Book Review | A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman

Is Judaism one religion?
March, 15 2018
A History of Judaism

A History of Judaism
Martin Goodman
Princeton University Press

2018, 656 pp, $28.08

Surveys of religious literacy show that, as a group, American Jews do not know very much about the history of their religious tradition. In one recent poll, for example, fewer than half of those surveyed knew that Job was the biblical figure most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite terrible suffering. Only about four in ten recognized that Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher, was Jewish.

Now, thanks to Martin Goodman, a scholar of ancient Jewish history who is retiring this year as president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in England, readers have a new way to give themselves an intensive crash course in Jewish religious history. A History of Judaism distills three millennia of religious thought and experience into a single volume that extends from the biblical age to the present. At more than 600 pages, the book is no Judaism for Dummies. Its heft and information-packed paragraphs may be deterrents for some, but one won’t find within a single volume a more comprehensive account of Jewish religious history.

As the author explains in the introduction, his subject is not the Jews but Judaism. His focus, in other words, is not politics or culture but religion—what Jews in different periods believed about God, the messiah and other supernatural beings; their understandings of scripture and religious law; practices such as prayer and martyrdom; institutions of worship such as the Temple and synagogue and the thinking of rabbis, mystics and religiously oriented philosophers. The book places the religious history of the Jews in relation to a broader history of the world, but only to the extent that the broader history shaped how Jews understood and enacted the covenant with God that they inherited from their ancestors.

There is no way to do justice to a book of this scope in a brief review. To pull together a narrative like this requires delving into many different subfields of Jewish history, and few scholars can match the breadth of Goodman’s knowledge. To be sure, the book does reflect the particular contours of its author’s expertise as a scholar of antiquity, with 300 pages devoted to ancient history and only 100 pages to the past three centuries, a period that includes the Enlightenment, Jewish emancipation, Darwinism and other scientific advances, America, Communism, the Holocaust, Israel, feminism and other developments that have transformed Jewish religious life. This is a book where an ancient Jewish thinker such as Philo of Alexandria, who exerted more posthumous influence on Christianity than Judaism, appears or is cited on dozens of pages, whereas modern thinkers such as Hermann Cohen and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook appear more fleetingly. But I have to admit—as a fellow scholar of antiquity—that I don’t completely mind the ancient world getting such prominence, and Goodman does a first-rate job with the daunting challenge of tracing a global and increasingly multi-angled story into the medieval and modern periods.

Although the book is written with much authority, it is worth noting that it is a better guide to some subjects than others. Goodman aims to make room for—and treat fairly—the divergent understandings of Jewish tradition that have developed over the centuries. Following the narrative of the first-century historian Josephus, he gives a lot of attention to the different “philosophies” or sects that emerged by the end of the Second Temple period—the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. He carries the theme of religious diversity through his treatment of subsequent periods as well. For example, in describing how a network of scholars managed to spread their understanding of Judaism from the Babylonian rabbinic academies to the rest of the Jewish world, he highlights how this “rabbinization” led to new forms of religious diversity and dissension. There were opponents to rabbinic authority like the Karaites; messianic movements such as as Shabbtai Tzvi, which shook up the Jewish world by promising radical change; and rifts among different kinds of rabbinic Judaism, such as the bitter struggle that developed in the 18th century between Hasidism and its more scholarly opponents, the mitnagdim. The section that takes things into the present is likewise focused on schism—the struggles between reformers and counter-reformers, religious opposition to Zionism and tensions between Ashkenazic Jews from Europe and Jews from Islamic cultures.

These various movements and factions can be so different from one another that one can well ask whether it makes sense to classify them all as part of one religion.

These various movements and factions can be so different from one another that one can well ask whether it makes sense to classify them all as part of one religion. The book is premised on the idea that there is such a thing as Judaism—a single religion with a history that can be told as a single story (an idea that may seem like common sense to many general readers, but one that some scholars of Jewish studies would dispute). But it is a religion that has expressed itself in many different and sometimes mutually antagonistic ways, and Goodman does a very good job explaining to readers how the variety and conflicts developed.

Even as it aims for a multifaceted account of religious history, however, the book still struggles, as do many previous historical accounts, to encompass the religious lives of those beyond the elite. Apart from their role as objects of legal attention, women emerge within the narrative only in the wake of the modern struggle for gender equality. The religious experiences of children, though of interest in other fields of religious studies, get no treatment. Gender and age also diversify religious experience, but these perspectives get far less attention in the narrative than the ideological differences that Goodman describes so well.

To a certain degree, Goodman’s approach is limited by his sources. As a historian, he is confined by evidence that often reflects only a small slice of human experience, usually that of upper-class males. But the omissions in the story he tells can also be born of biases within academic culture, and it is worth noting that Goodman’s narrative does not reflect progress that other scholars have made in addressing this bias. Examples include Elisheva Baumgarten’s efforts to illumine the piety of men and women beyond the learned elite of medieval European communities, and Eve Krakowski’s use of documents from the Cairo Geniza to illumine the lives of Jewish female adolescents in medieval Egypt, not to mention a multi-volume feminist commentary on the Talmud, organized by Tal Ilan, now underway that promises to draw together what we know about the religious lives of women in late antiquity. It is also worth noting that new research is finding ways to expand our knowledge of Judaism as lived by ordinary people, not just rabbis and communal leaders.

But it feels ungrateful to complain about what wasn’t included in a book that works so hard to be inclusive. Although Jews constitute a small people, a fraction of the world’s Christian and Muslim populations, we are heirs to an extremely varied religious heritage cultivated over the centuries in many corners of the world. Goodman has done us a service by tying so much of this experience together into a clearly written narrative accessible to general readers. Those pining for an earlier era of Jewish unity may not be comforted by a history that shows that Jews were religiously fractured from the beginning, but then again there is hope in this knowledge too. Goodman ends the book by voicing his concern that Judaism today is riven by religious conflicts that in some cases have begun to grow violent. His history shows that Jews have been divided by many religious disputes before and have survived, and it suggests as well how they often overcame such divisions—not by actually resolving their conflicts with other Jews but by learning to live with their differences.

Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures. His recent book, The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, received a National Jewish Book award in 2017.

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