The Reader's Guide to Judaism - Essays and Recommended Reading by Professor Sarah Imhoff Chapter 3.0 - Introduction to Judaism Jews and Judaism trace a lineage from the present day back through millennia to the ancient Israelites. Like all religious and ethnic communities, Jewish traditions are characterized by both continuity and change, both recurring themes and new commitments.
Chapter 3.0 – Introduction
by Dr. Sarah
Dr. Sarah Imhoff is an
Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies and Borns Jewish Studies Program
at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Jews and Judaism trace a lineage
from the present day back through millennia to the ancient Israelites. Like all
religious and ethnic communities, Jewish traditions are characterized by both
continuity and change, both recurring themes and new commitments.
The Hebrew Bible, which contains
works written from about 1000 BCE to the
Hellenistic period (323-63 BCE), forms the foundational text of Judaism. However,
Judaism as we know it today owes many of its theological and ritual features to
textual interpretations and religious developments from the early Common Era.
Textual and archaeological sources from Second Temple Judaism, i.e. Jewish
communities from the time of the Second Temple (late 6th century
through 70 CE), demonstrate the diversity of
traditions at the time. The late 1940s to mid-1950s discovery of the Dead Sea
Scrolls brought to light the texts and practices of an ascetic community who
lived at Qumran, and also opened new avenues of understanding other Jewish
communities of the time, as well as the dynamic development of Jewish
scriptures and scriptural interpretation. Florentino García Martínez’s
collection The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated presents the text of the
scrolls, while the Qumran community and its textual and historical relationship
to other Jewish groups is discussed in García Martínez’s The People of the
Dead Sea Scrolls.
Apart from this ascetic sect at
Qumran, there were many other Jewish groups in the early Common Era. In
particular, Jewish thought and community also developed under Greek rule. These
Hellenized Jews, including Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus, and their
writings, in some ways represent another road not taken for Judaism. The
Beginnings of Jewishness by Shaye J.D. Cohen and Between Athens and
Jerusalem by John Collins chart the interactions and relationships between
Jewish and non-Jewish communities largely in Hellenistic contexts. Daniel
Boyarin’s Border Lines charts the
social and textual negotiations that formed Christianity and Judaism as
separate religious communities. Louis Finkelstein’s The Pharisees
studies yet another contemporary Jewish political and theological movement, one
that often found itself at odds with the more priestly Sadducees.
With historical perspective,
however, we know that the interpretive community that would come to shape the
future of Judaism was that of the rabbis. Unlike Karaite Jews, who upheld the
authority of the Bible but did not accept the additional rabbinical teachings,
rabbinic sages and their followers recorded the “Oral Law,” or complement and
commentary to the “Written Law,” or Torah. From roughly the second century of
the Common Era to the ninth century, religious scholars known as “rabbis”
interpreted and reinterpreted religious texts, often in oral contexts in both
master-disciple relationships and religious academies. At times, people within
the scholarly community would compile and redact these oral teachings. In about
200 CE, for example, the community produced a set of interpretive (and largely
legal) commentary on the Bible called the Mishnah. Later Jewish communities in
Palestine and Babylonia would subsequently compile commentaries upon the
Mishnah; these are respectively called the Palestinian (or Jerusalem) Talmud
and the Babylonian Talmud. Other rabbinic sources, called Midrash, are
concerned with the expansive exegesis of scripture; while somewhat less
authoritative in subsequent religious communities, they continue to interest
both scholars and practitioners. Most Midrashim contain more narrative than
legal material and have therefore attracted academic commentators interested in
language, narrative, and culture.
Rabbinic literature represents
the best-preserved traditions from the early centuries of the Common Era, in
part because these texts have held religious authority for Jewish communities
throughout history and to today. Of these writings, the Babylonian Talmud has
become the textual foundation of subsequent Judaism. Hermann Strack and Gunter
Stemberger’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash serves as the
canonical reference book for rabbinic texts, including chronological,
geographical, and archaeological information about each collection. The
Babylonian Talmud, redacted in Babylonia in the sixth or seventh century, is
most significant and voluminous rabbinic text. The Steinsaltz translation is
common, and the Schottenstein Talmud Bavli with facing Hebrew
and English is an excellent, if occasionally religiously ideological, resource.
A wealth of secondary scholarship on rabbinic literature ranges from the
literary to the historical to the theoretical; some of its best examples
include David Stern’s Parables in Midrash
and Daniel Boyarin’s Intertextuality and
the Reading of Midrash.
The twelfth and thirteenth century emergence of Kabbalah, a mystical
trend within Judaism, marked the spread of another interpretive tradition. The Zohar,
the major text of Kabbalah, appeared in thirteenth century Spain. Daniel Matt’s
translation and introduction volume, also entitled Zohar, are essential
guides to its esoteric and obscure text and traditions. In On the Mystical
Shape of the Godhead, Gershom Scholem, the most famous scholar of mysticism,
discusses recurring symbolism and concepts in Kabbalah. In
contradistinction to these mystical trends, medieval
Jewish philosophical traditions, exemplified by Maimonides, emphasized
rationality. In his Guide for the Perplexed and other writings, some of
which are available in the Maimonides Reader, he uses Aristotelian logic
to create a coherent and orderly presentation of Jewish law.
With his 1670 Theological
Political Treatise, the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza
and his biblical criticism marked the beginning of the path to Jewish
enlightenment thought. Moses Mendelssohn’s 1783 Jerusalem sought to
retain both a commitment to rationalism and the value of halakhah in its
articulation of modern political power and its relationship to religious
The strong Jewish philosophical tradition continues into the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries, often responding to and interacting with non-Jewish
philosophies. Hermann Cohen’s classic Religion of Reason mounts a
neo-Kantian argument for the reasonableness of Judaism and its traditional
sources. Franz Rosenzweig’s 1921 masterpiece Star of Redemption remains
a Jewish classic because of its remarkable depth and erudition; departing from
German Idealism, Rosenzweig focused on concepts such as creation and
revelation, and the relationship of the self to the world. The Star
stands as arguably the most significant book in modern Jewish philosophy.
French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas presents Other-focused ethics in his works.
Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical
Writings provides a good overview, while Difficult Freedom and Nine
Talmudic Readings deal more specifically with Jewish thought. Martin
Buber’s I and Thou remains one of the
most widely read Jewish theologies because of its accessibility and depth.
Emil Fackenheim’s Quest for Past and Future and God’s Presence
in History are both essential works of post-Holocaust considerations of the
possibilities and capacities of a Jewish God. Richard
Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz, which
spoke of a “death of God,” challenged the possibility of religion after the
Holocaust. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of
Man and Between God and Man probe questions about the human
relationship to the divine, especially through biblical interpretations and
perennial questions of chosenness. Heschel’s The Sabbath remains a highly readable and profound meditation on
the meaning of time and Judaism, and an excellent introduction for those new to
Jewish theology. Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and Lonely Man of
Faith likewise consider the place of the modern observant Jew within a
predominantly secular world. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor conceives of the relationship of history and memory in
relationship to Jewish practice and text. Each of these philosophical texts has
had a lasting impact not only on Jewish Studies as a field, but also on the
lives of Jewish readers.
Since the 1970s, Jewish theologians have taken the cultural critiques of
feminism seriously, and have studied Judaism in its relationship to gender and
sexuality. One strand, in which self-identified Jewish feminists sought to
envision a Judaism inclusive of women’s experiences and authority, and critique
sexism, includes Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism, Judith Plaskow’s Standing
Again at Sinai, Susannah Heschel’s On Being a Jewish Feminist, and
Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism. Another strand hews more closely
to traditional Judaism and asks how women and feminism might fit with Jewish
practice; Tamar Ross’s Expanding the Palace of Torah, which offers a
philosophical reading of traditional Jewish law that opens a space for women’s
distinctive experience, is an erudite exemplar of this strand.
At the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century,
Arthur Green’s Seek My Face articulates a contemporary Jewish theology
based on mysticism but oriented to modern Jews seeking religious experience
within their world. In Body of Faith, Michael Wyschogrod articulates a
traditional Judaism with and through the language of modern philosophy and
Christian theology. Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement offers a
contemporary hermeneutical theology that focuses on cultivation of the self
through attention to art, nature, and scripture.
But what about the whole picture? Where to begin? For historical and
terminological reference, the Encyclopedia Judaica remains the most
complete reference work, but cannot provide useful narrative ties among its
subjects. Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy ties together these threads
from the rabbinic to the contemporary in order to sketch a larger picture of
Jewish textual tradition. A Time to Every Purpose, Jonathan Sarna’s
epistolary introduction to Judaism and its rituals, provides an accessible and
yet sophisticated route into thinking about Jewish religious practice today.
For an excellent textual introduction, Barry Holtz collects small
representative pieces of each of the most important interpretative traditions,
from the Torah to rabbinic literature to mysticism, to show the varieties of
Jewish textuality in Back to the Sources. The Jew in the Modern World,
edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Judah Reinharz, provides a wide-ranging and
clearly introduced collection of primary documents from Jewish history in the
Introduction to Judaism
Dr. Sarah Imhoff
Dr. Sarah Imhoff is an Assistant
Professor in the Religious Studies and Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana
Adler, Rachel. Engendering
Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Beacon Press, 1999.
Boyarin, Daniel. Border Lines: The Partition of
Judaeo-Christianity. University of Pennsylvania Press, c2004.
Boyarin, Daniel. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash.
Indiana University Press, c1990.
Buber, Martin. I
and Thou. Scribner, 1970.
Cohen, Hermann. Religion
of Reason; Out of the Sources of Judaism. Scholars Press, c1995.
Cohen, Shaye J.D.
The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties.
University of California Press, 1999.
Collins, John Joseph. Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic
Diaspora. Crossroad, 1983,
Fackenheim, Emil. God’s Presence in History: Jewish
Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections. J. Aronson, 1997.
Fackenheim, Emil. Quest for Past and Future; Essays in Jewish
Theology, Indiana University Press, 1968.
Finkelstein, Louis. The Pharisees, the Sociological Background of Their Faith. Jewish
Publication Society of America, 1962.
Fishbane, Michael. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology.
University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Green, Arthur. Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary
Jewish Theology. J. Aronson, 1992.
Greenberg, Blu. On
Women & Judaism: A View from Tradition. Jewish Publication Society of America,
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Between God and Man; An Interpretation of
Judaism, From the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel. Harper, 1959.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of
Judaism. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955.
Heschel, Abraham. The
Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
Heschel, Susannah. On
Being a Jewish Feminist. Schocken Books, c1995.
Holtz, Barry W. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic
Jewish Texts. Summit Books, 1984.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult
Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, c1990.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Emmanuel
Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings. Indiana University Press, c1996.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine
Talmudic Readings. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Maimonides, Moses. A
Maimonides Reader. Behrman House, 1972.
Maimonides, Moses. The
Guide for the Perplexed. Barnes & Noble Books, c2004.
Martinez, Florentino Garcia. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. E.G.
Martinez, Florentino Garcia. The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls. E.G. Brill, 1995.
Matt, Daniel C. The Zohar: Sefer Ha-Zohar. Stanford
University Press, 2004.
Mendelssohn, Moses. Jerusalem. University Press of New England, 1983.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul and
Reinharz, Jehuda. The Jew in the Modern
World: A Documentary History. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Plaskow, Judith. Standing
Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. Harper & Row, 1990.
Rosenzweig, Franz. The Star of Redemption. Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, 1971.
Ross, Tamar. Expanding
the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Brandeis University Press, 2004.
Rubenstein, Richard. After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism. Johns
Hopkins University Press, c1992.
Sarna, Jonathan. A
Time to Every Purpose. Basic Books, c2008.
Scholem, Gershom. On
the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah. Schoken
Skolnik, Fred. Encyclopedia
Judaica. MacMillan Reference USA, 2006.
Soloveitchik, Joseph. Halakhic Man. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983.
Soloveitchik, Joseph. The Lonely Man of Faith. Doubleday, c2006.
Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theological Political Treatise. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Steinsaltz, Adin. The Talmud, Talmud Bavli: The Steinsaltz
Edition. Random House, 1989-c1998.
Stern, David. Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis
in Rabbinic Literature. Harvard University Press, 1991.
Strack, Hermann Leberecht
and Stemberger, Gunter. Introduction to
the Talmud and Midrash. Fortress Press, 1992.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish
Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its
People, and Its History. William Morrow, c2008.
Wyschogrod, Michael. The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal
Election. Seabury Press, 1983.
Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.
University of Washington Press, c1996.
Zlotowitz, Meir. Schottenstein
Edition of the Talmud Bavli. Artscroll, 1997.