History of Judaism & Pre-Talmudic Jewish Literature Recommended Reading

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3B History of Judaism & Pre-Talmudic

Jewish Literature

by Dr. Sarah Imhoff

Dr. Sarah Imhoff is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies and Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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As any tradition stretching millennia, “Judaism” is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of social and intellectual traditions. Rabbinic literature represents the best-preserved traditions from the early centuries of the Common Era, in part because these writings have held religious authority for Jewish communities throughout history and to today. Lawrence Schiffmann’s Text and Traditions collects and translates excerpts from rabbinic and other Second Temple period writings.

From the beginning of the Common Era, the sect at Qumran demonstrates the diversity of traditions in Second Temple Judaism. In the caves at Qumran, archaeologists discovered 972 scroll fragments, which have been named the Dead Sea Scrolls. Florentino Garcia Martinez’s collection The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated presents these texts, while the Qumran community and its textual and historical relationship to other Jewish groups is discussed in Garcia Martinez’s The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scepter and the Star by John Collins,  The Qumran Community by Michael Knibb, The Community of the Renewed Covenant by Eugene Ulrich, and The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls by James Vanderkam all present research about the communal sect and what it is possible to know from the textual and archaeological evidence. Louis Finkelstein’s The Pharisees studies another Second Temple Jewish political and theological movement, one that often found itself at odds with the more priestly Sadducees.

The writings of first century Hellenistic Jews Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria demonstrate a flourishing Jewish culture beyond the normative rabbinic authority. 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.

In the eighteenth century, a populist experience-focused Judaism called Hasidism emerged. Martine Buber, better known for his philosophical treatise I and Thou, also wrote Tales of the Hasidim and The Origins and Meaning of Hasidism. Those volumes, along with Moshe Idel’s Hasidism and Jerome Mintz’s Legends of the Hasidim have become classics, albeit still open to criticism and revision. Allan Nadler chronicles the reaction against this pietistic movement in his Faith of the Mithnagdim. Meanwhile, Sephardic traditions developed outside of Western Europe, as Issachar Ben-Ami demonstrates in his case study Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco. In the modern context, there is even a tradition of Jewish secularism, as David Biale demonstrates in Not in the Heavens, and for which Sherwin Wine makes an argument in Judaism Beyond God

 Contemporary Judaism continues to have many intellectual and communal strands, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. Michael Meyer’s Response to Modernity is the standard-bearer for historical studies of Reform Judaism, while Dana Kaplan’s American Reform Judaism brings a more presentist and accessible form to Reform’s story. Mordecai Kaplan somewhat unintentionally created American Judaism’s fourth denomination in his 1934 Judaism as a Civilization, which served as much of the founding philosophy for the Reconstructionist movement. Marshall Sklare in Conservative Judaism and Mordecai Waxman in Tradition and Change both present useful but somewhat dated accounts of the development of Conservative Judaism in America. Michael Cohen’s The Birth of Conservative Judaism is more current, but also more limited in its scope. Jeffrey Gurock’s Orthodox Jews in America and Samuel Heilman’s Defenders of the Faith tell the stories of Orthodox Jewish communities in America, while Jan Feldman’s Lubavitchers as Citizens and Rachel Elior’s Paradoxical Ascent to God discuss the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement’s sociological and theological aspects, respectively. Jonathan Sarna brings these strands together in his historical study American Judaism, while Marc Lee Raphael’s Judaism in America and The Synagogue in America present accounts more focused on the contemporary and the sociological. 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.