters. Under the rubric of Aggadah (narration), it contains reflections on Jewish history, ethics, etiquette, philosophy, folklore, medicine, astronomy, and piety. Typical of rabbinical discourse, the Aggadah and Halakhah are interwoven in the text of the Mishnah, complementing and amplifying each other.
Post-Mishnaic teachers and scholars in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia wrote running commentaries on the Mishnah. These commentaries, together with those on other, smaller works, were collected in two massive collections, one known as the Palestinian, or Jerusalem, Talmud and the other as the Babylonian Talmud. (Another term for the Talmud is Gemara, from an Aramaic word for “teaching.”) These were completed around 400 and 500 C.E., respectively. The two Talmuds were written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. Similar to the Mishnah, the Talmuds contain Aggadah and Halakhah woven into a single skein. In the centuries that followed numerous commentaries were written on the Talmuds, particularly on the Babylonian, which became the preeminent text of Jewish sacred learning. In the age of printing the Talmuds were published with the principal commentaries on them adorning the margins of each page.
From time to time collections of scriptural commentaries, originally in the form of sermons or lectures at rabbinical academies from the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, were made. They appear under the general name Midrash (inquiry, or investigation). The collections are classified as Halakhic and Aggadic Midrashhim. The Halakhic Midrashim focus on explicating the laws of the Pentateuch, whereas the Aggadic Midrashim have a much larger range, employing the Bible to explore extralegal issues of religious and ethical meaning. The most widely studied Aggadic Midrashim are the Midrash Rabbah (“The Great Midrash”), compiled in the tenth century by Rabbi David ben Aaron of Yemen, and the Midrash of Rabbi Tanhuma in the fourth century. Aggadic Midrashim were written until the thirteenth century, when they yielded to two new genres of sacred writings, philosophy and mysticism (Kabbalah).
The most widely studied Jewish philosophical work is The Guide of the Perplexed, written by Maimonides at the end of the twelfth century, and the seminal work of the Kabbalah is the Zohar (“Book of Splendor”), from the late thirteenth century. Written in form of a mystical Midrash, the Zohar purports to present the revelations of the mysteries of the upper worlds granted to the second-century sage Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his circle. It is a work of unbridled imagination and symbolism that exercised a profound impact on the spiritual land-scape of Judaism. The Zohar’s far-reaching influence was registered in prayers and in such popular movements as Hasidism (the pious ones), which arose in eighteenth-century Poland and which produced hundreds of mystical teachings and tales, all of which are considered to illuminate divine truths and hence are regarded as sacred.
Judaism has a culture rich in religious symbols, objects, and rituals that represent abstract concepts, particularly of God and his teachings and of his providential presence in Israel’s history. Thus, God commanded Moses to instruct the Israelites to wear fringes, or tassels, on the corners of their garments as a reminder “to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God” (Num. 15:38-40). On the basis of this commandment there arose the practice of wearing a shawl (tallith) with tassels (zizith). This is either a tallith katan, a small four-cornered shawl generally worn under garments, or a larger tallith worn over clothes during prayer.
As a reminder of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites were commanded to place a sign upon their heads and a symbol on their foreheads (Exod. 13:9, 16). Jewish tradition interpreted this commandment as an injunction to wear tefillin, or phylacteries, small leather boxes fastened to the forehead and the upper left arm by straps; each cube-shaped box contains the Scriptural passages in which the commandment appears (Exod. 13:1-10; Exod. 13:11-16; Deut. 6:4-7; Deut. 11:12-21). The tefillin are worn during the morning service except on the Sabbath and on holidays, which are themselves symbols of God’s presence.
The Bible also enjoins Jews to fix a mezuzah to the doorposts of their dwellings (Deut. 6:9; 11:20). The mezuzah, from the Hebrew word for “doorpost,” consists of a small scroll of parchment, usually placed in a case or box and often ornately decorated, on which are inscribed two biblical passages (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21). The first includes the commandments to love God, study the Torah, read the Shema prayer (attesting to the unity of God), wear the tefillin, and affix the mezuzah. The second passage associates good fortune and well-being with the observance of God’s commandments.
The preeminent symbol of Judaism is Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision performed on a male child when he is eight days old or on an adult male convert as a sign of his acceptance of the covenant. The removal of the foreskin is a “sign in the flesh” of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:9-13).
The kippah, known in Yiddish as the yarmulke, is the name of the skullcap, which may be any head covering, worn by males in prayer and by Orthodox Jews throughout the day. Covering the head is regarded as a sign of awe before the divine presence, especially during prayer and while studying sacred texts. The kippah was apparently introduced by the Talmudic rabbis, for there is no commandment in the Bible giving this instruction.
The menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum, is the most enduring symbol of Judaism. First constructed by Moses at God’s instruction (Exod. 25:31-38), it was placed in the portable sanctuary carried by the Israelites in the wilderness and then in the Temple of Jerusalem. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the menorah became the emblem of Jewish survival and continuity. In modern times the six-pointed Star of David was adopted as a symbol of Jewish identity, although it has no religious content or scriptural basis.
Early and Modern Leaders
Abraham was the founding patriarch of the Jewish people and the paradigm of the moral and spiritual virtues—humility, magnanimity, and steadfast faith in God—incumbent upon Jews to attain. He was born into a heathen family in Mesopotamia in the eighteenth century B.C.E., and his path from idolatry to an affirmation of the one God is related in Genesis (11:27-25:18). The Bible does not tell why he was singled out by God, who promised to make of him a great nation, with abundant blessings, numerous offspring, and a land of its own. Abraham’s selection is presented as an act of pure grace. The covenant God established with Abraham was symbolized by the rite of circumcision, which is reenacted by the circumcision of all Jewish male children. But Abraham was not only the father of his physical descendants; he is also the spiritual father of all who convert to Judaism. The prototypical Jew, Abraham is emblematic of a faith that resists all temptation, as when, to test his trust in God, he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The leadership of the Israelite nation passed to Abraham’s son Isaac and then to his grandson Jacob, the progenitor of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Jacob was renamed Israel by an angel with whom he wrestled [Gen. 32:25-33].) Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, persecuted by his envious brothers, found his way to Egypt, first as a slave to a high-ranking official and eventually as vice-regent of the country. When Joseph encountered his brothers, he urged them to bring Jacob and their families to Egypt to avoid the famine blighting the Land of Israel. After Joseph’s death the Children of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians.
Among the Hebrew slaves was the child Moses. He was raised by the pharaoh’s daughter, who found him as an infant among the reeds of the Nile, where his mother had hid him from the Egyptian soldiers ordered to kill every Israelite male infant. Brought up as an Egyptian prince, Moses nonetheless commiserated with his people. On one occasion, when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster about to kill a Hebrew slave, Moses intervened and slew the Egyptian. Obliged to flee, he found refuge in the desert. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and ordered him to return to the pharaoh to demand that the Children of Israel be set free. After God had unleashed 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, the pharaoh freed the Children of Israel under Moses’ leadership. As they were crossing the desert, however, the pharaoh had second thoughts, and he sent an army to recapture them. At the Red Sea, whose waters had miraculously parted to allow the Israelites to cross, the pursuing army drowned as the waters closed over them. When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, God gave them the Ten Commandments. Moses then ascended the mountain, where he stayed for 40 days and received further laws and instructions, called the Torah. For 40 years he led the people through the wilderness, until they came to the Promised Land. Before being able to enter the land with his people, Moses died at the age of 120.
The successor of Moses was Joshua (twelfth century B.C.E.), leader of the Israelite tribes in their conquest of the Promised Land. As depicted in the Bible, he was a composite of a prophet, judge, and military leader. Upon Joshua’s death the people were ruled by judges. Except for Deborah, they were not judges in the technical sense but rather inspired leaders who, guided by the spirit of God, arose on the occasion of a crisis. As temporary leaders, they generally had limited influence, and thus the period was one of political and social instability.
Samuel (eleventh century B.C.E.) was the last of the judges and a prophet who led Israel during a transitional period. In the face of a growing threat from the neighboring Philistines, conflict among the tribes of Israel, and the weak and corrupt leadership of the judges, the people called upon Samuel to anoint a king over them. In accordance with God’s will, Samuel anointed Saul, but only after warning the people of the disadvantages of a monarchy. Indeed, Samuel was profoundly disappointed with the king, and he secretly appointed David to replace Saul. Jewish tradition judges Samuel to be of equal importance with Moses.
Saul (c.1029-1005 B.C.E.) was a successful military leader, but his differences with Samuel and his melancholic disposition led to fits of depression, which were eased by music. A young harpist named David was often summoned to play for him. David’s increasing popularity, culminating in his slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath, along with his marriage to Saul’s daughter Michal and his friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan, served only to deepen the king’s jealousy. His suspicion that David was bent on wresting the throne from him drove Saul mad with rage, and he tried to kill David, forcing him to flee. Saul met an inglorious end when a force of Philistines defeated the armies of Israel and the wounded Saul took his own life. The victorious Philistines displayed his decapitated body on the wall of the Israelite city of Beth-Shan.
David was anointed king and reigned from c.1010 to 970 B.C.E. He led the remaining troops of Israel to swift victories over the Philistines and other enemies. He then captured Jerusalem, declared it the capital of his kingdom, and had the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of laws given by God to Moses, taken there. His plan to build a Temple was thwarted by the prophet Nathan, who claimed that God found David, a man of war, unsuitable for the sacred project. A warrior and statesman, David united the tribes of Israel and greatly expanded the borders of the kingdom. Although his reign was not free of intrigue and ill fortune, Jewish tradition regarded him as the ideal ruler. Indeed, it was held that the redeemer of Israel, the Messiah, would be a scion of the House of David (Isa. 9:5-6; 11:10).
It was given to David’s son Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem. His 40-year reign was marked by peace, prosperity, and amiable ties with the surrounding countries. But Solomon taxed the people heavily to finance the construction of the Temple and an opulent palace and to strengthen his army. His many political marriages with foreign wives were also suspect in the eyes of the people. The festering resentment surfaced after his death and led to the division of the kingdom.
Upon the death of Solomon in 928 B.C.E., the 10 northern tribes of Israel seceded to establish the Kingdom of Israel. Solomon’s son Rehoboam thus ruled over the southern Kingdom of Judah, which included only the tribes Judah and Benjamin and which was greatly diminished in territory. For the next 350 years the Kingdom of Israel was constantly beset by internal instability and external enemies. Although at times the rulers of the northern kingdom proved their mettle in battle, they failed to provide effective moral and religious leadership, and pagan practices spread. In response prophets arose in judgment of Israel’s sins. In the ninth century the prophet Elijah inveighed against the idolatrous practices and decadent lives of the privileged classes. (Elijah was said not to have died but to have been taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, and later Jewish legend claimed that he would return to earth as the herald of the Messiah.)
In the eighth century B.C.E. the prophet Amos, who came from the Kingdom of Judah, fulminated against the oppression of the poor and disinherited members of society. Because of divine election, Amos taught, the Children of Israel, in both the north and the south, had a responsibility to pursue social justice. In contrast to Amos, who stressed justice, the contemporary prophet Hosea spoke of loving kindness. God loved his people, but they did not requite his love and “whored” with Baal, the pagan god of the Phoenicians. In a dream God commanded Hosea to marry a harlot to symbolize Israel’s immoral behavior, while at the same time highlighting God’s forgiveness and abiding love. The Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 when it was conquered by the Assyrians, who exiled the inhabitants. These 10 tribes of Israel were henceforth “lost” from history.
The kings of the Kingdom of Judah proved to be more resolute in fending off pagan influences, and they sought to strengthen knowledge of the Torah and its observance. Nonetheless, they were also subject to the wrath of the prophets. Active during the reign of four kings of Judah, the prophet Isaiah (eighth century B.C.E.) castigated the monarchs for forging alliances with foreign powers, arguing that the Jews should place their trust in God alone. Isaiah lent support to King Hezekiah (727-698), who instituted comprehensive religious reforms by uprooting all traces of pagan worship. The prophet Jeremiah (seventh-sixth centuries) denounced what he regarded as the rampant hypocrisy and conceit of the leadership of Judah. When the Babylonians reached the gates of Jerusalem, Jeremiah claimed that it would be futile to resist, and, accordingly, he urged the king to surrender and thus spare the city and its inhabitants from further suffering. His prophecy of doom earned for him the scorn of the leadership and masses alike. When the city fell in 597, he was not exiled to Babylonia with the rest of the political and spiritual elite. He eventually fled to Egypt, where he was last heard of fulminating against the idolatry of the Jews there.
In 538 B.C.E. the Persian emperor Cyrus, who had conquered Babylonia, allowed the exiled Jews to return to Judea (formerly Judah). At first only small groups were repatriated to their ancestral home, by then a province of the Persian Empire. The pace of the return gained momentum when Zerubbabel, a scion of King David, was appointed governor of Judea in about 521. Encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the governor led 44,000 exiles back to Judea. With the support of the prophets, Zerubbabel was able to overcome many political and economic obstacles, as well as the public’s apathy toward the rebuilding of the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The Temple, henceforth known as the Second Temple, was rededicated in 516. Under the leadership of the priest Ezra, another group of exiles returned to Judea in 458. Ezra was soon joined by Nehemiah, whom the Persians appointed governor, and the two worked together to rebuild Jerusalem and to reorganize and reform Jewish communal life. They pledged the people to renew the covenant and to rid themselves of foreign and pagan influences.
For the next 300 years Judea was a vassal state ruled by a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian overlords and a religious leader in the person of a high priest. In the last third of the fourth century B.C.E., Judea fell under the power of the Hellenistic world. The Greeks concentrated temporal as well as religious power in the hands of the high priest. To ensure their control, the Greeks also established colonies throughout the land, and their culture gradually penetrated the upper classes of the Jewish population. Hellenization intensified when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164), the Seleucid ruler of Syria, laid claim to Judea and appointed Jason, a Hellenized Jew, to the office of high priest. Jason transformed Jerusalem into a Greek polis (city-state) named Antiochia, in honor of the Seleucid king, and had a sports arena built to replace the Temple as the focus of the city’s social and cultural life. Dissatisfied with Jason, Antiochus replaced him with Menelaus, another Hellenized Jew, with whose conniving he plundered the Temple’s treasures. In the wake of a revolt by Jason, Antiochus took further measures to obliterate the Jewish character of Jerusalem. He forbade Jews to practice their religion and forced them to eat foods forbidden by the Torah and to participate in pagan rites. The Temple was desecrated and rendered a site for the worship of Zeus. These harsh actions led to an uprising led by the Hasmoneans, a priestly family headed by Mattathias.
Mattathias and his five sons proved able warriors and leaders. Through guerilla warfare they liberated the countryside from Seleucid control. After Mattathias’s death in 167 B.C.E., his son Judah Maccabees assumed leadership of the revolt. A brilliant strategist and tactician, he further routed the Seleucid armies and eventually dislodged them from Jerusalem. In 164 the Temple was ritually purified and rededicated, and to celebrate the event, the festival of Hanukkah was instituted. When Judas Maccabees fell in battle in 160, his brothers Jonathan and Simeon resumed guerilla warfare against the Seleucids. Through diplomatic and military efforts they prevailed and gained de facto independence of Judea. In 140 Simeon convened an assembly of priests and learned men who confirmed him, and his sons after him, as the high priest and commander in chief of the Jewish nation.
The Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea lasted for 80 years. During this period the territory was expanded to include virtually all of the Land of Israel. For the most part the Hasmoneans aligned themselves with the Pharisees, who regarded themselves as disciples of Ezra and Nehemiah and who sought to develop Judaism as a dynamic, evolving religion based on both the Written and the Oral Torah. The Hasmoneans also recognized the Sanhedrin as the supreme judicial institution of the Pharisees. For more than five centuries this body, composed of the 71 leading rabbis of the generation, and its president served as the central religious, and at times even temporal, authority of the Jewish people. The leadership of the Pharisees was solidified under the rule (76-67 B.C.E.) of Queen Salome Alexandra, the widow of King Alexander Yanai (103-76), whose father, Aristobulus I, had assumed the title of king (104-103).
Upon Queen Alexandra’s death her sons waged a struggle for the throne and the high priesthood, and the resulting civil war rendered Judea vulnerable to invasion. In 63 B.C.E. Roman armies conquered the country, bringing an end to the independence of Judea. The Jewish state once again became a province of an empire. In 37 the Romans appointed Herod, an official in the Hasmonean administration and a descendent of converts to Judaism, king of Judea. With the help of a Roman army, he defeated Antigonus, a grandson of Alexandra who had led a successful revolt against the Romans and reclaimed the Hasmonean throne. Herod loyally served his Roman overlords, ruthlessly suppressing all opposition and reducing the power of the high priests and the Sanhedrin. On the other hand, he allowed the Pharisees to continue to teach and interpret the Torah. Ruling during a period of prosperity, Herod pursued a construction program that included renovation of the Temple. Further, he did not hesitate to intercede with Roman authorities on behalf of Jewish communities throughout the empire.
Herod’s kingdom did not endure beyond his death in 4 B.C.E. With the consent of the emperor, he had divided his realm among his three sons, which proved ungainly and ineffective and which led to unrest. Once again the emperor reorganized Judea as a Roman province governed by a non-Jewish administrator. Although the Sanhedrin was allowed to reassemble as the supreme religious and judicial body of the Jews, heavy taxes and the presence of Roman troops in Jerusalem continued to cause discontent. The appointment of Pontius Pilate as governor in 26 C.E. ushered in a particularly oppressive regime. The land was rife with revolutionary and messianic ferment, although with the accession of Emperor Claudius in 41, the situation seemed to ease. The emperor appointed Herod’s grandson, Agrippa I, as king, and he proved to be a shrewd political leader and a Jewish patriot. With his death in 44, however, the Roman authorities reimposed direct rule. Once again Judea was in the grips of discontent and messianic agitation, and groups of freedom fighters surfaced. The mounting resistance to Roman rule led to a revolt in 66, which was not put down until four years later when Titus led an army to conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. With the fall of the desert fortress of Masada in 73, Jewish hopes for the restoration of political sovereignty were crushed.
There was a growing realization that an alternative to political and military leadership had to be found. This was offered by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, a leader of the Pharisees during the first century. He had slipped out of Jerusalem during the city’s siege and reconstituted the Sanhedrin in the coastal town of Jabneh, already a center of learning. Through his inspiration the Sanhedrin took measures to strengthen Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. When asked by one of his disciples how the Jews were to atone for their sins now that the Temple was destroyed and expiatory animal sacrifices were no longer possible, Johanan replied by citing the prophet Hosea: “Do not fear, we now have charity as a substitute” (6:6). Johanan was joined by many of the leading sages of the time, and together they laid the ground for Judaism to continue as a faith independent of the Temple. Without relinquishing hope for the restoration of the Temple, they implicitly established a new scale of values, at whose pinnacle was the study of the Torah. At Jabneh the Jews truly became a People of the Book.
Upon Johanan’s death in c. 80, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel II was appointed president of the Sanhedrin, and he continued the work of reorganizing the national and religious life of the Jewish people. Gamaliel frequently traveled to Rome, where he was greeted as the head of the Jewish nation, and he negotiated with Roman authorities with determination and skill. Under him the community of sages gathered at Jabneh established guidelines for Judaism as a religious faith and practice. Toward this end they elaborated a body of theological, legal, ritual, and ethical teachings that Gamaliel’s grandson, Judah ha-Nasi (c. 138-c. 217) brought together in the Mishnah.
Despite the efforts of the Sanhendrin to channel Jewish loyalties into a life of prayer and study, national feelings continued to erupt in revolts against Roman rule, both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel. In the early second century Jewish revolts broke out in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyprus, and the Land of Israel. When the emperor Hadrian disclosed plans to establish a Roman colony on the ruins of Jerusalem—to be called Aelia Capitolina in honor of himself, Aelius Hadrianus, and the god Jupiter Capitolinus—he provoked a war. Led by Simeon Bar Kokhba, the well-planned revolt, which broke out in 132, took the Romans by surprise. The Jewish rebels first liberated Jerusalem and then seized control of Judea and large parts of Galilee. Enthralled by Bar Kokhba’s spectacular victories, many Jews, including Rabbi Akiva, widely regarded as the pre-eminent scholar of his generation, hailed him as the Messiah, and he was named the nasi (prince or president) of Judea. After three years, however, the revolt was suppressed, leaving 600,000 Jews dead in battle or from hunger and disease. Tens of thousands of others were sold into slavery, and many more, including scholars, fled the country. Judea was now empty of Jews.
The Sanhedrin was relocated to a small town in Galilee and through resolute leadership extended its authority throughout the Diaspora, where the majority of the Jews now lived. It retained the sole right to ordain rabbis, and emissaries were periodically dispatched to regulate the religious observances of the scattered communities and to collect a voluntary tax for the support of the Sanhedrin and its president. The Roman administration allowed the Sanhedrin to function as part of an implicit agreement that it act to restrain Jewish militants and national sentiments. During this period the Sanhedrin became not only a judicial but also a deliberative and legislative body, and its president, referred to by the Romans as the patriarch, served in effect as the chief executive of the Jewish people. In 420, however, the Romans withdrew their recognition of the patriarch and dissolved the Sanhedrin.
Alternative leadership was provided by the exilarch (in Aramaic, Resh Galuta, or “leader of the Exile”) of the Jewish community of Babylonia, which in Jewish nomenclature corresponded to the Persian Empire. Since the days of the First Temple, the Babylonian Diaspora had grown in strength, and it emerged as a dynamic center of Jewish spiritual life and learning. Allowed to develop autonomous institutions, the community was headed by the exilarch, a hereditary office reserved for descendants of King David, who represented the community before the non-Jewish rulers of Babylonia. For 12 centuries after the abolition of the Sanhedrin and the office of the patriarch, the exilarch headed not only the Jewish community of Babylonia but also most other communities of the Diaspora. The exilarch was responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish community, and he had the authority to impose fines and even to imprison delinquents. His office was strengthened by his administrative and financial control of the great rabbinical academies that had evolved in Babylonia. The spiritual significance of this relationship was under-scored by the academies’ practice of naming as the heir to the office the member of the deceased exilarch’s family deemed the most erudite in the Torah. Under the tutelage of the exilarch, the academies of Babylonia produced the commentary on the Mishnah known as the Babylonian Talmud. By virtue of the esteem accorded this elaboration of Jewish law, it eclipsed the Talmud produced by the academies in Palestine and served to set the contours of Jewish religious life.
The academies of Babylonia drew students and scholars from throughout the Jewish world. The heads of the academies, known as geonim (singular, gaon; “pride” or “excellency”), thus exercised influence far beyond Babylonia, and they were a major factor in maintaining Jewish unity. From Egypt, North Africa, and Christian and Muslim Spain, questions on all aspects of Judaism were sent to the geonim. From the end of the sixth to the middle of the eleventh century, the geonim were considered the intellectual leaders of the Diaspora, and their decisions were regarded as binding by most Jewish communities.
The decline in the influence of the Babylonian academies and the geonim was to a great measure caused by their success. Through their power the Babylonian Talmud became the bedrock of Judaism, and eventually new centers of learning, along with great rabbinical scholars, emerged throughout the Diaspora. As a result, the dependence on the Babylonia academies and the geonim declined. Political divisions within Islam, which since the seventh century had come to reign over most of the lands of the Diaspora, were also a factor. The caliphs of Spain, for instance, did not appreciate the relationship of their Jews to Babylonia, which was governed by a rival caliph. Moreover, under the caliph of Baghdad, Babylonia entered a period of economic stagnation and impoverishment, which naturally affected the Jewish community and its ability to support the rabbinical academies. By the eleventh century the last of the great academies of Babylonia had closed, and the office of the exilarch, long diminished in stature, came to an end in the fifteenth century.
Centralized Jewish leadership thus also came to an end. The various Jewish communities established their own institutions to govern themselves and to represent their interests in non-Jewish societies. Fragmentation of the Jewish people was prevented by the firm foundation that rabbinical Judaism, as amplified especially by the Babylonian Talmud, had throughout the Diaspora. Despite the loss of a central religious and political authority, a worldwide network of correspondence among rabbis and the circulation of their writings served to reinforce the spiritual unity of the Jewish people.
Major Theologians and Authors
Virtually all of the foundational texts of Judaism, starting with the Hebrew Bible, are of collective authorship. According to Jewish tradition, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, are the Word of God as recorded by Moses. (The exception is the last section, describing his death and burial.) Tradition holds that the other two sections, the Prophets and Writings, were inspired by God, although not directly written by him. Modern critical scholarship, however, regards the Torah as the composite work of several human authors writing in different periods. Similarly, scholarly opinion judges the other books of the Bible to be the work of editors and not necessarily of the authors to whom individual books are ascribed within the texts.
Whether one follows the traditional view or that of modern scholars, the Bible is clearly a chorus of many different theological voices. Moreover, not all voices were included in the text as it was finally canonized. Some of these works have been preserved, although not always in the original Hebrew, in what is called the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. This literature, which also embraces works written by Jewish authors in Aramaic and Greek, was sanctified in the canons of various Christian churches, often in translation in the sacred language of these churches—for example, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syriac, and Old Slavonic. Indeed, it is only by virtue of the sanctity these books have for Christianity that the voices have been remembered. This body of extracanonical Jewish writings was augmented in 1947 when the manuscripts now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves near the Judean desert.
The voices that came to be a part of the Jewish Scriptures were ultimately determined by the Pharisees, who considered themselves disciples of the scholar and prophet Ezra and who emerged during the time of the Hasmoneans. During this period the dominant voice of the Pharisees was Hillel, known as Hillel the Elder (c. 70 B.C.E.-c. 10 C.E.). Born and educated in Babylonia, he developed interpretative principles that encouraged a flexible reading of the Torah. Above all, Hillel taught the virtue of Torah study, to be pursued for its own sake and without ulterior motives. He believed that learning, and learning alone, could refine a person’s character and religious personality and endow him with the fear of God. It is told that Hillel was once approached by a would-be convert who asked to be taught the whole Torah while Hillel stood on one foot. He replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow human being; this is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn!” This, the “golden rule,” Hillel suggested, is not only the best introduction to Judaism but also its sum total. Thus, Hillel played a decisive role in the history of Judaism. His hermeneutical rules expanded and revolutionized the Jewish tradition, while his stress on the primacy of ethical conduct and his tolerance and humanity deeply influenced the character and image of Judaism. Hillel was the patron of what has been termed “classical Judaism.” To the worship of power and the state, he opposed the ideal of the community of those learned in Torah and of those who love God and their fellow human beings.
Hillel’s teachings are woven into the Mishnah, an anthology of Pharisaic interpretations of the Written and Oral Torah that was edited by one of his descendants, Judah ha-Nasi (c. 138-c. 217), head of the Sanhedrin. Noting that over the centuries the Oral Torah had continued to grow exponentially, Judah ha-Nasi deemed it necessary, especially since a majority of Jews by then lived in the Diaspora, to have a written protocol of the most significant teachings. He prevailed upon each of the Pharisees, who bore the honorific title of rabbi (master or teacher of the Torah), to prepare a synopsis of the Oral Torah they taught in the various academies of the Land of Israel. He then edited and collated the material into the compendium titled the Mishnah, a name derived from the Hebrew verb shanah, meaning “to repeat,” that is, to recapitulate what one has learned. In his work Judah ha-Nasi had been aided by other scholars who preceded him, in particular Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-c. 136).
Judah ha-Nasi intended the Mishnah to serve as a curriculum for the study of Jewish law. He thus did not seek to establish an authoritative text but rather provided variant opinions and rulings on the subjects discussed. The corpus of teachings gathered in the Mishnah did not exhaust the oral traditions of the rabbis, who in the collection are also called tannaim (singular, tanna; Aramaic for “teacher”), for there were teachings Judah ha-Nasi chose to exclude and others unknown to him. Further, the Oral Torah continued to develop. Later teachings were collected in a variety of anthologies, such as the Tosefta, literally the “addition” to the Mishnah. An important body of rabbinical teachings representing hundreds of different voices, it was apparently edited at the end of the fourth century, perhaps even later.
The crowning achievement of rabbinic Judaism was the two Talmuds. In the Land of Israel and in Babylonia scholars known as amoraim (Aramaic for “explainers”) organized themselves into academies (yeshivas) to study the Mishnah and other collections of rabbinical teachings. The record of the reflections and debates of the amoraim was published as a commentary on the Mishnah in two multivolume works, the Jerusalem and the Baby-lonian Talmuds. Both encompass the work of many generations of scholars. The Jerusalem Talmud, actually composed in academies in Galilee, was concluded in about 400, and the Babylonian Talmud a century later. Because of the intensification of the anti-Jewish policy of the Roman authorities, which led to the flight of many scholars, the Jerusalem Talmud was hastily compiled. It thus lacks the editorial polish of the Babylonian Talmud, which was prepared under far calmer circumstances.
The amoraim also edited collections of the commentaries known as Midrashim. Whereas previous collections had been based on Halakhic (legal) discussions of the rabbis of the Land of Israel, the later Midrashim, edited in the fifth and sixth centuries, largely originated in the homilies of synagogues, which had become the central institution of Jewish religious life. These Midrashim were also devoted to an exegesis of Scripture, often in a sustained line-by-line commentary. There are, for example, such collections for the books of Genesis, Lamentations, Esther, the Song of Songs, and Ruth.
Another seminal work of collective authorship that emerged during this period was the Hebrew prayer book, which with local variations became authoritative for Jews everywhere. Although the Bible gives witness to personal prayers, it is not clear that Temple rituals were accompanied by communal prayers. Sacrificial rites were accompanied by a chorus of psalms chanted by Levites (descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob, who were by hereditary privilege assigned a special role in the Temple service) but without the participation of the congregation. There is evidence, however, that in the Second Temple a form of communal prayer had begun to take shape. But it was only after the destruction of the Temple and the end of its rites that the rabbis at Jabneh began to standardize Jewish liturgical practice. Alongside the obligatory prayers instituted by the rabbis, there also developed the tradition of composing piyyutim (liturgical poems), many of which were incorporated into the prayer book.
Other than certain books of the Bible, the first work by a Jewish author to appear under the name of an individual was that of the philosopher Philo (c. 20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), who lived in Alexandria. Writing in Greek, he composed an exegesis of the Bible in which many passages were interpreted as allegorical elucidations of metaphysical truths. His concept that God created the world through Logos had a profound impact on the Christian dogma that identified Jesus with the Logos. The Christian church therefore preserved many of Philo’s writings, which, other than a few brief passages cited in the Talmud, were forgotten by his fellow Jews after his death.
Sustained Jewish interest in philosophy was to be manifest only under the impact of Islamic thought, which was nurtured by Greek philosophy, and by and large Jewish philosophy was philosophy of religion. Writing for the most part in Arabic, Jewish philosophers used the philosopher’s tools to address religious or theological questions. It is significant that medieval Jewish philosophy was inaugurated by a gaon (head) of one the leading rabbinical academies in Babylonia, the Egyptian-born Saadiah Gaon (882-942). His Book of Beliefs and Opinions, written in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew, presented a rational analysis and proof of the basic theological concepts of Judaism.
Among the most important Jewish philosophers was Solomon ibn Gabriol (c. 1026-50), of Muslim Spain, who wrote a Neoplatonic defense of the biblical concept of creation that, translated from the Arabic into Latin as Fons vitae(“Fountain of Life”), deeply influenced Christian theology. Drawing on Islamic mysticism, Neoplatonic philosophy, and perhaps even esoteric Christian literature, Bahya ibn Pakuda (second half of the eleventh century), who also lived in Spain, wrote on ethical and spiritual life in Duties of the Heart, which first appeared in 1080 in Arabic. Through translations into Hebrew, the first of which had already appeared in the late twelfth century, and other languages, this guide is still widely studied within the Jewish community.
One of the most popular Jewish philosophical works of the Middle Ages was written by the poet Judah Halevi of Toledo (c. 1075-1141). Known for his Hebrew poems, some 800 of which are extant, Halevi was the author of the treatise The Book of the Kuzars. Written in Arabic in the form of a dialogue between a Jewish scholar and the king of the Khazars, who was subsequently to convert to Judaism, Halevi’s book explores the conflict between philosophy and revealed faith. Exposing what he believes to be the limitations of Aristotlean philosophy, he argues that only religious faith that affirms God’s transcendence and the gift of revelation, namely, the Torah and its commandments, can bring a person close to God. Another prominent Spanish philosopher writing in Arabic was Abraham ibn Daud (c. 1110-c. 1180). In The Exalted Faith Ibn Daud systematically sought to harmonize the principles of Judaism with Aristotelian rationalist philosophy.
The Jewish philosophical tradition in Spain had its most esteemed expression in the work of Rabbi Moseh ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1135-1204). Writing like most of his colleagues in Arabic, he addressed The Guide of the Perplexed to those who had difficulty reconciling Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelianism, with biblical faith. Like Philo, Maimonides read the Bible as allegorical expositions of philosophical truths and thus demonstrated that the conflict between faith and reason is but apparent. Accordingly, the authentically wise person realizes that intellectual and religious perfection, the latter to be achieved through the observance of God’s laws, are identical. Maimonides also wrote, in Hebrew, a comprehensive codification of Jewish law called the Mishnah Torah.
All subsequent medieval Jewish philosophy may be viewed as either affirmative or dissenting footnotes to Maimonides. The Italian Jewish philosopher Hillel ben Samuel (c. 1220-c. 1295) devoted a Hebrew work to defending Maimonides’ doctrine of the soul—survival of physical death as pure intellect—arguing that he did not mean to deny individual immortality. The Catalonian Jewish philosopher Isaac Albalag (thirteenth century), while seeming to affirm the survival of the individual soul after death, in fact subtlety rejected the notion, suggesting that reason allows a person to speak only of the eternity of the universe.
The philosopher and rabbinical scholar Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410) refuted the Aristotelian premises of Maimonides. Indeed, he opposed all attempts to identify the principles of Judaism with those of Greek philosophy. For him man is a spiritual being, and hence his soul departs the body after death and survives. In contrast to Maimonides and followers of Aristotle, Crescas taught that love and rational knowledge are the highest good and, as such, that it is the love between man and God that determines the immortality of the soul. Joseph Albo (c. 1380-1445), who was regarded as the last of the great Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, was at home in the Latin Scholasticism of Christianity as well as in Islamic philosophy. This Spanish philosopher sought to forge a synthesis of Maimonides and Crescas. With regard to the question of the immortality of the soul, to which a large portion of his Book of Principles, written in Hebrew, was devoted, he endorsed Crescas’s view that the soul is spiritual and not intellectual in nature but that it is, nonetheless, capable of attaining rational knowledge.
Although the Italian Renaissance witnessed a rebirth of Jewish philosophy, such writers as Judah Abrabanel (better known as Leone Ebreo; c. 1460-c. 154) and Joseph Delmedigo (1591-1655) essentially confined themselves to expositions of the teachings of their medieval predecessors. The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), however, marked the end of the Jewish tradition in medieval philosophy. Gaining his initial instruction from the works of such philosophers as Maimonides and Crescas, Spinoza developed a philosophical system that abandoned all attempts to reconcile faith and reason, revelation and philosophy. He regarded faith in revelation or in a divine source of knowledge, held to be superior to or at least compatible with reason, as undermining the integrity of philosophy as a self-sufficient rational discourse. Spinoza thus boldly challenged the overarching concern of medieval philosophy, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic alike. His radical, implicitly secular views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community, whereupon he took the name Benedictus, the Latin equivalent of his Hebrew name.
Philosophy was not the only expression of medieval Jewish thought. Jews also developed a robust mystical tradition that gave birth to a rich and varied literature. Most of this literature is characterized by collective authorship or is pseudepigraphic—that is, ascribed to ancient or mythical authors. The first written evidence of Jewish mysticism was a collection of some 20 brief treatises originating from the Talmudic period (third century C.E.) and collectively known as Hekhalot (“Supernal Palaces”) and Merkavah (“Divine Chariot”) literature. The writings record a journey through the celestial palaces to the vision of God’s chariot, or throne. In the second half of the twelfth century there emerged groups of scholars in the Germanic lands, known in Hebrew as Ashkenaz, who developed an acute mystical consciousness. Writing under the trauma of the massacres of Jews during the Crusades, they reflected on the mystery of the inner life of God as a key to understanding what seemed to be his ambiguous relationship to history and Jewish fate. Most of the literature produced by this mystical school, known as Hasidei Ashkenaz (pious men of Ashkenaz), was either anonymous or pseudepigraphic. In addition to speculative theosophical literature, these scholars produced ethical tracts that sought to inculcate a severe pietistic discipline touching virtually every aspect of life.
In neighboring France and Spain the seeds of a parallel school of Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, were sown. Abraham ben David of Posquieres (c. 1125-98), in Provence, one of the most renowned rabbinical scholars of his age, was a fierce critic of Maimonides’ attempt to reduce the Talmud to a code of law and to render Judaism a species of rational philosophy. Although a prolific writer, he limited his mystical teachings to oral instructions to his sons. They became the literary guides of the emerging Kabbalah movement, which purported to be based on an ancient tradition of esoteric readings of the Torah’s deepest meanings.
These teachings were elaborated by Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (known as Nahmanides or the Ramban; 1194-1270) of Gerona. Deeply impressed by French rabbinical scholarship, he worked to raise the prestige and significance of Talmud study in Spain. He, too, objected to Maimonides’ attempt to render philosophy the touchstone of religious truth. In his voluminous writings, some 50 of which are preserved, Nahmanides wove, particularly in his commentary on the Torah, his teachings in encoded form. Kabbalists of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries devoted considerable effort to decode Nahmanides’ teachings. As elaborated by his and Abraham ben David’s disciples, Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world.
The various mystical impulses of Kabbalah culminated in the appearance in the late thirteenth century of the Zohar(“Book of Splendor”), which became its main text. The principal author of this multivolume pseudepigraphic work was identified by twentieth-century scholars as Moses de Lion (c. 1240-1305) of Castile. Written as a commentary on the Torah, the Zohar is presented as the esoteric Oral Torah taught by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a tanna (teacher) of the fourth generation and one of the most prominent disciples of Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Judah ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah. Written in a symbolically rich Aramaic, the Zohar inspired numerous works that sought to develop further insights into the hidden layers of the Torah’s meaning as the ground of the ultimate and most intimate knowledge of God.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century engendered a profound sense of crisis and messianic longing. This was expressed through the speculations spawned by new schools of Kabbalah established in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Land of Israel. Presented as commentaries on the Zohar, these writings had the questions of evil and redemption as their central themes. In the sixteenth century the small town of Safed in Galilee became the center of this new, indeed revolutionary, trend in Kabbalah, which gained its fullest expression with Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72) and his disciples, especially Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1542-1620). Expounding a messianic theology based on motifs and images from the Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah taught that the Exile and Israel’s tragic history were but symbolic reflections of a higher reality in which part of God suffered exile, trapped in the material realm through a flaw in the process of creation. In fulfilling the precepts of the Torah with the proper mystical intent, the Jewish people redeemed both God and themselves. By virtue of this teaching, Kabbalah was transformed into a messianic myth that allowed the Jews to believe they could actively change the course of their history and at the same time cleanse the world of evil, which was a result of God’s exile.
This teaching, especially as amplified through popular writings, captured the imagination of the Jewish people. The heightened hope that redemption was approaching led to the advent of a mystical Messiah in the person of Shabbetai Tzevi (1626-76). Through the writings of his disciples, especially Nathan of Gaza (1644-80), the Jewish world was electrified with excitement. All seemed to collapse, however, when Shabbetai, confronted by Turkish authorities who saw in the messianic movement that galvanized about him a political threat to their rule over the Land of Israel, was given the choice of death or conversion to Islam and chose the latter. Shabbetai’s ignominious end left the Jewish people deeply perplexed.
Among the many responses to the energy induced by Lurianic Kabbalah and by Shabbetai Tzevi was a movement of popular mysticism called Hasidism that arose in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Founded by Israel ben Eliezer (known as Baal Shem Tov or by the acronym Besht; c. 1700-60), the movement reinterpreted Kabbalistic teachings so that they neutralized the sting of messianic disappointment that lingered after Shabbetai’s death. Israel ben Eliezer and his disciples redirected the longing for redemption to the experience of God in the here and now through the everyday acts of prayer, ritual, and good deeds. Rejoicing in the all-pervasive presence of God through song and dance was also deemed to be a valid form of divine service. In addition to writing numerous works on Kabbalah, Hasidic teachers developed a unique genre of mystical parables and stories that were eventually collected in widely circulated collections. Many of these parables and stories are ascribed to Baal Shem Tov, who himself did not write any books. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1811), his great-grandson, was a particularly gifted storyteller whose mystical tales and subtle theology, rich with psychological insight, continue to exercise a unique fascination on Jews beyond the Hasidic movement.
With the dawn of the modern world, Jewish religious thinkers were faced with the challenge of accommodating not only new conceptions of truth, which questioned divine revelation as a source of knowledge, but also with the task of articulating strategies that would allow Jews to participate in a culture that was essentially secular and universal while they preserved their commitment to Judaism as a distinctive way of life. The first philosopher to acknowledge this task was the German-born Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86). One of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment, he contributed highly acclaimed essays and books on such general subjects as metaphysics, aesthetics, and psychology. Hailed in his day as the German Socrates, he was obliged to explain publicly his abiding devotion to the Torah and its precepts. Many of his contemporaries wondered how he could be a Jew, beholden to biblical revelation, and at the same time a philosopher who acknowledged reason as the sole arbiter of truth. Mendelssohn published a defense of his allegiance to both Judaism and philosophy in the book Jerusalem (1783). His answer was that Judaism understands revelation, not as a divine disclosure of propositions, but rather as divine instruction on how to conduct religious life. Intellectually, he held, Jews are totally free to pursue the rule of reason.
But as the social and cultural reality changed for an ever increasing number of Jews, Mendelssohn’s reconciliation of traditional Judaism and philosophy no longer proved tenable. By sheer dint of their participation in modern culture, Jews found themselves occupying a new social and political space that led them, in varying degrees, to abandon the duties of traditional Judaism. In response to the new cultural reality, scholars and religious philosophers in the early nineteenth century, primarily in Germany, sought to develop a theology that would authenticate new conceptions of traditional obligations. Gathering under the banner of what came to be called Reform, or Liberal, Judaism, they wrote learned essays and monographs arguing that the essence of Judaism was to be found in its universal ethical teachings as opposed to time-bound ceremonial laws. Among the leading representatives of this school were Solomon Ludwig Steinheim (1790-1866), Samuel Holdheim (1806-60), and Abraham Geiger (1810-74).
A centrist position between Reform and Orthodoxy—as traditional Judaism has often been called since the early nineteenth century—was forged by Zacharias Frankel (1801-75). His blend of intellectual modernism and modified traditional practice sowed the seeds of what in twentieth-century North America came to be known as Conservative Judaism. Initially affiliated with Conservative Judaism, Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) developed a religious philosophy he called Reconstructionism. Believing that traditional conceptions of God as a supernatural, personal being were hopelessly out-of-date, he argued that fundamental presuppositions of Jewish religious thought must be revised and purged of anachronistic supernaturalism. Reconstructed as a “naturalistic” faith, Judaism would be more attuned both to the modern world and to the evolving spiritual and cultural aspirations of Jews. Judaism was best understood as a civilization, of which religion was but one, albeit central, component. In this respect Kaplan drew inspiration from Zionism, which in advancing its political program understood Jews as principally a nation and culture, to which a person might be affiliated on purely secular terms.
Traditional Jews did not remain indifferent to these developments. Moses Sofer (1762-1839), a Germanborn rabbi who was widely recognized as the leading Halakhah authority of his day, viewed all theological and organizational attempts to accommodate the modern world and its secular values as a mortal threat to Judaism. He is said to have coined the slogan “All innovation is forbidden by the Torah,” about which Ultra-Orthodox Jews have since organized their uncompromising opposition to any deviation from Jewish tradition. Sofer’s younger colleague, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), also a German-born traditional rabbi, regarded Sofer’s principled resistance to all things modern as profoundly mistaken. Preferring to call him-self a “Torah-true” rather than an Orthodox rabbi, Hirsch held that traditional Judaism not only could but also should affirm certain aspects of modern enlightened culture. Indeed, Jews should regard themselves as obligated to learn the physical and social sciences, for God is manifest in nature and history. Further, the humanistic ethic of the Enlightenment is compatible with the deepest ethical values of Judaism. In the twentieth century other Orthodox theologians, such as Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-93) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), have given their own twists to Hirsch’s modern, or Neo-Orthodox, views.
Modern Jewish religious thought has also been characterized by theologies developed outside the denominational framework. Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), who held a chair in philosophy at the University of Marburg in Germany, employed philosophical categories derived from his studies of Immanuel Kant to present Judaism as a “religion of reason.” According to his conception, human reason is assigned the “ethical task” of striving to perfect institutions promoting social justice and universal peace. As a religious community, Jews, whose spiritual and moral sensibilities are nurtured by their ancient liturgy and ritual, should exemplify a commitment to this task. He associated devotion to the task with the traditional Jewish concept of imitating God’s holiness and serving as his partner in perfecting the work of creation.
For Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) the tendency to regard religion as but a handmaiden of ethics eliminated the core experience of divine revelation. Removing revelation as the ground of an existential relationship to God, Rosenzweig protested, amounted to “atheistic theology.” He also directed his criticism against Martin Buber (1878-1965), who represented a tendency shared by both Jewish and Protestant thinkers to ascribe the “spirit” animating a community of faith with the national or ethnic “genius” of that community. In time Buber recognized the mistake of this essentially romantic, indeed nationalistic, conception of religion, and he sought in Ich und Du (1923; I and Thou) and other works to redefine the biblical concept of revelation as a dialogue between a human being and a transcendent, personal God. Rosenzweig also developed a dialogic view of revelation, although his took into account more traditional conceptions of Jewish religious practice. He set forth his views in a monumental volume titled Der Stern der Erlösung (1921; The Star of Redemption).
The legacy of European Jewish thought has continued to inspire American-born thinkers, including Will Herberg (1902-77), Milton Steinberg (1903-50), Arthur A. Cohen (1928-86), Eugene B. Borowitz (born in 1928), Richard Rubenstein (born in 1924), and David Hartman (born in 1931). Their writings have largely been characterized by interpretative commentaries on the thought of their European predecessors. This dependence may be indicative not only of a pervasive sense of being indebted heirs of their predecessors but also an awesome sense that they are their survivors. The tragic, catastrophic end of European Jewry created, in the words of Cohen, a profound “caesura,” or rupture, in Jewish collective and personal existence, engendering a feeling of inconsolable mourning and obligation. In reflecting on the tragedy of the Nazi era and on its theological implications for the “surviving remnant” of Jewry, American Jews have been at their most original and probing. The resulting “theology of the Holocaust” may in many respects be viewed as a theology of survival, seeking to affirm the obligations of the remnant of Jewry to survive somehow as Jews. Auschwitz, in the words of Emil L. Fackenheim (1916-2003), issued “a commandment” to Jews to endure and to ensure the survival of Judaism.
Several Hasidic rabbis developed theological responses to the Holocaust, most significantly Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94), head of the Lubavitcher, or Habad, branch of Hasidism. He viewed the Holocaust as the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” the tribulations preceding Redemption, whose imminent advent was indicated by the “miraculous” birth of the State of Israel. The rabbi’s messianic enthusiasm was expressed by his dedication to the spiritual “ingathering” of the exiled of Israel, which he pursued by establishing a worldwide program to instill in secularized and assimilated Jews a love of the Torah. Many of Rabbi Schneerson’s followers believe that he himself was the longed-for Messiah, who, despite his death, will soon return as the manifest Redeemer of Israel and the world.
The commandment to endure also inspired the slow but impressive reconstruction of European Jewry, which has likewise witnessed the renewal of Jewish religious thought, most notably represented by Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-95) in France and Louis Jacobs (born in 1920) in England. Lévinas, one of the most esteemed philosophers of post-World War II France, represented a continuation of the existentialist thought pioneered by Rosenzweig and Buber. Employing the metaphysical phenomenology he developed as a critique of Edmund Husserl’s and Martin Heidegger’s concept of “the other,” Lévinas sought to illuminate the religious meaning of Judaism. The moral experience of the other, borne by a compelling sense of responsibility toward him, is the only genuine knowledge of a person. Lévinas contrasted the antihumanistic tendency of Western culture—which, he held, masquerades as liberty but which is, in fact, bereft of responsibility for the other—with the biblical concept, especially as elaborated by the rabbis, of “a difficult liberty.” (The title of his most important collection of essays on Judaism is Difficile liberté[1963; Difficult Freedom, 1990].) Paradoxically, the Jew obtains transcendence, and thus liberty, by living under God’s law, which requires ethical and social responsibility for the other. Biblical man, Lévinas observed, with an oblique reference to Heidegger, “discovers” his fellow man before “he discovers landscapes.” As the custodian of biblical humanism, Lévinas declared, Judaism stands before the contemporary world and defiantly proclaims that liberty entails ethical responsibility and obligation.
Since the abolishing of the Sanhedrin at the beginning of the fifth century C.E. and the decline of the office of the geonim,the heads of the Babylonian rabbinical academies, in the eleventh century, Judaism has not had a central religious authority acknowledged by all communities. In response some communities have organized themselves around a regional or countrywide leadership, such as a central rabbinical judicial court or even a chief rabbi. In fifteenth-century Turkey, for instance, the position of hakham bashi (chief sage) was established. In the nineteenth century the position was elevated by the Turkish authorities and assigned the function of chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte convened what he ceremoniously called a Sanhedrin in order to gain rabbinical sanction for the changes in Jewish laws and theological orientation that he deemed would facilitate Jewish integration into the French state. Napoleon hoped that this body of representatives, two-thirds rabbis and one-third lay leaders from the French empire and the Kingdom of Italy, would gain the recognition of all Jewry. The world Jewish community greeted the French Sanhedrin with indifference or profound suspicion, however, and after doing the emperor’s bidding, it ceased to exist. Thereafter, Napoleon instituted the office of a chief rabbi, which eventually was transferred from government auspices to the autonomous communal organization of French Jewry.
A chief rabbinate in England arose at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was officially recognized by the government in 1845, which assured that its authority would extend over the entire British Empire. In 1840, during the period of Ottoman rule, Jerusalem became a regional administrative center, and the hakham bashi or rishon le-Zion(First of Zion, or the chief rabbi of the Sephardic community) was recognized as the chief rabbi of the Land of Israel. In 1920 the British mandatory government of Palestine established two offices of the chief rabbinate, one for the Ashkenazim and the other for the Sephardim. The authority of these offices, which the State of Israel continues to support, is not universally acknowledged by all Jewish communities, however. Recurrent attempts to establish a chief rabbinate in the United States have failed. Instead, each denomination—Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—has established its own organization.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
In Judaism, as in all biblical religions, the notion of specific holy places is ambiguous. If God is the universal God of creation, it is not clear how his glory or presence can be manifest in any one place rather than another. Some rabbis regard certain places as intrinsically holy because the divine presence objectively dwells in those spaces, namely, the Land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. Others view holy places as sanctified by historical association, as sites evoking certain religious memories and, therefore, emotions. Among such holy places in Judaism are Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac (Gen. 22:14) and upon which, according to Jewish tradition, the Temple was built. The holiness of Mount Sinai, where God gave the Children of Israel the Torah, was limited to the time of divine revelation and subsequently has had no special status. Although the Land of Israel is regarded as the Holy Land and the Temple Mount as the most holy part of this land, some rabbis have debated what constitutes the holiness of this land and of the Temple Mount. It is significant that King Solomon, in his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, raised this very question: “For will God indeed dwell on the earth?Behold, the heaven and the heaven of the heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). As the twentieth-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, “God has no geographical address nor a permanent residence.” None-theless, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the remaining parts of its Western Wall, popularly known as the Wailing Wall, became a site of collective mourning and of the expression of messianic longing for its restoration.
Judaism also regards as holy the site in the city of Hebron where the patriarchs are said to be buried. Similarly, the tomb of Rachel, near Bethlehem, is revered as holy. Some Jewish communities regard as holy the grave sites of famed rabbis—for example, the grave at Meron in Galilee of Simeon ben Yohai, the second-century sage who figures prominently in the Mishnah and in the Zohar. Members of the Hasidic community following the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav make annual pilgrimages to his grave in the Ukrainian village of Uman.
After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., the synagogue, from the Greek meaning “assembly,” has served as the site of Jewish worship. (The Hebrew equivalent is bet ha-keneset, or “house of assembly.”) In the Talmudic period there arose a parallel institution called bet ha-Midrash, or “house of study,” designating a place where Jews went to study the Torah. The two institutions eventually were joined, and in Yiddish, the vernacular of eastern European Jewry, the synagogue is simply called a Schul, or “school.” In order to signal that they no longer pray for the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple, Reform congregations often call their house of worship a temple.
What Is Sacred?
The Hebrew term for “holiness” is kedushah, meaning the act of “setting apart,” or dedication to God, who as the holy one and the creator of the universe is the source of all holiness. The act of dedicating oneself and one’s actions to God constitutes the sacred in Judaism. Hence, it is said that Jews’ relationship to God is preeminently through time and not space. It may, therefore, seem to be a paradox that one of the most frequent names for God in the Talmud is Makom, Hebrew for “space.” The paradox is explained by a mid-rash ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (first-second centuries C.E.) on Psalm 90:1—”… Lord, Thou has been our dwelling place in all generations”—pointing to the fact that wherever there are righteous and pious people “God is with them.”
Through pious deeds Jews sanctify the objects (food, drink, a residence, an object of beauty) and natural activities (sex, work, beholding beauty as well as tragedy) of the created order and thereby render them receptive to God’s holy presence. These deeds include those specified by the Torah, as elaborated by the Halakhah, and those acts of reverence and morality that one must legislate to oneself. The rabbis, however, have held that it is life itself that is most sacred, and in order to preserve a life the precepts of the Torah may be suspended. Accordingly, they interpreted Leviticus 19:16 to mean “… neither shalt thou stand aside when mischief befalls thy neighbor,” and hence if someone is, say, assaulted, it is incumbent upon all who are in a position to help to do so, even if this entails abrogating the ritual commandments of the Torah.
In Judaism reverence is accorded to ritual objects, and in this sense they are regarded as sacred. Religious books written in Hebrew, “the sacred tongue,” starting with the Bible, are regarded as sacred. Hence, when these books become worn and no longer fit for use, they are not simply discarded but rather are reverentially buried in a cemetery, often in the grave of a great scholar or particularly pious person. In some communities it is the custom to store Hebrew texts, including correspondence dealing with religious matters, that are no longer in use in a special vault, or genizah (hiding place), usually in the synagogue.
Holidays and Festivals
The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is the paradigm for all holidays in Judaism. Associated with God’s creation of the world and with the enduring source of life’s ultimate meaning, the Sabbath is marked by a cessation of work and mundane activity and by dedication to worship, thanksgiving, study of the Torah, and reaffirmation of Israel’s covenant with God. With important modifications, this pattern applies to all major Jewish festivals.
The Jewish liturgical calendar essentially has five major festivals and two principal minor festivals, the former biblically ordained and the latter instituted by the Talmudic sages. While on the Sabbath all work is forbidden, on the major holidays the preparation of food is permitted. The major holidays are Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur, which is regarded as the Sabbath, with all work whatsoever forbidden; Sukkoth; Passover; and Shabuoth. In biblical times the latter three were celebrated by pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. The two principal minor festivals introduced by the rabbis are Hanukkah and Purim, which do not carry the prohibition against working or engaging in mundane activities. Similar rules apply to other minor festivals and fast days.
The holidays and festivals are ordered according to the ancient Jewish calendar, which is based on the monthly cycle of the moon, with adjustments to the seasonal pattern of the solar year. The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, falls on the lst of the month of Tishri, which generally corresponds to a day in September. Literally “head of the year,” the holiday is also known as the Day of Judgment (Yom Ha-Din), on which a person stands before God, who judges his or her personal repentance. God’s judgment is dispensed 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah is a festive celebration of divine creation and, at the same time, a solemn reckoning of one’s sins. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as the Days of Awe and is devoted to penitential prayer, which culminates with the fasting and intense expression of contrition and atonement that mark Yom Kippur. On this, the holiest day of the Jewish year, on which God’s judgement is cast, Jews pray to be pardoned for their sins and for reconciliation with God.
Five days after Yom Kippur, on the 15th of Tishri, the autumn festival of Sukkoth (Tabernacles) takes place. Lasting a week, the festival is marked by the construction of provisional booths, or sukkahs (from the Hebrew sukkoth), as a reminder of the structures in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years’ journey in the wilderness (Lev. 23:42). The roof of the sukkah, in which a person is to eat and, if possible, sleep for the duration of the festival, is to be made from things that grow from the ground, a symbol of God’s care for the earth and its inhabitants. On the last day of the festival, called Hoshanah Rabbah (Great Hosannah), hymns are sung appealing to God for deliverance from hunger. Sukkoth is followed immediately by Shemini Atzeret, the “eighth day of assembly,” on which God is entreated to bestow rain to ensure a good harvest, and the next day is Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). On this day the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah is completed, hence the rejoicing. In the Land of Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are observed on the same day.
Hanukkah (Dedication) is a winter festival that begins on the 25th of Kislev, the second month after Tishri. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids, although greater import is attached to the rededication of the Temple. According to the Talmud, the Maccabees could find ceremonial oil for only one night, but by a miracle its flames lasted for eight days until a fresh supply could be obtained. In commemoration of the miracle, lights are kindled in Jewish homes during the eight nights of Hanukkah, customarily in a special candelabrum.
Purim, or the Feast of Esther, falls on the 14th of Adar, the fifth month after Tishri. This festival commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from Haman, the chief minister of the king of Persia, who cast lots (Hebrew, purim) to determine the date on which the Jews in the kingdom would be killed. The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue on the night of Purim and on the next morning. During the reading it is customary for the congregation to “blot out” the name of Haman, held to be a descendent of Amalek (Exod. 17:8-16) and the forefather of those bent on destroying the Jewish people, by shouting raucously, pounding their feet, and rattling noisemakers. In general a carnival mood prevails, and many people, including children, dress in costumes.
Passover takes place from the 15th to the 22nd (in the Diaspora from the 15th to the 23rd) of Nisan, the seventh month after Tishri. The Hebrew name for the holiday, Pesach, denotes the lamb offered on the even of the festival during the time of the Temple. With a change in one vowel, the name becomes the past tense of the verb pasach (to pass over), alluding to God’s having passed over the houses of the Children of Israel when he slew the firstborn of the Egyptians (Exod. 12:13). After the destruction of the Second Temple, the principal ritual focus of the holiday was transferred to the prohibition against eating leavened bread, with matzo becoming a symbol of affliction and poverty. A seder, or festive meal and religious service, is held in the home on the first night of Passover in Israel and for the first two nights in the Diaspora. At the meal the Haggadah relating the story of the Exodus, along with legends and homiletic commentaries on the Passover ritual, is recited.
Shabuoth falls on the 6th (in the Diaspora on the 6th and 7th) of Sivan, the ninth month after Tishri. It takes place 50 days after the Omer (sheaf of barley) was taken to the Temple on the second day of Passover. (Hence, it is called Pentecost [Greek for “50”] in Christian sources.) In biblical times Shabuoth was a harvest holiday, and it is celebrated as such by many secular Israelis today. The rabbis, however, understood its principal significance to be a commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The portion of the Torah read on the first day of Shabuoth is from Exodus (19:1-20:26). On the second day, in the Diaspora, a parallel passage from Deuteronomy 16:1-17 is read. It is also customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shabuoth, for of her own volition Ruth the Moabite entered into the covenant of Abraham. She is, therefore, the paradigm both of pure faith and of a genuine convert to Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, Ruth’s grandson, King David, died on Shabuoth. Although there are no special rituals to mark Shabuoth, many customs have evolved over the centuries. The eating of dairy dishes, some especially prepared for the day, is a particularly popular custom. The Kabbalist custom of devoting the entire night of Shabuoth to Torah study was later adopted by other Jewish communities.
Mode of Dress
Aside from the biblical commandment to attach fringes (zizith) to the four corners of garments (Num. 15:38-40; Deut. 22:12), which are also attached to a special shawl (tallith) worn by men during prayer, Jewish law does not prescribe any specific dress. Nonetheless, a dress code has indirectly been created by the prohibition against wearing garments containing a mixture of wool and flax (Deut. 22:11) and the injunction against men wearing women’s clothing and women dressing like men (Deut. 22:5). A verse in Leviticus (19:27)—”You shall not round off the side-growth of your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard”—was interpreted by the Talmudic sages as a prohibition against shaving with a razor, which was regarded as an act of disfigurement. The removal of facial hair with a scissors, or in modern times with an electric razor, is permitted, but the practice of wearing a beard and side locks (peot) has been widely adopted by traditional Jews.
Rules of modesty influence the manner of traditional Jewish dress. Since ancient times married women have covered their hair, considered one of the sources of a woman’s allure. As an expression of piety, the custom has evolved for men to wear a skullcap, especially during prayer and while studying sacred texts, and many Orthodox men wear a head covering at all times. In Conservative and Reform circles the practice of women wearing a skullcap has increased. In the modern period Ultra-Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim, have adopted special dress as a way of securing their religious identity, especially in the face of secularization and acculturation.
Based primarily on passages in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, traditional Judaism has developed an elaborate code governing foods that are permitted and forbidden. For instance, only animals that have cloven hooves and that chew the cud are permitted; hence, a person is not to consume pork, for the pig does not chew the cud. Similarly, only fish with scales and fins may be eaten; accordingly, shrimp and lobster are deemed unfit for consumption. There are also rules regulating the separation of meat and dairy products, while other laws determine how certain meats are to be slaughtered, prepared, and cooked. These regulations are known collectively as “kasruth” (often in English as “kosher” after the Ashkenazi pronunciation) from the Hebrew kasher, for “fit.” As an expression of God’s will, the dietary code is said to promote a life of holiness (Exod. 22:30; Lev. 11:44-45; Deut.14:21).
As symbolic acts meant to endow life with holiness, Jewish rituals are generally derived from biblical commandments determining a person’s relationship to the divine. This relationship is most often expressed ritually and ranges from the donning of tefillin to the manner of washing one’s hands before eating, from the symbolic gestures and prayers with which one greets the Sabbath to the Habdalah (separation) ceremony at the end that marks the division between the day of rest and the remainder of the week.
Jewish ritual life embraces both the home and the synagogue, where the rituals are woven into the liturgy, and virtually all festivals are celebrated in both through prescribed rituals and prayers. This is especially true of the three “pilgrimages” specified in the book of Deuteronomy (16:16): “Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover], on the Feast of Weeks [Shabuoth], and on the Feast of Booths [Sukkoth]—all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose.” The place of God’s choice was the Jerusalem Temple, but with its destruction the pilgrimages came to be enacted symbolically through rituals. Some Jewish communities make pilgrimages to the graves of saintly rabbis.
In Judaism births, marriages, and deaths are noted with prescribed liturgies and rituals. All of these are rich in symbols.
Rites of Passage
Eight days after birth a Jewish boy is received into the covenant of Abraham through the rite of circumcision (Brit Milah). Conservative and Reform Jews have introduced a parallel ceremony for girls, without circumcision, called Brit ha-Bat (covenant for a daughter). A male convert to Judaism undergoes circumcision, followed by immersion in a ritual bath (mikveh), while the conversion of a woman is marked by a ritual bath only.
When a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13, marking the beginning of puberty, he is held be intellectually and spiritually ready to assume full responsibility for his actions and hence obliged to observe all of the commandments of the Torah. He is thus said to be “bar mitzvah,” that is, a “son of the commandment.” Although this status is automatic by virtue of age, it is customarily marked by a ceremony held in the synagogue. The boy is called upon to read or chant a passage from the Torah and then a portion of the book of Prophets, determined by the liturgical calendar for that particular day. Often the boy is honored by being invited to deliver a discourse on the passages he has read, thus displaying his intellectual responsibility to be a learned and spiritually conscious Jew. The ceremony is followed by a festive party.
Girls reach the status of full religious responsibility at the age of 12. Until contemporary times no special ceremony was held to celebrate this. Increasingly, however, many congregations, especially those associated with Reform and Conservative movements, have introduced a ceremony for girls, called bat mitzvah, that replicates bar mitzvah. Most Orthodox congregations, which adhere to the ancient practice of separating the sexes in prayer, object to women reading from the Torah in the synagogue, although they may allow special worship services for women, at which time a bat mitzvah may read from the Torah.
Reform Judaism has introduced the rite of confirmation as supplementary to the bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. Whereas the latter mark a technical change in status, confirmation, which is preceded by an extended and systematic study of Judaism, is held to reflect knowledge and thus a deepened sense of personal commitment. The rite, generally a group ceremony for boys and girls who have reached the age of 15, is usually part of the Shabuoth service.
According to traditional law, a person is a Jew by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or by conversion. The child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is regarded as a Jew, whereas the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not. By and large, however, Reform Judaism recognizes patrilineal descent, holding that it is sufficient for a child to have a Jewish father—that is, a father who is Jewish by birth or through conversion—to be considered a member of the Jewish people.
As a monotheistic religion affirming the oneness of God and thus of humanity, Judaism welcomes conversion. The classic example of the convert is Ruth the Moabite, who in accepting the God of Abraham declared, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). The fact that Ruth was the grandmother of King David, from whose descendants the Messiah is to emerge, underscores the esteemed status of the convert.
Until the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism actively sought to proselytize. Thereafter, as a dispersed minority, missionary activity became difficult. Moreover, as they increasingly became subject to often aggressive Christian missionaries, Jews developed an aversion to active proselytizing. This attitude was reinforced by the Talmudic doctrine that “the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come.” Hence, a person need not be a Jew in order to be graced with God’s love. All that is required of non-Jews is the observance of the seven Noahide Laws, the laws given to Noah and his “descendants,” that is, all of humanity, after the Flood (Gen. 9:1-17): prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery and incest, robbery, and the eating of flesh torn from living animals (and by extension cruelty to animals), as well as the establishment of courts of justice. The rabbis considered these laws to be understood instinctively by all peoples. Nonetheless, sincere converts are welcome, their sincerity judged by a preparedness to accept the fate of the Jewish people and a commitment to observe the precepts and teachings of the Torah. The prevailing practice is to require the prospective convert to undertake an intensive course of study before submitting an application to a court of at least three rabbis.
As implied by the Noahide Laws and the Talmudic doctrine that all righteous peoples will share in the world to come, members of other faith communities are to be accorded respect. The philosopher Maimonides argued that the Noahide Laws were based on belief in the God of Abraham, in effect limiting the principle of tolerance to followers of biblical religions. Most other rabbinical scholars, however, have not accepted this interpretation. Attitudes toward Gentiles—the term “goyim” is from the Hebrew for “nations,” that is, other nations—are also determined by whether or not religious and cultural practices are understood as idolatrous. It has thus been suggested that, although Judaism is not a universal religion, a religion that seeks to embrace all of humanity, it is a universalistic religion.
The unyielding pursuit of justice is one of the overarching themes of the Bible: “Justice, justice shall you pursue …” (Deut. 16:20). Initially addressed to judges, beseeching them to administer the law with integrity, this injunction was interpreted both in the Bible itself and in later Jewish teachings as a commandment to be alert to the needs of disinherited members of society: the poor, the widowed and orphaned, the stranger, and the physically and mentally infirm. Indeed it is held that, unaccompanied by the pursuit of justice, the worship of God is vacuous: “Spare Me the sound of your hymns, And let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). The rabbis recognized that justice must be grounded in the law and in a society’s institutions.
Hence, rabbinical law (Halakhah) is an ongoing process—until this day in Orthodox communities—of review and refinement, representing a quest to understand how God’s will, as embodied in the Torah and its principles, apply to the ever unfolding complex realities of life. The Bible sets forth certain criteria for social justice. Among these is that charity, the Hebrew term for which is derived from the word for “justice,” should avoid humiliating the recipient. The needy are not to expose themselves to the humiliation of begging. The philosopher Maimonides therefore taught that the highest and purest form of charity is constituted by actions that prevent a person from becoming poor or that assist a person emerging from poverty by providing a decent job or other help. Implicit in this dictum, as many modern interpreters underscore, is the premise that the alleviation of suffering by individual acts of charity alone is insufficient. Equally if not more important is the establishment of just social institutions and laws.
The rabbis also recognized, however, the danger of relegating the pursuit of justice to social and legal institutions. Thus, they introduced the concept of benevolence (gimilut hasadim, or “bestowing kindness”). Whereas charity is invariably of a material nature, benevolence requires that a person give of the self, if merely a kind word or gesture, to another. Even those who enjoy material well-being are in need of benevolent attention. And whereas charity may be prompted by a sense of duty, benevolence is a spontaneous deed of the caring heart.
To marry and to bear children are supreme religious and social values in Judaism. As the rabbis observe, the first commandment issued by God was addressed to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply …” (Gen. 1:28). But God created Eve as Adam’s companion, not only as a partner for procreation. Male and female are bonded in companionship in order to create a family, to become husband and wife as well as father and mother to their common offspring. Marriage is thus regarded as a covenant. Indeed, the union of man and wife often serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel.
Although the Bible sanctions polygamy, the ideal marriage, as projected by the story of Adam and Eve, is monogamous. The practice of having more than one wife persisted, however, until the German Rabbenu (Our Rabbi) Gershom ben Judah (960-1028 C.E.) proclaimed a ban on such marriages, which has been universally honored since by Ashkenazi Jews. Today Sephardic Jews also reject polygamy. Divorce is permitted by Jewish law, although a rabbinical court sanctions divorce only if it is convinced that the breakdown in the marriage is beyond repair.
Since the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century C.E. and the parallel eclipse of the Babylonian academies, Judaism has had no central authority. In general, however, the various communities have recognized the rulings of esteemed rabbis. All rabbis are beholden to biblical and Talmudic teachings, as well as to the precedents of the ever unfolding development of Jewish law (Halakhah). Differences between rabbis are understood as a matter of interpretation of these teachings and precedents. The emergence in the modern era of denominations and of their subdivisions has further fragmented theological opinion.
Nonetheless, on various contemporary issues there is a rough consensus among Orthodox Jews. Abortion, for instance, is regarded as a grievous act akin to homicide. Yet as the rabbis of the Mishnah ruled, if a woman’s life is endangered by a pregnancy, it is permitted to abort the fetus in order to save her life. If the child she is bearing already has begun to emerge from the womb, and is thus deemed a full-fledged being, it is not permitted to kill one life for the sake of another. There are cases, however, when the rabbis would allow even this principle to be overridden. Some rabbis have ruled that if, in the judgment of a physician, a child will be born with a severe physical or mental infirmity, abortion is permitted. Others have sanctioned abortion when the pregnancy resulted from rape by a man other than the woman’s husband. All Orthodox rabbis object to abortion as a means of birth control. Conservative and especially Reform opinion tends to be far more liberal on abortion, affirming a woman’s inalienable right to choose to give birth or not to a child she bears.
The issue of using artificial means to prevent fertilization and conception is complex. The overarching reason for marriage is to bear children and establish a family. The rabbis also acknowledge, however, that sexual intercourse often is pleasurable. Hence, the question is whether or not it is permissible for a married couple to employ contraceptives and thus separate the pursuit of sexual pleasure from the divine commandment to procreate. (Extramarital sex is frowned upon as utterly sinful.) The rabbis generally approach the question in view of the biblical injunction against “spilling,” or “wasting,” one’s seed (Gen. 38:9). The majority of contemporary Orthodox rabbis reason that, since this injunction applies only to a man, a woman may use a contraceptive device or take birth control pills. Such measures are particularly countenanced when pregnancy would be detrimental to the woman’s health.
In consonance with biblical and rabbinical views, Orthodox Judaism is unambiguously patriarchal. Women not only are strictly separated from men in the synagogue and houses of study but also occupy a lower position in the religious life of the community. They are not counted in the minyan, or quorum, required for communal prayer, nor do they take an active part in the worship service, such as reading from the Torah or serving as a cantor and leading the congregation in prayer. Reform and Reconstructionist, and to a lesser extent Conservative, Judaism have adopted gender-inclusive positions, removing barriers to the full participation of women in religious life.
Advances in medical science have engendered an array of ethical and religious issues, such as organ transplants, artificial insemination, and genetic engineering. All branches of Judaism view these developments positively when they are understood as serving to enhance the sanctity of life. This attitude is guided by the rabbinical teaching that the preservation of life overrides all other considerations and religious prohibitions.
Since its biblical beginnings Judaism has developed a rich history of religious expression through music, dance, and song. Miriam, Moses’ sister, led the women of Israel in song and dance to celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20). The Temple service was accompanied by singing and instrumental music (Ps. 150:3-5). The rabbis of the Talmud, however, deemed instrumental music to be a form of work and thus banned it on the Sabbath and during festivities. But prayers at home and in the synagogue were often chanted and sung. Indeed, song has remained a prominent feature of Jewish worship. Throughout the ages poets have written religious hymns (piyyutim), for which melodies were often composed. Songs and wordless melodies play a particularly significant role in Hasidism. In addition, Hasidim often punctuate their prayers with dance, which they regard as a form of worship. Dance and instrumental music are common features of weddings and other celebrations in all Jewish traditions.
Visual art is yet another important form of religious expression in Judaism. The Tabernacle (temporary sanctuary used by the Israelites in the wilderness) and later the Jerusalem Temples were richly adorned with ornamental art, apparently even pictorial paintings. The biblical prohibition against the fashioning of graven images pertains only to the creation of idols for the purpose of worship (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:15-19). Hence, there is a tendency in Jewish tradition to frown upon sculpture, especially if placed in the synagogue, although sculpture is not in itself prohibited. The synagogue is often richly adorned with paintings, although they tend to avoid the depiction of human images. The Torah scroll is usually bedecked in a finely embroidered mantle or decorated encasing and is adorned with specially crafted silver ornaments of bells and a breastplate, or shield, and topped with a crown. Other ceremonial objects, such as goblets and the cases for mezuzah (door-post) parchments, are also especially crafted by artisans, and there is a long tradition of illuminated Aggadah manuscripts.
In contrast to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was built according to precise architectural blueprints, there are no guidelines regarding the construction of synagogues. Hence, the design of synagogues frequently reflects the influence of local architectural styles. The ark containing the Torah scroll, however, should face Jerusalem.
In traditional Judaism verbal imagination found expression in the Aggadah, the nonlegal portions of the Talmud and Mishna. A species of Midrash, the scriptural commentaries of the Aggadah provided the framework for developing ideas and perspectives on a variety of ethical and religious issues. The Aggadah also served to convey folklore and folktales. In the modern period Jews have adopted new genres, preeminently fiction, theater, and film, to give expression to their verbal imagination.