Creating Judaism

Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Creating Judaism
    Book Description:

    How can we define "Judaism," and what are the common threads uniting ancient rabbis, Maimonides, the authors of the Zohar, and modern secular Jews in Israel? Michael L. Satlow offers a fresh perspective on Judaism that recognizes both its similarities and its immense diversity. Presenting snapshots of Judaism from around the globe and throughout history, Satlow explores the links between vastly different communities and their Jewish traditions. He studies the geonim, rabbinical scholars who lived in Iraq from the ninth to twelfth centuries; the intellectual flourishing of Jews in medieval Spain; how the Hasidim of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe confronted modernity; and the post-World War II development of distinct American and Israeli Jewish identities. Satlow pays close attention to how communities define themselves, their relationship to biblical and rabbinic texts, and their ritual practices. His fascinating portraits reveal the amazingly creative ways Jews have adapted over time to social and political challenges and continue to remain a "Jewish family."

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50911-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-21)

    What is Judaism? At first glance, the question itself appears either silly or arcane. Everybody, after all, has some working mental concept that they call “Judaism.” Many committed Jews and Christians can provide a precise and articulate definition, drawing a clear bright line between what “counts” as Judaism and what does not. Many more people who cannot or will not provide such a definition nevertheless inherently know what Judaism is: “I know it when I see it,” they might reply. For such people, to argue about a precise meaning is a mere academic exercise, an abstruse and meaningless game of...

    (pp. 22-68)

    On a typical Saturday morning in my neighborhood, the Jews start passing our house at quarter to eight. It starts with the men and older boys, all dressed in black suits and white shirts, black coats, and wearing black hats, walking to their yeshiva minyan. An hour later the crowd changes. Still men and boys, they now wear a variety of different suits and coats and instead of black hats don knitted kippot. By 9:45 am these men and boys are largely already at their Modern Orthodox synagogue and the cars of nattily dressed families bound for a bar or...

    (pp. 69-95)

    Sometimes at the beginning of a semester I cruelly ask my undergraduate students to name three things that they know to be true about Judaism. Almost without fail, several, and not infrequently a majority, will include the assertion that Judaism is the “religion of the book” or, even more specifically, the “religion of the Bible.” Unlike some other assertions, this one rarely raises any dissent; the idea that Judaism is in some way close to the Bible is an ingrained part of their outlook, whether or not they are Jews.

    The intellectual history of this idea is not difficult to...

    (pp. 96-114)

    Imagine a world in which both Torah and Temple peacefully coexisted, in which the sages and their progenitors ran the Temple service according to the exact will of God as they discerned it in the Torah, in which the people of the land of Israel followed these prerabbinic and rabbinic interpretations voluntarily—with the occasional sectarian dispute strictly for the sake of heaven, in which the Jews outside the land of Israel looked carefully to the sages of Israel for guidance and strictly followed their advice. Imagine, that is, a world that never was.

    When the Rabbis looked back at...

    (pp. 115-139)

    For all their riotous diversity, almost all modern Jewish movements are heirs of the Rabbis. Prior to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 ce, Judaism was a diverse and loose family of religious communities that drew upon local understandings of Temple and Torah. By 640 ce most of the vast literary production of the Rabbis had reached closure, and their distinctive understanding of the tradition would transform Judaism utterly.

    The Second Temple period came to an end with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. In 66 ce the Jews revolted against Rome for reasons that scholars...

    (pp. 140-163)

    Theology, for most of us, can mean two different things. More formally it refers to a systematic and relatively rigorous explanation of the divine and the world. Like some types of philosophy, it begins with certain premises and logically builds upon them a coherent system of thought. In this sense the goal of theology is to tame and systematize potentially contradictory beliefs about the divine. It would be the job of theology, for example, to reconcile a belief in only one God, who is good, with the enduring presence of evil in the world.

    A second, more colloquial use of...

  11. 6 MITZVOT
    (pp. 164-186)

    Biblical religion is one of big gestures. There is little that is small or banal about it. The Torah’s plotline moves from the height of paradise in Eden to the depths of the slave-pits in Egypt, from God’s fiery appearance at Mount Sinai to premonitions of His residence in the Temple in Jerusalem. Encounters with God are exceptional and dangerous, usually occurring in the highly scripted, bloody sacrifices, Moses’s cautious entrance into the Tent of Meeting, or (the often unwelcome) divine visitation upon the prophet. The rituals of the First and Second Temple were spectacular and awesome spectacles performed and...

    (pp. 187-208)

    In 640 the light of Byzantium flickered and went out.

    This, in any case, was how at least one Jewish liturgical poet in Palestine saw the Arab invasion, and the prospect delighted him. Jewish life under the Christian emperors had grown increasingly difficult. From their origins Christians had had a problem with the Jews and their religion, all the more so because the first Christians were in fact Jews. Not only was Jesus a Jew but his story—the meaning of his life, as understood by his followers—made no sense without the Hebrew Bible. The Christian story requires an...

    (pp. 209-228)

    Toward the end of Moses Maimonides’ opus, The Guide of the Perplexed,¹ after hundreds of pages of dense philosophical discussions, Maimonides abruptly switches tone to tell a parable:

    The ruler is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly within the city and partly outside the city. Of those who are within the city, some have turned their backs upon the ruler’s habitation, their faces being turned another way. Others seek to reach the ruler’s habitation, turn toward it, and desire to enter it and to stand before him, but up to now they have not yet seen the...

  14. 9 SEEING GOD
    (pp. 229-249)

    Rabbi Joseph ben Ephraim Karo (1488–1575) was accustomed to visitations. Over the course of his writing the enormous (and enormously learned) commentary on the Arba’ah Turim, the code of Jewish law written by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher in the early fourteenth century, and then a digest of this commentary in the form of his own law code, the Shulhan Arukh, Karo received guidance from a heavenly mentor, which Karo identified with the soul of the Mishnah and frequently just called Mishnah. He carefully recorded these visitations in a book that would receive the title Maggid Mesharim (Teller of the...

  15. 10 EAST AND WEST
    (pp. 250-287)

    Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891) could not have been clearer about his view of the Zohar.¹ “Through its constant use of coarse expressions,” he writes in his monumental History of the Jews, “often verging on the sensual, in contradistinction to the chaste, pure spirit pervading Jewish literature, the Zohar sowed the seeds of unclean desires, and later on produced a sect that laid aside all regard for decency.” The Zohar was a Jewish aberration, and its author, Moses de Leon, a forger, ignoramus, and profligate; a victim of “Messianic enthusiasm.” The Zohar did violence to the meaning of the Bible, “perverted...

  16. EPILOGUE: Whither Judaism?
    (pp. 288-296)

    This book began with a word. What is Judaism? Where did it come from, what does it signify, and how do we—Jews and non‐Jews, religious and secular, academics and not—use it? However simple these questions might appear, the answers to them are anything but simple or straightforward. I have attempted to sketch my answers not merely as some abstract and theoretical formulation, but as it might look in practice. To define Judaism is to engage the messy realities of the Jews who continually recreate it.

    Judaism, I have argued, cannot serve as the subject of a verb; it...

    (pp. 297-306)
    (pp. 307-324)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 325-340)