Understanding the twists and turns of our religious history

A History of Judaism, Martin Goodman, Allen Lane, £30


Histories of the Jews have been written since biblical times. It has been argued that since 1853, when Heinrich Graetz wrote his History of the Jews, historians have been the major intellectual figures in Jewish life. Whether this is true is a matter for debate, but there is no doubt that over the past half century there has been a proliferation of books on Jewish history; each offering its own perspective, each with its own distinctive reason for publication. 

Yet among all these chronicles of Jews and Jewish life there have been hardly any dedicated to the religion itself; hardly any histories of Judaism. Hardly any, because in the 10th century Sherira Gaon, the head of Babylon’s Pumbedita yeshivah, wrote a letter to the Jewish community in Kairouan chronicling the history of rabbinic Judaism, from the Mishnah to his own time. He wrote the letter as a polemic to assist the Kairouan community in their battle against dissenters and he included a fair amount of anecdotal information. 

Nobody would claim that it is an objective history in the modern sense. Nevertheless Sherira’s letter, still an important resource for contemporary historians, probably ranks as the first history of Judaism.

There have been few others. Thirty years ago, Cambridge University Press published the first in a planned eight-volume series on the history of Judaism. Now, in an unprecedented flurry of academic publishing, the last four volumes are scheduled to appear this autumn.  Featuring contributions from an array of scholars mainly based in North American and Israeli universities, these are academic titles. At over £150 list price for each of the new volumes, they are unlikely to figure highly on many Chanukah present lists this year.

Enter Martin Goodman. His new history of Judaism is a one-volume tour de force. Amply supported by footnotes and illustrated by a dozen maps, Goodman meets the substantial challenge of charting the twists and turns, tributaries and backwaters of  Judaism’s many streams over 2,000 years —and succeeds.

Goodman is one of very few Anglo-Jewish scholars capable of such a feat. Professor of Jewish Studies and president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, he is known for his many books and articles on Jewish life during the Roman period, as well as works on the Essenes, Apocrypha and Christian Kabbalah. But there remain huge swathes of Jewish religious history about which, until now, he had published nothing; making the achievement of this, his latest book, even more impressive.

No history of a religion can be written without reference to political and cultural developments. But recounting the drama of an external event, say the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, can easily overshadow an associated but more subtle religious development, in this case the emergence of the Kabbalah from the fringes of Judaism towards the religious mainstream. Goodman skilfully resolves this tension, concluding his well-researched discussions of external history for each period before turning to its religious developments.

One of the book’s great strengths is its treatment of Jewish pluralism. It is easy to look back and assume a continuous line of religious development from our earliest known history to the present day. Were we to do that we would end up with a history of rabbinic Judaism, albeit one which diverged in recent times into several different streams. But there have always been trends within Judaism which split away from the mainstream.  

Some, such as the Dead Sea sectarians and Sadducees disappeared from history. Others, notably the Samaritans, Karaites and of course Christianity evolved into separate religions, even if sometimes self-identifying as the authentic biblical Israel. The question for the historian of Judaism is whether to include such divergent streams, and if so, up to which point. Clearly modern Christianity does not qualify for inclusion in a history of Judaism. But Martin Goodman makes a compelling case for including early Christianity,  until such time as Paul urged his followers to see their faith as novel, as part of the “variegated religious landscape” of Judaism, 

Not every divergent stream can be neatly dealt with. Did the Pharisees disappear from Judaism? Goodman thinks so, although others regard them as the forerunners of the rabbis. And what of Ethiopian Jews? Accepted under the Law of Return yet required to convert by the Israeli Rabbinate, Goodman mentions them in passing but does not dwell on their religious history. As for the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, who are believed to have influenced the early expressions of Islam, they do well to get a mention at all. Rich in curiosity value but remote from the main centres of Jewish life, we know nothing of the Judaism they practised.

Judaism has a history. We all know this even if sometimes it makes religious life easier to imagine otherwise. Martin Goodman’s book is an outstanding resource in helping us to appreciate just how rich and fruitful that history has been.

Harry Freedman’s history of Kabbalah will be published next year

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