What were the most significant events in the history of the
by Howard Greenstein
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
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).
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.