The Roots of Judaism

The Jews are a people who trace their descent from the biblical Israelites and who are united by the religion called Judaism. They are not a race; Jewish identity is a mixture of ethnic, national, and religious elements. An individual may become part of the Jewish people by conversion to Judaism; but a born Jew who rejects Judaism or adopts another religion does not entirely lose his Jewish identity. In biblical times the Jews were divided into 12 tribes: Reuben, Simeon (Levi), Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh.

The word Jew is derived from the kingdom of Judah, which included the ribes of Benjamin and Judah. The name Israel referred to the people as a whole and to the northern kingdom of 10 tribes. Today it is used as a collective name for all Jewry and since 1948 for the Jewish state. (Citizens of the state of Israel are called Israelis; not all of them are Jews. ) In the Bible, Hebrew is used by foreign peoples as a name for the Israelites; today it is applied only to the hebrew language. The origin of the Jews is recounted in the Hebrew Bible.

Despite legendary and miraculous elements in its early narratives, most scholars believe that the iblical account is based on historic realities. According to the Book of Genesis, God ordered the patriarch Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia and travel to a new land, which he promised to Abraham’s descendants as a perpetual inheritance. Although the historicity of Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob is uncertain, the Israelite tribes certainly came to Canaan from Mesopotamia.

Later they, or some of them, settled in Egypt, where they were reduced to slavery; they finally fled to freedom under the leadership of an extraordinary man named Moses, probably about 1200 BC. After a period of desert andering, the tribes invaded Canaan at different points, and over a lengthy period of time they gained control over parts of the country. For a century or more the tribes, loosely united and sometimes feuding among themselves, were hard pressed by Canaanite forces based in fortified strongholds and by marauders from outside.

At critical moments tribal chieftains rose to lead the people in battle. But when the Philistines threatened the very existence of the Israelites, the tribes formed a kingdom under the rule (1020- 1000 BC) of Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul died fighting the Philistines nd was succeeded by David of the tribe of Judah. David crushed the power of the Philistines and established a modest empire. He conquered the fortress city of Jerusalem, which up to that time had been controlled by a Canaanite tribe, and made it his capital.

His son Solomon assumed the trappings of a potentate and erected the Temple in Jerusalem, which became the central sanctuary of the distinctive monotheistic Israelite religion and ultimately the spiritual center of world Jewry. The national union effected by David was shaky. The economically and culturally advanced tribes of the north resented the rule of kings from pastoral Judah, and after Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided. The larger and richer northern kingdom was known as Israel; Judah, with Benjamin, remained loyal to the family of David.

Israel experienced many dynastic changes and palace revolutions. Both Israel and Judah, located between the empires of Egypt and Assyria, were caught in the struggle between the two great powers. Assyria was the dominant empire during the period of the divided kingdom. When Israel, with Egyptian encouragement, tried to throw off Assyrian rule, it was destroyed and a large number of its inhabitants were deported (722 BC). Judah managed to outlive he Assyrian Empire (destroyed c. 610), but the Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire that replaced it also insisted on control of Judah.

When a new revolt broke out under Egyptian influence, the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple (587 or 586 BC); the royalty, nobility, and skilled craftsmen were deported to Babylonia. Loss of state and Temple, however, did not lead to the disappearance of the Judeans, as it did in the northern kingdom. The peasantry that remained on the land, the refugees in Egypt, and the exiles in Babylonia retained a strong faith in their God and the hope of ultimate restoration.

This was largely due to the influence of the great prophets. Their warnings of doom had been fulfilled; therefore, the hopeful message they began to preach was believed. The universal prophetic teaching assured Jews that they could still worship their God on alien soil and without a temple. Henceforth the Jewish people and religion could take root in the dispersion as well as in the homeland. Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia in 536 BC. Subsequently he permitted the exiles to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. Many chose, however, to remain in Mesopotamia, where the Jewish community existed without nterruption for more than 2,500 years until the virtual elimination of Jewish presence in Iraq after World War II. ) Leadership of the reviving Judean center was provided largely by returning exiles–notably Nehemiah, an important official of the Persian court, and Ezra, a learned priest. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and consolidated spiritual life by a public ceremony of allegiance to the Torah and by stringent rules against mixed marriage.

In the following centuries leadership was provided mainly by priests, who claimed descent from Moses’ brother Aaron; the high priest usually represented the eople in dealings with the foreign powers that successively ruled the land. Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 322; his successors, the Macedonian rulers of Egypt (the Ptolemies) and Syria; vied for control of this strategically important area; eventually the Syrians won. Hellenistic influences penetrated Jewish life deeply, but when the Seleucid king Antichus IV tried to impose the worship of Greek gods upon the Jews, a rebellion ensued (168 BC).

The popular revolt was led by the Maccabees, a provincial priestly family (also called Hasmoneans). By 165 they recaptured the Temple, which had been onverted into a pagan shrine, and rededicated it to the God of Israel. Hostilities with Syria continued; but Simon, the last of the Maccabean brothers, consolidated his power and was formally recognized in 131 BC as ruler and high priest. His successors took the title of king and for about a century ruled an independent commonwealth. Dynastic quarrels, however, gave the Roman general Pompey the Great an excuse to intervene and make himself master of the country in 63 BC.

In subsequent decades a family of Idumaean adventurers ingratiated themselves with the successive Roman dictators; with Roman help, Herod the Great ade himself ruler of Judea, eventually (37 BC) with the title of king. Able but ruthless, he was hated by the people, although he rebuilt the Temple with great magnificence. The Romans allowed Herod’s sons less authority and in 6 BC put the country formally under the control of their own officials, known as procurators. New spiritual forces emerged during the Maccabean and Herodian periods.

The leadership of hereditary priests was contested by laymen distinguished for their learning and piety, who won the respect and support of the people. The priestly conservatives came to be known as Sadducees, the more progressive lay party as he Pharisees. The latter came to dominate the Sangedrin, which was the highest religious and legal authority of the nation. Burdoned by excessive taxation and outraged by acts of brutality, the Judeans became more and more restive under Roman rule, all the more because they were confident that God would ultimately vindicate them. Revolutionary groups such as the Zealots emerged calling for armed revolt.

The Sadducees were inclined to collaborate with the Romans; the Pharisees advocated passive resistance but sought to avoid open war. In AD 66 the moderates could no longer control the desperate populace, and ebellion against Roman tyranny broke out. After bitter fighting the Romans captured Jerusalem and burned the Temple in 70; at Masada the Zealots held out until 73, when most of the 1,000 surviving defenders killed themselves to defy capture by the Romans. As a result of the revolt thousands of Jews were sold into slavery and thus were scattered widely in the Roman world.

The last vestiges of national autonomy were obliterated. The Pharisaic leaders, shortly thereafter given the title of Rabbi, rallied the people for a new undertaking–the reconstruction of religious and social life. Using the institution of the Syanagogue as a center of worship and education, they adapted religious practice to new conditions. Their assembly, the Sanhedrin, was reconvened at Jabneh, and its head was recognized by the Romans and given the title of patriarch; the Diaspora Jews accepted his authority and that of the Sanhedrin in matters of Jewish law.

Many Diaspora Jewish communities rebelled against Rome early in the 2d century; however, their rebellions were crushed, with much bloodshed. Still more bitter was the revolt of Palestinian Jewry led by Bar Kochba in 132; it was put down after three years of savage fighting. For a time thereafter observance of basic Jewish practices was made a capital crime, and Jews were banned from Jerusalem. Under the Antonine emperors (138-92), however, milder policies were restored, and the work of the scholars was resumed, particularly in Galilee, which became the seat of the partriarchate until its abolition (c. 429) by the Romans.

There the sages called tannaim completed the redaction of the Mishnah (oral law) under the direction of Judah Ha-Nasi. In the 3d and 4th centuries scholarly activity in Palestine declined as a result of bad economic conditions and oppression by Christian Rome. Meanwhile, wo Babylonian pupils of Judah ha -Nasi had returned home, bringing the Mishnah with them, and established new centers of learning at Sura and Nehardea. A period of great scholarly accomplishment followed, and leadership of world Jewry passed to the Babylonian schools. The Babylonian Talmud became the standard legal work for Jews everywhere.

Babylonian Jewry enjoyed peace and prosperity under the Parthian and Sassanian rulers, with only occasional episodes of persecution. In addition to the heads of the academies, the Jews had a secular ruler, the exilarch. This situation was not significantly changed by the Muslim onquest of the Persian empire. At the end of the 6th century, the heads of the academies had adopted the title of gaon (Hebrew, “excellency”), and the next four centuries are known as the gaonic period; communities throughout the world turned to the Babylonian leaders for help in understanding the Talmud and applying it to new problems.

About 770 the sect of Karaites, biblical literalists who rejected the Talmud, appeared in Babylonia. Despite the vigorous opposition of the great Saadia Ben Joseph Gaon and other leaders, the Karaites continued to flourish for centuries in various lands; today the sect has only a ew small remnants. Jews had long been accustomed to living in neighborhoods of their own, for security and for ready access to a synagogue. From the 16th century, however, they were systematically compelled to live in walled enclosures, to be locked in at night and on Christian holidays, and to wear a distinguishing badge when outside the walls.

The Jewish quarter of Venice (established 1516) was called the GHETTO, and this local name became a general term for such segregated areas. Cut off from normal relations with non-Jews, few Jews had any idea of the cultural revival of the Renaissance. Even in the field of Jewish law they tended to a rigid conservatism. In Poland and Lithuania, social conditions also had a segregatory effect. The Jews continued to speak a German dialect, mixed with many Hebrew words and with borrowings from Slavic languages–now known as Yiddish).

Intellectual life was focused on study of the Talmud, in which they achieved extraordinary mastery. They enjoyed a large measure of self- government, centralized in the Council of the Four Lands. Persecutions became more frequent, however, inspired by competition from the growing Christian merchant class and by overly zealous churchmen. In 1648 a rebellion of Cossacks and Tatars in the Ukraine–then under Polish rule–led to an invasion of Poland, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred.

Polish Jewry never recovered from this blow. A little over a century later, Poland was partitioned (1772, 1793, 1795) among Prussia, Austria, and Russia, and most of Polish Jewry found itself under the heartless rule of the Russian tsars. Some 18th-century liberals began to advocate an improvement of Jewish status; at the same time Moses Mendelssohn and a few other Jews were urging their coreligionists to acquire secular education and prepare themselves to articipate in the national life of their countries.

Such trends were intensified by the French Revolution. The French National Assembly granted (1791) Jews citizenship, and Napoleon I, although not free from prejudice, extended these rights to Jews in the countries he conquered, and the ghettos were abolished. After Napoleon’s fall (1814-15), the German states revoked the rights he had granted the Jews, but the struggle for emancipation continued. Equal rights were achieved in the Netherlands, and more slowly in Great Britain.

Germany and Austria, even after 1870, discriminated against Jews in military and cademic appointments; in these countries much popular hostility continued, now called Anti-Semetism and supposedly justified on racial rather than religious grounds. In the American colonies the Jews had suffered relatively minor disabilities; with the founding of the United States, Jews became full citizens- – although in a few states discriminatory laws had to be fought.

Jews entered the life of the Western world with keen enthusiasm; they contributed significantly to commercial, scientific, cultural, and social progress. But the old structure of Jewish life was severely damaged: community ontrols became less effective, and neglect of religious observance, mixed marriage, and conversion to Christianity occurred. In response to such challenges, new modernist versions of Judaism were formulated; these movements originated in Germany and had their greatest development in North America.

In Russia hopes of improvement were soon abandoned; the government engaged in open war against Jews. Under Nicholas I (r. 1825-55), 12-year-old Jewish boys were drafted into the army for terms of more than 30 years (whereas other Russians were drafted at 18 for 25 years); and Jewish conscripts were treated ith the utmost brutality to make them convert to Christianity. After 1804, Jews were allowed to reside only in Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine; Russia proper was closed to them. This Pale of settlement was later made smaller.

From 1881 on, anti-Jewish riots, tolerated and sometimes instigated by the government, sent thousands fleeing to Western Europe and the Americas. Because Russia refused to honor the passports of American Jews, the United States abrogated a trade treaty in 1913. In response to these policies, new trends appeared in Russian Jewry. A movement of Jewish nationalism expressed itself in a revival of Hebrew as a ecular language and in a few attempts at colonization in Palestine. A Jewish socialist movement, the Bund, appeared in urban centers, stressing the Yiddish language and folk culture.

The violent outburst of hatred that accompanied the Dreyfus Aaair in France inspired Theodor Herzl to launch the movement of Zionism, which sought to establish a Jewish state. Its chief support came from East European Jews; elsewhere Herzl’s proposals were considered impractical and a threat to newly won civil status. During World War I, East European Jews suffered heavily from troops on both sides. American Jewry now found itself for the first time the leading element in the world Jewish community, bearing the major responsibility for relief and reconstruction of the ravaged centers.

The peace treaties guaranteed equal rights to minorities in the newly constituted or reconstituted countries, but these agreements were not consistently upheld with regard to Jewish minorities, and colonization in Palestine expanded considerably. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Great Britain announced its support for a Jewish national home; this purpose, approved by the Allied governments, was embodied in he mandate for Palestine that Britain assumed after the war.

British agents had secretly made contradictory promises to Arab leaders, however, and growing Arab nationalism expressed itself in anti- Jewish riots in Palestine in 1920-21 and 1929. In the latter year leading non-Zionist Jews, convinced that Palestine alone offered hope for impoverished and oppressed millions (since Western nations had rigidly restricted immigration), joined with the Zionists to form the Jewish Agency to assist and direct Jewish settlement and development in Palestine.

The Communist Revolution of 1917 did not end the sufferings of the Jewish opulation in Russia. Much of the fighting in the Civil War of 1918-20 took place in the Ukraine, where the White Russian armies conducted savage pogroms in which thousands of Jews were massacred. Although discriminatory decrees were abolished and anti-Semitism was banned as counterrevolutionary under the Soviet system, Judaism suffered the same disabilities as other religious groups. After the fall of Leon Trotsky, the old anti-Semitism was revived as a government policy.

In Germany the Weimar Republic for the first time abolished all official discrimination against Jews. The republic was unpopular, however, and anti- Semitism was popular. Calculated use of anti-Semitism as an instrument was a major factor in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933, whereupon the German Jews were immediately disfranchised, robbed of possessions, deprived of employment, barred from the schools, and subjected to physical violence and constant humiliation.

Once World War II occupied the attention of the democracies, Hitler and his supporters attempted “the final solution,” the complete extermination of the Jews. About 6 million Jews –almost a third of their total number–were massacred, starved, or systematically gassed in oncentration camps. In addition to destroying so many individual lives, the Holocaust eradicated the communities of Central and Eastern Europe, which had been the chief centers of learning and piety for nearly a thousand years.

The Western democracies all but closed their doors to refugees. Britain meanwhile had gradually abandoned the Balfour Declaration, reducing the number of Jews admitted to Palestine in order to placate the Arabs. After repeated outbreaks of violence, investigations, and abortive British plans, Britain announced that it was giving up the mandate, and the United Nations adopted a esolution calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed.

Since then Israel has fought five wars against Arab coalitions to establish and preserve its independence. A peace treaty (Mar. 26, 1979) between Israel and Egypt was not accepted by the other Arab states. Although the USSR voted for the UN partition resolution in 1947, it later became markedly anti-Israel in its policies. A resurgence of Jewish self- consciousness, however, occurred within Soviet Jewry despite deprivation of religious education and other discriminations.

Over the years a number of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States, although official restrictions caused a decline in emigration in the 1980s until 1987, when new legislation provided a liberal emigration policy. Since World War II the Jews of the United States have achieved a degree of acceptance without parallel in Jewish history, and Jews play a significant role in intellectual and cultural life. The elimination of social barriers has led to a high rate of mixed marriage. During the same period there has been a growth in synagogue affiliation and support for Israel.

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