Jewish History on One Foot
In my daily life I meet a ton of people who have never talked to a Jew.
Often times this is within the context of running educational events on college campuses, speaking at interfaith functions, or even shopping at my local supermarket while I sport a kippah.
And many of these people, in a completely respectful way, ask me about Judaism. They have heard conflicting ideas and versions of Judaism and its history. They are unable to separate the stereotypes of Jews, ubiquitous throughout the public sphere, from real facts and knowledge about the Jewish people.
Who are these people that make up less than half a percentage of the worldwide population, yet receive an extremely disproportionate amount of attention and scrutiny - so much so that when people are asked how many Jews there are in the world the answers tend to be around the half-billion mark (in reality it’s less than 15 million)? What is the nature of these people who have been maligned and hated at seemingly every turn of history?
Who are the Jewish people and what is the Jewish story, they ask?
It is this type of frequent interaction that has inspired me to write out my 3 minute elevator pitch of Jewish history.
Judaism’s inception was in ancient Israel over 3000 years ago. There, a bunch of disparate tribes scattered throughout the land began to unite under a single political, ethical, and theological system that would create the roots for what would eventually become known as Judaism.
Now it is important to understand that it wasn’t simply religion that sparked the initial bond between these distinct tribes. Rather, over the course of hundreds of years, these people came to see each other as a family - creating foundational myths attesting to shared genealogical roots - which was given a moral imperative by God to bolster and upkeep a high ethical standard throughout the land of Israel. Eventually this community created a constitution of sorts, known as the Torah, where they delineated their attachment to God, their “history”, ethical laws, connection to the land of Israel, and political innovations.
This is the historical view, I tell people. Orthodox Jews, those who believe the Bible to be the word of God, will have a different, top-down, version where the foundational myths in the Torah reflect actual history and the Torah was given from God to the Jews instead of the Jews producing the Torah.
Initially, Judaism revolved around a temple. For roughly 1,000 years a temple (or actually two different ones) stood strong in Jerusalem and acted as a center of both religious and social life - where Jews from all over would gather on holidays bringing sacrifices with the help of the priestly class.
However, in 70 CE the temple was destroyed by the expanding Roman empire ushering in a 2000 year diaspora. But, instead of slowly assimilating away like many nations did in the face of capture and exile, Jews clung to their heritage. Now, no longer revolving around a centralized temple or even based in the land of Israel, Judaism had to slowly adapt and transition from a tradition practiced in a temple to one practiced in the home, and from leadership by priests/kings to Jewish scholars known as Rabbis.
As Jewish communities spread throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, fierce debate over the future of Judaism, biblical interpretation, philosophical matters, and issues of Jewish law were taking place in the major Jewish centers. However, rather than arriving at one final answer, most of the debates were preserved, with all of their disagreements and multiplicity of opinion, in a series of books known as the talmud.
Over the course of several hundred years, Judaism had made a complete transition from a nationality based in Israel with an ethic and religious component to being seen as a religion that would practice as a minority throughout the middle ages.
Given their minority status within both Christian and Islamic society Jews faced a tremendous amount of prejudice and anti-Semitism throughout their tenure as a landless people. In Europe and Christendom Jews were blamed for killing Jesus, economic collapse, disease, and virtually anything else that went wrong, culminating in thousands of pogroms and expulsions. Throughout Islamic lands, while Jews certainly had it better, it was still far from ideal. As non-Muslims, Jews had to pay a tax for the simple fact of being a minority, and were subjected to scores of laws highlighting their non-Islamic status.
However, throughout this time, Jews stayed strong, interconnected, and fully determined to carry Judaism from one generation to the next. Equally as important is that Jews, regardless of where they resided, continued their connection both to each other and to the land of Israel. Three times a day Jews would pray to return to their homeland, weddings wouldn’t be complete until the partiers reflected on the loss of Jerusalem, and Israel was a ubiquitous feature throughout Jewish literature and ritual.
When the political opportunity arose for Jews to return to Israel, one by one worldwide Jewish communities hopped on board. Currently, half of all Jews in the world (some estimates argue over half) live in Israel, while most diaspora Jews continue to feel an inherent connection to the Jewish state. It is for this reason that most Jews see raw hatred of Israel (individual political policies and disagreements aside) to be anti-Semitic.
Today there are Jews of all types. You will meet Jews who believe that every last word of the Bible came out of God’s mouth on a mountain 3400 years ago, and you will meet Jews who are avowed atheists, yet feel extremely connected to the cultural aspects of Judaism (Jews in America are, on average, the least religious ethnic group in the country). You will meet Jews who tell you that Judaism is a religion, while others will argue that it is an ethnicity or nationality. You will meet others that think it is all or none of the above.
Judaism and Jewish history is complex and this was certainly an oversimplification. But there is one more thing that Jews love: questions and arguments. So ask away!
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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