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History of

Judaism The story of one of the world’s oldest religions

first edition

Digital Edition

Rare historical documents inside

Remarkable origins • Captivity & Exile • Cultural diversity • Judaism today

Contents Introduction


01. The origins of the Jewish people


02. egypt and the exodus


07. The period of josephus


08. diaspora and revolt

36 40

03. the promised land 14

09. rabbinic judaism and the islamic conquest

04. Captivity and the return from exile


10. judaism in islamic 44 and Christian spain

05. the hebrew bible 22

11. the ashkenazim in 48 medieval europe

06. The hellenistic era 32

12. the jews in poland 58




13. the sephardim in ottoman lands


14. the jews in early modern europe


15. crisis and renewal 68 in 18th-century poland 16. the jews and the enlightenment


17. revolution and the jews


80 1 8. the jews in post-napoleonic europe

19. the rise of anti-semitism 20. persecution and reaction in russia

86 120

21. affluence before 126 and after the first world war 22. the holocaust


23. zionism and the new state of israel




publishers’ credits


History of Judaism


The Hebrew Bible

Artaxerxes of Persia, Nehemiah and Ezra’s patron, died in 424 BCE. Ninety years later one of history’s most glamorous characters – Alexander the Great – crossed the Hellespont into the Persian empire, dealt crushing defeats on the Persian armies and conquered territories from Egypt to western India, establishing a huge Greek-ruled empire.


hat was happening in Judah during this time? We know little from independent sources, not even the names of the governors or High Priests. If we accept the chain of tradition later claimed by the Rabbis (hardly impartial as they saw themselves as the last, crucial links in that chain), then it was Ezra who convened the so-called “men of the Great Assembly”, thereby creating a new class of lay interpreters – Soferim (Scribes) – of the law. It was scribal interpretation and common acceptance of the Torah given by Yahweh to Moses and through him to Israel that now defined Jews, wherever they lived, as a religious peoplehood. More importantly, it was the Scribes who in all probability were responsible for establishing the canon of the Pentateuch around 400 BCE. Although the tripartite division of the Hebrew Bible into Torah, Prophets and Writings would not be fixed finally until the end of the first century CE, it is appropriate at this stage to say something about the enduring legacy of a unique book that, since the invention of printing, has been translated into almost every known language and still is far and away the world’s bestseller, comfortably outscoring Shakespeare, James Bond and Harry Potter. Almost all modern Bible scholars subscribe to the “Documentary hypothesis” theory of the origins of the Pentateuch, detecting four different sources or “documents” in its composition. Biblical literalists and religious fundamentalists, though, refuse to acknowledge any textual or form criticism of the Pentateuch, regarding it as divinely transmitted in its entirety to Moses. For those less adamant and more open-minded, the J or Yahwist source, so-called because of its preference for the divine name YHWH when recounting pre-Mosaic traditions, is thought to date from around the time of Solomon. The E or Elohist source (from the Hebrew word Elohim for God) avoids using the name YHWH before the advent of Moses, in line with the statement in Exodus 6:3 that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had not known God as YHWH. The E source is tentatively dated from the eighth century BCE. Together with J, it forms the backbone


of the Pentateuchal narrative, from the earliest stories of creation to the death of Moses and imminent conquest of the Promised Land. The third source, D (for Deuteronomist), is identified with the Temple discovery of the lost “Torah of Moses” around 622 BCE during the reign of King Josiah. And finally, the P or Priestly source, chiefly detectable in the sacrificial and ritual laws of Leviticus, as well as its emphasis on the role of the priestly caste, is assigned to some time during the Babylonian exile or after the return and restoration of the Temple. After Ezra’s reforms, for those Jews unable to read or understand it, the Pentateuch was publicly expounded on Mondays and Thursdays, and on the Sabbath. Since Aramaic was the lingua franca of the ordinary people, its square characters replaced the pre-exile Hebrew script.

The Hebrew Bible

After the Pentateuch, the Scribes worked on the prophetic canon, fixed some time before the second century BCE. The oracles of Joel, Zechariah and Malachi, the historical narratives of I and II Chronicles, the 150 religious lyrics of the Book of Psalms, the Wisdom literature of Proverbs, the faith-questioning Book of Job and the love poetry of the Song of Songs – were written or edited during the Persian period. So in the century between Ezra and Alexander the Great, this numerically insignificant, politically unimportant people was engaged in an astonishing explosion of religious renewal and literary creativity that would lay the foundations of Judaism, which has endured from then until now. The Bible, in particular its Five Books of Moses, became the constitution, legal code, moral guide and historical record of the Jewish people. It was the indispensable resource to which they turned for instruction, consolation, inspiration and justification of God’s ways to man. It was the permanent testament to His relationship with Israel and refusal to forsake them, no matter how grievously they sinned and failed to live up to His expectations of them. Quite simply, there is no other book like the Bible in the whole of world literature.

Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) By introducing Hellenistic culture to Syria and Egypt in the wake of his conquests, Alexander (seen above) had a greater indirect influence on the course of Judaism than any other nonJew. After besieging Tyre in 332 BCE, he marched through Palestine to Gaza, but there is no record of any dealings with Jews. He is mentioned by name only in the Apocryphal book of First Maccabees. Josephus claimed in his Antiquities that Alexander visited the High Priest in Jerusalem, but that is no more credible than the many legends in the Talmud and Midrash attesting to the charisma of his reputation. Opposite: The Samaritan Torah, or Samaritan Pentateuch, is a version of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, used by the Samaritans. Left: The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) is a book from the Old Testament taken to be a parable of the relationship between God and Israel. Below: A depiction of the prophet Joel from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Little is known about his life, but he was the second of the 12 minor prophets and the putative author of the Book of Joel.


History Story ofoftheJudaism Jews

Talmudists fleeing from violence elsewhere in Christian Europe found haven in Christian Spain. It was in Toledo that Jacob ben Asher (c. 1270–1340), whose father had escaped from Cologne in 1303, wrote his Arba’ah Turim (“Four Rows”, from Exodus 39:10), one of the most important compilations of Jewish law, codifying the decisions of both Talmuds, the geonim and previous codes, responsa and commentators. In 1369, Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile and Leon, was defeated and murdered by his half-brother Henry of Trastamara at the battle of Montiel. The Jews paid dearly for their support of Pedro, who had been dubbed “King of the Jews” by his enemies. Henry’s troops and his French mercenaries sacked several aljamas and the church authorities enforced the wearing of the Jewish badge. Ill-feeling against the Jews continued to rise, exacerbated by political and economic instability and the hostile sermons of preachers, culminating in 1391 in anti-Jewish riots that started in Seville and spread throughout Castile and Aragon. Many hundreds were killed by the mobs. Spanish Jewry was traumatized. Tens of thousands converted to Christianity in fear for their lives. In acknowledgement of popular


prejudice, Spanish rulers introduced legislation specifically designed to isolate Jews socially and economically. At a public disputation in Tortosa in 1413–14 that lasted for 21 months, Jewish leaders were forced to justify their doctrine of the Messiah – the prosecution case led by a converted Jew. At the conclusion of proceedings a papal Bull forbade the study of Talmud and ordered Jews to attend conversionist sermons at least three times a year. A fresh wave of apostasy followed, at the end of which “New Christians” – “conversos” as they were called, or, more derogatorily, “marranos” (etymology uncertain, probably meaning “swine”) – numbered almost as many as loyal Jews. The inter-relationship between these groups would seal the fate of Spanish Jewry. At first, the conversos were welcomed enthusiastically, as “proof” of Christianity’s triumph. They became bishops and church dignitaries, entered branches of the civil service previously denied to them, and were zealous in betraying erstwhile co-religionists; they married into the nobility and even the royal family of Aragon. But their popularity did not last. Priests accused them of being crypto-Jews, who practised their erstwhile religion in secret. An anti-

Judaism inXxx Islamic and Christian Feature title hereSpain xxx

converso riot broke out in Toledo in 1449, the first of several over the next 30 years. In 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, two inflexible Christians, united the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Eleven years later they established the Spanish Inquisition, to investigate heresy. An auto-da-fé (act of public penance) was held in early 1481, at which six men and women of Jewish descent were burned alive. The first and most fearsome Inquisitor-General, Fra Tomas de Torquemada, was himself of Jewish descent. The persecution of allegedly secret Jews soon spread to openly avowing ones, a fabricated blood-libel charge at Avila being the pretext. In 1492, after capturing Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, Ferdinand and Isabella issued a decree expelling all Jews – and Muslims – from their dominions. That summer, an estimated 100–150,000 Jews left the country that had been their home for over 1,000 years. The great majority went no further than Portugal. There, in 1497, King Manuel I, who hoped for a dynastic marriage with Ferdinand

and Isabella’s daughter, threatened them with expulsion. Almost the entire community despairingly submitted to conversion, its spirit broken. Other Spanish refugees tried North Africa, Sicily, the independent kingdom of Naples and Papal Avignon, while Ottoman Turkey was a haven for thousands of victims of the expulsion. But viewed from whichever perspective, the greatest medieval centre of Diaspora Jewry had succumbed to a disaster on a par with the destruction of the first and second Temples. We have to look elsewhere, to the eastern Mediterranean and northern and central Europe, to follow the Jewish story. Opposite left: The statue of Moses Maimonides, which stands in Cordova, Spain. Opposite right: Jewish citizens of Barcelona were depicted in the Altarpiece of the Virgin and Saint George by Lluis Borrassa in Villafranca Penedes, Spain (c. 1390–1400). Above: The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain from Hutchinson’s History of the Nations, shows petitions taking place before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.


History of Judaism

won a following as a kabbalist and wonder-worker. His admirers came mainly from the Jewish proletariat – farm labourers, petty craftsmen, ritual slaughterers and the like. He taught them that the way to God was not only through talmudic scholarship and rejection of earthly pleasure, but in affirming life in all its infinite variety and being able to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower. The Besht’s message was a tremendous boost for the unlettered and disregarded


of Polish Jewry. Their numbers swelled and they became known as chasidim (“pious ones”) for the revivalist fervour of their worship, with its singing and dancing, and the devout intensity with which they sought God in even the most mundane of activities. The Baal Shem Tov died in 1760, leaving behind only a few letters as his legacy. About 20 years after his death his oral teachings began to appear in print, then tales and legends circulated, adding

Crisis and renewal in 18th-century Poland

to his popularity. Leadership of the Chasidim, now numbering several thousand, passed to Dov Baer of Mezeritch (1710–72), who faithfully promulgated the cult of the Master, to the alarm of the rabbinic authorities. They accused the Chasidim of denigrating Torah study, failing to observe the commandments, behaving indecorously in their rituals and praying from the kabbalistic liturgy of Isaac Luria (see Chapter 13), rather than the prevalent Ashkenazi rite. Opposition was particularly intense in the community of Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”. There, Elijah ben Solomon, known as the Vilna Gaon in admiration of his rabbinic eminence, led the fight against Chasidism. He wrote extensively on Bible, Talmud, Midrash, codes and kabbalah, and his omnivorous intellectual curiosity led him to study secular disciplines such as mathematics, geography and astronomy. Pared logic, commonsense reading of the text and deductive analysis were the cornerstones of his talmudic exegesis, so that Chasidism’s pietist excesses and mystical elevation of daily tasks above study were anathema to him. Two antithetical interpretations of Judaism were in conflict. The intuition of the Baal Shem Tov was to bring the divine presence down to earth; the theology of the Vilna Gaon was to raise man to heaven through study. Adversaries of Chasidism – known as mitnaggedim (“opponents”) – gathered behind the Vilna Gaon as their spokesman, and hostility

between the two camps escalated, with bans of excommunication issued against chasidim and their books burnt. By now, Poland had effectively ceased to exist, after successive partitionsofthecountryin1772,1793and1795betweenRussia,Austriaand Prussia. In a rare example of a diaspora community washing its dirty linen before non-Jews rather than settling matters internally, chasidic leaders were denounced to the Russian authorities and imprisoned for a while. After its initial surge, Chasidism did not spread beyond its base in central and southern Poland, the Ukraine and parts of Lithuania. Within 50 years of the Besht’s death, the movement had rigidified into a patchwork of competing dynastic courts, each ruled by a venerated tzaddik (“completely righteous man”), whose authority passed down from father to son; cronyism and corruption were endemic in such a system. As the eighteenth century merged into the nineteenth, mysticism for the masses or rabbinic study for the elect was not the preoccupying issue for European Jewry. It was, rather, the idea of equality for all that began to take hold.

Opposite: This 1662 map shows Podolia, an historic region of Eastern Europe that included modern-day Ukraine and Moldova.

Below: A Chasidic rabbi from eastern Europe (far right), a Sephardic rabbi (far left) and two more Chasidic Jews celebrate Purim.


History of Judaism

ZIONISM There are several varieties of Zionist ideology, but broadly defined it is the Jewish national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland as an independent, sovereign nation. The term was first used by Nathan Birnbaum (1864–1937) and appropriated by Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) and the World Zionist Congress to describe their political efforts to establish Jewish autonomy in Palestine under international charter. Achad Ha-Am (1856–1927) was a champion of “cultural” Zionism and the disagreements between his and Herzl’s Zionist vision have not been fully resolved to this day.

Line borders a robust, vigorously outspoken democracy based on the rule of law, equality of all citizens and parliamentary government. Against these considerable successes, of which all Jews are proud, it has to be said that Israel is still not fully accepted as a part of the Middle East. Only Egypt and Jordan have signed “cold” peace treaties. Since the 1948 War of Independence, Israel has fought four further costly wars (the Six Dar War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1972, Lebanon, 1982 and Lebanon, 2006) and starting with Sinai in 1956, several campaigns or large-scale incursions into Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon – with limited benefits either geopolitically or in terms of enhanced security; indeed the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was disastrously counterproductive strategically, as well as doing lasting damage to Israel’s international reputation. Even more corrosively, the continuing occupation of the West Bank has bitterly divided Israeli society; alienated many Diaspora Jews and erstwhile non-Jewish supporters of Israel; encouraged fundamentalist zealots and ultra-nationalists to lay claim to every place name mentioned in the Bible; induced 200,0000 secular Israelis to settle there, encroach on Palestinian land, and by their numerical presence effectively cancel out any wan prospect of a Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict; and poisoned – perhaps beyond retrieval – the possibility of trust between two generations of nervous Israeli conscripts and reservists sent to do their service as policemen on the West Bank, and the sullen, cowed Palestinian population under military control. At the beginning of 1948 there were 630,000 Jews in the yishuv; today there are five-and-a-half million Jewish citizens of the State of Israel. Now as then, their individual survival, and the collective survival of Israel as the Jewish state, will depend on whether or not they can reach a peaceful accommodation with their Palestinian neighbours and the more than 150 million Arabs of the Middle East.


Above: Young Palestinian children wait for a UN decision on the future of the State of Israel. Opposite: The Israeli flag is lifted above the UN headquarters in New York after Israel’s admission to the UN.

Zionism and the new state of Israel



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About History Bookazine 2004 (Sampler)  

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About History Bookazine 2004 (Sampler)  

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