A history of Judaism: Charting our history, texts — and disputes


In the first century BCE, the Hasmonean King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus was conducting sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem during Succot.

But some of his subjects were less than convinced about his High Priestly credentials and they conveyed disapproval in a novel form of protest: they pelted him with etrogs.

Judaism has “a rich history of rifts,” observes Professor Martin Goodman in A History of Judaism, published this week. But while there may have been controversy and confrontation down the ages, that is not the central theme of his 650-page book.

“It is easy to write a story of conflicts,” says the 64-year-old president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, “but that would be terribly misleading”.

Rather he is at pains to point out that different types of Judaism have co-existed since Temple times and while they may have disagreed, they often have found ways to rub along with one another.

“It seemed to me much more interesting to write about the extraordinary amount of variety within Judaism at all times and the way in which they relate,” he explains. Sometimes there could be conflict, but sometimes an “extraordinary acceptance”.

Over the past couple of millennia, competing groups of Jews have chosen to leave it to heaven to decide who was right rather than literally fight to resolve their differences. “If you compare it to a history of Islam or Christianity, where indeed you end up with physical warfare, these things don’t happen among Jews — they just shout at each other.”

While there have been many histories of Jews — the second part of Simon Schama’s trilogy being the latest — there have been far fewer on the history of Judaism itself, where the primary emphasis is on religious change and development.

It was his own experience of teaching for 40 years that prompted him to write it. He found it hard to recommend to his students a book that offered a broad introduction to Judaism.

Many introductions to Judaism “jump too fast” from the Bible to the modern era, which is confusing because, as he writes, the Judaism of today “bears little resemblance to the religion ascribed to Moses in the Bible from which it purports to derive”.

“For a lot of Christians,” Prof Goodman says, “Judaism is the Old Testament. They know intellectually there’s been 2,000 years since Jesus and something might have changed — but quite what those changes are, they don’t know.”

It is only the second book he has written for general readers rather than academics — the previous one being Rome and Jerusalem, a study of an ancient clash of civilisations. It has taken him 10 years to write, involving many conversations with experts outside his own specialist area — Judaism in Roman times.

He actually began life as a classicist but while he pursued Latin and Greek as an Oxford student, privately he was cultivating his Jewish studies. His father’s father, Paul Goodman, who was secretary of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, actually wrote a history of the Jews himself.

Although his family were occasional attendees at Bevis Marks, Prof Goodman became more observant in his teens. He went to the Hebrew University for a gap year with four other Oxbridge students but as the entrance exams were in December, they had missed the Hebrew language classes in autumn, so instead they were packed off to ulpan.

Although he never went to yeshivah, he studied rabbinic texts with personal tutors “for religious reasons”. His thesis and the subject of his first book was about understanding social history through the use of mishnaic texts.

“It is terribly tempting to think the history of Judaism is the history of those texts that happen to survive,” he says. “But most Jews didn’t write anything.”

Instead, the historian may have to reconstruct what Jewish life was like from fragments or references by outsiders. His picture of the ancient Jewish world, particularly during the classical era from the Roman occupation to the emergence of the rabbinic movement, is more complex than often thought. Not only were there Pharisees, Saducees and Essenes, but other groups as well.

The Yachad (“community”) who produced some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he argues, were not Essenes, as often believed. The rabbis who laid the foundations of the Talmud were an elite group of scholars, not Pharisees.

Despite the later dominance of rabbinic Judaism, a group like the Karaites (who reject the Oral Law) still endured. “It is amazing that Maimonides on the one hand sees Karaites as minim, heretics, in some of his theological writings but on the other hand, representing the Karaites to the Islamic rulers. They both are and are not part of his flock.

“There are remarkable marriage documents where there is a Karaite marrying a Rabbanite and they agree to keep each other’s festivals.

“It must have made an exhausting time round about Pesach if your calendar is different!”

While that was one example of tolerance, another was the acceptance of Chasidism in eastern Europe despite the antagonism that greeted it from some prominent rabbis in the 18th century.

A dispute may break out and “then a generation later, people can’t quite remember what it was they were arguing about”.

In the latter chapters, he deals with a growing multiplicity of Judaisms, not only Reform, Liberal or Conservative but Reconstructionist, Renewal and the Secular Humanistic Judaism of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who started his non-theist movement in Michigan in the mid-60s.

Prof Goodman was impressed by Wine’s bravery in talking about “there being no God where he was in the middle of that bit of America”.

In the final pages, he sounds a cautionary note, wondering if religious differences in Israel could spill over into violence.

But then he says he almost fell into the kind of trap he wanted to avoid, highlighting clashes between religious and secular.

He made last-minute revisions to include more about the masorti, “traditional” Jews from North Africa and the Middle East who are committed to Judaism but “don’t make a fuss about it, so they miss the headlines”.

While “one doesn’t write history in order to influence the present,” he says, if there were such an intent, it would be “to encourage awareness that toleration of difference has been part of the history of Judaism for two millennia; that disputes for the sake of heaven don’t mean that you don’t express your disagreement with others but they also mean you don’t cut off the other side”.

And if we have seen “increasing intolerance” in some areas of Jewish life, then as the book shows, “it isn’t necessary”.


A History of Judaism is published by Allen Lane, £30

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive