A Jewish joke exists in which a synagogue’s members dispute what was and should be the traditional practice during their worship service. They ask the only surviving congregational founder to resolve the matter — only to learn that the argument is the tradition.
Such divergences permeate the history of the Jewish religion. So contends “A History of Judaism” (Princeton University Press, 623 pages) by Martin Goodman, published this year.
British author Goodman is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford. Though his book is sometimes academic in style and tone, it constitutes a clear, informative and well worth reading study of the topic.
Goodman strives to portray what he calls “the kaleidoscopic variety” that has existed “within Judaism at all periods in its history” and the “toleration, albeit often grudging” that has characterized most of that story.
Milwaukee could be considered typical. We have Reform synagogues, varieties of Orthodox synagogues, one synagogue affiliated with the Conservative movement and one Conservative in practice but not affiliation, one Reconstructionist congregation, Chabad shuls, small groups of Humanist and Renewal Jews, and numerous Jews who belong to none of them.
Goodman’s research demonstrates that such diversity is not only modern. In fact, even some of the best known old communal records don’t reflect the true variety of Judaisms that have existed.
For example, famed Jewish historian Josephus described the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, the three varieties of Judaism that he personally explored during his life in the first century C.E. But Goodman writes that Josephus “provided only a partial picture” and “many other varieties flourished alongside” those, as shown by other but less famous surviving documents.
Probably readers today will find most interest in the last 100 or so pages of text, in which Goodman traces the origins of today’s Jewish religious diversity.
The section starts with the “Enlightenment” inaugurated by Moses Mendelssohn in the 1700s. This first effort to try to adapt Judaism to scientific-secular-democratic modernity caused an already diverse community to split even further.
Even those Jews trying to reject any involvement with modern life and to claim “that which is new is forbidden” could not totally escape. Writes Goodman, “It will be apparent from the story of Judaism over the previous centuries that this prohibition of anything new was itself ironically an innovation…”
Goodman wisely refrains from attempting prediction. “There are plausible grounds to believe both that adherence to the religion will diminish and that it will grow,” he writes.
Yet he wonders, “Will the violence which in recent decades has begun to characterize religious disputes between Jews, especially in the State of Israel, escalate, or will it subside as it has so often over the past 2,000 years into a grudging acceptance of difference?” I think the odds for survival would be better if the community chose the second alternative.
Former Chronicle editor Leon Cohen is the chair of the advisory committee of the Coalition for Jewish Learning of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.