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Martin Goodman, A History of Judaism

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 30, Numbers 1–2

Martin Goodman, A History of Judaism. Allen Lane, Penguin-Random House, 2017, 623 pp.

During the 1970s, when I began as a teaching assistant in Jewish history in the School for Overseas Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, every foreign student was required to take a course entitled “Survey of Jewish History,” which the staff jokingly nicknamed “From God to Golda.” In that course, students would acquire a basic knowledge of major events in the history of the Jews and of the development of Judaism. The survey course was parallel to the introductory courses in Western Civilization offered at American universities. Sometime during the 1980s, it was abandoned and students could choose any course in Jewish studies. Eventually, the latter requirement was abolished as colleges in the United States jettisoned required courses altogether.

The increasing ignorance among many American students often is lamented by university faculty and the wider public. I witnessed this sad state of affairs when I taught courses in the Second Temple, Talmudic (Roman/Byzantine), and medieval periods of Jewish history. I often spent time correcting major misconceptions, egregious chronological and factual errors, and weird theoretical arguments, and filling in yawning gaps in general knowledge among my students partly because teaching the historical continuum had been replaced by somewhat disjointed selective offerings. For their part, university professors increasingly focused on specific issues, even minutiae, rather than dealing with more general questions; thus we seemed to know more and more about less and less. Nothing correlated and everything was subject to deconstruction.

In light of all this, Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism has appeared not a moment too soon and represents a welcome antidote to trends dating back several decades. In this age of ultra-specialization and deconstruction on the one hand and glaring ignorance on the other, it is an act of extraordinary intellectual courage that Goodman, professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and president of the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies, has written A History of Judaism from its origins to the present. The volume offers a comprehensive overview of the development of Jewish religion and thought without imposing either a tenuous uniformity or a disorientating fragmentation. This balanced approach avoids the pitfalls of the study edited by David Biale, Cultures of the Jews: A New History,1 which includes anything that Jews did or wrote as “culture” and appears to equate the importance of an isolated objet d’art or literary work with a foundational text. Indeed, if previous generations of historians sought “essentialism” and unity, recent studies often seem to stress fragmentation, identity, and individuality, and thus present a random collection of disparate movements, ideas, and events.

Goodman’s definition of his subject as a history of Judaism rather than a history of the Jews facilitates his approach. Since Judaism was and is created by Jews, the author includes historical events and trends that are essential as background for the development of the variety of Jewish movements, ideas, principles, and practices. Therefore, the reader benefits from a chronological and geographical framework that accompanies the presentation and analysis of the texts and their authors during a given time period. The significance of integrating dates and facts, while interpreting and evaluating the content of the sources cannot be overemphasized. For example, the Kabbalah in its historical context cannot be regarded as a trendy type of contemporary spirituality, as it frequently seems to be at present. Goodman’s solid treatment dispels fuzzy thinking and misleading ideas, and he deserves accolades for honest scholarship and cogent arguments based on a wide selection of sources, eschewing the tendency toward deconstruction and negativism.

Structure and Division

A History of Judaism is divided into six sections:

Part I, “Origins (2000 BCE-70 CE)”;

Part II, “Interpreting the Torah (200 BCE-70 CE)”;

Part III, “The Formation of Rabbinic Judaism (70-1500 CE)”;

Part IV, “Authority and Reaction (1500-1800)”;

Part V, “The Challenge of the Modern World (1750-present)”;

and Part VI, “Epilogue.”

Each part is preceded by maps that indicate the locations of Jewish communities during the period covered in the different subdivisions of that section. The maps are extremely helpful. Goodman applies chronological and thematic as well as external and internal criteria that differ somewhat from earlier studies. Generally speaking, 70 CE, the date of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, serves as the terminus ad quem for the ancient period and is considered a turning point in the history of Judaism. Here, Goodman follows suit. Parts III-VI, however, present an alternative time period for post-Second Temple Judaism, namely that of the consolidation of rabbinic Judaism. By extending this period from the completion of the Babylonian Talmud (c. 600 CE) to include the great commentators, such as Rashi (late eleventh century) and his successors, the Tosafists (twelfth to mid-fifteenth century), and the giant codifier and philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) with his interpreters and successors, Goodman alters the perception of the development of mainstream, but by no means monolithic Judaism. It is clear that despite their many differences, the works and opinions of Ashkenazic and Sephardic rabbis and leaders constitute a continuum of the Talmud.

To his credit, Goodman includes a section entitled “Judaism beyond the Rabbis.” Focusing on Greek Judaism and the Karaites, it enlightens the reader on recent contributions to the field, such as archaeological excavations of synagogues and manuscripts by Karaite figures, some of which have been published not long ago. Part IV covers the period from the expulsion from Spain (1492) to 1800. Here Goodman follows recent scholarship, which regards these three centuries as the “early modern period”—a period in its own right. As far as Judaism is concerned, the major issues include: the reaction to the expulsion; the phenomenon of Spanish and Portuguese conversos returning to Judaism; the spread of the Kabbalah; the codification of Jewish law; the rise and fall of self-government in Poland/Lithuania; the movements of the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank; and the emergence of Hasidism. In this fascinating section, Goodman makes use of the latest scholarly interpretations of this period that have developed and proliferated over the past decades.

Criticism and Summary

Martin Goodman’s prowess as a historian of religion is most evident in his field of expertise—the ancient period (Parts I and II), to which he devotes his fullest and longest chapters. While he incorporates the conclusions regarding Second Temple and early post-70-CE Judaism that were presented in his comprehensive study Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations,2 he has added new material and perspectives. His interpretations are always based on literary sources, historical documents, and archaeological discoveries, many of which are included in the book. Interestingly, Goodman chose to begin his history of Judaism with the first century CE, “when Judaism was described as a distinctive form of religious life” by the Jewish historian Josephus in his magnum opus Jewish Antiquities, probably written in the 90s CE. This book includes an extensive account based on the Bible and other sources. Goodman, in explaining his choice, remarks—though he is by no means a Bible denier—that “the long process through which this religion had formed over the previous centuries was sometimes faltering, and our knowledge of this process remains tantalizingly partial,” adding that the “uncertainty of the dating and process of key biblical texts…has sustained remarkably divergent interpretations of the historicity of these narratives” (xxix).

Surprisingly, he does not state that the earliest known mentions of the term “Judaism” (Greek, iudaismos) occur in 2 Maccabees 2:21, 8:1, and 14:38, probably edited sometime during the 140s BCE. Therefore, some type of religion, referred to as “Judaism,” existed—in opposition to extreme Hellenism—at least two centuries before Josephus. This Judaism included: monotheism; a prohibition against idol worship; circumcision of males; proper sacrifices at the Temple; refusal to sacrifice or eat the meat of forbidden animals; observance of the Sabbath and the festivals. In fact, the Maccabean revolt came about because of the desecration of the Temple with the statue of Zeus and the proscription of those beliefs and practices. That said, Josephus, a more articulate and sophisticated writer who presents a more developed and comprehensive interpretation of the Torah (i.e., Judaism) than that of the editor of 2 Maccabees, is a good point of departure for analyzing and dating biblical religion. As many readers know very little about the ancient period, Goodman’s expertise is useful and enlightening. This holds true for the more knowledgeable public as well.

Unfortunately, Part V on “The Challenge of the Modern World” and the brief “Epilogue” are a bit thin compared to the chapters on the ancient period and on rabbinic Judaism. For example, Goodman’s discussion of religious Zionism is too narrowly delimited. While he correctly focuses on the work of its outstanding representative, Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, whose ideas continue to influence Orthodox Zionist circles and beyond, he could have paid more attention to the essays of Ahad Ha’am, which integrated secular, cultural Zionism with aspects of Judaism. Similarly, the spiritual/religious aspects of the writings of A. D. Gordon and the role of Jewish history and tradition in the works of Berl Katznelson are not noted at all. And, although Goodman acknowledges the pivotal role of American Reform leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in changing the movement’s position on Zionism during the 1930s, he does not note Wise’s emphasis on social justice, which remains paramount in present-day Reform communities that invoke tikkun olam (repairing the world) as their core value. In fact, if one looks up tikkun olam in the index of A History of Judaism, the references give only the pages that treat the original meaning of the term in the Kabbalah, which differs radically from the way it is interpreted today.3

To his credit, Goodman treats the impact of the Holocaust, the acceptance of feminism and of homosexuals and lesbians, and Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria as part of contemporary Judaism, and even the ideas of the marginal congregations of secular-humanist Jews as well, along with the teachings of Orthodox Judaism—from Hasidic groups such as Satmar and Chabad to the modern Orthodox. As far as Israel is concerned, despite the ostensible divide between “religious” and “secular,” he wisely notes that these categories do not apply to many traditional Jews, mainly of Middle Eastern origin. In fact, the Israeli scene is much more nuanced, tolerant, dynamic, and creative than he describes, while liberal (Reform and Conservative) Judaism in the United States appears to be struggling to sustain itself. Despite these reservations, one obtains a general survey of the development of varieties of Judaism since 1800. It is regrettable that Goodman did not devote more attention to the modern era.

On the whole, A History of Judaism is informative, challenging, and useful. The author has a lucid style and excels at explaining difficult concepts without veering into needless abstractions, opaque theories, and pseudo-scholarly terminology. Goodman stays close to the sources and incorporates many of them into the text, thereby giving the reader a full picture of a particular idea or period. The volume also serves as a helpful reference book with its massive index of names of persons, concepts, places, and subjects. For example, one may look up Judah Halevi or Martin Buber and get a precis of their major achievements, works, ideas, and influence. The footnotes are replete with references to scholarly studies. Likewise, a glossary of important terms, from amora to yahrzeit, familiarizes the reader with the broad expanse of Judaism. In addition to the maps mentioned above, the book includes 54 outstanding color photographs of places, persons, manuscripts, inscriptions, objects, and celebrations. The reader can only marvel at Martin Goodman’s presentation of the intellectual depth, amazing richness, and meaningful way of life that Judaism has provided in the past and continues to offer to those who study and practice it.

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  1. New York: Schocken, 2006.
  2. UK: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2007. See the review by Rivkah Fishman-Duker, “The Challenge of Ancient Judaism,” Jewish Political Studies Review 20, 1-2 (Spring 2008): 125-30.
  3. See Jewish Political Studies Review 23, 3-4 (Fall 2013). The entire issue, entitled “The Resilience of Tikkun Olam,” is devoted to this important component of the contemporary American Jewish scene.