Abrahamica: Chapter Four

According to the traditional view, the canon of the Hebrew Bible comprises works written before ca. 400 BCE. An exception is the book of Daniel, which internal evidence indicates was written between 167 and 164 BCE. Moreover, recent scholarship suggests that the corpus underwent significant reshaping during the Hellenistic period, perhaps as late as the second century BCE.

In the broader world of the ancient Mediterranean, the fourth century was pivotal, because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BCE. Many significant changes ensued, including the inception of Hellenistic Judaism, evidently an age of transition for followers of Yahweh. That development points backwards and forwards. Here we are mostly concerned with the forwards, that is to say, the history of later Judaism from its origins to the present.


The first stage of the complex sequence of developments that define the later stages of Judaism is what is termed Hellenistic Judaism (HJ), roughly 323 BCE-79 CE. Here one must distinguish two different phenomena; 1) HJ as a chronological designation; 2) a period of cultural transformation that witnessed the penetration of powerful Greek elements, especially in the diaspora communities. Still, Greek influence did not account for all the changes in mentality and practice during this era, for indigenous features and imported Persian elements remained strong.

The age did indeed witness a movement that sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition that was capable of flourishing within the culture of Hellenism. The great monument of this effort is the Septuagint, the Greek rendering of the whole text of the Hebrew Bible.

The conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE and the ensuing foundation of the Hellenistic kingdoms imposed Greek culture and colonization in non-Greek lands, including the Levant and Egypt. The most striking aspect of this process was the great city of Alexandria in Egypt. The city has not always enjoyed a positive reputation, as seen in the expression "Alexandrianism," a term that posits, rightly or wrongly, the perceived belatedness and derivative character of Hellenistic cosmopolitanism.

During this period, new cities arose, composed of colonists stemming from different parts of the Greek world, and not from a specific "mother city.” Typically these cities were laid out in the Hippodamean gridiron plan, contrasting with the more random street pattern of older cities and towns. A fascinating example is the town of Dura Europos (which thrived until 256 CE in Syria), whose synagogue has yielded a remarkable series of murals.

While Hellenistic culture sought to preserve and transmit the positive features of the Greek classical achievement, some admixture of local styles and preferences was inevitable. The hybrid Hellenistic culture had a profound impact on the customs and practices of Jews, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora.

The new situation required a series of adjustments. Emblematic are the writings of an Alexandrian Jewish sage, Philo Judaeus. In the eyes of many Hellenized Jews, Philo was a major cultural ambassador. He presented Judaism as a tradition of venerable antiquity that, far from being merely a barbarian cult cherished by an outlandish nomadic tribe, enjoyed the signal distinction of anticipating important elements of Greek philosophy. Customs of Judaism that struck urban Hellenistic society as barbaric or exotic, such as circumcision and the dietary laws, Philo could treat as metaphor, writing of a "circumcision of the heart" in the pursuit of virtue.

Over time, however, there was a general deterioration in relations between Hellenistic Jews and other their neighbors, leading the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to prohibit certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Observant Jews responded by revolting against their Greek overlords.  The upshot was the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean regime, compromised by expedient accommodations with Hellenic culture, eventually became wracked by a civil war. The local Jewish people, wary of being governed by a Hellenized dynasty, appealed to distant Rome for intervention, leading to the Roman conquest of Palestine and de-facto annexation of the country.

Not all Jewish intellectual productions of the era were concerned with the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism. Many texts addressed distinctive Jewish concerns, though Greek admixtures were not lacking. These writings comprise the so-called apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, including the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch, and the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch. In older scholarship, these abundant literary productions were sometimes termed the Intertestamental Literature. While it persists in some quarters, this label is inappropriate, because it suggests that the texts were merely a bridge to Christianity. Too often neglected, these writings deserve attention for their own sake.

In addition to the Greek and Jewish (or indigenous) strands, Persian elements are evident. The Iranian connection was maintained by the so-called Babylonian Jewry, consisting of prosperous communities that had remained in Mesopotamia after the nominal end of the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE. Among the themes ascribed to Persian (especially Zoroastrian) influence are angels and demons; the sharp contrast of good and evil (dualism); and eschatology, the preoccupation with the Last Things. Some scholars think that the prohibition of male homosexuality found in Leviticus 18 and 20 copies a similar Zoroastrian ban, documented in a book known as the Videvdat (or Vendidad). The origins of the doctrine of the resurrection of body, which seems to have emerged in the second century BCE, are obscure, though Persian origin has been claimed for this belief also.

Much of this heritage, including dualism and the idea of bodily resurrection after death, passed to Christianity. Even today, Christianity remains in many respects the truest surviving representative of the amalgam of Jewish, Greek, and Persian elements that characterized this creative era.

During the first century CE, Judaism was extremely diverse. Sources mention several Jewish sects, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. Originating as a Jewish sect, Christianity belongs to this pluralistic mix.


This complex, though relatively stable situation collapsed in the face of a series of hammer blows. In 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. The nativist Bar Kokhba revolt failed in 135. Then, in the course of the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, further marginalizing Judaism.

A final blow occurred with the suppression of the office of the Jewish patriarch in 429. The background is as follows. The last of the line seems to have been the aristocratic Gamaliel VI, who took office about the year 400. On October 17, 415, an edict issued by the Emperors Honorius and Theodosius II deposed him as Jewish patriarch. because he had ostensibly disregarded an earlier imperial decree imposing a ban on the building of new synagogues. He had also transgressed by adjudicating disputes between Jews and Christians. Gamaliel probably died in 425. The Codex Theodosianus mentions an edict from the year 426, which diverted the patriarch's tax revenues into the imperial coffers after the death of the patriarch. Declining to appoint a successor, Theodosius abolished the Jewish patriarchate in 429. Not only was this suppression an offense to Jewish dignity, it ended an important source of the community’s revenue.

The Jews did not despair, however, for these reverses generated countermeasures. One was the fixing of the canon of Hebrew scriptures, which is generally thought to have taken place at Jamnia not long after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In this way Judaism was reoriented away from its geographical heart in Jerusalem towards the Torah, focusing on a set of scrolls which could be carried anywhere. Signaling a decisive break with Hellenistic Judaism, the Jewish authorities banned the Septuagint (which, however, continued to serve Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians). Representational art, which had flourished in the synagogues of Palestine and Syria, was gradually phased out.


The most momentous element in these changes was the emergence of rabbinical Judaism, which may trace its origins to the sect of the Pharisees, at least in some measure. As such, however, rabbinical Judaism emerged in the Mishnah (about 200 CE), the Tosefta, and the two Talmuds (the Palestinian and Babylonian versions). The Talmuds constitute a vast body of commentary on and expansion of the Mishnah.

In effect the Mishnah is a florilegium or anthology, collecting many opinions--including quotations, or apparent quotations--from earlier authorities dating back to the time of Jesus and even before. Approximately 120 Tannaim, or sages, are mentioned or quoted in the Mishnah. One of the most eminent figures was Hillel the Elder, a somewhat older contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth. A famous saying of Hillel appears in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), one of the tractates of the Mishnah. The saying goes as follows: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" This is a remarkable precept. Yet does it really go back to Hillel? If so, did he devise it or was he quoting someone else? Because these things are unknowable, it is impossible to reconstruct the historical development of the thought of the Tannaim. The views represented in the Mishnah are presented topically rather than historically. The subtext of the citations--the governing principles of their selection--is the redactors’ views, which must always elude precise determination.

In the absence of other evidence--and there is virtually none--these apparent quotations and opinions cannot be taken at face value as a faithful portrayal of the overall mindset of mainstream Judaism in the early Roman period. We have no way of knowing what has been filtered out. Other things may have been projected back to an era earlier than the one in which they actually originated.

Purportedly, the Mishnah is not the development of new laws, but simply the gathering of existing traditions. This last claim reflects the pious belief a seamless web joins the original Judaism of the faith of the Tanakh, on the one hand, and rabbinical Judaism, on the other. Yet even a cursory glance at the tractates included in the Mishnah shows that, by comparison with the Hebrew Bible, they are entirely different in tone, atmosphere, detail, and doctrine. Despite, or perhaps because of these differences, the Mishnah quickly attained the status of an indispensable book.

Also to be reckoned with is the Tosefta, a secondary compilation dating from the period of the Mishnah or not long after. This subsidiary work closely conforms in structure to the Mishnah, with the same divisions for sedarim ("orders") and masekhot ("tractates"). It was written mainly written in Mishnaic Hebrew, with some Aramaic traits. At times the text of the Tosefta agrees nearly verbatim with the Mishnah, but not always. Sometimes the Tosefta differs from the Mishnah in the formulation of halakha (“Jewish law”). The Tosefta attributes precepts that are anonymous in the Mishnah to named Tannaim or sages. It also augments the Mishnah with additional glosses and discussions.

Commentaries created over the next three centuries in the wake of these writings are generically termed the Gemara. In fact, Most of this material was marshaled into the two Talmuds.

The Jerusalem Talmud, also known as the Palestinian Talmud, is a compilation of teachings of the schools of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Caesarea. This Talmud reflects the expansion and analysis of the Mishnah that was developed over the course of nearly 200 years by the Jewish academies in Palestine. Traditionally, this Talmud was thought to have been redacted in about the year 350 CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi. Nonetheless, further additions and editorial work were performed, and the final date of closure cannot be fixed with certainty. Some think that it was virtually complete by 429 CE when the Christian emperor Theodosius II tried to put an end to formal Jewish scholarship. Nonetheless, additional work probably continued afterwards, perhaps until about 600 CE.

The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) was transmitted orally for several centuries prior to its compilation by Jewish scholars in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in the fifth century CE. Since the Exile to Babylonia in 586 BCE, there had been Jewish communities living in Mesopotamia as well as in Judea, as some of the captives never returned home, even after they were free to do so. Incorporating the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud draws upon the Babylonian Gemara, the analysis that had flourished orally in the Babylonian Academies. Tradition ascribes the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud in its present form to two Mesopotamian sages, Rav Ashi and Ravina, Accordingly, traditionalists argue that Ravina’s death in 499 CE is the latest possible date for the completion of the redaction of the Talmud. Clearly, though, it incorporates some later material. For this reason, some modern scholars have concluded that it did not reach its final form until about 700.


Nowadays few serious scholars, Christian and secular alike, would think of approaching the Bible without reference to the findings of the critical-historical endeavor, the product of generations of careful scholarship and insight (see Chapter One). This approach is only now being extended to the Qur’an and the other foundational documents of Islam. In fact, the method has long been available to Jews--after all, the first model of the approach was the four-stream analysis of the Pentateuch--yet modern rabbinical Judaism has sought, by and large, to circumvent this challenge. In effect it has immunized itself--or so it would seem.

As Karl Popper emphasized, such immunization efforts may give satisfaction to adepts: that is why the ploy is attractive. In the end, though, scientific hypotheses must be formulated in such a way as to submit to the criterion of refutability. The Dual Torah doctrine, as discussed in these pages, seeks to short-circuit this necessary procedure. Yet it provides only the appealing, but ultimately unavailing consolation of pseudo-protection. This resistance borders on bad faith.

Ultimately, the origins of the historical-critical method lay with the protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. These thinkers held that the canonical texts of the Old and New Testaments, and only those texts, should determine what a Christian must believe. This restriction is sometimes known as the sola scriptura principle. The focus on Scripture led, among other things, to the admonition that each Christian believer must read the Bible for him or herself, so that translations into the vernacular were required.

For our purposes, however, the most important consequence was the sweeping away of a mass of medieval accretions, enshrined in commentaries and the traditions maintained by the Roman Catholic church. In this way, the sola scriptura principle was able to function as an efficient Occam’s razor, serving to excise Purgatory, papal supremacy, indulgences, magical powers of relics, clerical celibacy, and a mass of other parasitic intruders.

For the Reformers and the immediately succeeding generations in Protestant Europe, the canon of Scripture remained inviolate. The roster of books included was fixed and their text was assumed to have been conclusively established by the labors of Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536) and others.

In due course, however, the textual solvents devised by classical philologists began to impinge upon Bible interpretation. As a result of this work, rents in the fabric became apparent. A major first step was the discovery by the French scholar Jean Astruc that there were two distinct strands in the book of Genesis, marked by the preference for either Yahweh (as the name came later to be transcribed) or Elohim.

It was in nineteenth-century Germany, however, that the decisive steps were taken to the dismantling of what might be termed the myth of Biblical integrity. Building on the work of several predecessors, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) distinguished four distinct strands, conventionally known as J, E. D, and P in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch. This finding, and the underlying principle, came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis. Today the term hypothesis is in fact obsolete. Outside of the world of Judaism--and some Christian conservatives--most serious Bible scholars acknowledge that, as far as such matters can ever be conclusively demonstrated, this dissolution of the purported unity of the Pentateuch is a certainty. Jewish scholars and sages resisted. As S. David Sperling remarks, “[p]articularly odious to the faithful was the Documentary Hypothesis.” (Sperling, 2003). In the twentieth century, Biblical scholars such as Umberto Cassuto and Moses Segal rejected it completely. They have simply been in denial. A few, like the noted Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann, made some concessions, but basically as feints serving them to continue the resistance.

Mainstream Protestant scholars have their own faults that derive from doctrinal allegiances, notably the erroneous notion that the Hebrew Bible exists to prepare the way for the New Testament. Still, these Christian interpreters will generally admit, however grudgingly, that the Documentary Hypothesis is correct. By contrast, very few Jewish scholars have embraced the finding. This obstinacy does not reflect favorably on their general reliability.

In fact, the method exemplified by the Documentary Hypothesis proved a fertile one. In the 1940s the German scholar Martin Noth proposed that a follower of the creator of D, whom he termed the Deuteromistic Historian, had been responsible for the historical narrative that starts with Joshua and ends with the conclusion of the Second Book of Kings. Today this view is generally accepted.

A consensus now holds that the Book of Isaiah consists of three separate parts, melded together in a kind of shotgun wedding. The three distinct parts are chs. 1-35; chs. 36-39 (purloined from other parts of the Tanakh); and chs. 40-66 (“Trito-Isaiah”). This triad is another product of the historical-critical approach.

These, and other discoveries, demonstrated that Scripture was not what it seemed. Traditional claims of authorship, such as the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, were false. Moreover, the presumed unity of the texts dissolved into distinct strata representing concerns active at the time of composition or editing. German scholars sought to clarify these contexts by determining the “Sitz im Leben,” the life situation that governed the creation of the different strands of Scripture.

Other solvents stemmed from the increasing amount of comparative material that was recovered from the Middle East, beginning with the major decipherments of the nineteenth century. The motif of the Flood clearly migrated from Mesopotamia, where it is found much earlier. The Code of Hammurabi and other Near Eastern legal collections clearly influenced the legal sections embedded in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Yet other texts seem to have Egyptian origins.

All of these issues have contributed to a more nuanced understanding of Scripture. Scholars in conservative Christian seminaries disagree with their liberal colleagues about these conclusions. Clinging to their doctrine of inerrancy, evangelicals oppose source-analysis of Scripture. And even some mainstream Protestant exegetes (who generally have the best record in biting this particular bullet), still seek to backtrack by alleging some core unity of the Bible.


If anything, the resistance of modern Judaism has been more determined.  By and large the new approach has been rejected or disregarded.

Modern Judaism has availed itself of a special resource in fighting the implications of the historical critical-method, as embodied in the Documentary Hypothesis and the discoveries of modern archaeology. This approach stems from the concept of the Oral Torah.

What is the Oral Torah? First, it is not simply a “synonym for the Mishnah and the Talmud” (as the glossary in the Jewish Study Bible suggests), though to be sure those texts are major vectors of it. Nor is it the “authoritative interpretation of [Written] Torah” (idem). This last is a concept derived from Christian hermeneutics.

Perhaps the best short definition derives from David Stern (in the Jewish Study Bible). “[T]he Rabbis believed that the Bible--or what they called the Written Torah--was only one of two revelations God had given to the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai. Alongside the Written Torah, they believed, God had also revealed to the Israelites an Oral Torah, which as its name indicates, was delivered and transmitted orally. Precisely how to define the Oral Torah is one of the great debates among Jewish scholars. For our present purposes we may say that it comprises everything that the Rabbis believed was ‘Judaism’ that is not explicitly written in the Torah; admittedly, this is a vast and heterogeneous body of material that encompasses everything from the many laws not spelled out in the Bible to the Rabbis’ own beliefs and theology as well as all their folk wisdom and lore.” As the last point reveals, this is an ocean without bounds. Almost anything said by a rabbi, at any time or place, could in principle be part of the Oral Torah.

Of course, some would take a more restrictive view, holding that the Oral Torah was essentially complete by ca. 600-700 CE, when the canon of the two Talmuds was closed. Yet no one is compelled to adopt this minimalist view. And it remains the case that, in the Jewish view, the Mishnah and the Talmuds, despite their lofty status as examples of wisdom and scholarship, are in the end merely vectors of the Oral Torah. They are, as it were, lodging places for a phenomenon of much greater extent. According to the traditional view, it starts with Moses, Indeed, as delivered to him, it was complete then. Yet full disclosure of its manifold contents may not have achieved even now. There is nothing to prevent an opinion expressed in 2008 by a rabbi in Grand Rapids or Toulouse, let us say, from ranking as an authentic manifestation of some component of the Oral Torah.

In principle, the Oral Torah and the Written Torah cannot be in conflict. What happens, though, if they appear to disagree with one another? Then supposedly the Written Torah would be supreme. This is the way things should be, but (as James L. Kugel concedes; Kugel, 2007) in reality the Oral Torah usually wins out. Accordingly, the reverence accorded the Torah scrolls in Jewish worship is something of a scam. The Scriptures are constantly subject to discipline and correction (to put the matter plainly) through the agency of the unseen presence of the Oral Torah.

In his book How to Read the Bible (2007; pp. 680-81), Kugel puts the matter this way. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook, and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling. Every sabbath the Torah is, quite literally, held up above the heads of the worshippers in synagogue, kissed and bowed to and touched in gestures of absolute submission. . . . Yet on inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of the words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definite and final interpretation.”

An egregious, foundational example is the notion that the Ten Commandments, as vouchsafed to Moses in tablet form, were a mere table of contents. Each one designates a kind of file cabinet. These ten big items accommodate the 613 mitzvot or obligations, grouped according to theme in relation to the appropriate Commandment. The 613 (or 611 according to some accounts), obviously compiled much later, were, according to this fable, delivered to Moses in toto during the Mt. Sinai experience. Thus a whole mass of diverse material, much of it of dubious relevance, was shoehorned into the earlier texts. In this fashion--and countless others could be cited--the Oral Torah has in effect seized the Written Torah in a parasitical, controlling invasion.

There are then two myths of the Oral Torah. The first, an obvious fabrication, is the idea that in its entirety it was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The second myth is the idea that the Oral Torah--a potentially infinite body of opinion, legend, and interpretation--is coequal with the Written Torah. As we have noted, though, to all intents and purposes the Oral Torah supersedes its sibling.

As far as the written record shows, the elements of this second, or Oral Torah emerge only with the Mishnah, around 200 CE. To be sure, the Mishnah contains citations from rabbis who lived in earlier generations, some in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. But the principles of selection are those devised by the sages who compiled the Mishnah some eighteen hundred years ago. In turn, the Mishnah served as the basis for the elaborations of the two Talmuds. As this process shows, Judaism, as we now know it, is younger than Christianity.

One of the reasons for the elaboration of the Oral Torah is that it resolves “apparent” contradictions residing in the received text of the Tanakh. Moreover, the Oral Torah, despite its supposed Mosaic origin, was of great help in dealing with the disappearance of Temple-centered Judaism after 70 CE, and its replacement by a new set of interpretations intended to cope with the changed circumstances of living in exile, among peoples who were often hostile, or at best uncomprehending.

The way in which the Oral Torah works recalls the function of the Tradition cherished by the Roman Catholic church. There Scripture is supplemented and, to all intents and purposes, overridden when necessary, by this body of doctrine, whose stability is assured by the Roman pontiff, sometimes assisted by the Councils. Judaism, however, has not and never has had an equivalent of the pope. Today, to cite one example, Benedict XVI is considering discarding the doctrine of Limbo. Perhaps, with his approval or that of one of his successors, this excision will be performed. In Judaism, however, there is no controlling body to establish criteria that would allow for such doctrinal purging. As a result there are no limits to the expansion of the Oral Torah, which grows vaster than empires. The whole body of opinions and commentaries stemming from rabbis of any period is susceptible to admission into the precincts of the Oral Torah.

There is another interesting similarity, and difference with Roman Catholicism. That Christian denomination religion boasts several large bodies of commentary. Perhaps the most important are the Patristic writers (including such figures as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and Jerome) and the Scholastics (with Thomas Aquinas at their head). Superficially, these bodies of commentary are similar to the Oral Torah--but only superficially. In the end the writings of an Augustine and an Aquinas are ancillary. They do not pretend to have a hotline to what God told Moses on Mount Sinai. In Jewish terms the writings of Clement, Augustine and the rest would take their place as midrash, a homoletic procedure that interprets biblical stories expansively, going beyond any simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It seeks to fills in perceived gaps in the biblical narrative. For its part, the Oral Torah claims a much more exalted status.

The distortions that were the inevitable result of the capture of the Written Torah by the Oral Torah extend to Hebrew philology. Few rabbis acknowledge the point that the Hebrew language, like all languages, evolved, with meanings changing according to circumstances. The rabbis also anachronistically project back later meanings of words onto earlier contexts where they are not appropriate--again in obedience to the controlling material in the Oral Torah. In fact most advances in the critical study of Hebrew philology have been made by German and English Protestants, who have produced authoritative versions of the texts. For all these reasons, the conventional wisdom that recommends “consulting a rabbi” for the understanding of Hebrew texts is unsound. Of course, the rabbis can read Hebrew, but in doing so they habitually incorporate anachronisms derived from later beliefs and practices. These anachronisms make them unreliable guides in the matter of philology.

We return now to the historical-critical method. Here the Oral Torah provides, or seems to provide, and impregnable bulwark. We can be assured, so the argument goes, that the solvents of the historical-critical method do not apply, because the Oral Torah, not within the purview of this method, overrides them.

As noted above, some Jewish scholars have indeed sought to grapple with the challenge provided by the historical-critical method. James L. Kugel, a lucid scholar who taught at Harvard University and who happens to be an orthodox Jew, does so--with disturbing results: “modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable.” (Kugel, 2007).

Kugel, though, turns out to be a mugwump. He seeks to negotiate the matter by a kind of “dual-magisterium” approach. There is one set of truths, those elicited by the application of the historical-critical method, and another produced by Jewish tradition, beginning (in his view) in the three centuries immediately preceding the beginning of the Christian era.

This schizophrenia also flourishes among conservative Christian scholars. Nonetheless, it simply will not do. In the end, knowledge must be unitary.

Notwithstanding the diversity of Judaism in many areas, the concept of the Dual Torah has never, it would seem, been explicitly renounced by any significant branch of modern Judaism. That is the “great secret” noted above. There are of course modernist versions of Judaism that reduce the role of the supernatural and other things that are now difficult to accept. Yet these trends, too, depend on the body of commentary that constitutes the Oral Torah.

Rarely discussed outside of Jewish circles, the Oral Torah is truly the elephant in the room. 
Today we hear much about how Islam needs a Reformation. That may be. Judaism also needs a Reformation in which the historic role of the Oral Torah would be placed under close scrutiny. Unfortunately, neither of these salutary Reformations is likely to happen in the foreseeable future.


This section addresses one of the ways in which medieval and modern Judaism have silently purloined from Christianity. In this instance, the borrowing has to do with hermeneutics, the principles that govern interpreting the sacred texts.

In today’s Jewish exegesis, the Pardes typology describes four different approaches to Biblical interpretation. The term, sometimes also rendered PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the name initials of these four approaches, which are: Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "plain" ("simple"), or the straightforward meaning of a verse or passage; Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints," or the deep meaning beyond the literal sense; Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash - "to inquire" or "to seek,” the comparative meaning; unraveling the midrashic meaning by comparing words and forms in a passage to similar occurrences elsewhere; Sod (סוֹד) — "secret" ("mystery") meaning of passage, as given through inspiration or revelation.

Levels two, three, and four of the Pardes method examine the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base or literal meaning. In summary, Peshat means the literal interpretation. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, while Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations, or when a "hint" is elicited by comparing a word with other instances of the same word.

Coinciding with the acronym, the Hebrew noun "Pardes" is cognate with our word “paradise.” Both terms derive from the Old Persian language.

Similarities with the earlier Christian fourfold system are too numerous to be a coincidence. In fact the Christian Middle Ages recognized four types of allegorical interpretation, a method which had originated with the Bible commentators of the early Christian era. As in the later Jewish system, the first level is simply the literal interpretation of the events of the story for historical purposes with no underlying meaning. The second level, the typological links the events of the Old Testament to the New Testament, for example, by drawing allegorical connections between the events of Christ's life with the stories of the Old Testament. The third level is the moral (or tropological), focusing on how one should act in the present--pointing up, as it were, the "moral of the story.” The fourth level is anagogical, dealing with the spiritual or mystical dimension as it relates to future events of Christian history, heaven, hell, the last judgment; it deals with prophecies.

Thus the four types of allegory treat past events (literal), the connection of past events with the later ones (typology), present realities (moral), and the future (anagogical).

A well known exposition of the four levels of interpretation stems from Dante Alighieri, in his epistle to Can Grande della Scala (early fourteenth century). However, as Henri de Lubac has shown in great detail, the method goes back to early Christian times.

The first influential model of multiple levels in the interpretation of Scripture stems from the prolific patristic writer Origen of Caesarea of the third century. Origen maintained that the Bible discloses three levels of meaning, corresponding to the threefold Pauline (and Platonic) division of a person into body, soul and spirit. The bodily level of Scripture, the bare letter, is helpful as it stands to meet the needs of the more simple. Great care must be taken before even considering whether to discard it. However, the other two levels are essential. The psychic level, corresponding to the soul, assists progress in perfection. Finally, the spiritual interpretation deals with “ineffable mysteries” so as to make humanity a “partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit's counsel.”

Later exegetes improved on Origen’s typology in two ways. First, they held that the literal interpretation may not be set aside; instead, one must assume a harmony with the others. In addition, they expanded the number of levels from three to four, as noted above.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, the Pardes system represents a clear homage to the developed fourfold system of modern Christian exegesis. Let us look at the parallels in more detail. Both systems agree in placing the literal sense first. Christian Typology, examining correspondences linking different parts of the canon of Scripture, broadly corresponds to Derash. Less close, perhaps, is the simllarity of the moral level to Remez. The mystical or anagogical level is similar to Sod. Since the rabbis do not recognize the authority of the New Testament, some modification was required. But purloining unmistakably took place.

It is not known exactly when this appropriation took place. However, a version of the Pardes typology appears in the Tolaat Yaakov, a kabbalistic text stemming from the early sixteenth century. This would situate the borrowing in the later Middle Ages, the very period in which Christian fourfold exegesis reached its height of popularity among exegetes.

This is but one of the many ways in which evolving Judaism has borrowed from Christianity--usually without acknowledgment, as in this case. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Christian allegorical method, with its four levels, withered under the impact of the Higher Criticism. Few Christian pastors or exegetes would resort to the outdated method nowadays. Dwelling in the past tense, it belongs to the arcana of intellectual history. The situation is different in the eclectic world of Neo-Judaism, where this creaky mechanism is alive and well. What Christianity has wisely shed, Judaism has kept.


The writer A. J. Jacobs has produced an entertaining book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” This volume has proved to be a very popular item, though possibly not in Orthodox Jewish circles, where it would seem redundant. Those folks believe that they are already living biblically, each single day.

To this end Orthodox Jews adhere to the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”), sometimes known as the “Law of Moses” or simply “the Law.” These injunctions are part of the Torah, we are told. Where then are they enumerated there?

That turns out to be a serious problem. Some hold that they are all present in “hidden form” in the Ten Commandments. If so they seem well hidden. In fact, a kind of “treasure hunt” is required, looking for bits in various scattered places in Scripture.

It is something of a surprise to find that there is no universally recognized list of the Mitzvot. The earliest known version, a bare-bones listing, stems from Saadia Gaon (ca. 882-942). Nowadays many follow a different list drawn up by Maimonides (1135-1204), but there are yet other compilations that differ in content.

At all events, Saadia Gaon and Maimonides lived long after the closing of the canon of the Talmud. Why does the Talmud itself not offer a definitive enumeration of the 613? Could it be that the Talmudic sages knew the list, but neglected to write it down, as they took it for granted? If so, though, why do subsequent lists differ in content? In all candor, these supposedly canonical lists are something of a Johnny-come-lately phenomenon. They are a product of medieval, and not of classical and post-classical Judaism.

Some commandments in Maimonides’ list now seem barbaric in their anachronism, for example, 513. The master must not sell his maidservant; and 514. Canaanite slaves must work forever unless injured in one of their limbs. Nos. 545-49 apply to capital cases, stipulating the the courts must carry out the penalties of stoning, burning, execution by the sword, strangulation, and hanging. Moreover (552), the court must not suffer a witch to live. Two items that nowadays are definitely honored more in the breach than the observance are 534. Not to lend with interest; and 535. Not to borrow with interest.

Here, in rough outline, is how these lists seem to have come into being. Imagine someone with a new notebook, numbering the lines of the blank sheets from one to 613. Then one would have to decide what to write on those lines. Why 613? Well, according to the deliverances of the numerological technique known as gematria, the Hebrew numerical value of the word "Torah" is 611. To reach the desired total of 613, one must add the two commandments received directly from God to the main group of 611, so laboriously compiled. Using this fudging, the desired magic quantity was attained.

Nor did the numerological obsession stop there. Some authorities hold that there are 365 negative commandments, reflecting the number of days in a solar year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the presumed number of bones and significant organs in the human body. In practice, many of the mitzvot cannot be observed following the destruction of the Second Temple in CE 70. This obligation will ostensibly return with the building of a Third Temple at some future date.

According to one reckoning, there are 77 negative and 194 positive commandments that must be observed today--a total that is far from the canonical 613. Moreover, there are 26 admonitions that apply only within the Land of Israel. There are some commandments from which women are exempt (examples include those pertaining to shofar, sukkah, lulav, tzitzit, and tefillim). Some depend on the particular status of a person in Judaism (such as being a Kohen), while others apply only to men and others only to women.

The difficulties were endless. In seeking to compile a definitive list of the 613 commandments, the rabbis encountered other problems. Which statements were to be counted as commandments? Does this mean every command by God to any individual? Or only commandments to the entire people of Israel? Moreover, would an order from God be counted as a commandment for the purposes of such a list if it could only be complied with in one place and time? Or, would such an order only count as a commandment if it could --at least in theory--be universal, to be followed at all times? Further, how does one accommodate a single verse which lays down multiple prohibitions? Should each prohibition rank as a single commandment, or does the entire set constitute one commandment?

Rabbinic adhesion to 613 has not been automatic. Moreover, even as the mysterious number gained acceptance, difficulties arose in fleshing out the list, as we have seen. Some rabbis held that this count was not an authentic tradition, or that it was not logically possible to come up with a systematic roster. In fact, no early work of Jewish biblical commentary depended on the system of 613, and no early expositions of Jewish principles of faith made the acceptance of such a list binding. It is evident that the confidence shown by some that the whole sequence was conveyed to Moses at Mount Sinai requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. If the list was conveyed to Moses, no one now knows what it was.

Ultimately, though, the concept of 613 commandments became a kind of talisman in the Jewish community. Today, eventhose who do not literally accept it feel they must offer lip service to the "613 commandments.” It sounds so precise.

In reality the 613 commandments do not form an essential part of halakhic law. This is so despite the sobriquets noted at the top: the “Law of Moses” or simply “the Law.” In the strict sense, observing them is elective. In other words, they are a resource for those who choose to structure their lives around an elaborate series of do’s and don’ts. This impulse looks very much like a version of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), identified by psychiatrists. In fact, there seems to a heightened incidence of clinical OCD among the Orthodox. That is to say, having internalized the 613, some individuals go on a hunt, seeking still other injunctions and taboos to observe.

These findings reinforce the conclusion that the views of Orthodox Jewry, and of much of modern Judaism in general, have only a tangential relationship to the faith found in the Hebrew Bible. In fact we are dealing with two religions--one piggy-backing upon the other, to be sure--but essentially two religions. For this reason, the assertions of modern Judaism faithfully to reflect the “faith of our fathers” must be taken with more than a grain of salt.

Why is it important to utter these strictures? Must one be rude? Would it not be more tactful to abstain from such comments? I don’t think that one can do this, though. The reason is that the older faith--Judaism One, if you will--has played, through its influence on the New Testament and the Qur’an, a major role in later civilizations. To understand our cultural history, it is essential to reconstruct the intertextual relations prevailing among the original document-complexes. Such is not the case, however, with Judaism Two, which is the support system of an enclave, a separatist culture. As we have noted, it came about as a creative effort to cope with two disasters that devastated the Jewish world--the destruction of the Second Temple and the triumph of Christianity. It never gained any sort of broad resonance, nor was it intended to do so. And so it has come about, as the influence of Judaism Two has been pretty much limited to its own adherents.

What beliefs and practices prevail within this enclave is a matter that by definition must be determined by the observant persons who find their place within it. It is not the business of any outsider to say what these beliefs and practices should be. But one need not simply endorse these things either, Some observations are in order, and I have sought to make them above. In this light, the effort to pass off medieval and modern folklore as “living biblically” or “in accord with Torah” must not go without challenge. To shirk this duty would be to burke the larger enterprise of interpreting the interaction of the three primary Abrahamic religions.


Were I ever to convert to Judaism, I might become a Karaite. Sometimes falsely charged with being heretical, Karaites rightly insist that they are Jews. In Israel, where most of them live, they are so regarded. Their marriages are accepted as valid by the state, while those of Conservative and Reform rabbis are not.

Of all the branches of Judaism that exist today, the Karaites strike me as by far the most faithful to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Bravely independent, they scoff at that Supreme Fiction, the Oral Law, and its lumbering, egregious vehicles the Mishnah and the Talmud. They feel no need to assume the huge burden of allegorical interpretation generated by rabbinical sciolism, often conducted in covert imitation of Christian hermeneutics, that has been imposed on Jewish life.

Karaites staunchly reject the authority of the rabbis, and view many aspects of rabbinic Halakha as contradictory to the plain meaning of the Torah. When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text. This approach stands in stark contrast to rabbinical Judaism, which employs a fourfold menu of p'shat, remez (“implication” or “clue”), drash ("deep interpretation," based on breaking down individual words) and sod ("secret," the deeper meaning of the text, drawing on the Kabbalah). As I have shown above, this baroque exegetical quartet stems from a similar Christian foursome invented some centuries earlier.

Eventually, in the course of the nineteenth century, Christian exegetes had sense enough to discard this nonsense. The Karaites, however, were way ahead of them, as they had never accepted these devices in the first place.

Such baroque complexities long served to enhance the mystique of the rabbis. The Karaites thought differently. Instead of relying on a rabbi, one should read and interpret Scripture for oneself. How refreshing!

Of course some people are more learned than others, and there is no reason for not talking to them about Scripture. We are, after all, social beings. In fact, Karaite authorities recommend that one should consult with as many people as possible where there is a question of uncertainty. Today, the Internet makes that practice much easier than heretofore.] One can take the advice of a hacham (an especially learned member of the community), but that advice is not binding and the hacham has to be able to prove his or her view from the Torah.

"There are three main concepts that Karaite practice is based on," explains Rabbi Moshe Firrouz of the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba. "There is the written word of the Bible, logical interpretation, and tradition."

Firrouz stresses that one is not allowed to make any sort of rule that contradicts the Torah, and if one gives an explanation for one of the passages, that explanation must not contradict any other part of the Torah.

Such interpretive methods foster practices that raise eyebrows among rabbinic Jews. For example, Karaites decline to wear tefillin. (Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with biblical verses.) Karaites read the biblical passage from which that commandment is derived metaphorically, and consider the actual wearing of tefillin to be an "over-literalization" on the part of the rabbis. Karaites also have no problem eating milk and meat together (as long as both the milk and the meat are kosher), for they reason that the passage that commands Jews "not to boil a kid in its mother's milk" is an explicit prohibition against a pagan fertility ritual practiced by the Canaanites, and not a law enjoining a universally applicable dietary practice.

Historically, Karaites flourished especially during the classical age of Islam, when it is estimated that about ten percent of Jews belonged to this group. Their actual origins are disputed, but clearly they split off not long after 200 CE, when rabbinic Judaism began its career of reshaping Judaism. Regrettably, there are but few Karaites in the world today--at most, 30,000. (They are not to be confused with the Samaritans, who have a different Bible from the one Karaites and rabbinic Jews use.)

The Israeli Karaite scholar Nehemia Gordon maintains an English-language Web site,, where he provides detailed explanations for Karaite beliefs and links to other resources.

So why, one may ask, if the Karaites actually descend from an unbroken chain of true Scriptural observance established in early times, are their numbers so much lower those of rabbinic Jews? "How many followers you have has nothing to with how right you are," declares Rabbi Firrouz. "[If you follow that logic], then you might come to the conclusion that the Chinese are the real chosen people of the world."

The question remains: how is it that rabbinic Judaism, with its many absurdities and accretions, triumphed, while the right-thinking Karaites were left behind? All I can say is that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable.


It is generally acknowledged that the people of the Hebrew Bible were both patrilineal and polygamous. They reckoned identity and inheritance by the male line; and men--at least prominent men--commonly had several wives. Eventually the Jews abandoned these two principles. This abandonment is one of numerous ways in which modern Judaism is essentially a new faith, related only generically to its Biblical prototype.

Patriliny (also known as patrilineality or agnatic kinship) is a system in which one belongs to one's father's lineage; it generally involves the inheritance of property, names, or titles through the male line as well.

A patriline is a line of descent from a male ancestor to a descendant (of either sex) in which the individuals in all intervening generations are male. In a patrilineal descent system, an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group same as his or her father. This principle contrasts with the less common pattern of matrilineal descent.

In the world of the Hebrew Bible, the line of descent for monarchs and leading personalities was almost exclusively through the male. Tribal descent, such as whether one is a kohen or a Levite, is still inherited patrilineally in Judaism, as is communal identity as a Sephardi or Ashkenazi Jew. Of course the connection is acknowledged in surnames beginning “ben-” or ending in -sohn.

Not surprisingly, Christianity maintained the norm of patriliny, as seen in the genealogies of Jesus, which emphasize his Davidic descent.

This situation contrasts with the rule for inheritance of Jewish status in the rabbinical Neo-Judaism of the Talmud, which is matrilineal.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 68b), in a stratum probably dating from the fourth-fifth centuries CE, claims that the law of matrilineal descent derives from the Torah. The Torah passage (Deuteronomy 7:3-4) reads: "Thy daughter thou shalt not give to his son, nor shalt thou take his daughter to thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods." This interpretation of the Deuteronomy passage is arbitrary and contestable. Still, the rabbinical view was anticipated in the Mishna (Kiddushin 3:12), where it is stated that, to be a Jew, one must be either the child of a Jewish mother or a convert to Judaism. However, this interpretation did not become general until somewhat later. Despite the claim of Scriptural support, this stipulation of matriliny is an innovation that stands in stark contrast to the patriliny that pervades the Tanakh.

Thus, by the time of the emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565), the rabbis had come to believe the fantasy that Scripture supported a innovative custom in which they were invested, namely matriliny. This view has yielded the common perception that “Jewish law” requires that a Jewish person be born of a Jewish mother.

Some scholars believe that this stipulation of matrilineal descent was enacted in response to intermarriage. Others say that the frequent cases of Jewish women being raped by non-Jews led to the law; how could a raped Jewish woman's child be considered non-Jewish by the Jewish community in which he or she would be raised? That would be inhumane.

During the Middle Ages a minority strand of rabbinic opinion argued in theoretical terms for a rule that, to be Jewish by descent, both one's parents must be Jewish. In practical terms, however, the matrilineal rule remained unchallenged from Talmudic times until the twentieth century (Cohen, 1999).

We turn now to the other reversal, the abandonment of polygamy. Strictly speaking, polygamy means that one can have more than one spouse--in the case of women, more than one husband. In historical research, however, the term polygamy is generally employed to designate what is more properly termed polygyny, that is, the practice of plural wives. For convenience, however, the traditional terminology will be followed here.

Scriptural evidence indicates that polygamy among the ancient Hebrews, though not extremely common, was not particularly unusual and was certainly not prohibited or discouraged. The Hebrew scriptures document approximately forty polygamists, including such prominent figures as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and David. Their having several wives was a matter of course, requiring little comment.

Polygamy continued to be permitted in Judaism well into the Middle Ages. Yet there are indications of disapproval among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe as early as the tenth century. Since the eleventh century, Ashkenazi Jews have followed the ban of Rabbenu Gershom. Since then monogamy has been the norm for them.

Why was this change instituted? Christian pressure undoubtedly had much to do with it, particularly since, under the impact of the Gregorian reforms, the Catholic clergy was insisting on more thorough adherence to sexual and family norms among the flock. The ban on polygamy among the Jews of Eastern Europe may also have reflected the relative scarcity of Jewish women. One could not allow a few alpha males to monopolize the supply of available mates, especially in view of the rulings, a half-millennium before, that having a Jewish mother was a prerequisite for Jewishness.

The disapproval of polygamy was slow to penetrate among Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Those of Yemen and Iran discontinued the custom quite recently, as they emigrated to countries where it was forbidden. The ban on polygamy may have entered the Mediterranean Jewish world through the French regime in Algeria. There, a law of 1870 made the local Jews French citizens, requiring that they follow the civil law of the French Republic, which does not recognize polygamy. For their part, Algerian Muslims retained their own laws and customs.

As we know, polygamy was the norm in classical Islam, at least for those who could afford it. While this custom may in part reflect Jewish precedent, it probably derives from the general prevalence of polygamy in the Middle East.

The situation was different in Early Christianity. Or was it? Most of the apostles had wives. Could some have had more than one? In all probability, this speculation is unwarranted, and the likelihood is that the circle of Jesus adhered to the official Roman preference for monogamy.

In the nominally Christian Germanic kingdoms of western Europe, a kind of informal polygamy survived for a time, at least among the elite. Charlemagne had four wives and four concubines. Cohabitation with the wives apparently did not overlap, but with the concubines it almost certainly did.


The following remarks pertain to a recent volume by the Israeli scholar Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; an English translation of a Hebrew original of 2000). The central theme of this important book is a challenge to the common perception that Christianity is the daughter of Judaism. Instead, Yuval maintains, both arose in response to historical circumstances: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE. As we know them, the two faiths are siblings.

In keeping with the dominant trend of modern scholarship, Yuval holds that the rabbinical Judaism that took shape in the Mishnah (after 200) and the two Talmuds was essentially a new creation--as was Christianity. More controversially, the Israeli scholar holds that when there are similarities between Christianity and rabbinical Judaism--and they are much more numerous than is commonly admitted--the parallels are most likely the result of Jewish borrowing from Christianity. This is what one might expect in the relationship of a minority culture and a majority one, a reality that became evident with the emperor Constantine’s sponsorship of Christianity in the early fourth century: “minority cultures tend to adopt the agenda of the majority culture,” The “one-way influence of Christianity on Judaism” is Yuval's working hypothesis.

With all the recent hoopla about “ethnicity” in contemporary America it is easy to lose sight of this fundamental dynamic. Let us take Mexican Americans in California and Puerto Ricans in New York. In both cases, the Anglo host culture produces overwhelming pressures for assimilation. By the third (or even the second generation), knowledge of Spanish is minimal and sthe influence of North American popular culture is pervasive. Doubtless Yuval has observed a similar process of assimilation in today’s Israel.

In fact, the first indications of acculturation in the Jewish world date back to the closing centuries of the Second Temple period, when the attractions of Hellenism loomed increasingly large. Many Jews--and not just in the diaspora--adopted Greek names and customs. Philo of Alexandria, the greatest Jewish thinker of the period, wrote exclusively in Greek.

To set the scene for his assertions, Yuval employs a somewhat complicated parable chosen from the bible itself. He holds that the Jacob–Esau typology (Gen. 24–32) has been of major importance for Jews’ and Christians’ perception of themselves and each other (as “other”) from antiquity until today. Both Jews and Christians identified themselves with Jacob as the chosen one. For Jews, Esau was Edom (= Rome), and eventually the Christian-Byzantine empire. Christians perceived Esau quite differently: he was ”the archetype of the Jew,” who had allegedly lost his birthright to his younger brother, the Church. In this way Judaism and Christianity came to adopt diametrically opposed interpretations of the same biblical story. The identification with Jacob also entailed the claim to ownership of the Land of Israel on a divine promise, which Christians sought to fulfill in the First Crusade by freeing Jerusalem from Muslim domination. In keeping with his overall methodology, Yuval assumes that both interpretations emerged at the same time, after the destruction of the Second Temple, and that the Jewish exegesis embodied in rabbinic Midrash drew upon the Christian one: “the Jewish position is reactive and defensive,” showing apologetic traits.

Yuval maintains that the rabbinic notion of Oral Torah was developed because rabbis feared that otherwise their teachings—like the Written Torah—could be appropriated by Christians and universalized; “[t]he Oral Torah is, in the deepest sense, a Jewish answer to the Christian Torah, the New Testament.” It is true that Christians have never shown any interest in the highly problematic notion of the Oral Torah as the copartner of the Written Torah, but indifference on their part does not exclude the possibility of its adoption by the rabbis as a defensive bulwark.

Yuval highlights significant similarities between Passover and Easter in Jewish and Christian tradition and practice. In particular, he links the theme of redemption to some of the symbolic foodstuffs of the seder table. In his discussion of the Jewish–Christian controversy in the Middle Ages (chapters 3–6), the author develops the argument that Christian accusations against Jews were based on a misinterpretation and representation of actual Jewish practices and beliefs. Not only was the roasting of the Passover sacrifice associated with the annihilation of Esau/Christianity, but the burning of the leaven could be seen as a desecration of the Host. The theme of vengeful redemption, which was already part of the Passover rite, was seen by Christians as an expression of Jewish hatred of humankind in general and of Christianity and its messiah in particular. Yuval regards the afikoman matzah at the end of the Passover seder as a symbol of messianic redemption, as “a kind of Jewish Host,” the outcome of a “Jewish internalization of Christian ritual language.” Thus there flourished a covert dialogue among symbols, gestures, and ceremonies--a dialogue suffused with polemics, hostility, and feelings of superiority over the respective “Other.” For this reason, “the inner context of the ceremonies is completely different in each religion. “

The second main part of the book concentrates on Ashkenazic Jewry, the field of Yuval’s particular expertise. “How did medieval Jewish apologetics deal with Christianity’s standing as the dominant and successful religion? What religious formulation enabled the Jews to adhere to their faith in the election of Israel despite the political reality that every day seemed to demonstrate that God had hidden his face from them? These questions must be understood in the broad context of the connections and interrelations between Jews and Christians. . . .

“Gerson Cohen . . . noted the ‘blatant contrast between the election of Israel and their subjection on earth,’ a contradiction aggravated in times of religious persecution. To explain this, Jews interpreted the harsh political reality as temporary, postponing its resolution until the messianic era. Hence, the events anticipated in the messianic era serve as the key to understanding Jewish apologetics in the present. How did the Jews portray the long-awaited victory over Christianity? How did they envision the future routing of the Gentiles?”

Yuval points out that much historical scholarship has been devoted to studying the expressions of Christian hatred for Jews, but relatively little to its Jewish counterpart. For example, he cites texts incorporated in the Morning Prayer of Yom Kippur. “These are texts that demonstrate the abyss of hostility and hatred felt by medieval Jews towards Christians. And we have here not only hatred, but an appeal to God to kill indiscriminately and ruthlessly, alongside a vivid description of the anticipated horrors to be brought down upon the Gentiles. These pleas are formulated in a series of verbs--’swallow them, shoot them, lop them off, make them bleed, crush them, strike them down’ and so forth.” One might expect such strong language as a response to persecution, but as Yuval points out such invective goes back to late antiquity, and is a constant, even in periods of relative peace between Christians and Jews.

This material is disturbing. Yet there is more, for Yuval suggests that the Christian blood libel of the Middle Ages may be based on Jewish martyrs’ killing of their own children. The Jewish martyrdom chronicles of 1096 present self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of one’s loved ones to avoid apostasy as Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God). Christians who heard of such acts were horrified by them, citing them as evidence that Jews were a murderous people. Yuval sees these tragic events as the source of the blood libel and the accusation of ritual murder that was most widespread from the twelfth century onward. The blood libel represented the distorted Christian view of Jewish martyrdom: according to the Christian version, Jews would kill Christian children, when in reality they killed their own. The dissemination of the blood libel in the years after the First Crusade may thus reflect Christian knowledge of the Jewish martyrdom acts—or rather rumors about Jews sacrificing their own children for the purposes of vengeful redemption.

In the final chapter, Yuval seeks to show how Jewish messianic ideas associated with the “end of the millennium” (the Christian year 1240 corresponds to the year 5000 in the Jewish calendar) had an impact on the Christian world. France and Germany were the centers of messianic ferment at that time, and calculations similar to the Jewish ones are found in Christian sources, though the chronology suggests that the influence traveled from Christian writers to Jewish ones. Jewish apocalyptic recapitulates three features of Christian Joachimism: the idea of the millennium, the conception of history of the Six Days of Creation, and the tripartite division of history. As Norman Cohn has shown, all these ideas have deep Christian roots (Cohn, 1962).

To be sure, the Jewish messianic idea was connected with the hope for Jewish resettlement of the land of Israel, whereas Christians sought to appropriate the Holy Land for themselves, undertaking the Crusades for that purpose. The different messianic expectations show a “tragic asymmetry”: Jews anticipated the destruction of Christianity while Christians expected the conversion of Jews to their own religion: “the Jewish Messiah is the Christian Antichrist, and vice versa.”


The following remarks stem from the recent book by Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Schäfer, 2007). To reach his conclusions Schäfer, Director of Judaic Studies at Princeton University, has collated dozens of Talmud editions and manuscripts.

In recent years the conventional wisdom has been that that appearances of Jesus and Christianity in the Talmud were limited to "a few oblique references." This in essence was the thesis of Johann Maier’s German monograph of 1978 ("Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Überlieferung"), which enjoyed the status of a standard work. Schäfer reexamines all of the available references to Jesu in the manuscripts and texts of the Babylonian Talmud. Opposing Maier’s earlier minimalizing approach, he nonetheless acknowledges that the rabbinic presentation of Jesus adds nothing to our knowledge of the actual life of Jesus. Indeed, how could it? By the same token, however, this material is not mere persiflage; instead, it is of eminent importance for understanding the Jewish intellectual elite’s response to the triumphant church of late antiquity. Comparable material in the Jerusalem Talmud, compiled mainly under circumstances of Christian domination, is relatively sparse. Only from the distance and security of the Mesopotamian diaspora, where the Persians were the supreme authority, could a direct and fierce assault on Christian claims to Jesus’ authority and divinity be launched.

Through careful sifting of all of the relevant source materials, Schäfer reveals the rabbinic texts’ actual force as “polemical counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories.” These passages clearly seek to subvert Christian claims to Jesus’ Davidic origin, authority as a teacher and healer, execution by representatives of the Roman government, resurrection, and ascent to heaven.

In his book Schäfer does not limit himself to explicit references to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He also traces the code words employed in the Talmud editions expurgated and sanitized for gentile consumption. The Princeton scholar shows how "Balaam," "that man," "the carpenter," "ben Pandera" (son of Pandera), the blank spaces and the rest of the code words refer to Jesus. As has so many times been recognized by those who care to look at the evidence, the Talmud teaches that Jesus was a "mamzer" (bastard) conceived adulterously in "niddah" (menstrual filth) by a Roman soldier named Pandera [Kallah 51a] of a whore [Sanhedrin 106a].

Pandera is evidently an Aramaic variation on the surname Pantera (the Latin form of Pantheras, meaning “Panther”). For example, a first-century Roman tombstone in Bingerbrück, Germany, has an inscription which reads: “Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera of Sidon, aged 62, a soldier of 40 years' service, of the first cohort of archers, lies here." The ascription of Jesus’ paternity to Pantera can be traced back to the pagan anti-Christian polemicist Celsus, writing ca. 180 CE. Presumably Celsus derived the name from oral tradition.

The Talmud assures us that Jesus is now in Hell, boiling in excrement. In some renderings Jesus is portrayed as boiling in semen as punishment for sexual perversion [Gittin 57a].

There is much more, including the Talmud claim that the Sanhedrin justly executed Jesus because he was an idolater [Sanhedrin 43a] who worshipped a brick [Sanhedrin 67a], even boasting that the Sanhedrin overcame Roman opposition to the execution of Jesus [Sanhedrin 43a].

Schäfer’s monograph conclusively establishes that references to Jesus in the Talmud are more than scattered and coincidental. Still, one may question his suggestion that the texts constitute a “counter-Gospel” to the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John.

Lying outside of Schäfer’s remit is a strange late medieval book, the Toledot Yeshu (“Story of Jesus”), which retells many of the hostile motifs of the Babylonian Talmud, adding others. In one version, preserved in a manuscript in Strasbourg, Mary was seduced by a soldier called Ben Pandera. The miracle-working powers of Jesus derive from his having stolen the Name of God from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Galilee, where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float. Jesus is thus a sorcerer. Judas Iscariot learns the Divine Name as well, and Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat. As the winner, Judas sodomizes Jesus, whereupon both fall to the ground. The now powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and buried. The body is taken away and his ascension is claimed by his apostles on the basis of the empty tomb. But Jesus's body is found hidden in a garden and is dragged back to Jerusalem and shown to Queen Helena.

The Toledot Yeshu is thus truly a counter-Gospel, offering a continuous narrative of the life of Jesus. This vile book shows that the belittlement and mockery found in the Talmud are not confined to that locus. In fact, the Talmud and the Toledot Yeshu represent two landmarks in a long history of Jewish disparagement of Christianity. This strand in Jewish thought continues to this day. In all likelihood it reflects perplexity at what must strike many Jews as a conundrum. How is it that Western civilization, under whose aegis most modern Jews live, was founded and nourished by Christians? Why is it that, in this signal instance, the Chosen People were not chosen?

Through his careful scholarship Schäfer has dispelled the myth that the Jews always responded to Christian attacks with quiet forbearance, declining to descend to the level of their adversaries. The scurrilous material in the Babylonian Talmud, together with its later avatars, shows that this is not so.

This evidence has a disturbing relevance today. As David Novak remarks, “at the most troubling level, Schäfer’s work might encourage those Jews who would be happy to learn that there were times when Jews were able to ‘get even’ with their Christian enemies: a kind of schadenfreude. In this way Schäfer’s work might hinder the emergence of a more positive Jewish-Christian relationship. . . . Such people could use his work to encourage Jews to speak similarly again, now that Christians are much weaker than they have been in the past. But it is naive to think that self-respecting Christians will simply sit back and not answer their Jewish critics in kind, which would easily revive all the old animosity against Jews and Judaism. Taken this way, Schäfer’s work could also encourage Christian ‘hard-liners’ to insist again that an animosity to Christians and Christianity is ubiquitous in Judaism and endemic to it, and that it cannot be overcome by the Jews. Why should Christians be any better when speaking of Jews and Judaism than Jews have been when speaking of Christians and Christianity?

“Many Jews like to dwell on the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism in all its ugly rhetoric, implying that the Jews have largely kept themselves above any such ugliness. . . . Schäfer demonstrates just the opposite. One might even speculate that had Jews gained the same kind of political power over Christians that Christians gained over Jews, Jews might well have translated their polemical rhetoric against Christianity (which, after all, posed a tremendous threat to the legitimacy of Judaism) into the political persecution of Christians, much the same way that Christians translated their polemical rhetoric against Judaism into the political persecution of Jews. Victimization does not confer sainthood. The Jews lacked the opportunity, but perhaps not the motive or the will, to practice the type of intolerance that they experienced at the hands of the Christians.”

By way of addendum, one should note a reinterpretation of the Mamzer allegation that comes from an unexpected quarter. Bruce Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College and an ordained Christian minister. His book Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Portrait is yet another attempt to depict Jesus as a first-century Jew, and as such not notably original--except in one respect. Chilton believes that the definition of Mamzerut (the status of being a Mamzer) was broader than is generally recognized.

In John’s Gospel opponents appear to taunt Jesus with being born of "fornication" (porneia; John 8:41), a slur not endorsed by any other New Testament writer--and of course not by John either, since he is simply reporting the allegation. On this slender foundation, however, Chilton builds his argument that the young Jesus suffered from being stigmatized as a Mamzer. Perhaps the situation was not unlike fag-baiting today.

The ensuing social isolation gave Jesus a sense of apartness, permitting him to develop a new, “outsider” view of contemporary Jewish society and its traditions. “At base, a mamzer was the product of a union that was forbidden because the couple was not permitted to marry and procreate according to the Torah. Whatever became of the man and the woman as the result of their sexual contact, their offspring was what we may call a changeling or mixling (terms which perhaps better convey the sense of mamzer than "bastard" or "mongrel," the traditional translations). The sense of abhorrence involved, at the mixture of lines which should never be mixed, was such that the stricture of mamzerut could also be applied to the offspring of a woman whose sexual partner was not categorically identifiable and therefore was not known to have been permitted to her.”

In short, the broader application of the term would loosely correspond to the Hindu idea of chandala, referring to an individual in the lower strata of the caste system or one who is born of the (ostensibly illicit) union of members of two different castes. Put differently--very differently--Jesus would have been a kind of Barack Obama avant la lettre.

The problem is that the citations Chilton offers for his definition of Mamzerut are all later--from the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmud. There is no certainty that these definitions prevailed in Jesus’ time, or indeed that he was actually called a Mamzer, or some equivalent, in that period. As we noted above, Celsus is the first to report the slur that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier with whom Mary had an adulterous affair. If this allegation had any basis, it would double Jesus’ mamzerut: “he is the product of adultery (and therefore a mamzer according to the definition of the Mishnah) and the offspring of a non-Israelite father (and therefore a mamzer according to the definition which later emerged in the Talmud).” However, Celsus wrote some 150 years after the death of Jesus. As opponents of Christianity, neither Celsus or the rabbinical writers have credibility in this regard. Not disinterested observers, their aim is to disparage Jesus and Christianity with any means at their disposal.

Moreover, this broad definition would make every child today who is born of a “mixed marriage" a mamzer. While mixed marriages encounter some disapproval in Jewish circles these days, few if any rabbis would countenance labeling an innocent child in this manner.


The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic peoplel ruling the Pontic steppe and the North Caucasus from the seventh to the tenth century. The name "Khazar" seems to stem from a Turkic verb form meaning "wandering.”

In the seventh century the Khazars founded an independent kingdom in the Northern Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Although the Khazars were initially shamanists worshipping the sky deity Tengri and several subordinate figures, many drifted into one or the other of the Abrahamic faiths through contact with the Christian Byzantine Empire and successive Islamic caliphates. During the eighth or ninth century, however, an extraordinary development occurred: the Khazar nation officially adopted Judaism as the state religion. At the heigh of their power, the Khazars and their tributaries controlled much of what is today southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, large portions of the Northern Caucasus (including Circassia, Dagestan, and Chechnya), parts of Georgia, and the Crimea.

Between 965 and 969, their sovereignty was broken by Sviatoslav I of Kiev so that they became subject to the sovereignty of the Kievan Rus’ Gradually displaced by the Rus’, the KIpchaks, and later the conquering Mongols, the Khazars largely disappeared as a culturally distinct people.

The ethnoc origins of the Khazars are unclear, though some have connected them with the Uyghurs, others with the Huns. Unfortunately, no Khazar writings have been found; we are dependent on texts from Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other neighboring peoples.

Jewish communities had existed in the Greek cities of the Black Sea coast since late classical times. Jews fled from Byzantium to Khazaria as a consequence of persecution under Heraclius and other emperors. These were joined by other Jews fleeing from Sassanid Persia and, later, the Islamic world. Jewish merchants regularly traded in Khazar territory, and may have wielded significant economic and political influence. Though their origins and history are somewhat unclear, the Mountain Jews also lived in or near Khazar territory and may have been allied with or subject to Khazar overlordship; it is conceivable that they too played a role in the conversion.

At some point in the last decades of the eighth century or the early ninth century, the Khazar royalty and nobility converted to Judaism, and part of the general population followed. The extent of the conversion is debated. In the tenth century, the Persian geographer Ibn al-Faqih asserted that "all the Khazars are Jews." This statement notwithstanding, some scholars believe that only the upper classes converted to Judaism. However, analysis of recent archaeological evidence that the sudden shift in funerary customs, with the abandonment of pagan-style burial with grave goods and the adoption of simple shroud burials during the mid-800s suggests a more widespread conversion

According to Schechter letter (a communication from an unknown Khazar to a Jewish dignatary) early Khazar Judaism centered on a tabernacle similar to that mentioned in the Book of Exodus. The Khazars enjoyed close relations with the Jews of the Levant and Persia. The Persian Jews, for example, hoped that the Khazars might succeed in conquering the Caliphate. There is evidence that the Khazars sought to protect Jews living in other lands.

The theory that all or most Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews might be descended from Khazars (rather than Semitic groups in the Middle East) stems from racial studies of late nineteenth-century Europe. Given the nature of such thinking in that era, it is not surprising that these earlier formulations were tinged with racial bias. Yet that alone should not be enough to discredit the theory.

The theory gained further support when the Arthur Koestler addressed the topic in his book The Thirteenth Tribe (1976). Of course, Koestler was not a historian or scientist, and his book must be regarded as suggestive only. Of Jewish background himself, Koestler was pro-Zionist based on secular grounds, and did not see alleged Khazar ancestry as diminishing the claim of Jews to Israel.

At all events, the advance of science has made it possible to adduce DNA evidence, which ought to help settle the matter. So far it has not, though preliminary results are promising. At present, though, the evidence secured is fragmentary, and its intepretation is contentious. Since the arguments are highly technical, only a general sense of them can be given here. Moreover, the samples so far involve relatively small numbers of individuals.

Yet a 2003 study of the Y-chromosome by Behar et al. found that among Ashkenazi Levites, who comprise approximately 4% of Ashkenazi Jews, the prevalence of Haplogroup R1a1 was over 50%. This haplogroup is uncommon in other Jewish groups, and is not typically associated with the Middle East. This result points either to eastern European connections, or Central Asian (Khazar) ones.

Combining these results with other findings, it is possible to conclude that as much of 12% of the present-day Ashkenazim descend from the Khazars. This figure is far from a majority, but it is not insignificant either.


The Moorish conquest of Spain began when North African Muslim groups crossed the straights in 711, ostensibly with the collusion of the traitorous Count Julian. There the new Muslim overlords found Jewish communities that had survived from Roman times, together with the Christian majority. Under Muslim rule, both Jews and Christians existed in state of dhimmitude, subject to the poll tax (jizya) and other burdens.

During the nineteenth century some Central European Jewish scholars promoted the myth that the conditions for Jews in Muslim Spain were perfect or almost. This fabrication served as a contrast with their own situation in a Europe that was only gradually emancipating the Jews. In some writers this idealization went so far as to portray Islamic-Jewish relations as utter harmony, a veritable “interfaith utopia.” The claim of Islamic tolerance has more recently been taken up by Arabs and pro-Arab western writers, who blame Zionism for undermining the harmony of the past.

Recently, this idealization of Jewish life under Moorish rule has merged with a larger claim, the notion of “convivencia,” a kind of earthly paradise in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived peaceably and productively in Spain under a benevolent Muslim rule. This view is essentially an illusion.

At times, it must be acknowledged, Jewish culture did flourish in Muslim Spain, but the pattern was much more varied than has usually been assumed.

The attachment of al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) to the larger world of Islam facilitated the contact of Spanish Jews (the Sephardim) with the larger world of Middle Eastern Jewry. For its part, Arab culture also made a lasting impact on Sephardic cultural development. General reevaluation of scripture was prompted by Muslim anti-Jewish polemics and the spread of rationalism. In adopting the Arabic language, as had the Babylonian geonim (the heads of Mesopotamian rabbinic academies), not only were the cultural and intellectual achievements of Arabic culture opened up to the educated Jew, but much of the scientific and philosophical speculation of Greek culture, which had been best preserved by Arab scholars, was as well. The punctilious attention which the Arabs showed for grammar and style also had the effect of stimulating Hebrew philology. Arabic came to be the dominant language of Sephardic science, philosophy, and everyday business. From the second half of the ninth century most Jewish prose in al-Andalus in Arabic.

Jew scholars were also active in such fields as astronomy, medicine, logic, and mathematics, not least because these disciplines were regarded as foundations of divine knowledge. In addition to training the mind in abstract reasoning, the study of the natural world--the direct study of the work of the Creator--was thought to offer a path to better understand and become closer to God.

The Sephardim were active as translators. Greek texts were rendered into Arabic, Arabic into Hebrew, Hebrew and Arabic into Latin.

In the early eleventh century, centralized authority based at Córdoba broke down following the Berber invasion and the ousting of the Umayyads. In its stead arose the independent taifa principalities under the rule of local Arab, or Berber chieftains. In some ways, the ensuing decentralization expanded the opportunities to Jewish and other professionals. The services of Jewish scientists, doctors, traders, poets, and scholars generally found favor with Christian as well as Muslim rulers of regional centers.

Several prominent Jews served as viziers in the Moorish principalities. However, the vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela was murdered in the Granada massacre of 1066, together with about 4,000 other Granada Jews. As a result of the spread of puritanical Muslim sects, the era of Jewish efflorescence ended well before the completion of the Christian Reconquista in 1492. These repressive sects, the Almoravides and Almohads, stemmed from North Africa.

Following the fall of Toledo to Christians in 1085, the ruler of Seville sought relief from the Almoravides. This ascetic Muslim group abhorred the liberality of the Islamic culture of al-Andalus, including the position of authority that some dhimmis, Jews and Christians, held over Muslims. In addition to battling the Christians, who were gaining ground, the Almoravides implemented numerous repressive measures intended to bring al-Andalus more in line with their notion of proper Islam. Despite large-scale forcible conversions, Sephardic culture managed to survive.

Wars with tribes in North Africa eventually forced the Almoravides to withdraw their forces from Iberia. As the Christian armies advanced, Iberian Muslims again appealed to their brethren to the south, this time to those who had displaced the Almoravides in North Africa. The Almohads, who had taken control of much of Islamic Iberia by 1172, far surpassed the Almoravides in the rigors of their fundamentalist outlook, and they treated the dhimmis harshly. A series of harsh measures lead to the expulsion of many Jews and Christians from Morocco and Islamic Spain. Faced with the choice of either death or conversion, many Jews emigrated. Some, such as the family of Maimonides, fled south and east to more tolerant Moslem lands, while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms.

The complex situation is aptly symbolized by the career of Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra (or Abenezra; 1089-1164). He seems to have been born in Tudela when it was under the rule of the Muslim emirs of Saragossa. One of the most distinguished Jewish men of letters of the Middle Ages, Rabbi ibn Ezra contributed to philosophy; astronomy and astrology; poetry; linguistics; and Biblical exegesis.

Settling for a time in Moorish Andalusia, he left Spain before 1140 to escape persecution of the Jews by the fanatical Almohads. He led a life of restless wandering, which took him to North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Italy, France, and England. Through his travels he was able to bring the rich tradition of Sephardic learning to the then-less-developed Jewish communities of Western Europe.

Taking advantage of Muslim disarray, Christian rule continued and expanded in the north and center of the country. By the early twelfth century, conditions for some Jews in the emerging Christian kingdoms became increasingly favorable. As had happened during the reconstruction of towns following the breakdown of the central authority under the Umayyads, Christian leaders increasingly drew upon the services of Jews. Their acquaintance with the language and culture of the enemy, their skills as diplomats and professionals, as well as their desire for relief from intolerable conditions--all these things rendered their services of great value to the Christians during the Reconquista. Ironically, these were the same strengths that they had proved useful to the Arabs in the early stages of the Moslem invasion. Thus, as conditions in Islamic Iberia worsened, immigration to the Christian states increased.

At first the situation in Christian Spain seemed relatively promising to the Jews. But this was not to last. Gradually, hostility to Jews increased, culminating in their expulsion from Spain in 1492.


Kabbalah (Hebrew: “receiving") is a discipline and school of thought addressing the mystical aspect of Judaism. A complex set of esoteric teachings, it seeks to explain the relationship between an eternal Creator and the mortal and finite universe he has created. While it is heavily used by some branches of Judaism (and recently by some non-Jews) it is not a distinct branch of the religion. The Kabbalah relies on a set of set of instructional writings that exist outside the canon of the scriptures.

Kabbalah seeks to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence, and various other ontological questions. It provides methods to aid understanding of these concepts and to thereby attain spiritual realization. Kabbalah originally developed entirely within the realm of Jewish thought and constantly uses classical Jewish sources to explain and demonstrate its esoteric teachings. These teachings are thus held by kabbalists to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional rabbinic literature, as well as to explain the deeper purpose of Jewish religious observances.

Adepts regard the Kabbalah as a necessary part of the study of Torah. However, some Jews have rejected these teachings as heretical and antithetical to the true spirit of Judaism. The Kabbalah developed during the Middle Ages, reaching a culmination with the sixteenth-century synthesis. Then it declined for a considerable period. During the twentieth century the tireless advocacy of Gershom Scholem restored it to prominence. Today the Kabbalah is both the subject of academic study and popular enthusiasm.

The origins of the term Kabbalah are uncertain. Sometimes it is ascribed to the Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021–1058), sometimes tos the thirteenth-century Spanish adept Bahya ben Asher. While other terms appear in various religious documents from the second century CE up to the present, the term Kabbalah has become the standard descriptor of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices.

Life in the diaspora made it seem prudent to conceal certain aspects of Jewish thought from the surrounding host society. For this reason Kabbalistic beliefs are diffuse and hard to characterize.

Still, there are certain constants. In Kabbalah all creation unfolds from divine reality. Starting from this truism, Kabbalah has elaborated a metaphysical structure of emanations from God. In the Kabbalistic scheme, God is neither matter nor spirit, but is the source of both. Kabbalists envision two aspects of God: (a) God Himself, who is ultimately unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God that created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind. Kabbalists speak of the first aspect of God as Ein Sof, which may be rendered as "the infinite," "endless," or "that which has no limits." In this view--sometimes termed the apophatic approach--nothing can be said about the essence of God. This aspect of God is impersonal.

By contrast, the second aspect, consisting of divine emanations, is at least partially accessible to human thought. Kabbalists believe that these two aspects are not contradictory but, through the mechanism of progressive emanation, complement one another. The structure of these emanations may be characterized in various ways: Sephirot (Divine attributes) and Partzulim (Divine "faces"); Four Worlds Creation in a Descending Chain of realms (Azilut, Beriyah, Yitzirah, and Asiyah); the Biblical vision by Ezekiel of the Merkabah (angelic chariot). Subsequent Kabbalistic systematization undertook the task of harmonizing these options. The central metaphor of Ohr ("Light") helps to understand these divine emanations.

Medieval Kabbalists believed that all things are linked to God through these emanations, making all levels in creation part of one great, gradually descending chain of being. Through this ordering any lower element finds a link between its particular characteristics and Supernal Divinity. Sixteenth- century Cordoveran Kabbalah sought to synthesize these components. This metaphysical explanation gave cosmic significance to the deeds of man, as the downward flow of the Divine "Light" that creates our reality, is opened or restricted according to the merits of each individual. Divine sustenance in creation must be maintained by the traditional mitzvah observances of Judaism. The subsequent Kabbalah of Isaac Luria ascribes a radical origin to this depiction, where creation unfolds from transcendent imbalance in Godliness, and the purpose of life is the Messianic rectification of Divinity by man. Once each person has completed his part of the rectification, the Messianic Era will begin. In this way, the mitzvot redeem the supernal Divine Sparks in existence.

The Sephirot (singular Sephirah) are the ten emanations and attributes of God whereby he continually maintains the existence of the universe. The word "sefirah" literally means "counting," but early Kabbalists considered a number of other etymological possibilities including: sefer (book), sippur (story), sappir (sapphire, brilliance, luminary), separ (boundary), and safra (scribe).

The term sephirah thus resonates in a complex way within Kabbalah. The central metaphor of Man's soul is used to describe the Sephirot. This incorporates masculine and feminine aspects, after Genesis 1:27 ("God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them"). Corresponding to the last Sephirah in Creation is the indwelling Shekhina (Feminine Divine Presence). In the Sephirot, performance of the mitzvot (traditional Jewish observances) unites the masculine and feminine aspects of supernal Divinity, and brings harmony to Creation. The description of Divine manifestation through the ten Sephirot ranks as a defining feature of medieval Kabbalah, alongside their male and female aspects, and the concept of downward flow of Divine Light through the chain of creation. The Sephirot correspond to the Four Worlds of this spiritual descent: Atziluth, Beri’ah, Yetzirah, and Assiah.

According to Lurianic cosmology, the Sephirot correspond to various levels of creation (ten sephirot in each of the Four Worlds, and four worlds within each of the larger four worlds, each containing ten sephirot, which themselves contain ten sephirot--a nesting process that leads to an infinite number of possibilities.

The Sephirot are considered revelations of the Creator's will. They must not be understood as ten different "gods," but as ten different ways the one God reveals his will through the emanations. It is not God who changes but the ability to perceive God that changes.

The conventional listing of the Sephirot comprises eleven components. However Keter and Daat are unconscious and conscious dimensions of one principle, so that the whole consists of ten items. In descending order, the names of the Sephirot are: Keter (supernal crown, representing super-conscious will); Chochmah (the highest principle of thought); Binah (the understanding of potential); Daat (knowledge); Chesed (loving-kindness); Gevurah (severity or strength); Rachamim--also known as Tiphereth (mercy); Netzach (victory or eternity); Hod (glory or splendor); Yesod (foundation); Malkuth (kingdom).

Tzimtzum (“contraction” or “constriction”) is the primordial cosmic act whereby God "contracted" his infinite light, leaving a "void" into which the light of existence was poured. This new doctrine of Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century reformulated the previous Second-Temple and medieval Kabbalistic concepts of angelic hierarchies and descending worlds. In Lurianic Kabbalah the primal emanation after the Tzimtzum led to an initial catastrophy called "Tohu" (Chaos). This was reformed into “Tikkun” (Rectification) of our spiritual realms. The Tzimtzum reconciles the infinite simplicity of the Ein Sof with the finite plurality of Creation.

In addition, Kabbalah teaches that every Hebrew letter, word, number, even the diacritical marks on words of the Hebrew Bible contain a hidden sense; and it teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings. One method for recovering these meanings is gematria. Each letter in Hebrew also represents a number; Hebrew, unlike many other languages, never developed a separate numerical alphabet. By converting letters to numbers, Kabbalists were able to detect a hidden meaning in each word.

Appropriately enough Kabbalistic scholarship reached its culmination in the Holy Land itself. During the sixteenth century an important school emerged at Safed in the Galilee region of Ottoman Palestine. There were two major figures, Moses Cordero and Isaac Luria.

Moses ben Cordovero (1522–1570) is sometimes known by the acronym the Ramak. Following in the medieval footsteps of the group centered around the Zohar, a key text, attempts were made to develop its theology into a complete intellectual system. Moses ben Cordovero was the first sto accomplish this feat. The rational school of Cordoveran Kabbalah he inspired represents one of the pivotal developments in the historical evolution of Kabbalah.

Immediately after him in Safed, Isaac Luria (1534-572) articulated his own paradigm for Kabbalistic theology, with new revealed doctrines and organization of previous Kabbalistic thought. Luria’s followers regarded Lurianic Kabbalah as harmonious with the Zohar and the system of Moses ben Cordero, though it offered a deeper interpretation of them. Both articulations gave Kabbalah an intellectual completion to rival the more established Jewish philosophy ("Hakira"). Guided by the esoteric elaboration of mystical thought in sixteenth-century Safed, Kabbalah effectively supplanted Hakira as the fundamental theology of Judaism, both in scholarly circles and in the popular imagination

The Kabbalah has not passed without criticism in Jewish circles. Although Kabbalah maintains the Unity of God, one of the most serious and sustained criticisms is that it may lead away from monotheism, promoting dualism instead--in the sense that there is a supernatural counterpart to God. Some dualistic systems, such as that of Zoroatrianism, hold that there is a good power versus an evil power. Neo-platonism holds that the universe knew a primordial harmony, but that a cosmic disruption yielded a second, evil, dimension to reality. This second model influenced the cosmology of the Kabbalah.

Later Kabbalistic works, including the Zohar, do appear to affirm dualism, as they ascribe all evil to a supernatural force known as the Sitra Achra ("the other side") that emanates from God. The "left side" of divine emanation is a negative mirror image of the "side of holiness" with which it was locked in combat. While this malign aspect exists within the divine structure of the Sephirot, the Zohar teaches that the Sitra Ahra has no power over Ein Sof, and only exists as a necessary aspect of the creation of God to give man free choice, and that evil is the consequence of this choice. It is not a supernatural force opposed to God, but a reflection of the inner moral combat within mankind between the dictates of morality and the surrender to one's basic instincts.

Some have even said that the system of ten Sephirot is actually polytheistic, so that the Kabbala is compatible with the Christian Trinity--in fact even richer because it acknowledges eleven deities (God plus the ten Sephirot). This interpretation received some support, because some believers began practices of praying to individual Sephirot. However, the charge of polytheism is rejected by most observers, both those within and without the the Kabbalistic movement,

Beginning in the eighteenth century, the Kabbala encountered another criticism. Since all forms of reform or liberal Judaism are rooted in the Enlightenment and share the assumptions of European modernity, Kabbalah tended to be rejected by most Jews in the Conservative and Reform movements, though its influence was not completely eliminated. Many western Jews insisted that their future and their freedom required shedding what they perceived as parochial orientalism. They fashioned a Judaism that was dignified and strictly rational (according to nineteenth-century European criteria), disparaging Kabbalah as backward, superstitious, and marginal. However, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen a revival in interest in Kabbalah that has percolated through liberal Judaism. Today most Rabbinical seminaries now include the Kabbalah in their curricula as a matter of course.


The Renaissance saw the birth of the Christian Cabbala. Some adventurous Christian scholars directed their attention to the mystical dimension of the Jewish Kabbala, perceiving affinities with Christian mysticism, together with ideas associated with Hermes Trismegistus and Neoplatonism. The Christian Cabbala was thus eclectic, an approach rationalized by the inference that ultimately these mystical disciplines reflected a primordial unity.

As a consequence of the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, refugee scholars brought Neoplatonic documents to Italy, where some were translated into Latin. Of course Plato, assisted by some translations made in Moorish Spain, had had some impact on thirteenth-century Scholasticism. However, the new texts that made their way West were more wide ranging. Since the Jewish Kabbalah had a debt (largely unacknowledged) to Neoplatonism, a family resemblance was discernible.

Eventually the Christian Cabbala merged into the larger trend of Hermetic thought, a trend that for the most part faded away with the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century. In the following century the tendency received a new lease on life as it merged with occultism. By contrast with the Renaissance thinkers who embraced the Christian Cabbala, occultism was essentially relegated to a marginal status.

During the Renaissance the reception of the Jewish Cabbala benefited from translations by Christian Hebraists, some of them converts from Judaism. The invention of the printing press played its part in the spread of these texts.

Among the first to promote Kabbala knowledge beyond exclusively Jewish circles was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), a student of Marsilio Ficino at his Florentine Academy. Pico’s syncretic world-view combined Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, Hermeticism, and Kabbalah--a heady brew.

Pico’s pioneering work on Kabbalah received further advancement at the hands of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a Jesuit priest, hermeticist and polymath. Working within the Christian tradition, the two scholars shared a syncretic approach.

Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), was a German humanist who mastered both Greek and Hebrew. Having consulted with Pico della Mirandola in Italy, he later studied Hebrew with a Jewish physician, Jakob ben Jehiel Loans, producing thereafter De Arte Cabbalistica in 1517.

Balthasar Walter (1558-before 1630), was a Silesian physician. In 1598-1599, Walther undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to learn the intricacies of the Kabbala and Jewish mysticism from groups residing in Safed and elsewhere, including amongst the followers of Isaac Luria. Despite his claim to have spent six years in these travels, it appears that he only made short trips. Nonetheless, his life demonstrated a direct link between the adepts of the Christian Cabbala and their Jewish predecessors and contemporaries. Walther himself did not author any significant Cabbal works, but maintained a voluminous manuscript collection of magical and kabbalistic works. His significance for the history of Christian Kabbalah is that his ideas and doctrines exercised a profound influence on the works of the celebrated German mystic, Jacob Böhme, author of Forty Questions on the Soul (ca. 1621).

A curious aftermath of these traditions is the modern Hermetic Qabalah (written with a ‘Q’ so as to distinguish it from its predecessors). An aspect of Western esoteric and mystical thinking, it figures as the underlying philosophy and framework for magical societies such as the Golden Dawn, Thelemic order, such societies as the Builders of the Adytum and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. It may also be regarded as a precursor to Neopagan, Wiccan, and New Age movements. The Hermetic Qabalah is the basis for Qliphothic Qabala as studied by left-hand path orders, such as the Temple of Black Light, the Typhonian Order and the Dragon Rouge.

Hermetic Qabalah draws on a dizzying range of sources, including Jewish Kabbalah, Western astrology, alchemy, pagan religions (especially Egyptian and Greco-Roman), neoplatonism, gnosticism, the Enochian system of angelic magic propounded by John Dee and Edward Kelley, rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, tantra, Theosophy, and the symbolism of the Tarot.


Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism (from the Hebrew Hasidus meaning “piety”--literally “loving kindness”) is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that seeks to promote spirituality through a popular version of Jewish mysticism. It traces its origins to an eighteenth-century rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, who reacted against what he perceived as Jewish formalism and legalism. By contrast, Hasidic teachings cherished the sincerity and concealed holiness of the unlettered common folk, and their equality with the scholarly elite. The emphasis on the Divine presence in everything gave new value to prayer and deeds of kindness, alongside Rabbinic exaltation of studyCommunal gatherings celebrated soulful song and storytelling as forms of mystical devotion.

Today, Hasidism comprises part of contemporary Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which flourishes alongside the previous Talmudic Lithuanian-Yeshiva approach and the Oriental Sephardi tradition. Its charismatic mysticism has inspired non-Orthodox thinkers and influenced wider ranges of modern Jewish denomination, while its ethos and practice have attracted contemporary academic study.

There are approximately 30 larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor groups. Though there is no one version of Hasidism, individual Hasidic groups often share with each other underlying philosophy, worship practices, dress and songs.

The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760), became known as the "Master of the Good Name" (the “Baal Shem Tov,” abbreviated as the "Besht"). Following on from the earlier communal tradition of Baal Shem, his fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. Most of the information we have about him stems from at least a generation after his death, and some details are disputed. The stories emphasize his spiritual powers and knowledge, miracle working, and ability to predict the future. In turn, these notions were passed on to his pious successors, shapiing the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik or Rebbe (righteous leader who channels Divine substenance to his followers). The Hasidic concept of a Rebbe also combines their role as a teacher of Judaism and as a charismatic spiritual example.

Early on, a serious division appeared between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. Those European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement dubbed themselves mitnagdim (literally, "opponents"). The critics offered several objections. They decried the apparently novle Hasidic emphasis on different aspects of Jewish law. In addition, they were turned off by the exuberance of Hasidic worship, which struck them as indecorous. Finally, they expressed concern that Hasidism might evolve into a deviant messianic. Over the course of time these differences came to seem less important

The Nazi invasion into the interior of European Russia in 1941 destroyed the remaining Hasidic communities in the former Pale of Settlement under the first mass destruction of the Holocaust. The Hasidic communities were therefore disproportionately decimated. Subsequently, the Hasidim of Central Europe were transported to the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. Most survivors moved eventually to Israel or to North America and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism modeled after their original communities. Today, there are probably close to half a million Hasidic Jews worldwide.

Within the Hasidic world, one can distinguish different Hasidic groups by subtle differences in dress. Some details of their dress are shared by non-Hasidic Orthodox. Much of Hasidic dress was historically the clothing of all Eastern-European Jews, but Hasidim have preserved more of these styles. Furthermore, Hasidim ascribe religious origins to specific Hasidic items of clothing.

Hasidic men most commonly wear dark (black or navy) jackets and trousers and white shirts. They will usually also wear black shoes. The preference for black comes from a decree made by community rabbis in the eighteenth century stipulating that black outer garments be worn on the Sabbath and Jewish Holy Days out of the home, as opposed to the colorful kaftans that were worn prior to that time. Ostensibly, the rabbis thought that brightly colored garments might arouse resentment amongst non-Jews, which could lead to violence.

Following a Biblical commandment not to shave the sides of one's face, male members of most Hasidic groups wear long, uncut sideburns called payot (known as peyes in Yiddish). Many Hasidim shave off the rest of their hair.

The white threads dangling at the waists of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jewish males are called tzitzit. Supposedly, the requirement to wear fringes comes from the Pentateuch: "Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes on the borders of their garments throughout their generations" (Numbers 15:38). In order to fulfill this commandment, Orthodox males wear a tallit katan, a square white garment with the fringes at the corners.

The majority of Hasidic women, being Orthodox, wear clothing adhering to the principles of modest dress in Jewish law. This includes long, conservative skirts and sleeves past the elbow. Women often crop their hair, covering the head with a sheitel (wig).


The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, was an intellectual movement in Europe that flourished from approximately 1770 to 1900. The Haskalah was inspired by the European Enlightenment (or Aufklärung), but sought to adapt it to Jewish circumstances. The term derives from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning “reason” or “intellect.” The movement encouraged Jews to study secular knowledge, to learn both the European and Hebrew languages, and to practice the crafts, professions such as medicine and law, and the arts. Some maskilim (Haskalah adepts) also advocated manual labor, including agriculture, because they felt that it taught morality. In short, the maskilim sought to assimilate into European society in dress, language, manners, and loyalty to the political regimes in which the found themselves. In due course, the Haskalah influenced the rise of both the Reform movement in Judaism and Zionism.

As early as the middle of the eighteenth century, many German Jews, together with some individual Polish and Lithuanian Jews, evinced a desire for secular education. Some members of the Jewish elite began to be proficient in European languages. Some individuals of this type found that they could advance by serving the absolutist regimes of their countries, becoming “Court Jews.” Protected, at least for the most part, by the rulers, the Court Jews assimilated into European society. In this they were not entirely welcomed, and the interface between the assimilated Jews and the host society gave rise to anti-Semitism. At a lower social level, Jewish peddlers habitually interacted with non-Jews, bringing outside ideas into their communities.

All of these developments tended to erode the dominance of halakhah (Jewish law).

The Haskalah began in Germany and Austria (including Austrian Galicia) spreading to the Pale of Settlement and Lithuanian, under Russian administration, Proponents of the Haskalah were not indifferent to earlier Jewish precedent. Some appealed to the authority of Maimonides, the Jewish thinker and physician of medieval Spain.

The Prussian-Jewish intellectual Moses Mendelssohn (1726-1789) ranks as the father of the Haskalah. Protected by Frederick the Great, he wrote in scholarly German. He presented Judaism as a non-dogmatic rational faith open to modernity and change. He called for a revival of the Hebrew language and literature. By contrast, he thought that Yiddish was "ridiculous, ungrammatical, and a cause of moral corruption." Mendelssohn initiated a translation of the Hebrew Bible into German, with a text written in Hebrew characters. The Biur, or grammatical commentary, prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to supplant traditional rabbinical methods of exegesis. Together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of the Haskalah.

In keeping with their secularist ideals, the Maskilim sought to remove the Talmud from its central place in Jewish education. While they did not exclude Jewish studies, they emphasized secular knowledge, modern languages, and practical training in the crafts. Overall, they fostered the social integration of the Jewish communities.

Haskalah followers advocated "coming out of ghetto" not just physically but also mentally and spiritually in order to assimilate amongst Gentile nations. The process is sometimes termed disemboguement. a metaphor that suggests coming forth from a closed setting. The success of this project depended on the continuing progress of Jewish emancipation, which had begun with Napoleon in France and spread to Central and Eastern Europe.

In some ways, the aims of the Haskalah movement meshed with the conceerns of the absolutist rulers of the time. For example, in the 1780s emperor Joseph II issued an edict that applied to the Jews of Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Galicia. He decreed that the Jews must either establish “normal” schools, or else sent their children to state schools. Jews were admitted to general secondary schools and universities, marriage was prohibited without a certificate of school attendance, and anyone who studied Talmud before completing the secular school curriculum was subject to imprisonment (at least theoretically).

The growth of the Haskalah fostered the rise of the Reform movement, whose founders such as Israel Jacobson and Leopold Zunz rejected those aspects of Jewish law which they regarded as merely ritual, as opposed to moral or ethical. Even within orthodoxy the effects of Haskalah were felt through the appearance of the Mussar Movement in Lithuania and Torah im Derech Eretz in Germany. Enlightened Jews sided with Gentile governments in plans to increase secular education among the Jewish masses, bringing them into acute conflict with the orthodox who believed this process threatened Jewish life.

An important offshoot of the Haskalah was the Wissenschaft des Judentums ("the science of Judaism"), a nineteenth-century scholarly movement premised on the critical investigation of Jewish literature and culture, including rabbinic literature, mobilizing scientific methods to analyze the origins of Jewish traditions.

The first organized attempt at developing and disseminating Wissenschaft des Judentums was the Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (Society for Jewish Culture and Knowledge), founded around 1819 by Eduard Gans (a pupil of the Gentile philosopher Hegel), and his associates. The Society sought to devise a rationale for the Jews as a Volk or people in their own right, independent of their religious traditions. As such it sought to validate their secular cultural traditions as being on an equal footing with those adduced by Johann Gottfried Herder and his followers for Germans and other peoples. As such, the Verein was not a success, a failure attributable largely to the far greater attraction, amongst German Jews, of German culture. This was followed by the conversion to Christianity of many of its leading figures, including Gans and Heine.

Still, the broader aim persisted. Proponents of Wissenschaft des Judentums strove to elevate Jewish culture to a level on par with Western European civilization, endeavoring to have Jewish Studies introduced into the university curriculum as a respectable area of study. In this way, they could free the field from the prevailing bias that regarded Judaism as an inferior precursor to Christianity.

Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), one of the movement's leading figures, devoted much of his work to rabbinic literature. At the time, Christian thinkers maintained that the Jews' contribution ended with the Bible, and Zunz began to publish in the area of post-biblical rabbinic literature. His essays "Etwas über die rabbinische Literatur" and "Zur Geschichte und Literatur" addressed this issue.

Despite his scholarly concerns, Zunz felt the need to confront the possibility that Judaism had come to an end. In this context it was the task of Wissenschaft des Judentums to provide a judicious accounting of the varied and rich contributions which Judaism had made to civilization. One of Zunz’ followers is said to have quipped that Wissenschaft des Judentums seeks to ensure that Judaism will receive a proper burial, in which scholarship amounts to an extended obituary.

In fact, the writings of many Wissenschaft scholars display not only an intense love of learning for its own sake, but also a genuine affinity for the rabbis and scholars of former times, whose works they found themselves documenting, editing, publishing, analyzing, and critiquing. Indeed, far from disparaging or despising the Jewish religion and its many generations of rabbinical scholars, the majority of Wissenschaft practitioners were eager to take ownership of the Jewish scholarly tradition. They saw themselves as the rightful heirs and successors to such sages as Saadia and Rashi, Hillel and ibn Ezra. While this enthusiasm is admirable, it may have contained an element of projection that elided the differences between the modern trend and the earlier ones.

In the Wissenschaft approach to scholarship, then, the earlier generations of scholars become "de-sanctified" and "re-humanized," that is, normalized. Wissenschaft scholars felt free to pass judgment on the intellectual and scholarly capacities of earlier scholars, evaluating their originality, competence, and credibility, at the same time signaling their failures and limitations. The Wissenschaft scholars, while respectful of their predecessors, have no patience for a concept such as yeridat ha-dorot, the idea that later scholars are necessarily inferior to earlier ones. For them, the classical authorities are no more beyond dispute and critique than are contemporary scholars; the opinions of Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) and Moritz Steinscheider (1816-1907) may consort in the same sentence without any sense of impropriety. No doubt this normalization of the Jewish luminaries provided further grist for the opponents of the movement.

From its very beginnings, the Wissenschaft movement drew criticism from traditional elements in the Jewish community, who regarded it as sterile at best, and at worst damaging to the religious community. Nonetheless, the legacy of the Wissenschaft movement persists, and its influence still resonates in Jewish Studies departments in universities in many parts of the world. Still, the publication of the Jewish Encyclopedia in 1901–1906 probably marked the end of the original tradition. The choice of English over German as the language of this major work demonstrated that the hegemony of German scholarship in this field was drawing to a close.


Earlier portions of this chapter have noted the resistance pervading most Jewish religious circles as to receiving the findings of the Higher Criticism, as well as to the persistence of allegorical readings of the scriptures that stem from the Middle Ages. This resistance is rooted in the uniquely Jewish concept of the Oral Torah, an entity that ranks with the Written Torah (that is, the Hebrew Bible as we have it) as an equal partner.

The Higher Criticism, otherwise known as the historical-critical approach, emerged full blown in mid-nineteenth century Germany. It is in that time and place that we would expect to find the formative stages of the Jewish confrontation with these findings of modern biblical criticism.

In this context two figures were of exemplary importance: Abraham Geiger and Samson Raphael Hirsch, both rabbis.

Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) is credited with laying the foundations of Reform Judaism. He sought to remove all nationalistic elements (particularly the "Chosen People" doctrine) from Judaism, stressing it as an evolving and changing religion. His studies of classical philology and oriental languages at the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Marburg eroded his faith in the traditional Judaism in which he had been raised. This experience induced a simmering crisis, leading eventually to his conversion to reformist ideas.

Geiger’s doctoral dissertation concerned the incorporation of Jewish elements in the Koran. In this way he heralded the enterprise of examining the interaction of the foundational documents of the three Abrahamic religions. I honor his example, because in my own way I have sought to pursue this comparativist path.

As a rabbi in Wiesbaden, Geiger began his program of religious reforms, chiefly in the synagogue liturgy. For example, he abolished the prayers of mourning for the Temple, believing that, as German citizens, such prayers would appear to be disloyal to the ruling power and could possibly spark Anti-Semitism. Rather than create a new religious orientation, Geiger’s goal was to change Judaism from within. His work found reinforcement in the work of other reformers, such as Samuel Holdheim, Israel Jacobson, and Leopold Zunz.

Geiger also took up the study of the New Testament, maintaining that Jesus was a Pharisee teaching Judaism. While this particular view is no longer tenable, he nonetheless ranks as “the first Jew to subject Christian texts to detailed historical analysis from an explicitly Jewish perspective” (Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 1994, p. 2). The Wiesbaden rabbi was a forerunner of today’s Jewish scholars who have offered their own interpretation of the New Testament (see my posting “Jesus the Jew”).

In keeping with the dominant trend of nineteenth-century historiography, Geiger emphasized the narrative of Judaism as an unfolding reality--as a story of progress in short. Yet his investigations of Jesus and his times led him to conclude that Judaism reached a kind of perfection towards the end of the Second Temple period, that is, in the time of Jesus. This seems contradictory.

The liberal Jewish scholar held that the rabbinical writings found in the Mishna and the two Talmuds represent a kind of ossification, one partly shaped by Christian pressure. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these writings were not an ornament to Judaism. By and large, most later rabbinical scholarship has not followed him in this denigration, for it continues to regard those early rabbinical collections as the foundation for the Oral Torah, and thus on a plane with (if not superior to) the Written Torah.

We turn now to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). When they were university students Hirsch was a friend of Geiger’s. Later they diverged sharply.

In 1830 Hirsch was elected chief rabbi of the principality of Oldenburg. During this period he wrote his Neunzehn Briefe über Judenthum (Nineteen Letters on Judaism), which were published in 1836. This work made a strong impression in German Jewish circles because it was a forthright defense of Orthodox Judaism in classic German, supporting all its traditional institutions and ordinances. Other publications critiqued the nascent Reform trend.

Hirsch’s approach to the hermeneutics of Jewish religious documents is of particular interest. In contrast to the historical-critical approach, he emphasized the symbolic interpretation of many Torah commandments and passages. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional understanding of the Written and Oral Law against the rising tide of historicist criticism (see his Commentary on the Pentateuch, 1867-78). He held that the Oral Law was revealed before the Written Law and is not dependent on it; the Written Law (the Bible as we know it) is merely a summary of the Oral Law--a kind of set of Cliff’s Notes, as it were. In Hirsch’s view, there can be no true understanding of the essence of Judaism without marshaling the full resources of the Oral Law. Its looming presence must always be acknowledged in any interpretation of Scripture.

In his extreme view, Hirsch held that the origins of the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah in time, so that it takes logical precedence. This exaltation of the Oral Torah (which is in fact a purely human contrivance assembled for the most part from Mishna and Talmud) finds many echoes in Orthodox circles today. Even those who do not accept the primacy of the Oral Law tend to accept the component material as essential. That is, they reject Abraham Geiger’s critical view that these texts are secondary and in some respects distorting. Rather they view the Oral Law, as embodied in Mishna and Talmud, as the indispensable corollary and perfection of the Judaism of the Tanakh. That is, after all, what being a Talmudic scholar means.

It is a truism that Judaism is a text-based religion. But which texts? I have never attended classes at a Jewish theological seminary, but clearly Mishnah and Talmud--the basic ingredients of the Oral Torah--would figure prominently in the curriculum. Many, perhaps most instructors in these schools of rabbinical training would hesitate to adopt the extreme view of Rabbi Hirsch that the Oral Torah precedes and therefore controls the Tanakh. By the same token, however, few would seek to reduce Mishnah and Talmud to the role of mere commentaries.

For a moderate view of the role of these post-Biblical texts, one may turn to the book of a Jewish layman MIchael S. Berger, Rabbinic Authority (New York, 1998). Setting aside, as he does, the “totalitarian” claims for Talmudic authority., Berger asks why one should still follow the rabbis of the first several centuries after the destruction of the Temple. The reason is, he argues, because rabbinic authority has become central to Jews' way of life--a way of life that "can provide a sense of overall purpose to one's activities; it can create or deeper feelings of community with other Jews; it can offer guidelines for behavior and a relative certitude with respect to moral and other sorts of dilemmas; and it can supply a person with a connection or rootedness in a millennia-long tradition." One writer has pointed out that Berger's conception is analogous to the legal argument for the principle of stare decisis (that is, that a judicial decision or set of such decisions has become so ingrained in the legal system that it should not be overturned).

Michael S. Berger acknowledges that rabbinic authority means different things for different communities. For most traditionally observant Jews, rabbinic authority entails complete obedience to the halakhic tradition first put in writing by the Sages of Mishnah and Talmud. Yet even the least traditional Jews defer to rabbinic authority to some extent, for otherwise Reform Jews would not honor rabbinically ordained holidays such as Hanukah and Purim.

Hanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration," marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV in 167 BCE and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." These events lie outside the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and in consequence the festival cannot be derived from that text. Hanukkah is mentioned in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. It was the Talmud, however, that established the special significance of Hanukkah, laying the foundations for the modern commemoration.

Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people of the Persian Empire from Haman’s plot to annihilate them. While the events are recorded in the book of Esther, which is recognized by Jews as a canonical book, the celebration of the festival is not noted in the Hebrew Bible itself. As with Hanukkah, Purim owes its status to the interpretations of the rabbis, as Berger points out.

Thus even for Reform Jews there is no easy way of renouncing the injunctions of the Sages in the Mishnah and the two Talmuds. Over time the textual basis of Judaism has come to embrace these documents. Moreover, once one acknowledges this incorporation, as most authorities within Judaism do, there is no way of avoiding some descent down the slippery slope. At the base of that slope awaits the Leviathan of the Oral Torah.

Contrast the case with Christians who are, many of them at least, free to say “Forget about Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; forget about Luther and Calvin. I will go by the words of Holy Scripture alone.” To be sure, this is not an option that is universally exercised. It is mainly Protestants who do so, while Catholics are still bound by papal authority. The point is that recourse to the Sola Scriptura principle is possible for many Christians. By contrast, for observant Jews such a focus (the Sola Scriptura model) is not available. It is not an option because the inspired words of the Sages are not simply commentary in the sense honored by classical and Christian hermeneutics. Instead, Mishna and Talmud are in fact Scripture. The exalted status these writings have attained makes it functionally impossible, within the bounds of Jewish tradition, to separate the Bible from the accretions that have attached themselves to it. This means that subscribing to these principles precludes an independent and unprejudiced effort to try to discover what the Hebrew Bible really means. The reason is that one always has the Sages looking over one’s shoulder. It may seem paradoxical, but for some centuries now significant progress in understanding the Hebrew Bible has been made chiefly by non-Jews. Since the Protestant Reformation it is been possible to isolate the Scriptures from their accretions and (eventually) to examine them according to the principles of the Higher Criticism. These achievements, accomplished essentially by Protestants, are Christian resources that observant Jews have found it difficult to emulate.

Seeking to protect the integrity of the Jewish tradition, Samson Raphael Hirsch and the rabbis who allied themselves with him heralded the rejectionism maintained today by many rabbis. They believe that the adoption of the historical-critical method would erode the historical foundations of Judaism--possibly leading to its destruction.

To be sure, prominent lay Jewish scholars, such as Richard Elliott Friedman and Hershel Shanks, fully recognize the findings of modern scholarship. By and large, though, the same is not true of rabbis, who even if they privately accept some of the findings of the historical-critical school are not eager to share these views with their congregations. Some even speak mockingly of the “alphabet soup” of the J, E, D, and P analysis of the Pentateuch. Theirs is a serious case of denial.

Unfortunately, these antiquated views circulate today not only among the Orthodox, but also among Conservative and Reform rabbis. To all intents and purposes, the continued flourishing of the Hirsch approach to hermeneutics works to isolate official Judaism from modern currents of biblical scholarship, which are proceeding apace in other quarters. This outdated view also serves as a barrier to the acceptance of modern findings regarding the actual history and faith of the people who wrote the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Finally, the approach hinders the attempt to understand the interaction of all three sets of Abrahamic texts, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim--the task that underlies this book.


The New York Times for Friday, Aug. 26, 2005 contains a disturbing report. “A circumcision ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews alarmed [New York] City health officials, who say it may have led to three cases of herpes—one of them fatal—in infants. The practice is known as oral suction, or in Hebrew, metzitzah b'peh: after removing the foreskin of the penis, the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it.” Here are some further details. According to one authority, "[t]he method to be adopted is laid down thus: 'One excises the foreskin, (that is) the entire skin covering the glans, so that the corona is laid bare. Afterwards, one tears with the finger-nail the soft membrane underneath the skin, turning it to the sides until the flesh of the glans appears. Thereafter, one sucks the membrane until the blood is extracted from the (more) remote places, so that no danger (to the infant) may ensue; and any circumciser who does not carry out the sucking procedure is to be removed (from his office).”

Why is the penis sucked? Some physicians contend that it serves to stop bleeding. Not only is there little evidence for this theory, but it was also a largely ineffective method. Furthermore, even in antiquity, surgeons had better methods to stop bleeding, such as pressure, instruments, and medication.

After centuries in which the metzitah b’peh was standard practice, a reform of the rite, involving the application of the lips of the mohel to a glass straw rather than directly to the penis, was first recommended in the Haskalah era (late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), by Moses Schreiber, but it was implemented only by a segment of the modern Orthodox movement. Yet many Judaic authorities both medical and rabbinic, continue to uphold the traditional practice of performing fellatio on the infant male. As Henry C Romberg asserts: "[t]he traditional practice of metzitzah b'peh, which has its roots in the earliest history of the Jewish people and has survived unchanged to the present time, should be viewed with great respect. It is spoken of very positively in the Jewish literature on circumcision both as an essential part of the ritual and as a health measure which prevents infection and promotes healing."

In fact, dozens of ultra-Orthodox rabbis signed a full-page Hebrew advertisement that ran in the February 25, 2005 issue of Yated Ne'eman, defending the practice. Rabbi Gerald Chirnomas from Boonton, N.J., a prominent mohel in the Greater New York region, asserted that the practice of orally suctioning blood was the norm for centuries .... Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel ... said that ... it is a religious tradition of many generations ... Another rabbinic organization, the Central Rabbinical Council, and at least two Orthodox newspapers, Yated Ne'eman (in a statement issued by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz in the February 18, 2005 edition) also defends metzitzah b'peh.

After the New York Times story appeared, some Jewish organizations hastened with assurances that the practice is rare and not typical of Jewish circumcision rituals. Many of the mohels, it seems, now extract the blood with a tube. However, on March 1, 2005 the Rabbinical Council of America stated: “Bris Milah (ritual circumcision of Jewish males, performed on the 8th day after birth unless there are health contraindications) is a fundamental cornerstone of Jewish life and Biblical law. An important element of every Bris Milah is Metzitzah be'Peh, the extracting of blood from the wound and/or surrounding tissue using the mouth as the source of suction. This practice has been prevalent in all Jewish communities worldwide for thousands of years.”

Yet the Council then goes on to assert: “ Based upon a careful study of the available Halachic and scientific literature, as well as a review of sanctioned practice by numerous reliable Torah authorities past and present, it is the position of the RCA that the requirement of Metzitzah is fulfilled completely and unambiguously by the use of oral suctioning through a tube, as practiced by many Mohalim in our communities. Therefore, according to this viewpoint, the use of such a tube is not only permissible, but is preferred (instead of direct oral contact) to eliminate any unintentional communication of infectious diseases. This protects both the Mohel and the newly circumcised child.” This view is simply a concession to modern, secular views, and not in accordance with traditional Jewish practice.

Since time immemorial oral suction has been the norm. The Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat (133a) records the practice of metzitzah as an essential aspect of the circumcision process, and states that metzitzah must be performed at the end of the circumcision. “They [the mohalim] may perform on the Sabbath all things needful for circumcision: excision, tearing, sucking [the wound] and putting thereon a bandage and cummin.” (H. Dabney trans., p. 116).

In addition, the Gemara explains (ibid, 133b) that refraining from performing metzitzah endangers the baby. The commentators elaborate that metzitzah is performed in order to hasten the healing of the wound.

Modern commentators claim that that metzitzah functions as a medical procedure and not a religious one. Of course is not a medical procedure, but one that endangers the health of the infant, as we have seen.

There are also legal considerations. In an era when there is great concern about sexual molestation of children, many may wonder how an adult can legally put his mouth on a child's genitals. However, the courts often allow exemptions to general laws for religious practices--especially when they are espoused by Orthodox Jewry.


Anyone seriously concerned with ancient Egypt must ponder the astonishing religious innovations of pharaoh Akhenaten (reigned 1353-1337) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Ever since the recovery a century ago of art works and documents of this pharaoh, it has been recognized that Akhenaten introduced true monotheism--the worship of a single deity in the form of the Aten, visualized as a sun disk. The reforming pharaoh did not tolerate other deities, and required that their images be smashed. The similarities between Akhenaten’s ideas and those ascribed to Moses are so close that some--famously Sigmund Freud--have been tempted to posit a direct connection between the two phenomena. However, the chronological gap between the two forms of monotheism is too great. One must assume that the Israelite development was an independent invention, and not an instance of diffusion.

At all events, in discussing the bas reliefs of Akhenaten adoring the Aten one notices that they exhibit a reciprocity that is rare in ancient Egyptian religious art, and indeed anywhere in ancient art. That is, the deity responds vigorously to the king’s adoration by emitting a virtual shower of rays, each terminating in a tiny hand.

In the course of some recent lectures on ancient Egypt it occurred to me that this phenomenon of reciprocity might be an example of the famous “I-thou” nexus advanced by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878-1965). After all, I reasoned, Buber was working in the context of Jewish monotheism, which as we noted, shows striking affinities with the monotheism of Akhenaten, even though it was not derived from the ancient Egyptian prototype.

After the lecture I got out my old copy of “I and Thou,” and reread this wonderful text, which surely ranks as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. To my surprise, I found very little that is overtly Jewish. To be sure, scholars have detected two or three veiled allusions to the Hebrew text of Exodus. By contrast, there are several direct references to the Upanishads and to Buddhism. Jesus, the Gospels, and Christian mystics receive favorable, explicit attention. In short, if the text had been published anonymously, one would not detect that its author was a famous authority on the Hasidism. In fact, for much of its life--I and Thou was first published in German in 1923--the book was admired mainly by protestants.

Even more startling, however, is the fact that the book is not primarily about religion, but about deepening our human interaction with the world by observing the distinction between “I-thou” and “I-It.” The former manifests deep empathy; the latter instrumentalizes the world, reducing it to a mere convenience.

Buber’s book is laced with many references to Goethe. This was more or less obligatory in German scholarly writing of the time, but Buber seemed to have responded in a genuine way to the great writer’s humanism. Ultimately, however, I and Thou seems to be based on a cardinal principle of the ethics of Immanuel Kant, who requires that we treat others as ends not means. To take a familiar example, sexual objectification reduces the other person to a mere convenience--a means--for the satisfaction of the individual. By contrast, genuine love treats the beloved as an end, someone to be honored and treasured for his or her self. Indeed, Buber sometimes speaks of the man-and-wife relation as an example of “I-thou.”

In addition, Buber’s masterpiece was a child of its time, Weimar Germany. Its rhapsodic, sometimes obscure style shows notable similarities with the contemporary work of Martin Heidegger and Hermann Hesse. I also detect a more remote connection with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early masterpiece of concision, the Tractatus.

Examining the details of Martin Buber’s life, it is not difficult to discern the origins of his knowledge of Christian traditions. His dissertation dealt with the Christian mystics Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme [Zur Geschichte des Individuationsproblem (Nicolaus von Cusa und Jakob Boehme), University of Vienna, 1904]. For a long time the manuscript has remained unpublished in Buber‘s papers in Tel Aviv. I have not been able to examine the first installment of the new collected edition (planned for 21 volumes) of the writer’s German-language writings, but it seems that that this early formative text was not included therein. Perhaps it will appear in a later volume. Still, some periodical articles published by Buber at the time of his studies offer a glimpse of its contents. Guided in part by the nineteenth-century Christian theologian, Ludwig Feuerbach, Buber contextualized his subjects by also discussing Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Weigel.

Another interesting point--though it is a sidelight--is that after obtaining his Ph.D. Buber went for a time to Florence to study art history, with a view to teaching that subject. Had he persevered, he might have become one of my teachers in graduate school at New York University.

As far as I know, Buber never contemplated conversion to Christianity, but clearly his allegiance was to European and indeed to world culture. In this light, it is ironic that he is now known mainly to American Jews by his collections of the Hasidic tales associated with the eighteenth-century Ashkenazic sage Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht. In the eyes of today’s enthusiasts, the Besht ranks as a kind of protohippy. Discarding conventions and doctrinal restraints, he freely roamed the fields, all the while singing away. Since this archetypal Hasid wrote almost nothing and was limned by followers only some fifty years after his death, it is hard to establish the truth of these claims. Skeptics have doubted whether the Baal Shen Tov ever existed, though surely this goes too far, as some contemporary documents have been found. At all events recent popular accounts are poorly sources and redolent of anachronism. For a demythologized view of this much-extolled figure, see the sober monograph of Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, 1996.

When he first engaged with this material, just over a hundred years ago, Buber seems to have viewed Hasidism as an exemplary source of Jewish cultural renewal, citing examples from the Hasidic tradition that emphasized community, interpersonal life, and the meaning that dwells in humble, everyday activities (for example, a worker's relation to his tools). According to Buber, the Hasidic ideal emphasized a life conducted in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no separation between daily life and religious experience.

Martin Buber has been criticized for presenting the tales in such a way as to illustrate his own philosophy of life, while omitting the overarching theology that was uncongenial to him. He has also, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to the cloying sentimentality that has come to envelop the vanished shtetl culture of Eastern Europe--what might be termed the “Fiddler on the Roof” syndrome.

In this vein, an element of wishful thinking has been noted in Buber's recasting of the Hasidic tradition. In the introduction to his edition of Tales of the Hasidim, Chaim Potok maintains that Buber overlooked Hasidism's "charlatanism, obscurantism, internecine quarrels, its heavy freight of folk superstition and pietistic excesses, its zaddik worship, its vulgarized and attenuated reading of Lurianic Kabbalah."

For their part, traditionalists have charged that Buber deemphasized the importance of Jewish Law in Hasidism. Yet Buber would have probably have replied that that was precisely his point. A commitment to a genuinely religious life is reflected in one’s daily conduct, not in adherence to a rigid set of beliefs.

A 2008 book by Martina Urban, Aesthetics of Renewal: Martin Buber’s Early Representation of Hasidism as Kulturkritik, links this interest on Buber’s part with his Zionism. Well, yes and no, for one of the key points of early Zionism was to begin a new life in Palestine, discarding the baggage of the old ways. Moreover, Buber’s freeform interpretation of Hasidism retains more than a few residues of his formative studies of the Christian antinomian mystics Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Boehme.


A new monograph by the Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand challenges the Zionist VIEW of the “return” of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel. First published in Hebrew in Israel, where it was a best seller, this book is The Invention of the Jewish People (2010). The author is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University. In its French version, Sand's book has been honored with France's Aujourd'hui Award, given by leading journalists to the best non-fiction political or historical work.

Shlomo Sand begins with a review of the literature on the formation of nations. Broadly speaking, those who have addressed this problem fall into two schools: the primordialists and the constructionists. The former view--widely, though incorrectly assumed to be simply common sense--assumes that ethnic essences have existed “since the mists of antiquity.” To shape this primordial heritage into a modern nation two things are necessary: an awakening of ethnic consciousness among the people, and removal of foreign domination--the latter being perceived as the key obstacle to the “organic” realization of nationhood.

This view has long attracted skeptics, who point out that reconstructions of primordial national histories are all too often laced with myth and wishful thinking.

The best-known exponent of the constructionist view (or “modernist,” as it is sometimes termed) is the British historian Benedict Anderson, who holds that a nation is a community that is socially constructed, that is to say imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. Anderson's influential book, Imagined Communities, in which he expounds explains the concept, was published in 1983. According to this view, most modern nations are not simply the concretization of long-occulted realities, but deliberate fabrications. An imagined community differs from an actual community because it is not based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity. Nowadays, the media play a major role in creating and sustaining imagined communities, through targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public. These communities are understood as both limited (through the maintenance of national boundaries) and sovereign (in the perspective of populism).

Shlomo Sand’s book opposes the Zionist version of the primordialist view of the history of the Jewish people--and its presumed culmination cum restoration in the state of Israel. Conversely, he advances powerful reasons for adopting the constructionist approach.

According to Sand, the description of the Jews as a migratory and self-isolating nation of exiles, "who wandered across seas and continents, reached the ends of the earth and finally, with the advent of Zionism, reversed course, and returned en masse to their orphaned homeland," is nothing but "national mythology." Like other national movements in Europe, which sought out a splendid Golden Age as the embodiment of a heroic past --for example, ancient Rome for the Italian risorgimento or the Teutonic tribes for Germany--to prove they have existed since the beginnings of history, "so, too, the first buds of Jewish nationalism blossomed in the direction of the strong light that has its source in the mythical Kingdom of David."

More particularly, Sand shows that the idea of a “history of the Jewish people” is a relatively recent product encapsulating a series of acts of imagination. Medieval and early modern Christianity created numerous world histories coming down to the time of the writers. Islam offers something similar. Yet, as far as we know, no medieval or early modern rabbi ever attempted such a thing. For the rabbis the Bible, always glimpsed through the lenses of Mishnah and Talmud, was mainly a repository of do’s and don’ts. As such it was the foundation of Halakha, loosely translated as “Jewish law.”

In fact the first writer to attempt a full-scale history was a French protestant Jacques Basnage, whose Histoire de la religion des juifs appeared at The Hague in 1706-07. Only in 1820-28 did a German Jewish scholar Isaak Markus Jost follow suit. According to Sand, Jost was a German patriot who portrayed the Jews as simply loyal citizens of the countries in which they reside. With the massive work of Heinrich Graetz (1853-76) this historiographic enterprise takes a proto-Zionist turn, in that Graetz thinks of the Jewish people as a perennial and supranational entity. With the addition of the territorial component--return to Eretz Israel--this view became the foundation of the official histories that emerged in Mandate Palestine and its successor, the state of Israel. With the formation of the state of Israel many of its intellectual defenders sought to root its existence in the biblical record. Ostensibly they were supported by archaeology, though this supposed foundation has turned out to be chimerical.

After exploring the background, Sand turns to his major thesis, that the Jewish people is a composite and not an organic entity. The author holds that the Jews now living in Israel and other places in the world are not simply descendants of the ancient people who inhabited the Kingdom of Judea during the First and Second Temple period. In Sand’s view, their origins lie in the varied peoples that converted to Judaism during the course of history, in different corners of the Mediterranean Basin and the adjacent regions. Not only are the North African Jews for the most part descendants of pagans who converted to Judaism, but so are the Jews of Yemen (remnants of the Himyar Kingdom in the Arab Peninsula, who converted to Judaism in the fourth century) and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe (many of them refugees from the Central Asian kingdom of the Khazars, who converted in the eighth century).

Many readers of Sand’s book have taken a fancy to Dahia al-Kahina, a leader of the Berbers in the Aurės Mountains. Although she was a proud Jewish woman, few Israelis had ever heard the name of this warrior-queen who, in the seventh century CE, united a number of Berber tribes and pushed back the Muslim army that invaded North Africa. Kahina, a kind of Jewish Boadicea, belonged to a Berber tribe that had converted to Judaism, apparently several generations before she was born, sometime around the sixth century CE. Sand believes that the Jews of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) stemmed mainly from these Berber converts.

If the Kahina discovery has proved enchanting, not so the renewed emphasis on the Khazars. The information concerning their kingdom has long been known, in part through a popular book by Arthur Koestler, but this news has been slow to penetrate in the state of Israel. This is so, notwithstanding the recent arrival of some 500,000 Jews and wannabes from the nations of the former Soviet Union, who may well represent this Khazar heritage.

In fact, Sand holds that the most crucial demographic addition to the Jewish population of the world came in the wake of the conversion of the kingdom of Khazaria, a huge empire that arose in the Middle Ages on the steppes along the Volga River, which at its height ruled over an area that stretched from the Republic of Georgia of today to Kiev. In the eighth century, the Khazars rulers adopted the Jewish religion and made Hebrew the written language of the kingdom. Beginning in the tenth century the kingdom weakened; in the thirteenth century is was utterly defeated by Mongol invaders, and its Jewish inhabitants were dispersed.

Sand subscribes to the hypothesis, which was already proposed by historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to which the Judaized Khazars constituted the main demographic source of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

"At the beginning of the twentieth century there is a tremendous concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe, three million Jews in Poland alone," he says. "The Zionist historiography claims that their origins are in the earlier Jewish community in Germany, but they do not succeed in explaining how a small number of Jews who came from Mainz and Worms could have founded the Yiddish people of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe are a mixture of Khazars and Slavs who were pushed eastward."

If this is so, one may ask: if the Jews of Eastern Europe did not come from Germany, why did they speak Yiddish, a Germanic language?

"The Jews were a class of people dependent on the German bourgeoisie in the East, and thus they adopted German words. Here I base myself on the research of linguist Paul Wechsler of Tel Aviv University, who has demonstrated that there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish. As far back as 1828, the Ribal (Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinson) said that the ancient language of the Jews was not Yiddish. Even Ben Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography, was not hesitant about describing the Khazars as the origin of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and describes Khazaria as 'the mother of the diasporas' in Eastern Europe. But more or less since 1967, anyone who talks about the Khazars as the ancestors of the Jews of Eastern Europe is considered naive and moonstruck."

In an interview published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a journalist asked Sand why the idea of the Khazar origins is so threatening?

"It is clear that the fear is of an undermining of the historic right to the land. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us. Since the beginning of the period of decolonization, settlers have no longer been able to say simply: 'We came, we won and now we are here' the way the Americans, the whites in South Africa and the Australians said. There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist."

It is appropriate to ask: is there no justification for this fear?

"No. I don't think that the historical myth of the exile and the wanderings is the source of the legitimization for me being here, and therefore I don't mind believing that I am Khazar in my origins. I am not afraid of the undermining of our existence, because I think that the character of the State of Israel undermines it in a much more serious way. What would constitute the basis for our existence here is not mythological historical right, but rather would be for us to start to establish an open society here of all Israeli citizens."

The implication, it seems, is that there is no such thing as a Jewish people.

"I don't recognize an international people. I recognize 'the Yiddish people' that existed in Eastern Europe, which though it is not a nation can be seen as a Yiddishist civilization with a modern popular culture. I think that Jewish nationalism grew up in the context of this 'Yiddish people.' I also recognize the existence of an Israeli people, and do not deny its right to sovereignty. But Zionism and also Arab nationalism over the years are not prepared to recognize it.”

With further regard to Jewish diversity, Shlomo Sand points out that in antiquity, culminating in the Hasmonean kingdom, there were a number of major incorporations of surrounding peoples into the Judaic nucleus. Moreover, there were no major expulsions as a result of the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the repression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135. Before and after, of course, there had been considerable voluntary immigration to various parts of the Roman Empire, accompanied by conversions from the surrounding gentile population. Accordingly, the myth of exile at this time is just that: myth.

"The supreme paradigm of exile was needed in order to construct a long-range memory in which an imagined and exiled nation-race was posited as the direct continuation of 'the people of the Bible' that preceded it," Sand explains. Agreeing with other historians who have treated the same issue in recent years, he argues that the exile of the Jewish people began as a Christian myth that depicted that event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

From all that we can learn from the historical record, most of the Jews residing in Roman Judaea remained there. What then became of them? After 324 many converted to Christianity; their descendants, most at least, in turn became Muslim. Genetically speaking, today’s Palestinians are Jews. Curiously, this view was maintained by no less a figure that David Ben Gurion in the 1920s. After the Arab uprising in 1929, however, Ben Gurion and his colleague Yitzhak Ben-Zvi abandoned the idea for political reasons.

Does Sand think that in fact the real descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians?

"No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I [his Israeli interviewer] are its descendants. The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-9], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don't leave until they are expelled. Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the state of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, 'the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.'"

One might think that Shlomo Sand would welcome the information stemming from DNA evidence as reinforcement for his views regarding the composite nature of the Jewish people. Yet he does not, pointing to the often contradictory and ideological nature of the findings as they are reported in the press. It is true that some unlikely claims have been made, including the hailing of the so-called “Aaronic gene.” a component that has been found not only among the Palestinians, but also among Greeks and Kurds! One finding, though, is of interest to his thesis. While the genes of the Kohanim (the Cohens) prove to be largely derived from the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, the genes of Ashkenazic Levites, the other major priestly group, have a strong Central Asian component. This finding would tend to reinforce the Khazar thesis.

As Sand points out, the Y chromosome, which is usually the focus of these studies, serves only to follow the male line, since only males have this chromosome. Historical evidence suggests that at various stages of Jewish history--for example the formative years of the Ashkenazim--foreign women were involved in small numbers. The absence of evidence from the female line is embarrassing, since one’s Jewish status is determined, according to the rabbis, by whether one has a Jewish mother or not.

Sand does admit the value of genetic research in helping to detect and combat inherited disorders, such as Tay-Sachs Disease. In all likelihood, the quality of genetic research will improve. As it does, the results are likely to reinforce Shlomo Sand’s persuasive conclusions deriving from his attentive study of the historical record.

Sand’s vision stretches forwards as well as backwards. “If Israel does not develop and become an open, multicultural society we will have a Kosovo in the Galilee. The consciousness concerning the right to this place must be more flexible and varied, and if I have contributed with my book to the likelihood that I and my children will be able to live with the others here in this country in a more egalitarian situation, I will have done my bit.

"We must begin to work hard to transform our place into an Israeli republic where ethnic origin, as well as faith, will not be relevant in the eyes of the law. Anyone who is acquainted with the young elites of the Israeli Arab community can see that they will not agree to live in a country that declares it is not theirs. If I were a Palestinian I would rebel against a state like that, but even as an Israeli I am rebelling against it."


Over some thirty-five years of my college career I reveled in my teaching assignments in the fields of medieval and Renaissance art. These courses encompassed a vast array of beautiful and moving works, reflecting important themes of Western civilization. As with all representational art, the objects present a fusion of form and content. The overwhelming majority were religious; and the greater part of these were based on the Bible. In this classroom endeavor, then, I registered the enriching potential of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Even secular students seemed to appreciate this contribution--a historical reality that brooks no denial.

I was always aware, though, that this seminal contribution constituted only one side of the medal. The other side had to do with the intolerance and violence that suffuse these ostensibly sacred texts. Given that it provides some four-fifths of the whole, the Hebrew Bible is naturally abundant in its embrace of this depressing material.

Of course the interpretation of the New Testament presents many problems, but I decided to set these aside for the most part. One reason is that recent scholarship has registered much significant progress in the study of the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, New Testament studies seem mainly concerned with refining previous findings and positions.

In my work on the Hebrew Bible I first turned to the school of modern scholars familiarly known as Minimalists. I became convinced that they had conclusively shown that most of the texts amalgamated into the Hebrew scriptures were not historical, but mythical. For this reason we must study them as records of ideology and not history. The legacy of that ideology--with its xenophobia and ethnic cleansing; intolerance; and celebration of violence--has placed a heavy burden on Western civilization.

My second theme was the untenability of most of the characteristic interpretations proffered by the rabbis, as seen in the Mishnah and Talmud. Far from being faithful stewards of the biblical texts, as is commonly assumed, the rabbis commandeered them for their own project. This innovative endeavor yielded a vast, fanciful superstructure of collective neurosis that has little to do with the beliefs and observances of the ancient Israelites. It speaks volumes for the resilience of the Jewish people that they persevered, while tolerating this burden for so long.

Implicit in my investigations was the connection between the ancient texts and the aggressive policies of the state of Israel today. This connection emerges anew in the obssessive preoccupation with the emblematic figure of Amalek. Here is a portion of a recent report by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg: “I recently asked one of his [Netanyahu's] advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.” “Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit. If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.” (Goldberg, op-ed, New York Times, May 16, 2009).

On his blog, The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan, to whom I am indebted for some important insights, commented the following day as follows: “But the story of Amalek is an unfortunate one for Netanyahu. It is unfortunate because the bulk of the literature in the Jewish scriptures points to massive Jewish over-reaction to the Amalekites - to the point of religiously commanded genocide. In fact, the existential threat in legend is from the Israelites against the Amalekites, not the other way round. . . . Legend and scripture have it, so far as I can glean, that the Amalekites - originating near Mecca - harassed and killed Jews cruelly and indiscriminately as they fled Egypt. But the response of the Israelites was "a sacred war of extermination." The Amalekites were deemed so dangerous they had to be annihilated entirely.

Yahweh commanded Saul as follows: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:3).

The command to use horrendous, genocidal force against the Amalekites--to kill every single one of them, including children--was categorical. Failing to be ruthless against the enemy, Saul was shamed for it.

Still, according to Goldberg and others, there is no reason to worry. The commandment was never meant to be carried out.

NOT SO, for according to scripture, it was carried out, by David: " Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish."

He spared the farm animals because he stole them. Relentlessly,Yahweh deplored any sign of moderation. The historian Josephus writes: "[David] betook himself to slay the women and the children, and thought he did not act therein either barbarously or inhumanly; first, because they were enemies whom he thus treated, and, in the next place, because it was done by the command of God, whom it was dangerous not to obey." (Jewish Antiquities, VI:7).

At first sight, it might seem, Maimonides took a more nuanced approach, explaining that the commandment of killing the nation of Amalek requires the Jewish people to demand that they adopt the the Noachide laws and pay a tax to the Jewish kingdom. Only if they refuse is the full rigor of the commandment applicable.

The Amalekites have a simple choice: submission or genocide. What then does Netanyahu intend? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he is seeking to follow Maimonides? That is, the Arabs and Iranians--the modern Amalekites--can survive only if they accept a state of vassalage, with the state of Israel as their sovereign.

Here is Andrew Sullivan again: “The invocation of scripture to justify war has infected the US military and is obviously the main force behind global Jihad. But it is also a dangerous element in Israeli politics and culture. After all, the West Bank settlements are often a function of religious zeal, and often defended for religious reasons, and Netanyahu is far more indebted to his religious nut-jobs than even Bush was to his. You cannot avoid a religious war by invoking a religious genocide to explain your intentions. Not if you hope to win friends and sustain alliances.”

Invocation of the Bible, both the Jewish and Christian parts, has been intertwined with various historical catastrophes. We can only hope that we are now emerging from this pattern.


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[Abrahamica] [Contents] [Introduction] [Chapter 1] [Chapter 2] [Chapter 3] [Chapter 4] [Chapter 5] [Chapter 6] [Bibliography]