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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
When, where and how did the religion begin?
by Howard Greenstein

The 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 Egypt.

Traditionalists 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.

The 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.

After 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.

In 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 Judean.

Contrary 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.

For 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.

Ironically, 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.

In 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 of Chanukah.

The 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 Spain.

Although 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.

Jews 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 history.

A major 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.


Copyright ©2007 Howard Greenstein

The 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).

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
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 users.



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