Judaism, Development of

Judaism, Development of

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The story of early Judaism is found in Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures (see Bible). It begins with the call of Abraham (see Abraham) and tells the story of the patriarchs, Abraham's descendants. These were his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel ("he wrestles with God") after he fought with the angel of God all night long. Israel's children became forever known as bene Yisrael, "children of Israel." Israel was father to twelve sons, who became known as the twelve patriarchs of Israel. From each of these sons sprang a tribe of people, named after their "father" and collectively called the Twelve Tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah (from whom the Hebrew people would eventually come to be called Yehudi, "Judeans," eventually shortened to Jews), Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph, and Benjamin. Fifteen million people in the world now claim to be descendants of Abraham through one of these twelve patriarchs.

The stories of these men and their families make up the plot of the book of Genesis. In chapter eleven, Abraham is introduced. By chapter fifty the whole clan has moved to Egypt where, thanks to Joseph—now second in command to Pharaoh himself—they are welcomed and settle down to the good life. It makes for fascinating reading, and archaeologists still labor to uncover evidence of their existence and lifestyle (see Abraham; Joseph).

Exodus, the second book of the Bible, moves the action forward four hundred years. A new king has arisen "who knew not Joseph." The Hebrew people are forced to work as slaves, building bricks without straw for the latest Egyptian work project.

Under Moses, the people flee their captivity and begin their journey to the Promised Land (see Moses; Passover). During the forty years they spend in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, they receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), build the Tabernacle (Exodus 26; see Tabernacle in the Wilderness), consecrate the priests of the new religion (Exodus 29), and receive the law (Leviticus). They experience tests and temptations (Numbers) and hear Moses' final words (Deuteronomy). By the time of Joshua they have been hardened by their trying experience and are ready for the wars ahead. They enter the land and begin the conquest of Canaan, city by city (Joshua).

After much fighting, they finally settle down and begin the process of self-government (Judges). Twelve different judges arise when their particular talents are needed. Some of their names have become legend: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech (called a "false ruler" and not counted as a true judge), Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.

By the end of the book of Judges, Israel is said to be "in confusion." Perhaps it was later editors who constructed the phrasing, but a litany runs throughout the narrative: this was a time "when each man did what seemed right in his own eyes." There were times when things ran smoothly, as indicated by the lovely idyll found in the book of Ruth. But it became apparent that a change was needed if the grand experiment was not to collapse into anarchy.

This change takes place in the book of 1 Samuel. The people call for a king and a unified monarchy. God warns them not to do it, but the people want to be like all the nations surrounding them. Saul is chosen as first king, but he fails miserably. His successor is David (see David, King). Under the rule of this poet, warrior, statesman, lover, musician, and visionary, the monarchy becomes a single nation. The stage is now set for Israel's glory years. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell the story of Solomon's empire (see Solomon), which is to last only until his death. His son, Rehoboam, has neither the head nor the heart to hold it all together. Civil war breaks out. Israel is divided into two nations. The northern nation, consisting of ten tribes still called Israel, lasts for only two hundred years, finally buckling under Assryian pressure in 726 BCE. The people disappear into history, forever after being called the "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel." The southern kingdom, called Judea or Judah and comprising the two remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin, lasts until the Babylonian captivity of 586 BCE (see Babylonian Captivity). When they finally return from this captivity, they will be known as Jews, children of the tribe and nation of Judah.

During their time of trouble, civil war, and social distress, God sent prophets (see Hebrew Prophets) to warn and instruct them—to call them back to the terms of the covenant. Some of the prophets have become legendary, men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Others—like Jonah and the whale or Daniel in the lion's den—were less well known but still important.

The people returned to rebuild Jerusalem under the command of Ezra and Nehemiah, as told by the books that bear their names. But they were never again free from outside control. First they were under the thumb of the Persians. Then came the Greeks and the Romans.

They still had their scrolls. Poets and wise men had written songbooks (Psalms) and practical advice (Proverbs). They studied philosophy (Job, Ecclesiastes) and even wrote love poems (Song of Solomon).

Much later all these would be gathered together to form what the Jews call Tanakh. But while living in the land the Romans then called Palestine, Judaism was forced to begin a long process of change. Sadducees (politically conservative priests and wealthy businessmen) and Pharisees (political liberals who sought to apply the Torah to everyday life) vied with ultra-conservative groups such as the Essene Brotherhood, zealous patriots living in the Qumran settlement above the Dead Sea (see Dead Sea Scrolls). The situation was extremely flammable, awaiting only the right spark. Rome was losing its patience. Christianity, originally a reform sect of Judaism, had just begun, though hardly anyone knew about it yet. But hot, dusty, cantankerous Palestine was the place Caesar sent his generals who were out of favor. It was not considered a plum job.

Finally, in 70 CE, Titus and the Roman legions were ordered to put an end to rebellious Jewish influence once and for all. The people had refused to recognize Caesar as divine and place his statue in a public place in the capital.

"Is this too much to ask?" thundered Rome.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me and build no graven images," was the retort from the rabbis.

So Titus burned the place to the ground. In the words of the Bible, "not one stone was left standing upon another." The Temple was gone, with the only remnant being an outer wall of the Temple Mount, now known as the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, perhaps the most sacred place today in all of Judaism. The people were led away into the great Diaspora, the dispersion, the captivity. The next two thousand years saw good times and bad, but the period was generally marked by heartache and persecution. With no Temple, the religion of Judaism delivered to Moses at Sinai could no longer be practiced. The sacrificial system of burnt offerings was limited to one spot of ground, the brazen altar in the Temple court (see Tabernacle in the Wilderness). That spot of ground was first in the hands of the Romans, then the Muslims, then, for a short time, the Christians.

This period of turmoil is precisely when Judaism proved its heart and backbone. The people reinvented themselves and the worship of Yahveh. They redefined what it was to be a child of Abraham under the covenant. The rabbis, inheritors of the Pharisee tradition, began teaching Torah under conditions that would have crushed lesser men. The Temple at Jerusalem was gone, so in its place grew the tradition of the synagogue, local congregations that sprang into place wherever there were ten men and a copy of the Torah.

The immense, living, evolving commentary called Talmud was compiled, line upon line and precept upon precept. Ever since the time of Ezra the Scribe, the oral law had been passed down, memories of ancient laws and traditions. By 200 CE, these were written down in a commentary called the Mishna.

During the Middle Ages, the mysteries of the Kabbalah (see Kabbalah) began to lead many Jews into a new spiritual path of mysticism.

The people simply refused to give up. In the history of the world, many people have been persecuted and tortured, ridiculed and destroyed. But perhaps no people have faced what the Jews faced and so staunchly retained their national and historic identity.

It has become quite popular, of late, to describe everything from ethnic cleansing to national war as a "holocaust." Usually the term is pronounced justified when numbers of the slain approach that of the six million Jews who were murdered by those who carried out Adolf Hitler's Final Solution. Thus we hear about the "Indian holocaust" or the "Serb holocaust." These were terrible, inhuman tragedies. But to use the term in this fashion is to miss the point. The Holocaust was not simply about numbers. If it were, the Roman Catholic-sponsored Inquisition and Crusades proportionately outdid Hitler. The point of the Holocaust of World War II was that it was one of many persecutions, hopefully the last and certainly the worst, that was targeted at a certain group and yet could not destroy the spirit and beliefs of a people who refused to let any earthly power destroy their religion and their faith. Such was the power of the unshaken covenant that Judaism actually grew stronger under the horrible persecution.

The world had never seen anything like it. The example set by people who refused to quit was so intrepid that in 1947, the United Nations, under the eye of a world just learning the full extent of what had happened in the Nazi death camps, was simply forced to recognize Zionism (see Zionism). By U.N. resolution, Palestine was partitioned into two states, one Arab, the other Jewish—a resolution that was accepted by the Jews in Palestine but rejected by the Arabs in Palestine and the Arab states. Israel thus became a Jewish state.

And that's what is at the root of the political turmoil that besets that tortured land today. Jews believe the land is theirs, given to Abraham and guaranteed by God to be their inheritance forever. Even nonreligious Jews believe the land has been consecrated by the blood of their ancestors.

But the Arabs have a point, too. They've lived there for many thousands of years. However nobly the battle has been fought, Judaism doesn't pertain to them. What about the rights of Arabs, whose ancestors lived in Canaan and worked the land ever since the first humans wandered up from Africa? Sentiment aside, they have a case. Even without the complexity of religious differences, historical and ethnic factors are at work. Many Palestinians are Jewish or Christian. Many Jews are nonbelievers. It isn't simply a religious war of "Orthodox Jew" against "Islamic terrorist," although that's often the way it is cast in the media.

In June 1967 the Jews recaptured the site of the old Temple. A Muslim mosque now stands there, the familiar Dome of the Rock that is seen in every skyline scene of Old Jerusalem. Treaties are made and broken. Palestinians are placed under house arrest and retaliate by sending suicide bombers against the enemy. Violence escalates. There is a war going on, and the world wrings its collective hands in helplessness. "What is the answer?" is the universal cry.

Perhaps there are no answers. Perhaps the scars are too severe, the historical issues too complex. Perhaps the feelings run too deep. Maybe history is going to prove stronger than politics.

Abraham never knew what he had begun when he journeyed to Canaan. Joshua didn't know what he was starting when he invaded the Promised Land. The battle between Jew and Palestinian continues still. And no end is in sight.

But Judaism doesn't exist just on one spot of ground. It has transformed itself. The lessons of the great Diaspora have broken down the boundaries of one land and one temple. All over the world, Judaism is flourishing.

Three main Jewish divisions carry on the tradition. But, as been the case repeatedly in other religions, often they don't get along at all.

The Orthodox are the traditionalists, holding to scripture and Talmud. They are often seen in their traditional garb of black suits and beards, black hats and prayer shawls, watching over the production of Kosher foods (see Kosher) and participating in ceremonies that go all the way back to early rabbinical times.

The Reform branch is the liberal branch, applying tradition to contemporary society and visualizing Judaism as a living, breathing tradition that must constantly reform to new social conditions.

The Conservative branch is a bit of a compromise, seeking to place rabbinical Judaism in a modern context.

Other, smaller branches of Judaism include Reconstructionist and Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Often the different groups disagree, sometimes violently. But at the core of each branch is the tradition, the love, and the history that binds them to the faith of their fathers.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.