When, where and how did the religion begin?
by Howard Greenstein
story of Judaism, as does all history, begins with a dim and misty
past. Little agreement exists among most historians about the actual
beginning of Jewish civilization, including the period of the founding
patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, or even the life of
Moses, including the enslavement and liberation from bondage in
subscribe to every detail of the Biblical narrative as historical
fact. Others accept only the broadest contours of those events described
in this earliest period of Israelite folklore, without ascribing
to them any factual foundation.
most reliable conjecture is that the gradual settlement of the Hebrews
in Canaan (later called Palestine by the Romans, on behalf of the
native Philistines) began sometime between 1300 and 1200 BCE.
After a tenuous and contentious truce under the rule of the Judges
for about two hundred years, the twelve separate tribes finally
united and formed the first commonwealth, established first under
Saul and then under David and Solomon about ten centuries before
the Christian era.
Solomon’s death, as a result of internal conflict and division,
Palestine was divided into two separate kingdoms. The larger was
Israel, which included ten of the original twelve tribes, and the
smaller was Judah, which consisted of the remaining two.
722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire attacked and destroyed the northern
kingdom of Israel, which marked the close of a pivotal era. Inasmuch
as only Judah retained its independence, the defeat marked the end
of Hebrew history and the beginning of Jewish
history. The word Jew is simply a contraction of the word
to popular belief, the ten tribes of Israel were not “lost.”
They were obliterated as a nation. A number of well-meaning
people remain convinced that somewhere a sizeable remnant continue
to exist undetected. A few even speculate that they may be linked
to the Native Americans of North America. Such connections, however,
have never been documented. The same applies to claims of their
existence in Africa, South America or the British Isles.
nearly another 150 years, Judah continued to survive as a small
nation leading a very precarious existence at the crossroads of
powerful empires. Finally, in 586 BCE it too was laid waste by the
overwhelming might of the Babylonian Empire. The capital, Jerusalem,
was destroyed along with the Temple of Solomon, and most of its
leadership sent into exile to Babylonia.
these decisive centuries, though racked with bloodshed and chaos,
produced the greatest visionaries of ancient Israel, the literary
prophets. Such spiritual giants as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah
and Hosea not only gave Judaism its distinctive religious character,
but shaped the moral legacy of all Western civilization as well.
516 BCE when numbers of exiles began returning from Babylon, the
community established a Second Jewish Commonwealth and rebuilt Jerusalem,
which continued for another 600 tumultuous years. It struggled first
under Persian rule, then under the Greeks and Syrians and finally
under Roman domination. It
thrived briefly for nearly a century of independence under its own
Hasmonean dynasty after the successful revolt of the Maccabees against
the Greek-Syrian Empire in 168 BCE, which inspired the festival
revolt against the Roman Empire in 70 CE, however, ended in catastrophe.
The Romans razed the Temple and demolished the city of Jerusalem.
The Jews who were not slaughtered were expelled and dispersed throughout
the known world. A few settled as far east as Central Asia, others
settled in the hills of Ethiopia, and still others in Italy and
Egypt became for a time an important center of Jewish life, it was
in Babylonia, that part of the world in which Abraham the first
Hebrew patriarch was born, that a stable and thriving community
grew and lasted for well over a thousand years. It was during that
period and in that place that the Jewish people created and developed
its major historic institutions, including the synagogue, the academies
of higher learning, the Talmud and the foundations of Jewish law.
arrived in Europe as early as the time of Julius Caesar, although
the community consisted of only scattered settlements until the
11th century. The principal center of Jewish life
at this juncture, however, was Islamic Spain. Under the benign rule
of Muslims, Jewish scholars, writers and scientists produced more
philosophy, poetry, science and religious literature during this
era called the Golden Age than in any other period or place of its
turning point was 1492 with the expulsion of Jews from Christian
Spain after a century of relentless and devastating persecution
by the combined tyranny of both church and kingdom. They fled primarily
to non-Catholic countries, including Holland and Turkey, but eventually
the largest number settled in Eastern Europe where a flourishing
community emerged in spite of Czarist oppression. Jews there were
essentially autonomous and self-contained, which permitted them
to create incomparable institutions of learning, a stable family
life and at least a fair measure of economic security.
©2007 Howard Greenstein
late Howard R. Greenstein served as Rabbi of the
Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He had previously
served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein
was 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).
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions
and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein,
Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster
John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. To
purchase a copy of WHAT
DO OUR NEIGHBORS BELIEVE? visit amazon.com. This link is provided
as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered