Creating Judaism : History, Tradition, Practice, by Satlow, Michael
- ISBN: 9780231134897 | 0231134894
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 11/27/2006
|Promised Lands||p. 22|
|Creating Judaism||p. 69|
|Between Athens and Jerusalem||p. 96|
|The Rabbis||p. 115|
|Rabbinic Concepts||p. 140|
|The Rise of Reason||p. 187|
|From Moses to Moses||p. 209|
|Seeing God||p. 229|
|East and West||p. 250|
|Epilogue: Whither Judaism?||p. 288|
|Bibliographical Notes||p. 307|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
To assert a Jewish identity is to locate oneself within the sacred history of the people Israel. To be a Jew is to make, primarily, a historical claim. It is to identify with a narrative (albeit one that different communities tell differently) that extends back to Abraham, "our father," and that is linked to God's covenant. It is to enter, to use Benedict Anderson's felicitous phrase, an "imagined community," held together by a gripping narrative of origins that succeeds not only in providing a coherent past, but one that also generates value and meaning.
As an objective account of the past, the Torah makes poor history. As a historical narrative, however, it brilliantly forges a national identity. Like many (or most?) stories of historical origins, it creates a common past rooted in struggle. To subscribe to this history is to identify with a distinctive people forged in the slave pits and harsh desert. Unlike many historical narratives, though, it also identifies the nation with a biological family. Because all sprung from a common ancestor, the people Israel are bound by blood. And if that was not enough, the Torah goes on to separate this people not only by history and biology but also by destiny: covenanted to God.
Later Jewish readers emphasized different aspects of this narrative. Following the historiographical explosion and vibrant romantic nationalism that permeated German culture in general, many nineteenth-century German Jews emphasized national history as a mode of identity. The earliest believers of Jesus deemphasized biology and used God's covenant with Israel as their primary mode of Jewish identity, whereas Judah Halevi promoted an almost racist ideology. Modernity has brought several other modes of Jewish identity, from Zionism to "Yiddishkeit," whether understood religiously or culturally.
Being "Jewish" is not simply a legal and technical matter. Communities become "Jewish" first and foremost because they say they are; they buy in to some model or story that links them to past and present Jews. Jewish communities may or may not accept the claims of "Jewishness" of other groups, but all draw ultimately on similar sources.
Those sources make up tradition. In Islamic thought, Judaism (like Christianity) is considered a "religion of the book" because Israel is thought to have received an authentic, divine revelation and recorded it in a book (the Bible) that they continue to revere. According to some Muslims, the Hebrew Bible is corrupt; the Jews did not faithfully guard what was revealed to them. Nevertheless, according to this line of thinking, the Jews earn credit (and, in fact, a somewhat privileged political position) for preserving this (albeit corrupted) record of revelation. This early Muslim evaluation of Judaism partially echoes earlier Greek and Roman evaluations, many of which grudgingly admire Judaism for the antiquity of its traditions, however peculiar they sometimes appear. It also parallels contemporary Christian views of Judaism that tended to see Judaism as stuck in the Old Testament, stubbornly and anachronistically hanging on to the literal meaning of a book and covenant that has been superseded by the death of Christ. The common belief today that Judaism is "the religion of the Bible" originated in these theological assumptions.
The problem is that Judaism cannot in any meaningful sense be called "the religion of the Bible." One need only read the Bible and then observe any living Jewish community to realize this. The Torah clearly and at length commands animal sacrifice; no Jewish group today sacrifices. On the Sabbath, many Jews go to synagogues to pray and listen to the reading of the Torah, but the Bible does not mention a synagogue and does not prescribe regular prayer or reading of the Torah. Jews who keep kosher today refrain from eating milk and meat products together, or even from cooking the one in pots that have been used for the other; the Bible contains only a cryptic command (thrice repeated) that one should not eat a kid in its mother's milk. The Bible is certainly important in Judaism, but only as it is read through the lens of a textual tradition.
Beginning with the Hebrew Bible itself, one of the defining characteristics of the sacred books of the Jews is that they build upon and enter into conversations with each other. The primary literary legacy of the Rabbis of antiquity, the Babylonian Talmud, is a massive combination of biblical commentaries, random stories and sharp argumentation, all presented as "Torah," and now understood widely as the content of God's revelation. Nearly every Jewish book that later Jewish communities accepted as "sacred" or "canonical" draws on both the Bible and the Talmud. For instance, in his twelfth-century code of law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides sought to strip the Talmud of all but its essence, which he saw as its legal rulings. The Zohar is incomprehensible without the Bible and the earlier rabbinic traditions; it is organized as a commentary on the former and draws liberally on the latter. Biblical commentators, who might be promoting radically new ideas, nevertheless claim authority for these ideas from earlier books. Tradition gradually accretes.
A comparison with Protestant movements sharpens the distinctiveness of Jewish tradition. In many Protestant denominations, especially those of the "low church," tradition does not hold a privileged place. Rather, only the Holy Spirit is thought to mediate between the individual and the Bible. Faith alone, scripture alone, as Martin Luther declared. An individual's direct confrontation with the New Testament is the path to connecting to the divine. At best, tradition here is irrelevant; at worst, it perverts that unmediated experience. This notion, incidentally, is the root of many modern understandings of religion, which see religion (or "spirituality") as innate and individual.
This Protestant understanding contrasts starkly with the Jewish notion of tradition. For almost every Jewish community throughout history, "faith alone, scripture alone" is not nearly enough. Far from locating "spirituality" in the individual, many expressions of Judaism locate it in the community. The formation of tradition is, after all, a communal process. Unlike Roman Catholicism, Judaism has no central authority. Books enter into the tradition because many different communities accept them. The Babylonian Talmud became authoritative only because many Jewish communities accepted it as such. Some accepted the Mishneh Torah as authoritative shortly after it was issued, but the Shulhan Arukh, a sixteenth-century code of law, displaced it. Today very few Jewish communities (primarily Jews from Yemen) regard the Mishneh Torah as legally authoritative, but many Jews nevertheless study it as an important, sacred text.
As the example of the Mishneh Torah illustrates, traditional texts are not necessarily authoritative texts. Some Jewish communities regard the Zohar with utmost sanctity, while other communities loathe it. From the Middle Ages on, most Jewish communities hold the Babylonian Talmud in high regard, though not all consider it to be authoritative in all matters. Today, some Jewish communities punctiliously adhere to the Shulhan Arukh, but many Jews disregard it. Reform Judaism gives to tradition a voice, but not a veto -- tradition must be taken seriously, but it never overrides the individual's conscience. Textual tradition, then, is just barely powerful enough to hold together the diversity of Judaism, the centrifugal force that prevents the many different forms of Jewish religious expression from each flying off as independent religions. The willingness of Jewish communities to regard the same or similar books as "sacred," to take them seriously if not fully agreeing on their authority, links them. The textual tradition defines, as Talal Asad, a scholar of religion, might say, a "conversation." These texts connect to and build upon each other, taking up similar sets of issues. In this sense, "tradition" is not automatically authoritative -- it constitutes an organically growing engagement with the past.
Textual traditions are human products, created not only in reference to previous sacred books but also to the present in which those books are read. The Babylonian Talmud is a prolonged engagement with earlier Jewish traditions, but only as read by the Rabbis of Babylonia; there is nothing culturally or religiously "pure" about it. Maimonides's philosophical writings are explicitly in dialogue with Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy, while the Zohar might implicitly engage Christianity. Previous texts are always read through a contemporary lens, thus bringing these earlier texts into a continuing dialogue.
Focusing on textual tradition, however, can obscure the power of practice. In Women as Ritual Experts, Susan Sered tells the story of a group of older, illiterate Kurdistani women who in the weeks before Passover fastidiously sorted through the rice that they would use for the holiday grain by grain, seven times over. Just as they ignored the rabbis urging them to wash their hands before eating bread, so too they ignored their insistence that this sorting was unnecessary. For these women, the ritual itself, passed down from their mothers, was more important than any textually based norm.
The latest National Jewish Population studies tell a similar story. A large percentage of those who identify themselves as Jews attend a seder on Passover and light the menorah on Hannukah. They frequently do this with little knowledge of Jewish textual traditions; they would be mystified by "traditional" interpretations and norms of the ritual. In both of these examples the rituals seem to float independently of text. Students in my classes frequently and without a hint of doubt assert the "meaning" of a Jewish ritual although such an interpretation of the ritual is nowhere found in traditional Jewish texts.
According to Haym Soloveitchik, the independent force of ritual should not surprise us. The authority of text within Jewish communities has been steadily increasing throughout modernity, exploding in contemporary America (especially within the Orthodox and Conservative communities). But this has not always been the case, nor is it even the case in all Jewish communities. In many communities, practices survived independent of, or existed even prior to, the texts that explain and regulate them. The practices move down through the generations, and their practitioners search for new meanings to make them relevant.
In fact, the very reason that many of these rituals have survived is precisely because they are underdetermined. They have no inherent meaning; they exist in a dynamic intertextual world in which Jews link them to other rituals, symbols, and texts to create transient meanings. Indeed, the more firmly linked a ritual is to a particular meaning, frequently the less successful it is. For this reason, most of the many Jewish holidays that commemorate specific historical events (e.g., creation of the Septuagint or specific catastrophes in the Middle Ages) failed to persist, as did those rituals too tightly connected to specific and changing assumptions (e.g., the geonic blessing over the bloodied sheet after a marriage). Yet many underdetermined practices, like the Jewish food laws (kashrut), persist even in a modern world in which they would seemingly be incompatible.
To focus on "tradition" rather than "beliefs" does not suggest that belief is unimportant, but only that in anything other than a very broad sense specific beliefs are not essential to a notion of Judaism. It is, for example, relatively uncontroversial to assert that Judaism is "monotheistic," but there is no definition of monotheism that would have been agreeable to all Jewish communities. Such variation is only multiplied on the level of the individuals even within a particular Jewish community; two neighbors who observe kashrut may have radically different reasons for doing so.
Beliefs, whether of a community or an individual, frequently emerge from a sincere engagement with tradition within an embedded historical context. But the Jewish textual and ritual traditions are rich and multivocal; they can frequently be mined with equal effectiveness to arrive at mutually exclusive positions. Thus, a statement that begins "Judaism believes... " is doubly flawed: It assigns agency to Judaism rather than Jews, and it implies a single correct position when one can rarely be found either in traditional resources or, in fact, in real Jewish communities.
While there may not be specific beliefs to be found in all Jewish communities and texts at all times, there is a widely shared cluster of concepts that continually reappear in what I have been calling the "conversation" shaped by tradition. The German Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) crisply identified these concepts as God, Torah, Israel, Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. These concepts are found as early as the Hebrew Bible and still remain very much a part of modern Jewish thought. Most Jewish communities might agree that there is one God, but that leaves open to debate everything from how to define "one" to how to define "God" to the nature of that "one God." That is, there can be wide and vigorous disagreement within a conversation while at the same time being engaged in the same conversation. The boundaries of tradition might be broad, but they do exist. Messianic Jews and Black Hebrews have, from a non-normative perspective, every right to call themselves "Israel," but through their rejection of the postbiblical Jewish literature they have largely ceased to engage in the same conversation as other Jewish communities. Similarly, secular and humanistic Jews, with their rejection of God, puts them outside the limits of the conversation as defined by the tradition.
Throughout this book I return to the ways in which different Jewish communities, both today and throughout history, have formed and justified their distinctive beliefs. What are the bounds of this shared conversation, and how and why does a Jewish community formulate its response to it? What emerges from this approach is not a set of the "essential beliefs" of Judaism, but yet another conceptual map on which we can plot a range of different and yet all "authentically" Jewish responses.
For example, the Hebrew Bible offers several answers to the nagging problem of theodicy, God's justice. The problem is that it is often hard to reconcile the idea of a just and all-powerful God with the fact of evil in the world. One biblical view is unnuanced: people get what they deserve and all that happens in the world must be just, for it reflects the will of God. The biblical prophets who sought to explain the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE commonly adopted this view. This event, in their eyes, was no ordinary tragedy. The Temple in Jerusalem was the very house of God -- how could God allow its destruction? They answered by asserting Israel's sinfulness, for which God punished them by sending the Babylonians against them. But, for another biblical author, this line of argument was unsatisfactory. The author of Job threw up his hands at the problem, saying the presence of evil in the world must be just, for it is from God, but the explanation of this justice is a mystery. The author of Ecclesiastes offers yet another alternative: God is not involved with the petty details of human lives.
Throughout their history, the Jews have had many occasions to test these responses. The self-styled Hasidim, a group of ascetic Jews in medieval Germany (to be distinguished from the Eastern Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who appropriated this title), so fully embraced the idea of evil as just punishment that they engaged in harsh self-punishments to cleanse themselves of sin. The Rabbis of antiquity more or less subscribed to the idea that human misfortunes result justly from human sin, but this led them into a quandary regarding the related problem of human free will: If God is both omniscient and involved with the just punishment of individuals, do humans really have free will? If they don't, how can they justly be punished for an action about which they had no choice?
After the Holocaust, the issue of theodicy has become central to modern Jewish theology. Here again there are a wide range of answers, from the traditional ("the Jews brought it upon themselves because they assimilated") to the radical denial of God's historical involvement with Israel or in human affairs at all.
Theodicy and free will are just two theological themes that run through this book. Other themes include the nature of God; the concept of Israel as both a chosen, or covenanted, people and as a land promised in the Bible to Abraham and his descendents; revelation and the authority of the commandments; and redemption and afterlife. Theology offers one kind of explanatory discourse about religion. Traditionally practiced, it creates coherent intellectual systems for faith communities. But theology is not the only means of creating religious meaning. For the Rabbis and most later forms of Judaism, physical actions rather than belief answer the questions "What does God want from me?" and "How am I to behave according to GodÕs will?" In many forms of Judaism these questions are far more important than theological ones. Religious practice and theology, however, are best seen as complementary. Real Jewish communities combine theological positions and religious practices in ways that are both unexpected and yet seem, to them, to be coherent. Clearly, different Jewish communities put these pieces together differently, arriving at unique and distinctive systems of meaning, one tied to the next through a family resemblance.
Within the narrow circles of the academic study of religion, it is hardly necessary to justify a non-normative approach to the study of religion. As I have discovered in my classes and synagogue, though, the academy has done an exceptionally poor job of making this case outside of its walls. Many turn to the study of religion to gain insight into the ultimate questions of the human condition: Is there a supernatural force? What is the meaning of life, and what defines a life well-led? Is there life after death? These questions are outside the purview of a non-normative and nonessentialist approach to a religion. What good is it, then? By approaching religion with the a priori presumption that if there is nothing divine in it, am I not both denigrating religion and even making it irrelevant? Why should a nonacademic care about a polythetic approach to Judaism or, for that matter, any other religion?
For those accustomed to seeing religion as either reflecting some kind of divine and ultimate truth or an interior and subjective experience (e.g., "spirituality") that lies beyond critical analysis, the approach that I use in this book might seem jarring. Throughout this book I presume that religion is a human creation and thus subject to the same critical scrutiny as any other human phenomenon. Humanistic and social scientific approaches can thus profitably be brought to bear on religion; neither the sacred authority that some ascribe to it nor a sense of its subjectivity exempt it from analysis.
A presumption that religion is a human creation, though, is not an assertion of the absolute truth of this claim. Nor is such an assertion necessary to profitably engage the arguments of this book. To engage religion critically is not to deny the possibility that it truly does reflect some divine reality. This book remains agnostic on this point; it works outward from a premise but makes no absolute truth claims about that premise. My goal is not to challenge faith commitments but, by approaching the same set of material from a different perspective, to more deeply enrich our appreciation of the complex role that religion, specifically Judaism, continues to play in human society.
The idea that religion is an entirely individual choice, that spirituality can exist and be shaped by individuals outside communal institutions, is an entirely contemporary understanding. Deeply religious thinkers throughout history have critically reflected on their own traditions, rejecting the notion that religion lies in some protected zone impervious to scrutiny. Indeed, the modern university system arose from the desire to properly train clergy.
The appreciation of religion enabled by this approach can take a variety of forms. By understanding religion as being shaped and acted upon by human agents, rather than as inexorably unfolding as part of some predetermined divine plan, we can better understand the vital role that religion has played in history. I refer here not to the overly simplistic Marxist idea that religion is a tool to oppress the weak (although the issue of power and economics must always be taken into account), but to the more complex interaction between religious traditions and real people who not only mold but who are also shaped by their serious engagement with their traditions. Just as religion must take history into account, so too must history reckon with religion.
More important, perhaps, is the way in which this perspective can liberate us from the idea that religious traditions offer only simplistic answers that demand unwavering faith. Religious traditions can instead be seen as a testament to the astoundingly diverse and creative ways that human beings have responded to the challenges of being human. They can thus provide resources for those today who struggle with the same or similar problems. We wrestle with the same problems as our ancient ancestors. We too ask how we might live our lives in the best way possible, deal with interminable suffering, explain the death of a child. Religious traditions reflect sustained and serious attempts to answer these questions, and, while we might ultimately reject many of these answers and the premises upon which they are based, it seems to me foolish to ignore them. Religious traditions provide resources that can be engaged, analyzed, critiqued, and used even by those of different religions or none at all.
While the primary purpose of this book is to offer a fresh perspective on Judaism, it is by no means intended only for Jews. The goal of this book is neither to offer a normative definition of Judaism for Jews nor a defense of Judaism to non-Jews. It is meant not to challenge one's faith but to expand intellectual limits, helping us to see yet another side to religion. Although in the conclusion I will briefly discuss some of the implications of this model of Judaism, my hope is that this book will provide a set of intellectual resources that may be of use to us all as we daily confront the joys and challenges inherent in being human.
This book offers a series of snapshots of Judaism throughout time. Although arranged roughly chronologically, these snapshots do not constitute a narrative. Indeed, one of the arguments of the book is that Judaism has no history, although Jews themselves as well as the rabbinic textual tradition does. The scope and scale of this book have forced me to ignore, or only allude to, many large and fascinating Jewish communities such as those in medieval and contemporary Western Europe, in Turkey and most of the Middle East, and in modern Central and South America. My neglect of these communities is not meant in any way to marginalize them. The potential scope of a book like this is enormous, and the limits of space, time, and my own competence have forced me to make several painful and at times almost arbitrary decisions of coverage.
Each chapter focuses on a specific Jewish community, its history, and, most important, how it defines its Judaism. For each community, then, I pay special attention to the issue of self-identity (i.e., how it defines itself as "Israel"), the relationship to (or formation of) the biblical and rabbinic textual tradition as refracted through its own specific historical circumstances, and its religious practices, whether in accord or not with the rabbinic traditions that were thought to govern them. Throughout each chapter I especially highlight the processes by which each community molds the raw stuff of tradition to its own needs (and sometimes thereby even adding to that tradition) as well as the fundamentally human issues with which it grappled.
The next chapter, "Promised Lands," offers an account of Judaism in the United States and Israel. Both countries host stunningly diverse Jewish communities. Yet, despite the clear ideological and institutionalized differences between these communities, I argue that one can really speak of "American Judaism" and "Israeli Judaism" as distinctive religious families. Whereas Judaism in America, in all of its astounding variety, has been decisively shaped by American culture and society, Judaism in Israel is impossible to understand without taking into account the role of the state and the effects of political power. By also exploring the complexity of the gaps between institutionalized Judaism and Judaism as it is actually practiced, this chapter develops a lens through which the later chapters can be viewed.
Chapter 2, "Creating Judaism," jumps back to the period of the ancient Israelites and the formation of the Hebrew Bible. Although the religion described in the Hebrew Bible looks little like Judaism as it would develop later, the Hebrew Bible -- known to Jews as a sacred text that would acquire the name Tanak, an acronym for its three parts -- is a foundational document that initiates the "conversation" into which all later Jewish canonical texts would join. This chapter tells the story of the development of the Hebrew Bible into the form in which it now exists and explores the significance of this development.
During the "Second Temple period" (ca. 515 BCE-70 CE) Jews increasingly turned to the Hebrew Bible as a source of authority, even as they drew from it very different conclusions. Chapter 3, "Between Athens and Jerusalem," discusses the earliest Jewish engagements with the Hebrew Bible, occurring both within and outside the Land of Israel. How did the Hebrew Bible look through the lens of Hellenism, the complex and amorphous cultural and social outlook that permeated the Near East from the time of Alexander's conquest in 332 BCE? This chapter looks especially at the Judaism that wasnÕt, the many interpretations and texts that never made it into the Jewish canon.
Due to the critical role played by the Rabbis (ca. 70 CE-640 CE), I devote three chapters to drawing out their social and historical context, their literary heritage, their conceptual world, and their religious practices. Almost all forms of Judaism after antiquity spring from, or take part in a dialogue with, the Rabbis. "The Rabbis" (chapter 4) tells of the creation and role of these teachers in Jewish society after the destruction of the Temple and their often strained status within that society. The Rabbis left a large and innovative literary legacy, and this chapter discusses the nature of it. The next two chapters deal more with the content of this literature. Chapter 5, "Rabbinic Concepts" argues that the Rabbis never developed a theology, either in the sense of a coherent system or a set of doctrines. Instead, they organically developed conceptual maps that outline ranges of theological options -- this approach would be critical for the ability of later Jewish communities to draw upon and make meaningful rabbinic ideas. In chapter 6, "Mitzvot," I outline the "commandments." Performance of these mitzvot, according to the Rabbis, brings one closer to the presence of God. My focus in this chapter is on both the tenuous nature between the mitzvot and their textual justifications as well as on the ways in which the mitzvot can function to create "sacred time."
The "victory" of the Rabbis was in no way assured in their lifetimes. It was primarily through the promotion of the Babylonian Talmud by the Geonim, rabbinic scholars who lived in Iraq from around 800-1100 CE, that the legacy of the Rabbis spread and gained authority within the wider Jewish community. Chapter 7, "The Rise of Reason," traces the geonic engagement not only with the "rabbinic project" but also with the Islamic culture in which they lived. No less than their opponents, the Karaites, they applied Islamic modes of thinking to their tradition.
The Karaites and Geonim were not the only Jews who saw their tradition through an Islamic lens. The Jews of Spain, living in what nineteenth-century German Jews valorized as the "Golden Age," flourished intellectually. Chapter 8, "From Moses to Moses," discusses the Jewish world that produced Maimonides and the ways in which Maimonides's own understanding of Judaism grew out of that world.
If Maimonides sought deeper knowledge of God, the Jewish mystics who responded to him sought to directly experience the divine. "Seeing God," chapter 9, explores the medieval Jewish kabbalists, especially their major literary production, the Zohar, and its ideas. The Zohar is at once deeply traditional, drawing on the Hebrew Bible and virtually every corner of the rabbinic tradition, and radically innovative. The Zohar's mystical ideas would become an important resource for later Jews.
Chapter 10, "East and West," focuses on the nineteenth century, in both Western and Eastern Europe. Jewish communities in these two areas were forced to confront similar conditions of modernity, although they formulated distinct responses. The communities of Western Europe invented the concept of Judaism as we usually use it today, standing for a coherent system of belief and practice that contains an essence. That society also gave birth to ideology within Judaism that would lead to the Jewish religious movements as they are known today. Ideologies never fully developed in Eastern Europe, which instead formed factions based on stances toward the newly emerging Hasidic movement. This chapter brings us back to the immediate historical origins of those Jews who would emigrate to America and Israel, setting the stage for the chapter with which this book began.
This book does not explicitly make a theologically constructive argument. I have no interest or stake in making Jews "better Jews" or in creating a new first-order definition of Judaism. At the same time, just as I have shaped the material that has gone into this book, the material has shaped me. As I noted above, this book does have constructive implications for Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular. I take up some of these implications in the conclusion.
In order to widen the accessibility of these pages, I have transliterated more according to popular usage than scholarly convention and have used light annotation. I cite simple primary sources (e.g., biblical verses) in the text itself; the sources for other citations can be found in the bibliographical essay and notes for each chapter, which also contain important relevant works in English that are accessible to a nonscholarly audience.
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