Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, is one of the pillars of modern civilization. A collective of internationally renowned experts cooperated in a singular academic enterprise to portray Judaism from its transformation as a Temple cult to its broad contemporary varieties. In three volumes the long-running book series "Die Religionen der Menschheit" (Religions of Humanity) presents for the first time a complete and compelling view on Jewish life now and then - a fascinating portrait of the Jewish people with its ability to adapt itself to most different cultural settings, always maintaining its strong and unique identity. Volume II presents Jewish literature and thinking: the Jewish Bible; Hellenistic, Tannaitic, Amoraic and Gaonic literature to medieval and modern genres. Chapters on mysticism, Piyyut, Liturgy and Prayer complete the volume.
Prof. Dr. Michael Tilly is head of the Institute for Ancient Judaism and Hellenistic Religions at the Faculty of Protestant Theology at Tübingen University.
Prof. Dr. Burton L. Visotzky serves as Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (NYC).
In the beginning, the Hebrew Bible was formed as an anthology of Jewish texts, each shaping an aspect of Jewish identity. As the Israelite community and its various tribes became two parts: a Diaspora and its complement, the community in the Land of Israel-competing interests formed a canon that represented their various concerns. Over time, the communities grew, interacted, and focused on local religious needs, all the while ostensibly proclaiming fealty to the Jerusalem Temple. Even so, some communities rejected the central shrine that the Torah's book of Deuteronomy proclaimed to be »the place where the Lord chose for His name to dwell« (Deut. 12:5, et passim). Still other Jewish communities had their own competing shrines. Yet for all their dissentions, disagreements, and local politics, there was a common yet unarticulated core of beliefs and practices that unified the early Jewish communities across the ancient world.1 As the Second Temple period (516 BCE-70 CE) drew to a close, the biblical canon took its final shape, and a world-wide Jewish community-no longer Israelite-emerged as a moral and spiritual power.2
That canon, by definition, excluded certain Jewish texts, even as it codified others. And the political processes of the Persian and Hellenistic empires confined and defined the polities of their local Jews. From east to west, at the very moment in 70 CE when the centralized Jerusalem cult was reduced to ashes, Judaism, like the mythical phoenix, emerged. Across the oikumene, with each locale finding its own expressions, communities that had formed around the study of the biblical canon produced commentaries, codes, chronicles, commemorations, and compendia about Judaism. Some of these were inscribed on stone, others on parchment and paper, while still others were committed to memory. The devotion to this varied literature helped shape a Jewish culture and history that has persisted for two millennia.
This three-volume compendium, Judaism: I. History, II. Literature, and III. Culture, considers various aspects of Jewish expressions over these past two millennia. In this Foreward, we the editors: an American rabbi-professor and an ordained German Protestant university professor, will discuss what led us to choose the chapters in this compendium. Obviously three volumes, even totaling a thousand pages, cannot include consideration of all aspects of a rich and robustly evolving two-thousand-year-old Jewish civilization. And so, we will assay to lay bare our own biases as editors and acknowledge our own shortcomings and those of these volumes, where they are visible to us. To do this we need to have a sense of perspective on the scholarly study of Judaism over the past two centuries.
1 Die Wissenschaft des Judentums
Dr. Leopold Zunz (1794-1886) began the modern study of Judaism by convening his Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (the Society for the Culture and Critical Study of the Jews) exactly two hundred years ago, in late 1819 in Berlin.3 Although the Verein was small and lasted but five years before disbanding, it included such luminaries as co-founder Eduard Gans, a disciple of Hegel, as well as the poet Heinrich Heine.4 The scholarly Verein failed to gain traction in the larger Jewish community. Nonetheless, Zunz and his German Reform colleagues introduced an academic study of Judaism based upon comparative research and use of non-Jewish sources. Their historical-critical approach to Jewish learning allowed for what had previously been confined to the Jewish orthodox Yeshiva world to eventually find an academic foothold in the university.
In that era, history was often seen as the stories of great men. Spiritual and political biographies held sway. Zunz accepted the challenge with his groundbreaking biography of the great medieval French exegete, »Salomon ben Isaac, genannt Raschi.« The work marked the end of the Verein and was published in the short-lived Zeitschrift für die Wissenschaft des Judentums.5 The monographic length of the article and its use of what were then cutting-edge methods ironically helped assure the journal's demise. Further, the attempt to write a biography that might assay to peek behind the myth of the towering medieval figure, assured that the orthodox yeshiva scholars who passionately cared about Rashi would find the work anathema. Nevertheless, the study was a programmatic introduction not only to Rashi, but to the philological and comparative methods of Wissenschaft des Judentums. It would set a curriculum for critical study of Judaism for the next century and a half.
Zunz solidified his methods and his agenda in 1832, when he published Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden, historisch entwickelt (The Sermons of the Jews in their Historic Development).6 Here, Zunz surveyed rabbinic exegetical and homiletical literature, and by focusing on this literature, he conspicuously avoided both the study of the Talmud and Jewish mysticism. Zunz began his survey in the late books of the Hebrew Bible and continued to review the form and content of the genre up to German Reform preaching of his own day. His work was not without bias. Zunz separated what he imagined should be the academic study of Judaism from both the Yeshiva curriculum-primarily Talmud and legal codes-and from the Chassidic world, which had a strong dose of mysticism.
Zunz's acknowledgement of the mystic's yearning for God came in his masterful survey of medieval liturgical poetry, Die Synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters.7 Indeed, Jewish mysticism only finally came to be acknowledged in academic circles a century later by the efforts of Gershom Gerhard Scholem (1897-1982). Leopold Zunz essentially set the curriculum for the academic study of Judaism until the horrible events of World War II irreparably changed the course of Jewish history and learning. Even so, Zunz's agenda still affects Jewish studies to this day and has influenced the content choices of these volumes.
2 World War II and Vatican II
The world of Jewish academic study had its ups and downs in the century following Zunz. A year after his death, the Jewish Theological Seminary was founded in New York. It continues to be a beacon of Jewish scholarship in the western world. But the shift to America was prescient, as European Jewry as a whole suffered first from the predations of Czarist Russia, then from the decimation of World War I, and finally from the Holocaust of World War II.
The absolute destruction that the Holocaust wrought upon European Jewry cannot be exaggerated. Much of what is described in these volumes came to an abrupt and tragic end. Yet following World War II, two particular events had a dramatic effect on the future of Judaism. Both have some relationship to the attempted destruction of Jewry in Germany during the war, yet each has its own dynamic that brought it to full flowering. We refer to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the declaration of the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate document in 1965. The former has been a continual midwife for the rebirth of Jewish culture and literature both within and outside the Diaspora. Of course, there is an entire chapter of this compendium devoted to Israel. The Vatican II document, which revolutionized the Catholic Church's approach to Jews and Judaism, is reckoned with in the final chapter of this work, describing interreligious dialogue in the past seventy years.
3 Jacob Neusner resets the agenda
A graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school, Jacob Neusner (1932-2016) earned his doctorate with Prof. Morton Smith, who was a former Anglican cleric and professor of ancient history at Columbia University.8 Although they broke bitterly in later years, Neusner imbibed Smith's methodology, which served to undermine the very foundations of Zunz's Wissenschaft curriculum. Neusner was exceedingly prolific and succeeded in publishing over 900 books before his death.
Among these was his A Life of Yo?anan ben Zakkai: Ca. 1-80 CE.9 This work was a conventional biography of one of the founding-fathers of rabbinic Judaism, not unlike Zunz's much earlier work on Rashi. Yet eight years after the publication of the Yo?anan biography, Neusner recanted this work and embraced Smith's »hermeneutic of suspicion,« publishing The Development of a Legend: Studies in the Traditions Concerning Yo?anan ben Zakkai.10 With this latter work, Neusner upended the notion of Jewish history as the stories of great men and treated those tales instead as ideological-didactic legends which exhibited a strong religious bias. He and his students continued to publish in this vein until they put a virtual end to the writing of positivist Jewish history.
This revolution came just as Jewish studies was being established as a discipline on American university campuses. For the past half-century, scholars have been writing instead the history of the ancient literature itself, and carefully limning what could and could not be asserted about the Jewish past. Due to Neusner's polemical nature, there has been a fault line between Israeli scholars and those in the European and American Diasporas regarding the reliability of rabbinic sources as evidence for the history of the ancient period, describing the very...