The biblical literature and cognate archaeological materials provide the earliest information about the history of Judaism (see Bible; Jews). Earliest Israel was not monotheistic, but henotheistic: Worshiping only one God themselves, the Israelites did not deny the existence of other gods for other nations.
Preexilic Israel, first as a confederation of tribes and then as a kingdom, celebrated as its formative experiences the redemption from Egyptian bondage and, particularly, the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan (the land of Israel). Its deity was Yahweh (see Jehovah), the god of the patriarchs. Yahweh had redeemed the Israelites from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. Israelite religion was intimately bound to the land, its climate, and the agricultural cycle of the year. Yahweh was believed to bring the rainfall that guaranteed a bountiful harvest or famine, drought, and pestilence if the community proved unfaithful and recalcitrant. Israel thus saw itself as dependent on God for its livelihood and obligated to respond with sacrificial offerings of gratitude and propitiation. The sacrificial cult ultimately was centralized in the royal sanctuary in Jerusalem, which later was rivaled by the northern sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan. Opposition to syncretistic cultic practices at both the northern (Israelite) and southern (Judean) sanctuaries and to social injustices under the monarchies was voiced during this period by the prophets, charismatic “men of God.” They did not reject the sacrificial cult per se, but merely what they saw as an exclusive, smug reliance on it that ignored the moral dimension of Israelite society. Their warnings were perceived to have been vindicated when first the northern, then the southern, kingdoms were destroyed by foreign conquerors.
A. Babylonian Exile
The exile of the Judeans to Babylonia in 586 BC was a major turning point in Israelite religion. The prior history of Israel now was reinterpreted in light of the events of 586, laying the foundation for the traditional biblical Pentateuch, prophetic canon, and historical books. The prophets Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah believed that Yahweh had used the Babylonian Empire to punish the Israelites for their sins, and he therefore had the power to redeem them from captivity if they repented. A truly monotheistic religion developed, the God of Israel now being seen as the God ruling universal history and the destiny of all nations. The Babylonian exiles’ messianic hope for a restored Judean kingdom under the leadership of a scion of the royal house of David seemed to have been vindicated when Cyrus the Great, after conquering Babylon in 539 BC, permitted a repatriation of subject populations and a restoration of local temples. The restored Judean commonwealth did not fully realize this hope, however, because the Persians did not allow the reestablishment of a Judean monarchy, but only a temple-state with the high priest as its chief administrator.
B. Maccabean and Roman Periods
The introduction into the Middle East of Greek culture, beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great in 331 BC, put the indigenous cultures of the region on the defensive (see Hellenistic Age). The Maccabean revolt of 165 to 142 BC began as a civil war between Jewish Hellenizers and offended nativists; it ended as a successful war for Judean political independence from Syria. This political and cultural turmoil had a major impact on religion. The earliest apocalyptic writings were composed during this period. This genre of cryptic revelations interpreted the wars of the time as part of a cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil that would end with the ultimate victory of God’s legions. Bodily resurrection at the time of God’s Last Judgment was promised for the first time to those righteous Jews who had been slain in the conflict. (In earlier Judaism, immortality consisted solely in the survival of the individual’s children and people and in a shadowy afterlife in the netherworld, Sheol.)
The Maccabean victories inaugurated an 80-year period of Judean political independence, but religious turmoil persisted. Members of the Hasmonaean priestly family that led the revolt proclaimed themselves hereditary kings and high priests, although they were not of the ancient high priestly lineage. This, together with their Hellenistic monarchical trappings, prompted fierce opposition from groups such as the Qumran community, known to modern scholars from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Led by dissident priests, this sect believed that the Jerusalem Temple had been profaned by the Hasmonaeans and saw itself as a purified Temple exiled in the wilderness.
The Qumran group can probably be identified with the Essenes described by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and other ancient writers. Josephus also described two other groups, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, for whom no identifiable firsthand sources have been found. The Pharisees (perushim, “separatists”), like the Qumran group, put forth their own traditions of biblical law, which were disputed by the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly group. The Pharisees were the lineal forerunners of the rabbinic movement after AD 70. All the religious factions of this period, particularly those opposed to the Temple administration, appealed to the authority of Scripture, to which each gave its own distinctive interpretation.
Messianic-apocalyptic fervor increased when Judean political independence was brought to an end by Roman legions in the middle of the 1st century BC and climaxed in the outbreak of an unsuccessful revolt against Rome in AD 66 to 70. (Christianity began as one of these messianic-apocalyptic movements.)
C. Development of Rabbinic Judaism
The Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 and their suppression of a second messianic revolt in 132 to 135 led by Simon Bar Kokhba were catastrophes for Judaism of no less magnitude than the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC. The priestly leadership was decisively discredited. In this context the rabbinic movement emerged. Because the Jewish people had lost control of their political destiny, the rabbis emphasized their communal and spiritual life. They taught that by conformity in daily life to the Torah as elaborated in the rabbinic traditions—through study, prayer, and observance—the individual Jew could achieve salvation while waiting for God to bring about the messianic redemption of all Israel. Some rabbis held that if all Jews conformed to the Torah, the Messiah would be compelled to come. Institutionally, the synagogue (which had existed before AD 70) and the rabbinic study house replaced the Temple that had been destroyed.
D. Medieval Judaism
The rabbinization of all Jewry, including the growing Mediterranean and European Diasporas, was a gradual process that had to overcome sharp challenges from the Karaitesand other antirabbinic movements. The Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century by Islamic Arab armies facilitated the spread of a uniform rabbinic Judaism. Near the seat of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, the heads of the Babylonian rabbinical academies (geonim; plural of gaon, meaning “excellence”) attempted to standardize Jewish law, custom, and liturgy in accordance with their own practices, which they set forth in their replies (responsa) to inquiries from Diaspora communities. Thus, the hegemony over Jewry passed from Palestine to Babylonia, and the Babylonian Talmud came to be the most authoritative rabbinic document.
In the cultural ambit of Islam, rabbinic Judaism encountered Greek philosophy as recovered and interpreted by Islamic commentators. Rabbinic intellectuals began to cultivate philosophy to defend Judaism against the polemics of Islamic theologians and to demonstrate to other Jews the rationality of their revealed faith and law. Medieval Jewish philosophy typically concerns the attributes of God, miracles, prophecy (revelation), and the rationality of the commandments. The most notable philosophical interpretations of Judaism were put forth by Babylonian gaon Saadia ben Joseph in the 9th century, Judah Ha-Levi in the 12th century, and, preeminently, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) in the 12th century (Guide for the Perplexed, 1190?; translated 1881-1885). The exposure to systematic logic also affected rabbinic legal studies in the Islamic world and is evident in numerous posttalmudic codifications of Jewish law, the most famous being Maimonides’ elegant Mishneh Torah.
Medieval Judaism developed two distinctive cultures, Sephardic (centered in Moorish Spain) and Ashkenazic (in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire; see Ashkenazim). Philosophy and systematic legal codification were distinctly Sephardic activities and were opposed by the Ashkenazim, who preferred intensive study of the Babylonian Talmud. The great Rhineland school of Talmud commentary began with 11th-century scholar Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) of Troyes and continued with his grandsons and students, known as the tosaphists, who produced the literature of tosaphoth (“additions” to Rashi’s Talmud commentary).
Throughout the medieval period, Judaism was continually revitalized by mystical and ethical-pietistic movements. The most significant of these were the 12th-century German Hasidic, or “pietist,” movement and the 13th-century Spanish Cabala, of which the most influential work was Sefer ha-zohar (The Book of Splendor) by Moses de León.
The Cabala is an esoteric theosophy, containing elements of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, that describes the dynamic nature of the godhead and offers a powerful symbolic interpretation of the Torah and the commandments. It began in small, elite scholarly circles but became a major popular movement after the calamitous expulsion of the Jews from Catholic Spain in 1492. The spread of the Cabala was facilitated by the mythical, messianic reinterpretation of it made by Isaac Luria of Safed. Lurianic Cabala explained to the exiles the cosmic meaning of their suffering and gave them a crucial role in the cosmic drama of redemption. Luria’s ideas paved the way for a major messianic upheaval, centered around the figure of Sabbatai Zevi, which affected all Jewry in the 17th century. They also influenced the popular 18th-century Polish revival movement called Hasidism.
Begun by Israel Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism proclaimed that, through fervent, rapturous devotion, the poor, unlearned Jew could serve God better than the Talmudist. Rabbinic opposition to Hasidism was eventually mitigated in the face of a more serious threat to both groups: the western European see Age of Enlightenment and the various modernizing movements that it generated within Judaism.
E. Modern Tendencies
The civil emancipation of European Jewry, a process complicated by lingering anti-Jewish sentiment, evoked different reformulations of Judaism in western and eastern Europe. In the west (particularly in Germany) Judaism was reformulated as a religious confession like modern Protestantism. The German Reform movement abandoned the hope of a return to Zion (the Jewish homeland), shortened and aestheticized the worship service, emphasized sermons in the vernacular, and rejected as archaic much Jewish law and custom. The Reform rabbi took on many of the roles of the Protestant minister. Early Reform theologians such as Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim, influenced by German philosophers Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, emphasized ethics and a belief in human progress. Right-wing Reformers, led by Zacharias Frankel, favored the retention of Hebrew and more traditional customs. Modern Orthodoxy, championed by Samson R. Hirsch in opposition to the Reformers, sought a blend of traditional Judaism and modern learning.
In eastern Europe, where Jews formed a large and distinctive social group, modernization of Judaism took the form of cultural and ethnic nationalism. Like the other resurgent national movements in the east, the Jewish movement emphasized the revitalization of the national language (Hebrew; later also Yiddish) and the creation of a modern, secular literature and culture. Zionism, the movement to create a modern Jewish society in the ancient homeland, took firm hold in eastern Europe after its initial formulations by Leo Pinsker in Russia and Theodor Herzl in Austria. Zionism was a secular ideology but it powerfully evoked and was rooted in traditional Judaic messianism, and it ultimately led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.