Spiritual guidance for anyone seeking a path to God. explorefaith.org


Explore God's Love Explore Your Faith Explore the Church Explore Who We Are  

> What Do Our Neighbors Believe? > Key Events: Judaism


Join our mailing list
Join our mailing list
Send this page to a friend

Support explorefaith.org

Give us your feedback


Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What were the most significant events in the history of the religion?
by Howard Greenstein

Jewish history spans a range of four thousand years. It is obviously difficult to single out over that vast period of time only a handful of people, places and events that deserve special recognition. Every century, indeed every generation, triggered decisive turning points that forever altered the direction of Jewish life and faith.

The first and most notable such signpost is that, of all the religions in the world, only Judaism designed its calendar based not on any major event or personality in its own history but on a moment of universal application. That moment was the creation of the world according to Biblical calculation. Judaism does not measure time from the birth of Abraham, or the exodus from Egypt, or the revelation at Sinai, but from the theoretical beginning of the universe, which precedes any particular Jewish experience.

The history of Judaism itself may be easier to digest if it is framed in terms of antiquity, medieval times and the modern world. Antiquity ranges from earliest pre-historic beginnings in Biblical narrative to the close of the Talmudic period in the seventh century CE. That span of nearly 2,500 years starts with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and continues with the advent of Moses and the subsequent liberation from Egyptian bondage (probably in the 13th century BCE) and the eventual entry into Canaan under the rule of the Judges.

By the tenth century BCE, the people prevailed upon the priesthood to sanction the formation of a monarchy, first under Saul, then David and Solomon. Because of political intrigue and internal rebellion following the death of Solomon, the monarchy split into a northern kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah. The former fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE, while Judah survived until its conquest by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The restoration of sovereignty and a second commonwealth under the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE eventually ended in disaster as well in 70 AD, when the Roman Empire crushed every last vestige of independence for the Jewish people. A sovereign Jewish nation would not revive again for two thousand years, until the rebirth of Israel in 1948.

The distinctive character of the Jewish people, however, would blossom not in political or military power, but in spiritual and cultural greatness. In addition to the scriptural text called the Written Law, rabbinic teaching added its own interpretations called the Oral Law. The first codification of such commentaries following the canonization of the Bible in the third century BCE, for example, culminated in a voluminous work called the Mishnah, edited in the third century CE by the leading rabbinic sage of his time, Rabbi Judah the Prince.

Nearly three hundred years later, an additional extensive collection of commentaries (Gemara) was collected and together with the Mishnah was called the Talmud. In traditional Jewish circles, this encyclopedia of Jewish law and lore remains to the present day the definitive document for understanding Jewish belief and practice.

The medieval period witnessed two divergent paths in Jewish history. Jewish communities in northern Europe came to be known as Ashkenazim, because they originated in Germany, called Ashkenaz in Hebrew. Jews who lived around the Mediterranean basin from the Near East to North Africa and southern Europe called themselves Sephardim, a derivation of the Hebrew word for Spain, Sephard.

Throughout the Middle Ages the Talmud served as the primary source of authority for Jewish belief and practice for both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The only digression from that circumstance was the emergence of Karaism in the 8th century C.E., which lasted until well into the 15th century CE. This revolt against the authority of rabbinic law in the Talmud was so ominous that during the Reformation, Catholics often hurled the epithet “Karaites” at Protestants as a derogatory epithet. Karaism taught that the kingdom of God as revealed in the Torah was imminent and that the observance of the Oral Law (the Talmud) was no longer necessary. The difficulty, of course, was that rejection of rabbinic authority in the 8th century C.E. was a lot easier than living literally by the provisions of the Torah that originated in the 12th century BCE.

Like the earlier teachers of the Mishnah, the more enlightened and realistic Karaite scholars began to develop an “oral law” of their own, disguised as expansions of the biblical text. The movement eventually lapsed into anarchy and after surviving in isolated regions for a limited time eventually faltered and disappeared.

The Karaitic revolt, however, served a useful purpose. It prevented Talmudism from becoming static at this point of its history. It forced Jewish law to come to terms with the realities of its own time instead of remaining paralyzed in an ancient legal system. It taught Jews that creative survival lies neither in absolute freedom nor absolute conformity, but in a calculated blend of both.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


(Return to Top)


Send this article to a friend.

Home | Explore God's Love | Explore Your Faith | Explore the Church | Who We Are
Reflections | Stepping Stones | Oasis | Lifelines | Bulletin Board | Search |Contact Us |
Copyright ©1999-2007 explorefaith.org