Who have been the key people in the development of the religion?
by Howard Greenstein
of the key people in Jewish biblical narrative are familiar to Christians
and Muslims as well as Jews. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their
families founded and followed a faith rooted in covenant with an
invisible God they believed to be more powerful than any other.
The greatest of all prophets, Moses, supposedly elevated this belief
into the concept of ethical monotheism, but more likely that ideal
did not fully emerge until the period of the later prophets.
is distinguished as the first king of Israel who achieved Jewish
sovereignty over the land stipulated in Israel’s sacred covenant.
King David established Jerusalem as the capital of the country,
and Solomon, of course, built the Temple in Jerusalem as the central
shrine for the entire nation.
the Talmudic period, any number of heroes and sages could be cited
for their lasting contribution to Jewish learning and history. The
most notable were probably Judah the Prince, who in the third century
CE edited the Mishnah, and later Rav Ashi and Ravina, who completed
the Talmud about two hundred years later. Certainly the story of
Chanukah, the first struggle for religious freedom against the Greek-Syrian
Empire in 168 BCE could not be told without the legendary leadership
of Mattathias the Maccabee and later his son Judah and his supporters.
medieval Jewry requires an awareness of the two major communities
in the Jewish world at that time that were mentioned earlier Although
Ashkenazim and Sephardim adhered to similar precepts of faith, they
often differed sharply in their ritual and ceremonial observance
and even in their particular priorities for study and learning.
Ashkenazi Jews concentrated mostly on Talmudic discourse and its
continuing application to Jewish life. Their scholars who were the
major exponents of this discipline included the great commentator
Rashi in the 11th century in France and Joseph Karo in the 16th
century who was the author of the Shulchan Aruk, the most authoritative
code of Jewish observance. Karo incidentally was actually by birth
a Sephardic Jew, which originally evoked enormous opposition to
his pronouncements among Ashkenazim until a Polish scholar named
Moses Isserles later added footnotes reflecting the Ashkenazi interpretation
of his work.
among medieval Sephardic Jewry, learning was not limited to Jewish
texts but extended into the larger world of Islamic culture. The
Jews of Spain enjoyed much greater freedom and latitude than did
their peers in Europe, who were confined to ghettos, deprived of
dignity and subject to the whims of Christian rulers and clergy.
learning in Sephardic lands emphasized studies in philosophy, poetry,
mathematics and astronomy. Its leading luminaries included Saadia
Gaon in the 10th century, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi in
the 11th, and perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of any generation,
Moses Maimonides in the 12th century, whose major work, The
Guide for the Perplexed, remains the crowning achievement of
Jewish belief and thought. Jews under Islamic rule, in spite of
certain forms of discrimination as a religious minority, clearly
enjoyed much greater political, economic and social status than
in Christian Europe.
life in the Ashkenazi world began its decline with the inception
of the Crusades in 1096 CE. The status of Jews in Christian Europe,
despite occasional brief periods of recovery, deteriorated steadily
after that time with increasingly dire consequences. Among Sephardic
Jews the “Golden Age” ended essentially in the 13th
century and culminated in 1492 with their expulsion from Spain and
later from Portugal in 1496. Most Sephardic Jews later migrated
to Turkey, Holland, the New World and other non-Catholic countries.
the late 18th century a movement of Jewish spiritual revival emerged
in Eastern Europe founded by Israel of Moldavia, better known as
the Baal Shem Tov. He was in the truest sense a religious revivalist,
and the sect he founded, known as Hasidism (“the pious ones)
depended as much upon his own radiant personality as upon his teachings.
Hasidism substituted a warm mysticism
for the arid scholasticism, which it attacked. It
emphasized service to God through joy and celebration even more
than learning and scholarship. Its basic concept was the omnipresence
of God in all the universe, in mind and in matter, in every relationship,
in evil as in good.
modern world in Jewish terms opens most visibly with the period
of Enlightenment in the 18th century and more specifically with
the emancipation of European Jewry under Napoleon in the early 19th
century. Jewish communities in Western Europe enjoyed, at least
for a brief period, new-found political, economic and social equality
under the banner of Napoleonic reform. Eventually, with the restoration
of the former monarchies, those benefits gradually dissipated and
in Eastern Europe fared even worse until brutal Czarist pogroms
sparked massive waves of emigration to America in the late 19th
In 1897 Dr. Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist and social critic,
convened a gathering in Basle, Switzerland, called the Basle Conference
that signaled the birth of modern Zionism, a movement of Jewish
nationalism that would eventually culminate in the creation of Israel
two monumental events of the 20th century in Jewish life were not
only the re-emergence of a Jewish state but the horrifying tragedy
and agony of the Holocaust, the systematic attempt
by Nazi Germany through genocide to annihilate the Jews of Europe
from 1933-1945. Here in America, perhaps no one more than Rabbi
Stephen Wise demanded a decisive response from Washington to this
terrifying calamity. Others, to be sure, joined him in his protests,
but to little avail.
than six million Jews and an additional five million non-Jews perished
in the death camps and crematoria. One out of every three Jews in
the world was lost in this inferno, but those who survived have
prospered and flourished mostly in America and Israel. They, their
children and grandchildren all attest to a very promising new chapter
in Jewish history. The past continues to inspire the future.
©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.