Judaism: Major Features of the Development Phenomena of Judaism.

The major features of the development phenomena for Judaism

‘All religions have gained the shape substance and even substantive content that they have, through the complexity of human interaction and historical process’. Discuss this statement with reference to the major features of the development phenomena for Judaism’.

It is impossible to talk about the Jewish people without talking of their religion, the Promised Land and the coming Messiah. Up to this present day, many forces have been at work in shaping Israel: the elect community, the Torah, the Jewish academies, the development of Jewish literature, the Jews suffering with their struggle for survival, their persistence and adaptation, their exile and return.

This essay will show that these forces are major features of the development phenomena of Judaism. Through the complexity of this human interaction and historical process, they have shaped Judaism to make it what it is today.

Grounded in the Jewish past are the character of Judaism and its resources for transformation. To be Jewish is to be a part of a community. The initial shaping of the individual character of the Jew is in the home. There, the Jewish mother shapes her children’s futures by imparting her religion, educating them in its rituals and prayers. From the time they went into exile, the next stage of modelling for the Jewish community’s cohesiveness is the local synagogue, ‘the theological significance of community in Judaism finds expression in religious, social, and national life’ (Plaskow 1990 80). Although each synagogue is semi-autonomous, higher authority structures and decision-making was invested in the Sanhedrin and its teaching academies.

A shift had taken place when the Jews went into exile, in Babylon (586-538 BCE). The destruction of the second temple (70 CE) became a critical turning point for the Jews that brought about changes in the Jews religion that paved the way for the next two thousand years.  From the time of the Destruction, the centrality of the temple, its priesthood and the sacrifices became obsolete.  The formative era of the difficult process of self-transformation of the Jews had begun.

The Pharisees became the pivotal point for the Jews survival; they had earlier formulated doctrine toward individualism and a universalistic approach. With this new understanding of the essence of Judaism, the people could survive without a country and a state. Spiritual progress was not limited to geographical borders; the God of Israel was the God of the whole earth as well as the God of the Jew that observed Torah.

Before the Destruction Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai went to Jabneh in order to establish there a cultural centre for the Jewish people.  In hindsight, this move proved crucial to the survival of the Torah and the Jews.

Torah means revelation: first the five books of Moses, later, the whole Hebrew Scriptures; still later, the oral and written revelation of Sinai, embodied in the Talmud.  Finally, it comes to stand for, to symbolise, what in modern language is called “Judaism”: the whole body of belief, doctrine, practice, patterns of piety and behaviour, and moral and intellectual commitments that constitute the Judaic version of reality (Neusner 1972 21).

An academic Sanhedrin was set up at Jabneh, with the combined functions of education, legislation, judicature, and government.

The task of the Jabneh Sanhedrin was to teach and transmit the oral Torah, by the Midrash (to teach) and the Mishnah (to walk) methods.  Outstanding differences of opinion were resolved and recorded.  Epstein claims that from Jabneh there sprang these series of Midrashim in which the centuries long process of Biblical interpretation reached a high point never equalled (1968 116).

The Jabneh centre was soon recognised as the central religious authority by Jews in Palestine and beyond, even to distant Persia.  The scholars of Jabneh recast the divine services and liturgy; they adapted by substituting the animal sacrifices for prayers.  In external political matters, the Sanhedrin set about providing a wide range of religious, civil, and criminal law as far as the Roman rulers would allow.

During this important early formative era, human intervention again changed the course of the Jews: the Bar Kocheba revolt altered the historical landscape.  Following the revolt, a period of unparalleled persecution resulted.  With the closure of centralised authority and self-government at Jabneh, another door opened.  Shefaram became the centre of authority under the new leadership of Judah, the Prince, whom the Romans appointed Patriarch.  In the meantime, a council of sages met at Lydda, to decree that a Jew, in order to save his or her life, might violate any of the commandments save three, idolatry, murder and incest (which included adultery).  The decree was destined to become the fundamental guiding principle of Jewish life in all the centuries that followed.

Thus were the Jewish people scattered to the four corners of the earth without a state, country, or government.  The Torah, given independent authority, survived and lived on in the hearts and minds of the Jews.  The Jews unity came through their collective knowledge of the Torah disseminated in the local community worldwide, and their allegiance to the one and only God. With a living body of literature that confirmed their own history to them, a unique religion, and a culture that survived in microcosm in all of its host countries, the Jews were destined to preserve their national consciousness.

While under Christian (Byzantine) rule another uprising in Palestine resulted in the final expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem (135 CE).  Babylon continued for a while as the heart of the Diaspora, where the Jews remained stable under the authority of the Exilearch.  The Sanhedrin continued to the seventh century when the rise of Islam began to dominate the Middle East (The Gaonic Age, roughly 650-1100 CE).  It was during this time, when Jews came under Islam rule that their learning and culture, particularly in Spain and across North Africa, blossomed exceedingly.

Compared to their previous persecuted existence under Christian rule, life improved for the Jews under Muslim rule.  The Gaon, the heads of the academies flourished and a great literary output ensued.  The Jews identity, by this time was not with Palestine or Babylon, but with the Dispersion.  ‘It will not be until the twentieth century that that there will be a significant change to this dominant trend: Jews living as a nation or an elect community “set apart” within host societies which are variously tolerant or hostile’ (Pratt 1993 152).

However, it would be a grave mistake to define the community monolithically.  Living in such a diversity of cultures, both external and internal pressures brought about the next great shift in Judaism.  As would be expected, differences resulted, not only in cultural background and customs, but also in economic, learning, and observance between different Jews.  Some examples of this are the Karaism/Karaites with the latter taking an exceptionally fundamentalist hard line view, rejecting the Talmud and Talmudic Judaism.  The Jews in Spain, Shephardi Jews, spoke Ladino (Spanish-Hebrew dialect) and reflected Babylonian Judaism and Spanish influences.  Meanwhile Ashkenazim, the European Jews, who lived under Christian rule, also evolved their own rituals and language – Yiddish (German-Hebrew dialect) in their rich spiritual world.

These two cultural and geographical differences, together with their differences in religious affiliation and understanding introduced a great tapestry of colours and patterns that are still evident today in the state of Israel.  There, in modern Israel, groups and organizations work toward their integration (Plaskow 1990 116).  Persecutions arose for the Ashkenazi Jew under Christian rule and a distinctive feature of this era, the Crusades (1095-1270), European Christian armies, set out to recover the holy land from Islam.  This particular historical cauldron found Jews lumped in with Muslims and rather than recant, many Jews chose martyrdom for their faith.

The Jew is not a stranger to persecution and massacres; theirs is a history of suffering.  Persecution and isolation continued with the Medieval Christian church.  It would be easy to pass comment that persecution actually worked on the Jew’s behalf, shaping and moulding them as if it were part of their destiny.  However, such trite comment shows a romantic notion that suffering is good for people; it does not take into account the inestimable horror each individual Jew and the community at large has undergone because of a refusal to accept difference.

By the Late Dark Age (1100-1350), the Blood Libel caused persecution and massacres to happen.  The libel instigated a gullible population that believed Jews used the blood of Christian children in their Passover festivities.  At the Council of Florence (1442), the Christians formulated a doctrine that excluded the Jews.  That which had previously been specifically pagan anti Judaism was formally taken over by the Imperial Church.

However, the Jewish history is not only sufferings, but also a history of successes.  Alongside the persecutions and massacres influential literature such as Jewish philosophy, developed by Moses Maimonides, and Jewish Mysticism called Kabbalah emerged.  Jewish women of this era, in their limited religious space, in their homes, alongside the flourishing literature of this period, developed writings (tkhines). This literature reveals the other half of the Jew’s lived history – the lives of Jewish women and the Jew’s family life (Plaskow 1990 48).

Fanatical fundamentalist Muslims saw the end of the golden age of the Shephardi Jews in Spain. On the eve of the modern era, (1350-1700), in Eastern Europe, the Jews were disbarred from the universities, excluded from corridors of power, prevented from engaging in wider educational, social and commercial life (Kung 1992 154).  The Ashkenazim dreamt of returning to Jerusalem.  The one profession they could engage in was money lending.  Just as they had found a golden age under Islamic rule in Spain, so this period in history prepared the Jew for the modern period.  Capitalism was about to take the lead in the processes of social and political development of Western civilization.  However, it also cast the Jew in a new dye.

The Jews either remained under Muslim rule or in Europe gathered in ghettos in Poland.  Warsaw became the ghetto capital of the Jewish world in the West.  Here the local synagogue and the urban Jew gained a different identity again.  A new dawn broke with a general cry of liberty and tolerance. The European Enlightenment (1700-1900), the Reformation and the Age of Reason liberated minds previously enslaved to religious superstition and dogma,

Throwing off their distinctiveness, the Jew emerged and participated in political and civil emancipation and contributed to ‘science, music, philosophy and medicine – to name but a few’ (Pratt 1993 156). A variety of effects from this time, especially the influence of new literature changed the Jews religious landscape.  Intellectual challenge and change, which led to the commencement of new reforms and developments, emerged through the writings of the humanist, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the most influential German-Jewish philosopher of the eighteenth century: the first modern Jew.

The Jews were faced with a fundamental threat to its existence and identity through the writings of Mendelsshon and the age of reason.  The European Jewish community began to discard its identity with Otherness.  The Jew could walk free and experiment with the new age of science and reason.  A fundamental threat to the community’s existence loomed large. Pratt (1993 157) points out that ‘any religious group when faced with a comprehensive or fundamental threat to its existence and identity will produce from within its own ideology a resolution of last resort – or at least a self-assertive bulwark against the threatening insurgency’.  Zionism, the Jewish socio-political movement to reclaim and return to the land, was the internal response to the cultural threat of Mendelssohn’s humanism.

Anti-Semitism, rather than being eradicated during the age of reason, lurked close to the surface of the Christian community.  The Nazi Holocaust (shoah), the final solution to the Jewish question in anti-Semitism quarters of Europe identified itself.  These self-assertive bulwarks of the two opposing forces, Zionism and Holocaust, led to the establishment of a Jewish state and the massacre that wiped out four in every ten of the worldwide Jewish population.

The modern state of Israel came into being in 1948 with Jewish identity and self-assertiveness bound up in it.  With the freedom to express their religion, more changes took place and new shoots in contemporary Judaism sprang up and branched out.  The Holocaust left its indelible mark on the Jew, with many questioning the very fundamentals of their faith: how could a God they call Father allow such atrocities to happen to them?  Their questioning having had its affect upon the Jews continues to reverberate.  Such questioning has its consequences in religious expression, which results in the Jewish people are retaining their very essence: their religious identity.  This religious identity is still developing to this present day, ranging from Torah-true to inter-faith dialogue, the ordination of women rabbis to joyful forms of worship and distinctive dress, to a secularised reinterpretation of Judaism (Pratt 1993 160-162).

In sum, community has acted for the Jews as a cohesive agent, giving them worldwide identity as well as providing for them a deep abiding sense of comfort in times of great trial.  On an equal basis with community is the Jew’s love of Torah.  Adaptation of doctrines to the presiding circumstances, Torah’s continual development through the great body of commentary acting upon it and the Jew, has provided them with their very essence for being.  Torah has acted as a conduit that spanned oceans, national borders and aided in creating its own unique Jewish culture.  The human interaction of centuries of persecution and suffering, together with their successes, aided the Jew in their struggle for survival.  History has also acted like a great cauldron, at times advancing the Jews, other times hindering their progress, but never diminishing them.

All of these factors have brought the Jews to where they are today.  The long process of history and the treatment they received from their host countries, hostile or otherwise, all worked toward their development.  Today it is and is still working to make the Jews what they are today: a progressive modern nation of diversity and influence, ever transforming itself as it seeks to throw down roots and grow in what it perceives as the fulfilment of their dream to return to their land from exile and await their ultimate promised salvation, their Messiah.


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