A History of Judaism

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Martin Goodman
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     656 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism—a welcome and important addition to recent, comprehensive surveys of Jewish history and religion—is to be commended above all for three qualities: clarity, conceptual integrity, and good writing. A scholar of Second Temple Judaism and of Jewish encounters with Greek and Roman culture, Goodman establishes at the outset that his is a study of “Judaism” over roughly three millennia, by which he intends “the continued and varied history of interpretation” on the theme of the covenant between God and his “holy nation.” This relationship between the God of Israel and God’s people, Goodman suggests, serves as a continuous narrative thread throughout much of the Hebrew Bible, and operates as both sounding board and theoretical foundation in the elaboration of many forms of Jewish expression thereafter.

It is a history, then, of various projects of interpretation over the meaning and implications of Jewish revelation. It is, Goodman admits, notintended to be a history of the Jews per se—not a companion piece to the global/national histories of Heinrich Graetz in the 19th century, or of Simon Dubnov in the early 20th, nor even of Salo Baron’s monumental late 20th century effort, which he named A Social and Religious Historyof the Jews—but, rather, a history of Jewish religious expression. Historians who consider the object of their study to be Jews as a social, cultural, and ethnic group—including their religious expression, though not exclusively, or even primarily that—might be uncomfortable with this approach to the Jewish past. Indeed, the red line dividing those who write about Jews from those who write about Judaism can be contentious at times. I must confess that my own preferences lie with the social and cultural historians. We can take solace in the fact that Goodman acknowledges the ethnic dimension in Judaism (it is, he admits, “the religion of the Jewish people”) and is careful to trace the political and cultural history of the Jews (“insofar as it impinged on their religious ideas and practices”). But at the same time, he insists that Judaism has been, throughout most of its history, a “world religion” whose adherents believed it had “universal significance,” even if Jews never pursued a universal mission to convert others.

Goodman adopts a periodization based on what he terms the impact on Jews of “events in the wider world,” a structure that posits imperial powers and their world views as the major agents of change within Judaism: the empires of the ancient Near East; the Hellenistic Mediterranean; the Roman Empire; the Islamic world; the Christian heirs to Rome; and, finally, “the creation of the modern world from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment to the complex Jewish world today.” The last five hundred years thus comprise one distinct historical period. The only period marked by an event in Jewish history is that which straddled the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, an event rightly (if not originally) treated by Goodman as a watershed in the history of Judaism. It is not surprising, perhaps, that a scholar of late antiquity would devote a significant amount of his history to his area of specialization. This, however, in combination with his focus solely on Jewish religious thought and practice, leads to an imbalance of coverage in which the late Second Temple and rabbinic periods are awarded the lion’s share of narrative description and analysis.

The first two parts of A History of Judaism, covering the biblical and late Second Temple periods (down to 70 CE), take up 41% of the book, while the “formation of Rabbinic Judaism” is understood to spread from 70 to 1500 CE and occupies another 23%. The Jewish middle ages are thus denied their own distinctive identity or agency in the development of Jewish religious culture pacereferences to Rashi, Maimonides, the Zohar, and Kabbalah. Early modern Judaism (1500-1800) receives 12% of the narrative, with subsections devoted to the Shulhan Arukh, the mysticism of Isaac Luria and his followers, the messianic pretender Sabbetai Zevi, and Hasidism. Finally, the modern and contemporary world is allotted 16% of the text, or about eighty-eight pages.

Such a division of labor, in which the ancient and late antique settings receive the bulk of attention, is perhaps inevitable when one is dealing with a chronological expanse of some three thousand years. It is also typical, unfortunately, of projects in the history of Judaism that devote most of their energy to identifying a classical, or quintessential, formulation of a religious system—in this case Rabbinic Judaism—and view the subsequent centuries of Jewish development as variations on (or rebellions against) a theme. It might be instructive in this context to compare Goodman’s thematic emphases with those of another historical survey, which has taken on the contrasting goal of producing a history of Jews: The Jews: A History, by John Efron, Steven Weitzman, and Matthias Lehmann (Routledge, 2008). In this work the large chronological blocs are more evenly balanced: the authors devote 31% of the book to the period stretching from antiquity to the Talmud; the middle chapters, dealing with Jews in the medieval Christian and Muslim worlds, “New Worlds” East and West, and Jews and the state make up 29%; and the modern era, stretching from the late-18th century to the present, receives a surprising 40% of the book’s coverage. Such emphasis on modernity produces its own kind of distortion, but the centuries of Jewish life that take shape afterthe completion of the classic rabbinic corpus are given their own expression, their own personality.

On its own terms, A History of Judaism is nevertheless a success—keenly conceived, tightly constructed, and very well written. Goodman’s decision to begin his narrative, not in the misty past of Hebrew origins or biblical memory, but with the writings of the 1st century CE priestly aristocrat Josephus, is a brilliant one, placing the reader in historical time, within the imaginative universe of a soldier, scholar, and participant.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hillel J. Kieval is Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought at Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Goodman is Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, where he is president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a fellow of Wolfson College. His books include Rome and Jerusalem: TheClash of Ancient Civilizations and The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies.



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