AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni




The word “Jew” can refer to a member of either of two kinds of collectivities. First, it is sometimes used to refer to any person of Jewish parentage, that is, anyone born of people who are identified as descendants of the group described in Biblical and post-Biblical sources; this criterion of descent does not necessarily entail a particular common attitude on the part of those to whom it applies. The word is also applied to an adherent to a body of beliefs —Judaism—who performs the religious practice required by it.

Absolute monotheism is the main tenet of Judaism. Religious practice consists primarily in abiding by the body of prescriptions and prohibitions laid down by the Supreme Being, the details of which are to be found in the traditional literature as it is interpreted by the duly authorized persons, the rabbis. In non-Orthodox practices of Judaism the adherence to details of this ritual is selective.

The Jews formed a definite society in the Palestine of the Near East sometime between the years 1200 and 600 B.C. The Jewish people, or at least the prophets and their devotees, manifested a sense of religious consciousness which set the Jews apart from other nations and attributed to them a special religious mission. This self-image involved a belief in a covenant which, once contracted between God and the ancestors of the existing Jewish society, rendered the observance of the divine revelation incumbent on the whole society. The prophetically foretold events of the sixth century, such as the deportation of the Jews to Babylonia and their subsequent restoration to Palestine by the Persians, strengthened the belief that the Jewish nation was under the special care of divine providence and led to ideas of the future redemption of the nation.

During the second commonwealth, which followed the restoration to Palestine and which lasted until A.D. 70, Jews came into political and cultural contact with the West. During this period Jewish communities were also established outside Palestine, in Babylonia and Egypt. These encounters with other cultures sharpened the Jews’ feelings of ethnic and cultural distinctiveness and made their sense of religious mission more acute. Both in Palestine and abroad, Jewish society was, in principle, based on traditions contained in the law and prophetic teachings, which were then being collected and canonized. These were supplemented by and adapted to current conditions by means of the oral law, a large and somewhat fluid body of interpretations and independent teachings and prescriptions, which claimed to be coeval with the written law itself and to have been handed down by word of mouth through the ages. The oral law did not remain uncontested and its fluid character invited widespread variations; alongside the mainstream of Judaism there appeared different denominations and sects, such as the Samaritans, Sadducees, Essenes, and Kumerans (perhaps identical with the Essenes). With the exception of the Samaritans, however, these sects were not separated from the political framework of the nation.

After the Jews ceased to be a self-governing society, they continued to believe that the old covenant remained in force and continued to maintain and develop the national religious tradition which subsequently served as the framework of existence for all Jewish communities during the Middle Ages.

The loss of political autonomy was accompanied by the cessation of the internal sectarianism which had been characteristic of the second commonwealth. Pharisaism, the major sect of that period, now achieved complete ascendancy and provided the set of beliefs and practices which came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism and which became the belief system of all Jewry. Only the Karaites (a sect in Babylonia which rejected, in principle, the use of the oral law in the interpretation of the Bible) challenged the authority of Rabbinic Judaism during the early Middle Ages. Otherwise, throughout this period what variations there were, were those of interpretation and custom as, for example, the Sephardic (Spanish) as against the Ashkenazi (German) traditions in Europe or various local traditions in the Near East, such as the Yemenite. Only in the beginning of modern times—in the late seventeenth century—was the consensus of religious belief within the Jewish people disrupted, first by the sudden appearance of antinomian and mystical sects and then by the gradual spread of rationalism.

The number of Jews during different historical periods is roughly estimated as follows: for Biblical times 2 million; at the end of the second common-wealth 5 to 8 million (accounting for 10 to 12 per cent of the population of the Roman Empire); during the Middle Ages 2.5 million, remaining at that level until the second half of the eighteenth century; from the end of the nineteenth century it remained at 15 million, until the Nazi holocaust, when a loss of 5 to 6 million was sustained. The present estimate is 12 million, of whom 5.5 million live in the United States, 1.5 million in Israel, some 3 million in Russia and other communist countries, 1 million in western Europe, and 1 million elsewhere.

Rabbinic Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism is historically the most wide-spread and most representative form of Judaism. It accepts the canonized books of the Hebrew Bible as divine revelation and accords them uncontested authority. The same holds true of the substance of the oral tradition. Both written and oral law, how-ever, are not simple sources to be directly consulted by the believer for guidance. Their interpretation lies in the hands of experts, that is, the sages or rabbis who are, in a more or less formal fashion, authorized by their predecessors. This uninterrupted transmission of oral law from teacher to student since the time of Moses is one of the cardinal tenets of the belief system of Rabbinic Judaism.

The rules and content of interpretation are them-selves included in the tradition and are relatively stringent when they touch upon practical affairs, such as moral, ritual, or civic matters (halachah). In the area of belief and dogma, however, the body of teaching (agadah) is less strictly defined in both method and in content. Both types of teachings were incorporated into the basic texts of Rabbinic Judaism—the Mishnah and the Gemara, which together constitute the Talmud (both the Palestinian version, edited in the third century, and Babylonian, edited in the fifth). The Mishnah is a terse summary, in Hebrew, of the full corpus of Jewish law as it had crystallized by the second century of the Christian era. The Gemara is a quasi-stenographic report, in Aramaic, of the discussions and lengthy elaborations of the Mishnah as they occurred in the Palestinian and Babylonian academies in the subsequent centuries. The text is further interspersed with lengthy discussions of formulated exegesis and folklore. The whole body of religious teachings is commonly designated by the name torah, a term which strictly speaking refers only to the first five books of the Old Testament, that is, the Pentateuch.

The authoritative Mishnah and Gemara were subjected to reinterpretation, partly as a consequence of the inherent dialectic of textual interpretation and partly as an outgrowth of religious–judicial decisions on new and problematic realities. From commentaries, novellae, and responsa, layer after layer was added to the law, and as a consequence the halachah was repeatedly codified. Correspondingly, religious thinkers brought its theoretical teachings into alignment with various contemporary philosophical systems. Both intellectual activities—juridical and philosophical—were dependent on interpretation of given sacred texts by qualified authorities and remained scholastic in nature.

Alongside these two branches of religious learning there developed since Talmudic times, especially during the Middle Ages, the esoteric lore of the mystics known as the cabala. Starting with gnostic-like ideas, it developed emanative theories of the godhead and reinterpreted much of the tradition in this light. The main book of the cabala is the pseudographic Zohar, written in Aramaic in thirteenth-century Spain and attributed to one of the Talmudic sages of the second century. Although opposed by some rationalists ever since and looked upon with suspicion by some halachists, it nevertheless found widespread acceptance, especially since the late Middle Ages, when it strongly influenced both religious thinking and practice.

The natural universe

Judaism did not define its own beliefs dogmatically. The Jewish outlook on the nature of the universe, man, and the like must be derived from an analysis of sources rather than by citation of authoritative statements.

For the Jew, the universe is the creation of God and it runs its course according to laws implanted in it by the Creator. Interference by man with the course of natural events by use of magic is perhaps possible but is outlawed by religious proscription. The Creator himself is capable of changing the course of nature, and it is assumed that such changes did indeed occur in the remote past— Biblical miracles are in principle taken literally. New interventions by the Creator, while possible, are not expected. Nature is therefore taken, for all intents and purposes, as a stable and reliable entity. This stability does not exclude, however, the control of God over the natural processes which determine human life. The welfare of man on earth is dependent on his moral and religious behavior. Longevity, the blessing of children, prosperity, and health are thought to be dependent upon one’s merit. This presupposes the divine direction of events. The obvious logical and experimental difficulties of this position are noted and have been discussed in theological and philosophical terms. In effect, however, neither the constancy of nature nor the providence of God is repudiated.

This conception of the relationship between nature, God, and man leaves man sufficient scope to work out his own destiny. Man is regarded as free to choose the morally good and religiously desirable. Rabbinic Judaism is aware of the evil impulse in man both as an impediment to the performance of good and as a constant source of temptation. This, however, is capable of being overcome by human will, and divine support is vouchsafed to aid in the struggle. The concept of original sin is not unknown but is peripheral and does not infringe upon the capacity of man to determine his own fate both in this world and in the world to come.

The attitude of Rabbinic Judaism to the world does not preclude quietism, but it is more conducive to activity. Man’s moral responsibility requires him to provide for his own needs and for the needs of those who are dependent on him.

The conception of God as transcendent does not preclude contact with him. Revelation and prophecy, like miracles, however, have been relegated by Judaism to remote times, and they are viewed as having ended with the close of the Biblical era. Although the claims of individuals throughout later periods to have had visions or other supernatural contacts with another world were not discounted, they never received recognition as authoritative guides to religious conduct. Such guidance is to be derived exclusively from the accepted body of revealed law through the medium of rational interpretation.

The conduct of life

Religious precepts in Judaism are traditionally divided into prohibitions and positive commandments. The first represents a system of religious taboos or restrictions which lend to Jewish life the air of restraint but not of outright ascetic character. They limit gratification but do not seek to suppress it. Dietary laws prescribe the exclusion of some (“unclean”) animals from the Jewish menu and dictate the manner of preparation of certain foods—the slaughtering and salting of meat and the separation of milk and meat products, for example. Within these limits the partaking of food is limited only by the general injunction against gluttony. As against the days of fast, there are festivals on which the enjoyment of a meal is a religious duty. All sexual or even erotic contact outside marriage is proscribed, and marriage is prescribed, preferably at an early age. Within marriage, sexual intercourse is limited by an additional period of purification after the cessation of menstruation. Yet sexual intercourse is not limited to the purpose of propagation but includes the mutual satisfaction of man and woman.

The execution of religious rites is part of the fulfillment of the positive commandments. Prayer, preferably together with the community, must be recited three times a day. The Pentateuch is read during the Sabbath and festival services, and on festivals special rites are also performed. On the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth), for example, originally a harvest festival, the worshiper is required to hold four kinds of plants during the services. On the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) the ram’s horn (shofar) is sounded. The special rites of Passover, such as the partaking of unleavened bread (matzah) and the narration of the exodus from Egypt, take place within the family. Special significance is attributed to the rite of circumcision, since it initiates the eight-day-old male child into the covenant of Israel. Although devoid of any special rite, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) with its full-day fast and prayers occupies a special place in the Jewish religious calendar, for it is dedicated to repentance which, if genuine, is, according to the rabbinic outlook, capable of atoning for sins. The periodic unity of the community in prayer and ritual has been a major factor in social cohesion, while the family is similarly strengthened by being the locus of the religious performance.

Positive as well as negative commandments are obligatory on males above the age of 13 and females above the age of 12. Women are exempted from some of the positive commandments, as they are also excluded from the study of the law beyond an acquaintance with the precepts necessary for religious practice. Women are not participants in the religious community, nor do they take active part in the communal rites, although they may attend such services, seated in sections apart from the men. They may, however, acquire religious merit by fulfilling the special duties connected with the Jewish home and by aiding their husbands and sons in the fulfillment of religious obligations, especially the study of the law.

The fulfillment of religious precepts, both positive and negative, is the basic means of religious justification (in the Weberian sense) in Rabbinic Judaism. The degree of piety is established by the conscientiousness and exactitude of religious observance—the time and effort lavished upon an observance to give it an aesthetic character above and beyond its technical requirements and the intensity and devotion with which the commandment is actually performed.

In addition to being attached to religious duties in the strict sense of the word, religious merit is attributed to communal good works. Communal works are highly esteemed, as is every aid to those in need, such as extending hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, and, above all, attending the dying and eulogizing and burying the dead. Correct behavior in business relations and abstention from deceptive speech and practices are also religiously valued. In places where the letter of the law conflicts with equity, the individual is admonished to forgo his legal rights. Thus moral behavior also becomes a source of religious justification.

Rabbinical learning and practice

Besides emphasizing the practical need for knowledge of the law (Torah) as a guide to religious observance and communal practice, Rabbinic Judaism regards the study of the law as an end in itself and one of the most basic of religious duties. Therefore, it advocates the dedication of one’s time to the study of the Torah and exclusive devotion to it, even at the cost of reducing all other activities to a bare minimum.

Since early Pharisaic times there developed an elite which tried to live up to these demands. This was first achieved by the leading of an austere and even ascetic life in a society of peasants or artisans where work could be limited to provide for the necessities of life. In Mishnaic and Talmudic times, both direct and indirect support were provided by the community to members of the learned elite. They were often exempted from taxation and given certain minor business concessions: where they were concentrated in academies, as in Babylonia during Talmudic times, for example, these institutions were supported by voluntary contributions, and in the early Middle Ages a tax was levied on the Jews within their districts. Generally, despite variations arising from the different environments in which they existed, all Jewish communities followed these patterns. In the earliest stages of a Jewish settlement, men of learning were not to be found, but after having consolidated itself economically, a particular community usually attracted scholars from other, longer-established Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

The status of the elite varied according to prevailing economic conditions. In Yemen, where Jews remained an artisan class, no systematically supported elite developed and learning was cultivated as a part-time occupation of the intellectually oriented. In France and Germany, where the Jews became money lenders, their economic activity left much time free for independent study by “laymen,” alongside that taking place in the communally supported institutions devoted exclusively to the study of the texts and the training of young persons in their interpretation. In Muslim and Christian Spain the academies were supported by rich courtiers. In addition to the support of the very rich, the academies of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could rely on the support of the less wealthy but still prosperous middle class. The intellectual elite became dependent upon the court Jews (the permanent financial agents of the abso-lute rulers of German principalities), who emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In all periods there were instances of wealthy families supporting a scholar among their own kin and sometimes even sustaining a whole academy which had grown up around him.

The door to the intellectual elite was, both in principle and in the final analysis, open to all, though naturally the time required to master the complex data made it easier for the well-born and well-to-do to attain the necessary intellectual level. In several instances this conjunction of advantages, circumstances, and hereditary talent resulted in learned family dynasties.

The support of those who devoted themselves to study was regarded as one of the highest religious virtues. The contributor was viewed as participating vicariously in the activity of the learned. Even after the maintenance of scholars had become common, exceptional individuals still adhered to the old ideal and refused to accept any remuneration for their studies. Indeed, one of the greatest authorities of medieval Jewry, Maimonides (1135–1204), lodged a formal protest against the institution of private or communal support of the learned. For the average scholar, however, neither such protests nor his own qualms were of much avail, as both the changed economic conditions and the ever-increasing body of material to be mastered made full-time study imperative and necessitated what may be called a division of labor between the economically active and the learned.

The disapprobation which had adhered to the acceptance of payment by scholars had been attached also to the acceptance of payment for any services rendered in the exercise of religious authority. It was originally assumed that teaching, preaching, serving as a judge, or functioning in any other religious capacity was to be done gratuitously. Later, payment for such services was legalized and morally defended. When such functions were concentrated in the hands of one person, spontaneously by virtue of his intellectual and moral pre-eminence or formally by election by the community, the communal rabbinate arose. This occurred noticeably in Christian Spain in the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries and in Germany and Poland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the course of time a fixed salary was guaranteed in addition to various emoluments.

Any action of a scholar or rabbi in matters of ritual or in the performance of marriage or divorce drew its authority from his halachic expertise. If an error could be shown, the action could be invalidated. As no formal hierarchy existed, invalidation could be achieved only by appeal to some informally acknowledged higher rabbinic authority or by bringing the matter before the assembled opinion of the learned. On all levels, once decisions were made, discussions were conducted upon formal legal categories. Although theoretically the validity of any act depended solely upon its technical agreement with an external frame of reference (halachah), in practice it drew much of its authority from the fact that it came from one who was regarded as being charismatic in consequence of his knowledge of and sustained contact with divine law and lore.

Relations with other religions

Judaism makes no claim to universal allegiance and demands it only from those born of a Jewish mother. It holds the door open, however, to those who wish to join it out of conviction. The ritual of conversion requires circumcision and immersion for the male and the latter for the female. In pre-Christian times Jewish proselytes were common and in some places perhaps converted en masse. The attitude toward converts is somewhat ambivalent, but the possibility of their joining the faith has never been seriously contested. Proselytes from among the Christians were accepted at times even in Christian countries where such conversion was forbidden by the political authorities. Jewish activity for gaining converts was perhaps vigorous at times, but at no time did Judaism achieve the dimensions of a missionary religion.

The claim of religious superiority has traditionally been maintained toward Christianity, which was first regarded by Judaism as simply another form of idolatry. Jews who became Christians fell under the category of heretics (min) or renegades (mumar). Insofar as Christianity claimed to be the true party to the Abrahamic or Sinaitic covenant, it was viewed as a usurper. In business and social affairs the Jews in Christian countries sought viable and amicable relationships with the population, and many restrictions originally instituted with respect to paganism were declared inoperable in relation to Christianity. Gradually this also led to a lenient attitude toward Christianity itself. Maimonides, for example, declared that the spread of Christianity paved the way for the ultimate universal acceptance of the true faith. One of his followers in the fourteenth century exonerated Christianity from any charge of paganism. This tolerant attitude has gained more and more acceptance since the sixteenth century. Islam, being dogmatically unequivocal as to its monotheism, has been regarded as less contradictory than Christianity to Judaism. Toward the other world religions Rabbinic Judaism has had no occasion to take a stand.

Society and polity

Rabbinic Judaism takes the division of society between rich and poor for granted. Poverty may be viewed as a divine punishment for one’s sins, as a testing of the righteous by God, or simply as a result of misfortune; but at any rate poverty is not a state in which one ought to remain intentionally. A premium is placed upon economic independence, not so much as an indication of divine grace but rather as the circumstance in which man is most free to serve God. Fundamentally Judaism is indifferent to the manner of self-support. Indirectly, however, through the high evaluation of study, the choice of profession has historically been religiously influenced. Occupations which left time free for study were preferred. This led in earlier societies to the preference of artisanship over agriculture and in later times to trade over manual labor. A religious impetus for acquiring wealth derived from the fact that wealth could be used for performing good deeds, especially the support of scholars. Striving for wealth could have derived some of its motivation from religious sources, but economic activity could not become a calling, as it was in certain Protestant sects. Economic success could only be a contributory factor to religious justification but not the basis of it.

It is more difficult to elicit the thoughts of Rabbinic Judaism in the field of politics. The necessity of government in general is acknowledged in the maxim “Were it not for fear of the government a man would devour his neighbor alive.” But the manner of establishing the government is not set forth. Talmudic literature reflects the conception of a hereditary kingdom guided by the prescriptions of the law and limited somewhat by the High Court (Sanhedrin). Since the Jews did not long retain political independence and the foreign body politic within which the Jews existed had to be accepted, there was no incentive for the further development of political thought. Jewish communities adapted themselves to the prevailing political conditions. The political authority of the Christian prince was at no time challenged; it was acknowledged from the outset. In practical matters a similar attitude was adopted toward Islam. Concern for political matters was confined to communal affairs, which were conducted by the acknowledged elders or elected officials under general rabbinic supervision.

Heterodoxy and sectarianism

The Karaites

The religious unity of the Jews lasted from the first to the seventeenth century with only one major deviating sect—the Karaites. This sect arose in the seventh century in Babylonia, under Arab rule and probably under Arab influence. Its members rejected the authority of the oral law and based their beliefs upon the direct interpretation of the Scriptures. The sect spread to Palestine, Egypt, and other Mediterranean countries with some outposts in the Crimea, Poland, and Lithuania. Although strongly opposed by the rabbinates, the Karaites at no time rejected the basic conception of Judaism as an institutionalized revealed religion whose observance was incumbent upon all members of the Jewish people, and they rejected the rival religions of Christianity and Islam. The links between the two communities were not severed, and intermarriage was at times countenanced and even legalized. In modern times the sense of common nationality drew the two groups together, although in Israel the Karaites view themselves, and are viewed, as a sect apart.

Sabbatai Zevi

Jewish tradition had foreseen a radical change in the status of religious law in the Messianic era. According to the widely held view, with the appearance of the Messiah the religious commandments would no longer be held binding. Throughout the Middle Ages, Messianic expectations evoked Messianic pretenders, but as they were quickly disproved, the possible implications for religious practice were not realized. Different, however, was Sabbatai Zevi, who came from Smyrna, Turkey, and who from 1665 to 1666 succeeded in keeping all Jewry in suspenseful waiting for the final call. He introduced new religious rites and partook in forbidden food in order to demonstrate by deed the end of the old era and the commencement of the new. When called to account by the Turkish authorities for causing mass upheavals, Sabbatai Zevi, to save his life, converted to Islam. A number of his followers accepted this as a necessary stage in the process of redemption, and in the course of theological justification for the converted Messiah, heretical theologies arose which were linked with the prevailing dualistic doctrines of the cabala. These gave rise to a number of sects, some of which were syncretisms of Judaism and Islam and lived on the margin of Jewish society, while others, although remaining within the confines of the Jewish community, were of a heretical and even antinomian or nihilistic character. These groups led a more or less clandestine existence among Jews in Turkey, Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia, thus disrupting the age-old religious unity of the Jewish people.


Sabbataianism at the very least served as a catalyst in engendering the great mystical movement of Hasidism, which arose in Poland in the middle of the eighteenth century. Originating in the small rural communities of Podolia, this movement centered on popular religious leaders of lower rank, wandering preachers, popular healers, and the like. Its first leader, Israel Ba’al Shem-Tov (who died in 1760) possessed an extraordinary gift for communicating his mystical experiences to his followers. During his lifetime the movement was still a local one, but in the following decades, under his disciples, it spread throughout eastern Europe and was checked only where it encountered savage opposition, as in Lithuania, for example. Hasidism did not challenge the validity of religious law, and except for some minor changes in liturgy and ritual, the accepted body of law and custom was left intact. What Hasidism did introduce was a new overriding religious value —that of communion with God, which was to be achieved either through enthusiasm or contemplation. The Hasidic leader was expected to have attained this “union” and to communicate it to his followers. Thus, a new type of religious leader arose whose legitimation did not stem primarily from his knowledge of the law but from his charismatic qualities. A new “community” was thus formed upon the basis of personal contact and was not bound by traditional territorial divisions. Those who could settle around the leader did so, while those who could not returned regularly to participate in the religious experiences of the community. In the course of time the leader was viewed not only as the guarantor of religious experience but also as a figure whose intervention was essential for the material well-being of the individual. The followers who gathered around provided for his support and that of his household, which often took on the dimensions of a court. And as in courts, the succession tended to become hereditary. The new religious leadership did not supplant the traditional rabbinical type, but it did encroach upon its authority.

Hasidism also had a deep impact upon many nonreligious aspects of life. It lessened the ascetic tendencies in Jewish living and encouraged emotional self-expression in the form of storytelling and song. It also loosened religious and communal disciplines and sanctioned the quiescent attitude toward the demands of practical life. It was a religious movement, but its total impact was to produce a new Jewish mentality.

Modern Judaism

While Hasidism was altering Jewish society in eastern Europe from within, Jewry in western Europe was being transformed by forces from without. The theory and practice of separateness, which had been the way of Jewish life, was becoming progressively less tenable. Intellectual, social, and political forces were, in the course of a century, from 1750 to 1850, transforming Europe from a semifeudal society into a society of classes having a relatively high mobility. The status of Jewry within this new framework had to be re-defined, and internally the old tradition had to be adapted to the new conditions.

The idea of Jewish political and social emancipation was originally conceived by John Toland in England in 1714, spelled out in detail in 1781–1783 in Germany by Ch. W. Dohm, and first implemented during the French Revolution. In the United States, Jewish equality was implied in the constitution. In the following decades the idea of emancipation spread to all countries of western Europe, and by 1870, after much struggle and some reverses, political emancipation was an accomplished fact.

Alongside these social and political changes, intellectual contact with European thought took place. In the last third of the eighteenth century, the first Jewish secular intellectuals appeared, headed by Moses Mendelssohn. They were deeply influenced by the doctrines of the Enlightenment and later by other European intellectual currents.

Judaism was confronted by rationalism and later by historical criticism. These, together with the social and political adjustments, led to a dis-integration of the old conceptual as well as concrete framework of Jewish existence. In the ensuing chaos, many intellectuals and members of the upper class abandoned Judaism and perfunctorily embraced Christianity. Later, as the intellectual turmoil subsided, the main trends of modern Judaism emerged—Reform, Orthodox, and what came to be known as Conservative.

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism started in Germany in the second decade of the nineteenth century, found followers in other European countries, such as England, Holland, and Hungary, and spread widely in the United States, where it assumed its most radical and thoroughgoing form. It rejected ritual, especially the restricting observances, and retained only ceremonies with obvious symbolic meanings. Liturgy was purged of elements of an archaic and nationalistic character, such as the prayer for the institution of sacrifices and the ultimate return of the Jews to their home-land. Instead, Messianism was interpreted as a belief in human progress. Of the prayers retained, some were translated into the vernacular, and the service was adapted to modern taste. As to doctrine, Reform Judaism emphasizes the ethical aspects of religion and advocates an enlightened but absolute monotheism, stressing in this way its difference from Christianity. Relinquishing tradition in principle, the Reform trend did not substitute any other source of authority for guidance in religious theory or practice. For this reason there is no unanimity among Reform Jews on just how much of the tradition is to be retained. The Reform rabbi is not expected to lay down the law for the community but rather to serve as preacher whose task is to officiate at ceremonies and guide the congregation to religious contemplation and elevation.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, retained the authority of halachah and claimed allegiance to all details of Jewish observance and rites. In theory at least, an Orthodox rabbi is prepared to answer all questions concerning the permissible and the forbidden arising out of modern conditions while adhering to the traditional modes of halachic interpretation. In dogma, no concessions are made either to criticism of the verbatim revelation of the Pentateuch or to criticism of the substantive reliability of the oral tradition. Orthodoxy therefore remains antagonistic toward critical examination of the literary sources of religion. This did not prevent one German group under the guidance of S. R. Hirsch, regarded as the founder of modern Orthodoxy, from advocating the acquisition of and participation in secular culture. The old Talmudic institutions having disappeared, Hirsch attempted to secure the loyalty of the youth not by the study of the law’s minutiae but through an understanding of and identification with the principles of Jewish doctrine and observance.

Eastern Europe in the early nineteenth century witnessed a renaissance of Talmudic academies, but as midcentury drew near, the impact of rationalism was being felt. To counterbalance the increasingly secular and assimilationist environment, an ethical–religious movement (Mussar), founded by Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, arose, which sought to assure identification with Jewish values and commandments through continuous introspection. A third trend in Orthodoxy was noticeable in Hungary, where the clash with the Reform led the Orthodox leadership to advocate a radical seclusion from modern life and a proscription of any secular study. Hasidism, despite serious inroads of secularism, maintained its communal cohesion. All these ideologies are still operative in our day, especially in the United States, England, and modern Israel.

Conservative Judaism

The greater part of Jewry, while not accepting tradition as absolutely valid, adheres nevertheless to some parts of it because of religious sentiments or need for identification. This attitude assumed the nature of a principle for some thinkers and historians of the Breslau school in Germany and for the Conservative movement in the United States. Having perceived in the past a process of development in religion, they accept this notion as a legitimate course to be pursued in the present. However, they expect the process to be organic and continuous and reject outright changes based on rationalistic considerations. Conservatism neither accepts halachah in the strict sense of the word nor repudiates it. Accordingly it has made some adaptations in religious services and practice but more on an ad hoc basis than on any clear-cut principle.

These three main trends in modern Judaism have assumed the character of denominations. They are centered on synagogues, and these are connected by nation-wide and even world-wide organizations. They also maintain seminars for the training of teachers and rabbis. In Continental Europe in the nineteenth century such organizations were necessary, as one’s formal affiliation with the Jewish community was prescribed by the secular state. However, in English-speaking countries, in France since 1905, and in Germany since the end of World War I, such associations have been on a voluntary basis.

Since then, the usual manner of identification with Judaism has been through affiliation with one of the religious organizations or by observance of some religious practice. A third way, though less common, is the personal acceptance of a certain religious outlook which is defined as Jewish. Such a school of thought is represented by Martin Buber, who interpreted prophetic Judaism and especially Hasidism in the light of an existentialist philosophy. Buber was not committed to any observance nor was he associated with any synagogue, but he was satisfied to be affiliated on the basis of his theoretical exposition of the Jewish religion. Buber has had a marked influence among affiliated and nonaffiliated Jews alike. [See the biography of Buber.]

Secular Judaism

It is paradoxical but historically understandable that there evolved ways of Jewish identification which are religiously indifferent or even antireligious. This development originated in eastern Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century where, in spite of the disintegration of the traditional religious framework, Jewry remained a distinct ethnic group, linguistically and socially set apart from the populace. In this environment Yiddish and Hebrew literature of a secular nature prepared the ground for national social movements with distinctly Jewish objectives—such as Zionism and the socialist movement of the Bund. These movements drew their objectives from the persecutions in eastern Europe and the rise of anti-Semitism in western Europe. However, large segments within secular Judaism based their ideologies upon a reinterpretation of Jewish history: behind the religious unfolding of Judaism through the ages there always had been an ethical or social doctrine which, by the progress of human thought, then came to the forefront. The ethical interpretation was represented by Achad Haam (pseudonym of Asher Ginzberg) and the social one by Ber-Borochoff, both leading figures of modern nationalistic movements. Achad Haam, especially, believed in the revitalization of ancient Judaism through the establishment of a Jewish state and society which, although secular, would have a historical continuity with traditional Judaism because of its ethnic identity with it. A secular interpretation of Judaism is the premise of the contemporary national culture of Israel.

In other countries, too, trends combining ethnic and cultural aspirations together with some religious content could be discerned. Most conspicuous perhaps is the reconstructionist movement of Mordecai M. Kaplan in the United States, which prefers to define Judaism in terms of civilization rather than in terms of religious dogma or law.

Not all those who are considered by themselves or by others as Jews would subscribe to any of the above-mentioned outlooks, whether religious or secular. There are Jews who are indifferent to any Jewish content yet still have strong feelings of group identity, expressed in such ways as contributing to Jewish causes. Others disavow Judaism entirely, and some even conceal their origins. Irrespective of how assimilated a Jew may be, he is nevertheless commonly regarded by Jews and gentiles alike as a Jew until he joins a non-Jewish church, a fact which reflects the original ethnic-religious connotation of the term. Converts to Judaism, being few in number, are easily absorbed by the community.

The Jewish community

Any assessment of the numerical division of Jewry among the abovementioned groups remains conjectural. The three religious movements in the United States, for example, claim to include some 60 per cent of the 5½ million American Jews. Each group claims about 1 million members. While affiliation with the Reform movement clearly indicates the renunciation of strict religious observance, affiliation with Orthodoxy and Conservatism does not indicate the degree of adherence to religious practice. It is certain that the number of those who strictly abide by the law comes nowhere near that of the formally affiliated. In Great Britain, with the exception of some ultra-Orthodox and a few Reform congregations, all the synagogues are officially connected with the Orthodox chief rabbinate, but no more than 5 per cent of the half million British Jews could possibly be viewed as strictly observant. In France, out of a slightly smaller population, even fewer Jews are observant. Other countries conform to a similar pattern. In eastern European countries, especially in Russia, religious activity is barely tolerated, and Jewish observance and even circumcision is practiced by only a small fraction of the 3 million Jews.

Israel is a case apart. If judged by the number of those voting for religious political parties, Orthodox Jewry would total 15 per cent of the population; if judged by those sending their children to religious schools, they would total 37 per cent. Both figures are correct, as they reflect various aspects of religious attachments. Reform Judaism and Conservatism for all practical purposes are not represented institutionally. Nonetheless, gradations of observance are to be found among the populace. The nation is also divided on the issue of church and state. Since the time of the British mandate no secular marriage or divorce exists, and religious communities (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) are subject to their respective religious courts. This is resented by the antireligious segments of the population and criticized by some religious elements as well. The tension is heightened by the generous leavening provided by the extremely orthodox (some of whom go so far as to deny the authority of the state) and militantly antireligious minorities in Israel.

Contemporary relevance of religion

Having found that Jewry in modern times adopts a selective attitude toward its traditional religion, we may ask whether this religion still retains some influence. Allowing for variations according to time and place, Jewry in modern society presents a certain sociological profile which may roughly be described as follows: It is a social unit with a clear sense of group identity and a strong leaning toward endogamy, family cohesion, and group solidarity. Concentrated largely in certain sectors of the economy, it constitutes a comparatively striving group within it. Socially it tends to move within its own circles, culturally to have a comparatively high level of education, and politically to reveal a leaning toward the more liberal trends and parties of its country.

All these traits can be understood in light of past history and the present situation as a consequence of the memory of former persecutions and as a reaction to contemporary economic and social prejudice. Yet it is still possible that religion has its share in maintaining some of these group characteristics. Two forces are at work, and we must clearly distinguish between the restrictive tendencies of specific religious requirements and the general Weltanschauung of Judaism.

Religious restrictions, such as Sabbath observance, dietary laws, and, among some groups, opposition to secular knowledge, confine their followers in the choice of occupation, in the extent of social intercourse with the environment, and in the identification with the surrounding culture. They act directly upon the believer and are operative only insofar as one submits to them; thus, their impact is most noticeable among the Orthodox and becomes progressively less as one moves across the religious spectrum.

The effects of the Jewish Weltanschauung are less direct, more diffuse and general, and thus much more difficult to gauge. It is commonly held that Jewish intellectualism of the medieval period (until the eighteenth century) has influenced the development of modern society. The absence of religious restrictions upon the acquisition of wealth may have fostered Jewish economic striving. Finally, the idea of social justice, found abundantly in Jewish sources and dwelt upon by modern exponents of Judaism, strengthened the impulse toward social reform which had probably been engendered by the situation of the Jews as a permanent minority.

Be that as it may, religion continues to serve as a source of social cohesion. For while it is true that during the modern period Jewish society developed many secular institutions of social and quasi-political activity (Zionism, for example), which presented opportunities for group identification, nevertheless religious organizations remain to this day the most ubiquitous and all-embracing. In this capacity, Judaism, even in its most diluted form, serves the purpose of communal self-preservation.

Jacob Katz


International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale


Jacob Katz (Hebrew: יעקב כ"ץ) (born 15 November 1904 in Magyargencs, Hungary, died 20 May 1998 in Israel) was a Jewish historian and educator. He established the history curriculum used in Israel's High Schools. Katz described "traditional society" and deployed sociological methods in his study of Jewish communities, with special attention to changes in halakhah (Jewish law) and Orthodoxy. He pioneered the modern study of Orthodoxy and its formation in reaction to Reform Judaism.