A His­to­ry of Judaism

Mar­tin Goodman
  • Review
By – June 11, 2018

One of the chal­lenges of writ­ing a his­to­ry of Judaism is where to begin. Mar­tin Good­man, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, opens his book A His­to­ry of Judaism by explor­ing this ques­tion. Con­sid­er­ing sev­er­al pos­si­bil­i­ties from which to begin — the patri­archs, Moses, or the recon­struc­tion of the Jew­ish nation under Ezra — Good­man set­tles on start­ing with the first cen­tu­ry C.E. and the writ­ings of Jose­phus, the Jew­ish gen­er­al-turned-Roman his­to­ri­an. Good­man asserts that Jose­phus’ account is that of a learned insid­er versed both in the tra­di­tions of the Jews and in the most advanced tech­niques in his time of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion into the past.” With this expla­na­tion, A His­to­ry of Judaism begins its analysis.

Good­man divides his book into six sec­tions. The first three explore Jew­ish his­to­ry through the mid­dle of the Renais­sance, and the final three bring the read­er to the present day. Each sec­tion is fur­ther divid­ed into chap­ters that focus on a group that influ­enced Judaism at that time. For exam­ple, Good­man devotes chap­ter eleven to the Rab­bis of the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud. The lega­cy of the reli­gious sys­tem craft­ed by the rab­binic schools over the thou­sand years after 70 C.E. has been fun­da­men­tal to most lat­er forms of Judaism,” he writes. At the same time, Good­man rec­og­nizes in the fol­low­ing chap­ter that Greek-speak­ing Jews and Karaites rep­re­sent two groups that devel­oped in oppo­si­tion to Rab­binic influence.

Chap­ter fif­teen, titled New Cer­tain­ties and New Mys­ti­cism,” explores the per­son­al­i­ties that cod­i­fied Jew­ish law, the mes­sian­ic move­ment of Sab­batai Zevi, and birth of Hasidism. Good­man skill­ful­ly traces the inter­ac­tion between these groups and their trans­for­ma­tive influ­ence as Judaism entered the Mod­ern Age.

The text also address­es the advent of Reform Judaism, trac­ing its devel­op­ment from the think­ing of Moses Mendelssohn through the deci­sion to adopt patri­lin­eal descent. It also sur­veys the intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of Reform Judaism’s sem­i­nal thinkers and pol­i­cy state­ments. The chap­ter that fol­lows takes up the counter-Reform move­ments that gave rise to Mod­ern Ortho­doxy and Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism.

A His­to­ry of Judaism is an acces­si­ble read. While expan­sive in con­tent, it does not over­whelm the read­er with details of Jew­ish his­to­ry that might detract from a broad­er under­stand­ing of Judaism’s com­plex and nuanced devel­op­ment. In the book’s final section,Goodman offers a bal­anced analy­sis of the issues fac­ing con­tem­po­rary Judaism, and expos­es some of its thorni­est chal­lenges. He con­cludes, as he began, by return­ing the read­er to the writ­ings of Jose­phus, who was ret­i­cent to pre­dict what was to come for the Jew­ish peo­ple. Wise­ly, Good­man takes a sim­i­lar posi­tion, and leaves the next chap­ter of Jew­ish his­to­ry to be writ­ten in the years ahead.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions