How Judaism Became a Reli­gion: An Intro­duc­tion to Mod­ern Jew­ish Thought

Leo­ra Batnitzky
  • Review
By – January 9, 2012

What is Judaism? For most Jews it is how they express them­selves Jew­ish­ly. How­ev­er, over the mil­len­nia Judaism includ­ed sov­er­eign­ty, a polit­i­cal struc­ture, a mil­i­tary force, a priest­ly class, Tem­ple wor­ship, and of course reli­gious obser­vance. Fol­low­ing the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple, Jews were dis­persed through­out the world and their wel­fare depend­ed on the degree that the tem­po­ral rulers either need­ed their skills or felt com­pelled to per­se­cute them because they were nei­ther Catholic nor Moslem.

Fol­low­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion a new spir­it of tol­er­ance began to emerge in which Jews were (even­tu­al­ly) giv­en full cit­i­zen­ship rights. Pro­fes­sor Bat­nitzky has deft­ly pro­vid­ed a primer on how the major Jew­ish thinkers from the eigh­teenth to the twen­ti­eth cen­turies defined Judaism in this new epoch of eman­ci­pa­tion. Is Judaism only a reli­gion based on the Protes­tant mod­el of pri­vate rit­u­al prac­tice and arti­cles of faith (i.e., be a Jew at home but a Ger­man in pub­lic)? What about the polit­i­cal struc­ture and nation­al­ism inher­ent in Judaism ? For Jews who main­tained fideli­ty to Jew­ish obser­vance this ques­tion may have been incon­se­quen­tial. How­ev­er, for the gov­ern­ments who were con­sid­er­ing grant­i­ng full cit­i­zen­ship rights to Jews, this was a very impor­tant question. 

Jew­ish respons­es to eman­ci­pa­tion took many dif­fer­ent forms. The ways in which Jews viewed their Judaism cor­re­spond­ed to what the thinkers and writ­ers of the times wrote about Judaism. Some prac­ticed insu­la­tion and iso­la­tion, some tried to bridge the gap between moder­ni­ty and Judaism, some felt that the old tra­di­tions were out­mod­ed (Reform), some felt that only cer­tain prac­tices had to yield to moder­ni­ty (Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism), some explored all the facets of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence dis­pas­sion­ate­ly with sci­en­tif­ic rig­or (Wis­senschaft des Juden­tums), oth­ers turned to Hebrew and Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry, many were con­tent to be cul­tur­al Jews, some were deeply engaged in the philo­soph­i­cal mean­ing of Judaism, still oth­ers dared to fan the flames of Jew­ish nation­al­ism (Zion­ism) both reli­gious and polit­i­cal. Need­less to say, the Holo­caust and the State of Israel have also had a role in defin­ing Judaism.

One might quib­ble with cer­tain minu­ti­ae of inter­pre­ta­tion, but tak­en as a whole, How Judaism Became a Reli­gion is an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the key philoso­phers and writ­ers who influ­enced mod­ern Jew­ish thought. Start­ing with Mendelssohn, the neo-Kant­ian Cohen, and pro­ceed­ing to Rosen­zweig, Buber, the Kooks, Hirsch, Kaplan, Soloveitchik, Lev­inas and Fack­en­heim, with many detours to oth­er writ­ers and thinkers, Prof. Bat­nitzky has pre­sent­ed a valu­able vol­ume which frames the ques­tions that pro­duced con­tem­po­rary Judaism.

A lot of mate­r­i­al is cov­ered in this slim vol­ume, and the anno­tat­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy at the end of each chap­ter pro­vides sources for more detailed read­ing. The book is an excel­lent overview of one aspect of mod­ern Jew­ish thought.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

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