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A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman

26 January 2018

Charles Middleburgh reads a study of how the faith developed

IT WAS a particularly inspired example of lateral thinking to ask Professor Martin Goodman, a re­­nowned Jewish historian and spe­cial­ist in Graeco-Roman Jewish history, to write a history of Judaism. Bringing a huge amount of historical knowledge to an analysis of the development of dogma and doctrine inevitably leads to a finely pitched study of great objectivity and worth.

Goodman sets out his purpose in the introduction: “One way to avoid imposing on the history of Judaism an invented narrative to justify the concerns of the present day is to describe as objectively as possible the various forms of Judaism which have flourished at specific times, allowing the family resemblance between these different forms to justify discussing them all within a single history. . .

”The approach of this book is therefore a marriage between the unapologetically linear histories of earlier generations and the ‘poly­thetic’ descriptions favoured by con­temporary scholars concerned to keep an open mind about the claims of all religions.”

A History of Judaism is divided into six parts: Origins (2000 BCE to 70 CE); Interpreting the Torah (200 BCE to 70 CE); The Formation of Rabbinic Judaism (70 to 1500 CE); Authority and Reaction (1500-1800); The Challenge of the Modern World (1750 to the present); and Epilogue. Each of these parts then has several sub-sections listing the precise sub­ject areas on which Goodman focuses: the first reflects on the tribal origins of Israel, the formation of the Bible and distinct modes of Israelite wor­ship; the second is the longest sec­tion, unsurprisingly for what was arguably a uniquely formative period.

Goodman covers Jewish life and lives in the Graeco-Roman world, the range and variety of groupings within the Jewish world, and the development of distinctive doctrines by such groups as the Pharisees and Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots, the Dead Sea Scroll community, the rabbinic sages, and early Judaeo-Christians. It also reflects the key doctrinal developments that occurred during these three cen­turies, includ­ing matters of purity, sabbath ob­­serv­­ance, eschatology and Messianism, and martyrdom and life after death; the third section covers the longest historical period of some 14 centuries, when some of the most significant external and influential impacts on Judaism were to take place.

Goodman considers here Juda­ism’s trajectory from pagan Rome, via the rise and spread of Islam to medieval Christendom, the signific­ance of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction and the rabbinic response; the great centres of Jewish learning in Babylon, and, in the West, the development of halakhah, Jewish philosophy and mysticism.

The fourth considers the impact on Judaism of the Renaissance, the crystallisation of Jewish Law in the Shulchan Arukh of the Sephardi Joseph Karo and the Ashkenazi gloss on it of Moses Isserles, the mysticism of Isaac Luria and its influences on the destructive path trodden by the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi, and the rise of Hasidism and its enormous impact across the Ashkenazi world.

The fifth part takes in the Enlight­enment and its impact on Jewish thought, leading not least to the rise and development of both Reform Judaism and modern Orthodoxy; the Epilogue, with only one sub-section — “Waiting for the Messiah?” — both brings the threads together and considers potential future develop­ments influenced by the State of Israel, the growth in numbers of the ultra-Orthodox, and the fissiparous nature of 21st-century Jewish life.

A History of Judaism is beautifully written and meticulously annotated, and includes maps and illustrations. Goodman holds the book with authority and impeccable even-handedness, engaging the reader with his erudition, but also season­ing the narrative with some of the great and most influential Jewish lives.

I could hardly recommend it more.


Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College.


A History of Judaism
Martin Goodman
Allen Lane £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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