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Welcome to Theosopedia
The religion of the Jewish people. The word Judaism does not appear in either the Bible or that massive collection of Jewish laws and lore, the Talmud. It was invented, in Greek form, sometime during the Second Temple period (520 BCE-70 CE) to refer to the faith, practices, and ethnicity of those descendants of ancient Israel who survived the Babylonian conquest and exile in 587 BCE and reestablished the community on a new basis in the holy land. The words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive from Judah, that part of the ancient land resettled after 539 BCE by returning exiles from Babylonia.
In part because of its geographical and tribal reference many have questioned whether the word Judaism should be used at all. Should the Israelites who never returned to Judah but remained in Babylonia be called Jews? Should the descendants of other tribes be referred to as though they were all from the tribe of Judah? And most important, is the tradition of such a sort that it can be called an “ism” at all?
Perhaps all that can be said is that the term “Judaism,” despite all of its problems, has entered common usage to refer to a diverse and many-sided tradition that has visibility in the world. It should not, however, lead us to think that all people subsumed under this name agree about anything. Some Jews emphasize religious faith as the core of the tradition. Other, secular Jews claim the name but have scant interest in the laws of the Torah or in traditional theological assertions. Their emphasis is upon the ethnic traditions and genealogical inheritance.
The roots of Judaism extend deeply into the past and are recorded in a collection of works known to Jews by the acronym “Tanak,” sometimes spelled “Tanakh.” This stands for: the Torah (the five books of Moses), the Nevi’im (the prophets), and Kethuvim (the writings). For the most part, these works record the history and beliefs of the national tradition of ancient Israel and serve as the essential canon of Judaism. Christians also acknowledge their authority as the Old Testament.
The conquest of Judah (the last part of ancient Israel to remain independent) by the Babylonians in 587 BCE put an end to Israel as a nation and transformed the traditions of the people of Israel decisively. From that point onward many inheritors of the tradition lived in foreign lands without a king and far from Jerusalem. In 539 BCE some of the exiles returned home and the process of rebuilding was begun, but many more remained where they were in other parts of the Middle East. Eventually the temple (now referred to as the Second Temple), the central shrine of the people, was rebuilt in modest form, but there was no “nation,” for the area remained part of the Persian Empire. Except for a brief period in the second century BCE when the Maccabees led a revolt and broke free from the Seleucid Empire to form a separate nation, Jews were, until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, an ethnic group within a world of gentiles and not an independent nation.
The period from the return from exile in 539 until the Maccabean revolt in the second century was a crucial but largely undocumented period for Judaism. Aside from a few prophets like Haggai and Zechariah and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, there is little in the Bible which tells us about the Persian and early Hellenistic periods. Nevertheless, it was a very formative time, for it was the era when the canon of the Law and Prophets became fixed, when the rabbinate was organized, and when the oral law was developed. Several books of the Kethuvim were composed during this period. It is also the time when the temple was rebuilt and temple worship reorganized. Jerusalem, the old capital of Judah, became ritually central for both Palestinian and Diaspora Jews. It was also during the Maccabean period, according to both theosophical and some scholarly sources, that Jesus was born, probably about 105 BCE.
Along with these developments came “parties” within Judaism that we know about primarily through the writings of Flavius JOSEPHUS and the New Testament. There were the Sadducees, a rather conservative group that supported the high priest and cultus in Jerusalem but refused to accept innovations, like a belief in the resurrection of the body, that were not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. There were the Pharisees who apparently were proponents of the oral law (which they traced back to Moses himself) that provided a reinterpretation of the 613 laws of the Torah. Despite their bad image among Christians, the Pharisees seem to have been the liberals of the day, attempting to ameliorate the harsher features of the old law, particularly about the status of women.
There was also a group called the ESSENES who took issue with the ruling priestly party about many issues including the calendar. Many believe that they were directly related to the monastic movement located at Qumran near the Dead Sea. This group, which attempted to “prepare the way of the Lord in the desert” engaged in rites of baptism and was probably responsible for the many scrolls that have been found in caves near the Dead Sea. Both the dating of the scrolls and the relation of the community to Judaism and to incipient Christianity are topics still hotly debated by scholars.
Indeed, although the writings of the Jewish general Flavius Josephus, the Egyptian Jewish leader and scholar, Philo Judaeus, and the New Testament authors give much information about Palestine in the period from 100 BCE to 100 CE, there is still a great deal which is not known. Each of the sources of information is in some ways quite biased. Therefore, few so-called facts remain unchallenged.
What we do know is that the first century of our era was one of great conflict and upheaval. Jews who had tasted freedom under the Hasmonean government founded in the wake of the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE were radically unhappy with the heavy hand of Rome which had conquered Palestine in 63 BCE. Would-be Messiahs emerged repeatedly only to be suppressed by Rome. Finally, things came to a head in 66 CE as tempers again flared and the Zealots, a group (or rather groups) of revolutionaries, were able, for a period to drive out the Romans and establish the space for a Jewish State. It was not long, however, before the Roman armies returned to recapture the outlying districts and then besieged Jerusalem. The result was catastrophic. The city was burned and largely leveled. The Temple was destroyed and eventually, after even more revolutionary activity led by Bar Kochba, Jews were forbidden all access to Jerusalem and Judah. The real Diaspora, which existed until the 20th century, had begun.
Judaism, bereft of its Temple and its land, did not die. Even as the Romans were wreaking their havoc upon Jerusalem, Rabbi Johannan ben Zakkai escaped from the city and founded, in the coastal town of Jabneh, a rabbinical organization (Beth Din Ha-Gadol) which was to reshape the tradition. Under his successor Gamaliel II, the rabbis considered the various books that had attached themselves to the Law and the Prophets and chose those books that would serve as the Kethuvim, the third part of the canon. They also standardized the calendar and a prayer service, including the Amida or Eighteen Benedictions, for use in the synagogues. Perhaps most important, they began the lengthy process of collating and editing the teachings of the oral law which were to serve as a basis for the interpretation of the Torah. This process only came to an end with Judah Ha-Nasi (170-217 CE) who presided over the codification of the oral law in the form of the Mishnah. This collection of legal judgments has served Judaism ever after as a standard for legal judgments and religious life. Interestingly, it is frequently not final in its judgments but provides a variety of opinions from leading Rabbis.
To this collection, worked out painstakingly by the Tannaim, was then eventually appended the Gemara, a collection of halakhoth (legal opinion and discussion) and haggadah (tales, anecdotes, and myths) amassed by the Amoraim. Together the Mishnah and the Gemara form the Talmud, that vast compendium of legal judgment and lore which has served as the basis of Jewish life ever since.
Actually, however, there were two Talmuds. The first was produced in Palestine about 400 CE. The second, a far more authoritative version, was compiled in Babylonia in about 500 CE by the great Rabbis of that Jewish community. In truth, by 400 CE the Palestinian community, centered around Tiberias, was but a shadow of its former self. The Christianization of the Roman Empire had produced ever more bitter persecution of the Jews and this led to a considerable migration into the Persian Empire. There, at this time, Jews were allowed much more freedom; many even rose to positions of authority. As a consequence, Babylonian Judaism was far more important than European Judaism during much of what we would call the Middle Ages. Nor was the Muslim conquest to change this, for Islam during most of its history was far more hospitable to Judaism than was Christianity.
While the Rabbis labored to determine exactly what the law requires of every Jew, there were other movements within Judaism of a more esoteric nature. Although Judaism, as a monotheistic faith, rejected the usual Hellenistic notion that the planets are gods, it did teach that God’s throne is in heaven. The Merkabah mystics not only taught that God is above us in the heavens but explored ways to travel, at least spiritually, up through the heavenly realms to view ecstatically the throne of God itself. Writings provide the reader with meditational techniques to achieve such flight and incantations to protect one from the various dangers of such space travel. One work, Shiur Koma, even provides us with a vision of God sitting upon his throne.
Another work of considerable interest is the Sephir Yetzirah, which offers an occult vision of creation, exploring in very cryptic form the secret meaning of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sephiroth. The latter are attributes of God that are also divine emanations through which one can ascend to the Creator. In certain respects they are comparable to the planetary spheres of Hellenistic astrology. This idea of the sephiroth will be greatly developed in the Jewish kabbalistic writings of the Middle Ages. Although works like Sefer Ha-Zohar or Book of Splendor are certainly not from this early period many of its ideas find their roots here. (See KABBALAH.)
Another development which took place during the later Roman Empire period was the development of vowel pointing for Biblical texts. Up until this time Hebrew was written using only consonants. The vowels were simply implied, a situation which was not as complicated as it would be in English, for anyone familiar with Hebrew can generally surmise what the vowel should be. Nevertheless, some words could be read in more than one way and that sometimes led to disputes over meaning. Therefore a group of scholars called the Massoretes, using a system devised in Palestine, supplied for the Hebrew text of Scripture the missing vowels. Once that was done, the unpointed texts, sometimes with variant readings, were destroyed. Since that time both Jews and Christians have taken as authoritative the work of the Massoretes. Not until the Dead Sea scrolls were uncovered were any ancient unpointed texts available for study.
By the beginning of the 7th century, then, the essentials of Judaism were in place. The canon and text of the Tanak had been fixed, the essential legal apparatus for life without homeland or temple in place, even a technique for esoteric and mystical interpretation developed. Wherever Judaism went it took on the coloration of the society in which it lived. Obviously Jews in Spain lived differently than Jews in Baghdad or Warsaw. Still, there was a continuity of ethnicity that was impressive. Judaism had, in the 9th century, the famous Geonim, Babylonian experts in the law, who answered requests from all over the world for legal interpretation, but Judaism never developed any position comparable to the Papacy. In fact, Judaism never even developed a creedal statement beyond the simple Shema repeated so often: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” Throughout Judaism’s long history it was neither bureaucracy nor doctrinal uniformity nor political power which held it together; the glue was simply the tradition of the people.
One can, however, distinguish at least three different types of tradition: the Babylonian, the Sephardic, and the Askenazic. While the Babylonian tradition was found in Islamic countries such as Iraq and Iran, the Sephardic centered in Spain and Mediterranean area. Ashkenazic Jews were found in Northern and Eastern Europe. These, however, cannot be considered sects but rather are ethnic groups. Although they vary in custom, the essentials of orthodoxy were similar everywhere.
The one major sectarian movement was begun by Anan ben David in the 8th century. Anan claimed to be the true leader of the Babylonian Jews and when he was passed over for that position began a revolt which called into question not only the leadership of Babylonian Judaism but the whole oral law. His followers, the Karaites, argued that only the Biblical law itself was binding and that the whole Talmudic tradition should be abandoned. For many centuries this movement prospered in such countries as Egypt and only slowly declined in popularity.
During the long period often referred to as the Middle Ages, the “glue” of tradition was to be tested severely many times. There were good and peaceful times, in Babylonia, in Spain, in Poland, but there were also, particularly in Western Europe, long periods of persecution and woe. Somehow Christianity could never accept the fact that some people find Christianity unbelievable, indeed, that the very people who gave birth to Jesus and the faith disagreed about the Christian interpretation of the Law and the Prophets and could not bring themselves to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Jews were a nagging question mark hanging over the faith and therefore were equated with sin and Satan. So there were vicious pogroms and mob violence and ejections from one country after another. The wandering Jew who migrated wherever politics would allow was a reality in most parts of Europe.
Sometimes local rulers found it useful to establish a Jewry, a walled-in ghetto near the palace with its own laws and customs, set quite apart from the rest of the community. The Jews were bright and hard-working and many rulers made good use of them, but when their usefulness ended they were driven out. So it was, for instance, that Edward I drove the Jews out of England in 1290. They did not return until the 17th Century.
Whenever there was a problem — the closing of the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem by the Muslims, the Black Death, economic problems, poverty — the Jews, long berated by the church as the killers of Jesus became the scapegoats. For a time, Poland became a safe haven and Jewish life blossomed there, but eventually the Cossacks came and the old story of persecution and bloodshed was rehearsed again.
In the midst of Christian and also some Islamic persecution there were moments of peace and when that happened Judaism was able to produce intellectual greatness. One thinks of Saadya Gaon (882-942 CE) who not only translated the scriptures into Arabic and, in so doing, greatly developed the knowledge of Hebrew grammar and lexicography. He also, through his utilization of Greek philosophy, offered a philosophical defense of the faith and thus set the stage for both Jewish and Christian medieval theology.
One also thinks of that golden age of Judaism in Spain. There, under the Umayyad dynasty, Judaism found a few years of peace and during that time developed enormously intellectually. There was Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the neo-Platonic, whose work, The Fountain of Life, was to profoundly affect Christian thinkers. There was Bahya Ibn Pakuda (11th C.) whose Duties of the Heart was one of the greatest and most popular ethical treatises ever written. There were the poet-philosophers, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) and Judah Halevi (1085-1140) and, of course, the greatest Talmudist and philosopher of them all, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).
For Jews of every age Maimonides has been most significant as a student and commentator on the Mishnah in particular and the Talmud in general. His Mishneh Torah is one of the best sellers of all time among the faithful and has been the source of wisdom and inspiration for generations of Jews who meet to study Torah-Talmud. For Gentiles, on the other hand, it has been his Guide for the Perplexed that has assured his preeminence. In this work Maimonides engages in the monumental task of reconciling the wisdom of Scripture and the philosophy of Aristotle. It is a profound and subtle work which, in many ways, set the stage for the work of Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics. It is ironic that the so-called normative theologian of the Roman Catholic Church gained much of his inspiration from a member of that much derided and reviled community of Jews which the church took to be Satanic.
Finally there is the work of Moses de Leon whose Sefer Ha-Zohar appeared in 1275. Although attributed to a Rabbi from the 2nd century and written in a peculiar form of Aramaic, it was clearly composed, at least for the most part, by Moses de Leon. Its form is that of a commentary on the Torah, but within that commentary is contained a very complex and esoteric approach to life. Drawing from the ancient esoteric texts already mentioned, particularly the Sefer Yetzirah, it sets forth the rudiments of what is called the KABBALAH, a rich and subtle mystical system. The ultimate, En Sof (see AIN SOPH), is incomprehensible and beyond description, but through the contemplation of the sephiroth and through mystical prayer one can spiritually ascend to a higher form of knowledge.
This system was eventually discovered by non-Jews and highly touted by Pico della Mirandolla and other Renaissance thinkers. Along with alchemy and hermetic philosophy it became a major stimulus for thought in 16th and 17th century Europe. Because eventually it became entangled with some abortive Messianic movements, particularly that of Sabbatai Zevi, Jews generally abandoned the Kabbalah as dangerous and wrong-headed. Today, however, it has been studied particularly by Gershom Scholem and revived by some Jews with a mystical bent.
Although many Renaissance thinkers were intrigued by the Kabbalah and began the serious study of Hebrew, the modern age did not start promisingly for Judaism. In 1492, while Columbus (who may have been Jewish) was on his way to discover the new world, the once vibrant Jewish community of Spain was expelled from that country. In the 16th century the Cossacks attacked Poland and killed thousands of Jews. In many respects, in fact, modernity with its emphasis upon the nation brought even more intense anti-Semitic feelings. As a consequence, many Jews migrated again to an area where they found acceptance, this time within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Soon Constantinople contained one of the largest communities of Jews in the world.
Jews also began to settle in another area controlled by the Sultan, Palestine. Particularly in Safed in the hills of the upper Galilee a community of Jews gathered, building synagogues and engaging in new, esoteric speculations. Among the most important were Moses ben Jacob Cordovero and Isaac Luria. Cordovero was the more systematic thinker, developing the idea of the Sephiroth as the “organism” of En-Sof and, in so doing, fostering new developments in kabbalistic meditation techniques. Luria, much more the zaddik or holy man, developed a philosophy which drew upon ancient gnostic speculation. God, he said, to create the world first exiled himself and withdrew to provide room for emanation. He introduced the primordial figure of Adam Kadmon who radiated divine light. That light, because of “Adam’s” fall, was plunged into darkness, but can be reunified through mystical prayer. Interestingly, he also taught the doctrine of metempsychosis.
Quickly, it would appear his message spread throughout the Jewish world and became quite popular. It was also the stimulus for one of the strangest developments in the history of Judaism: Sabbateanism. Nathan of Gaza (1644-1680), one of the followers of Isaac Luria, met a rather strange and often unpredictable man, Sabbatai Zevi and, for reasons not wholly explainable, saw in him the Messiah. Sabbatai Zevi was hardly the usual sort of candidate for that high honor. He said little but often acted in ways that overtly broke the Jewish law. Nevertheless, many Jews joined his cause and followed him even after, under threat from the Sultan, he converted to Islam.
There is great debate about how widespread the movement really was, but some would argue that it was much more popular than many today would like to admit. Its excesses, which often led to greater suffering on the part of the community, finally convinced many Rabbis that both Messianism and the Kabbalah are dangerous and ought to be avoided. It is partly for that reason that since that time, Kabbalistic study and belief have been discouraged among Jews.
The other great development to occur in the Ottoman Empire was fostered by a great Talmudist, Joseph Karo. Born in Spain and then exiled, he moved to the Ottoman Empire and eventually to Safed in northern Palestine. Although also interested in Kabbalah and the mystical tradition, Karo wrote extensively about Jewish Law. His most influential work was Shulcan Aruch (Prepared Table), a compendium of Jewish law that was understandable by the Jewish layman. It became an instant success and, with some emendations to accommodate Ashkenazic practice, spread throughout the Jewish world. To this day, it is considered by the orthodox an authoritative interpretation of what the Law demands of Jews. Its strength, however, is also its weakness. In its brevity and simplicity it discards the subtlety of Talmudic debate and turns the law into a set of do’s and don’ts.
While Jews in the Ottoman Empire were developing both Kabbalistic and Talmudic thought, new developments were taking place in Western Europe. The Protestant Reformation had led to bloody wars between the Catholics and Protestants of Europe and this had, in turn, led many to turn from such strife to a new need for religious toleration. Although great anti-Semitism remained, Jews were to benefit from new laws of toleration which were enacted. Gradually ghettos were opened and Jews began to become a part of that larger Gentile world which surrounded them.
Such freedom came, however, as a mixed blessing. Now those traditions which had served so well within the ghetto seemed anachronistic. In the ghetto, Jews had largely governed themselves according to their own laws. Now they were thrust into a world which had its own laws. It was also a world that was not at all eager to accept “those dirty, uneducated Jews” from the ghetto. Most Christians never bothered to realize that the ghetto was their creation in the first place.
One of the bright spots in this new age was the Netherlands in which Jews were allowed to settle. And it was here that a Jewish mind of extraordinary capacity set forth his ideas. Baruch de Spinoza, one of the greatest of the 17th century philosophers, was nominally a lens grinder by trade but, in fact, was supported financially in his work by backers who recognized his genius. Unfortunately, that same genius was not recognized by the Jewish synagogue which excommunicated him at a fairly early age.
Perhaps there was some reason for this action for Spinoza developed a very naturalistic view of God whose two chief attributes for him are time and space. For him God and Nature are one. He also was one of the first to develop what has come to be called “the Higher Criticism” of the Bible. That is, he argued that the Bible should be studied with the techniques of regular literary criticism. Among the ideas which resulted from his study was the conclusion that Moses did not write the whole Torah. Although Jews at the time found this idea difficult to accept, he began a process which was to lead to earth-shaking results for all Western religions. Biblical study has never been the same since.
Another Jew to make his mark in the age of reason was a German from Dressau, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Although he initially made his reputation as a literary critic and philosopher, he became the spokesman for a liberated and now liberal Judaism. As a philosopher, he adopted the popular Deist position that God is knowable through reason and, in fact, that all religions boil down to the same thing. He expresses great belief in freedom of thought and toleration of all opinions. Unlike Spinoza, however, he remained within the Jewish fold and never gave up the law and traditions of his people. He believed that one could live in the modern world and be Jewish too.
This was also the opinion of Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) who founded a new movement within Judaism. Reform Judaism was and is an attempt to sift out the unessential from the essential in Judaism and so bring the tradition into the modern world. Many of the old customs were discarded. Synagogues were built with organs and appeared as very similar to Protestant churches. There were sermons and mixed choirs, etc. The essence of Judaism looked more and more like ethical monotheism. It was this Judaism that German immigrants brought to America in the 19th century. Sephardic Jews had immigrated in small numbers earlier but by 1870 Judaism in America was Reform Judaism and as such was radically different from the Judaism of most of the rest of the world.
Then, in the late 19th century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in America to escape the anti-Semitism of the Russian Empire. Virtually all of them were orthodox or radically secular, but some of the more religious of them brought with them a different form of orthodoxy developed in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Israel of Moldavia (1700-1760) who is better known to the world as Baal Shem Tov, had little education in Torah-Talmud studies. His religion was based not upon the intricacies of the law but through a mystical experience of God in nature. What he brought to his followers was an ecstatic vision of the Glory of God, influenced perhaps by Isaac Luria and the Sabbateans, but even more by the inner Spirit. Hasidism, which grew out of this, does not exactly discard the old religion of the rabbis but fills it with new inner life. Hasidism is a religion of dancing, of folk tales, of amazing zaddik full of spiritual wisdom.
Needless to say, neither the regular orthodox nor the Hasidim shared much in common with the American Reform Jews they met. Some of the immigrants, wishing to retain their own Ashkenazic heritage formed new orthodox synagogues which sought to preserve the ancient traditions of Torah/Talmud. There were also Hasidic communities that took root. Others, finding Reform too radical and the orthodox much too conservative, attempted to find a middle ground. The Conservative tradition which developed in America seeks a middle ground between the totally pre-modern traditions of the Orthodox and the radical modernism of Reform.
To this mix American Judaism has added the Reconstructionist movement founded by Mordecai Kaplan. This movement emphasizes that Judaism is not a religion but a “civilization” and, although as intellectual as Reform, seeks to preserve in its own way the symbols and traditions of centuries old Judaism.
All of this, however, is a very American phenomenon. Reform Judaism largely died out in Germany. Neither Conservative nor Reconstructionist Judaism has ever existed in any large numbers outside of the Western hemisphere. Where Judaism still exists, and we must remember that about 6 million Jews died during World War II, it has either remained orthodox or Jews have become completely secular. In Israel, with the exception of a fairly small but powerful group of orthodox Jews, religion seems largely tied to national identity and not to the synagogue.
One cannot speak of Judaism today, of course, without discussing the State of Israel and the Zionism that produced it. Zionism, in a way, is as old as Judaism itself, for Jews for ages prayed “Next year in Jerusalem.” Still, for most it was a pious but seemingly impossible dream. Continued anti-Semitism in Europe in the 19th century, however, led a few people to focus upon that hope. Theodore Hertzl (1860-1904), in particular, was gripped by a vision of a homeland for the Jews. Although a very secular Jew himself with little education in the faith, he began a personal quest to establish a homeland in Palestine. Frequently he met with either apathy or stiff resistance on the part of the Jews themselves. Reform Jews in general had no enthusiasm at all for the idea. They wanted to make Judaism a vibrant part of the modern world, but not a separate nation. The orthodox generally believed that the nation would be restored through God’s grace and not through human action.
Nevertheless, Hertzl pressed on, badgering heads of state and Jewish leaders alike, but no one really thought the idea very workable. After all, Palestine was under Ottoman control and the Arabs certainly would not be happy with a large Jewish population ready to form a state in the middle of the fertile crescent. Nevertheless, Hertzl pressed on until his death.
And then the dream suddenly seemed more possible. The Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany during World War I, was divided up by the colonial powers and Palestine fell under the mandate of Great Britain. In 1917 Lord Balfour issued a declaration that his Majesty’s Government looked with favor upon the founding of a Jewish State. Nothing, however, came about that easily. Jewish settlers began to enter Palestine in larger numbers, a fact greatly deplored by the Arab community. Great Britain was caught in the middle, aware of its own declaration but also anxious not to offend the Arab population which, after all, had lived there for centuries. Even when Jews were desperately trying to escape Hitler’s tyranny Britain severely limited immigration, sometimes turning away ships full of Jews trying to escape the death camps of the Third Reich.
Finally, in 1947 Britain decided to wash its hands of the whole matter by turning the issue over to the United Nations. After a very close vote, Palestine was partitioned and the State of Israel was founded. Prospects, however, looked dim. The Jewish population had been officially left without arms and massed on the borders were large Arab armies ready to end the nation before it had begun. In an encounter that is strongly reminiscent of the David and Goliath story, however, the Jewish settlers were able to drive back the huge armies of their Arab neighbors and establish for the first time a Jewish State since Pompey marched into Palestine in 63 BCE.
Since the emancipation of the Jews in 19th century Europe and the vast migration to the New World, Jews have excelled in virtually every phase of life. In science, the arts and literature, medicine, social science, archaeology, Jews have been primary contributors. More specifically, religious thinkers include: Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, Louis Finklestein, Abraham Kook and many, many others. Jews have, after centuries in the ghetto, entered the main stream of modern life.
Nevertheless, the flash point of modern Jewish life is the State of Israel. For many Jews around the Near East and Russia, it is a place for refuge and resettlement. For American Jews it is a rallying point to support. Although most American Jews have not even considered emigrating to Israel, enthusiasm for Israel has been a major factor in slowing secularization and assimilation. Had Israel not existed it is to be guessed that even more Jews would have blended into the landscape of modern, secular culture. No longer is conversion to Christianity necessary for assimilation. A Jew only needs to stop doing those basic things which preserve Jewish identity.
Israel’s initial victory over the Arabs began a whole new chapter in the history of Judaism, but it has been a chapter quite marred by conflict. During the last half of the twentieth century, Israel has been constantly beset by wars and rumors of wars. In general, Israel, in part because of support from America, has been successful in those encounters. The Six Day War in 1967 actually expanded her boundaries. Winning the battles, however, has not ended the conflict. As the 21st century begins, in fact, the struggle has become more intense and dangerous than ever, threatening to involve the whole world in terrorism. A sober analysis does not provide great optimism for the long range future of a state which is beset both at home and around its borders by others who do not really accept its presence.
Nevertheless, Judaism, through pogroms and exiles and even the holocaust, has always proved to be a survivor. The twin dangers of terrorism and secularization may take their toll, but if we can trust the lessons of history, Judaism will not only survive but triumph in the years to come.
See also KABBALAH.
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