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The Rise of Judaism

  • Posted 11.18.08
  • NOVA

When did Judaism as we know it today—devoted to one God and the teachings of the Torah—really take root? How did the religious practices of the earliest Israelites differ from monotheistic Judaism? In the following interview, Shaye Cohen, the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University and author of The Beginnings of Jewishness, addresses these and other questions.

Painting of Abraham

Abraham is the great forefather of Judaism, but was he Jewish? Enlarge Photo credit: © Jozsef Molnar/Corbis

The forefather of the Jews

NOVA: Was Abraham the first Jew?

Shaye Cohen: The biblical narrative gets going with Abraham in Genesis chapter 12. Abraham in turn Isaac, in turn Jacob, in turn Joseph and the twelve tribes, this brings us directly to the people of Israel and the covenant at Sinai. So Abraham is thought of as the first Jew, the archetype.

Historically speaking, of course, this doesn't make much sense. It's hard to talk about Jews living around the year 1800 B.C.E. or anytime near that. We don't have any of the institutions, beliefs, social structures in place that will later characterize Jews and Jewishness. So in a mythic kind of way we can say that Abraham recognizes God and that Abraham launches the process—biological and social and cultural—that will culminate in the people of Israel, who in turn will become Jews and the purveyors of Judaism. But to call Abraham Jewish simplifies things very dramatically.

In terms of things that characterize being Jewish today, where does Abraham stand?

In modern terms, the Jewishness of Abraham fundamentally consists of belief. He communicates with God, and God communicates with him. Now, the rabbis of old imagined that Abraham observed the whole Torah, that Abraham observed all the commandments: He observed the Sabbath, he observed the festivals, he observed the laws of culture and food. He observed everything, not just circumcision, which is attributed to him explicitly in Genesis, but everything else as well. Because how can you imagine our forefather Abraham, the founder of Judaism, not observing the Jewish rules, not observing the Jewish laws? This is a wonderful anachronism, a charming conceit. But historically speaking, how could it be?

Does Abraham discover monotheism?

Is Abraham the founder of monotheism? The texts in Genesis simply have Abraham talking to God and God talking to Abraham, that's it. Later Jews could not imagine such events without explaining more fully how it was that Abraham came to recognize God and why it was that God chose Abraham. And one of the most famous of these stories recounts how Abraham, the philosopher, sits and contemplates the natural order and realizes that there must be a first cause, that everything has a purpose. And behind the world that we can perceive, there must be some force that we cannot perceive but whose existence we can infer. That's how Abraham came to believe in God. And he went home to his father, Terah, who in the story is an idol maker, and Abraham then smashed all of his father's idols. And numerous Jewish children are convinced to this day that the story is found in the book of Genesis and are always shocked and amazed to discover that it isn't.

So is Abraham the founder of monotheism? Ancient Jewish storytellers thought the answer was yes, and following them Christian storytellers thought the same. However, reading historically, we realize monotheism is a very difficult and elusive concept to define. Again, it's far too simple to say that Abraham discovers monotheism.

Painting of Abraham and Isaac

Cohen says that the crux of Abraham's Jewishness is his belief in an almighty God—a faith tested in the famous biblical narrative of Abraham and Isaac. Enlarge Photo credit: public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Does the Abraham account in Genesis have a central message, a central purpose?

It teaches sacred values, sacred ideas—how to relate to God, to have faith in God. It's also simply a story about our founders. We humans are always curious to know about where we come from. All cultures have stories about their founders or great figures of the past. So here, too, we have stories about our great founder figure, Abraham, who sets the process going that makes us who we are, we meaning the people of Israel, the covenantal people.

The Covenant

Let's talk about the idea of the covenant. Tell us more about its importance.

One of the main ideas of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the people of Israel relate to God through a covenant. Now, this is a very remarkable idea, and as far as I know, it's unparalleled anywhere else in the ancient world. This covenant establishes what we might call an invented relationship as opposed to a natural relationship. The Greeks have a natural relationship with their gods. The Babylonians have a natural relationship with their gods. The Egyptians, too. Not so ancient Israel. God enters into a contractual relationship with the people of Israel, they accept this relationship, and in turn they receive a land from God. This is really a remarkable idea.

"The Exile from Judah to Babylon was a major moment in the emergence of the Jewish religion."

One sign of the covenant is circumcision, right? Where does this idea come from? As you mentioned, the Bible says that Abraham is circumcised.

Yes. Genesis 17 is the chapter that spells out, repeatedly, that circumcision is the sign of the covenant. Circumcision is the mark of the covenant between God and Israel embodied on the male Jew. The key question is, where does this idea in Genesis 17 come from?

Modern scholars, of course, are not sure. For the believer, the answer is simple: God commanded Abraham, and ever since circumcision has been the mark of the covenant. For the academic historian, the answer is more complicated, because we are not sure that God gave this command to Abraham. We historians imagine this may have been a later development that was projected back onto Abraham as a founding figure of the people of Israel. But we don't know precisely when this development took place.

Does it relate somehow to the Babylonian Exile [586-539 B.C.E.], after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple?

Many modern scholars have argued that circumcision takes on its role as a marker of Israeliteness or a marker of Jewishness only in the time of the Babylonian Exile. Here, without a temple, far from their homeland, Israelites would have been looking for symbols of difference.

Circumcision is something that Israelites may have been doing for centuries. It was a common ancient practice among many peoples in the Near East. But the Babylonians are not circumcised. The Israelites may realize that circumcision is something that will set them apart from their neighbors in Babylon, something that will help them retain their distinctiveness even in diaspora, in exile, far from their home, and far from their institutions and the way of life that they had known previously.

In this context, circumcision and perhaps other ritual practices will take on meaning as markers of identity, clear ways of indicating who is in and who is out, who is a member of the covenantal people. This is a very attractive scholarly view. The only problem with it is that it isn't possible to prove.

NOVA recreation of Shabbat in the time of Babylonian Exile

Many rituals that define Judaism today, like the weekly celebration of Shabbat, may have started during the time of the Babylonian Exile. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

The emergence of Judaism

Is there consensus among biblical scholars that the Exile was a critical time in the formation of Jewish identity?

The Exile from Judah to Babylon was a major moment in the emergence of the Jewish religion. On this point, there can be no doubt. There is a great deal of discussion about the details, but the larger point stands beyond any doubt.

The remarkable thing is that the Judeans return from the Exile. Not all of them. Most of them, in fact, didn't return. But some of them did. They rebuild their Temple. They try to recreate life as it had been before. We don't know of any other exiled people from this period who returned from exile to reestablish traditional institutions and modes of worship. But the Judeans did. So somehow, for 70 years or more, they managed to retain their identity, retain their religion and their values strongly enough to motivate them to return and try to start over.

So was this the period when Judaism as we know it was established?

We see the emergence of something we might begin to call Judaism. How so? We have the creation of diaspora Jewish communities, communities living outside the land of Israel with a clear Jewish identity. We have not seen that before. We have the emergence of the Torah and the idea that all Israelites are united by a single public book that all Israelites are to study and whose commandments all Israelites are to observe. We find the emergence of the ideology that we Israelites are to remain distinct from our non-Israelite neighbors. We may not intermarry with them. Many scholars argue that we have the beginnings of public prayer during this period, the earliest versions of the synagogue. I'm not convinced that this is so, but if it is so, it's yet another sign that we have the beginnings of Judaism.

A reenactment of a child participating in Shabbat

In exile, far from Jerusalem, the Israelites found ways to reinforce their beliefs and pass them down to future generations. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

The experience of the Babylonian Exile is the mother of Judaism. It is during this period that the Judeans realize that they can be loyal to God even far away from their homeland. Without a temple, without the priesthood, without kings, without all the institutional trappings they had enjoyed in the old days—without any of that—they are still able to worship God, be loyal to God and to follow God's commandments. This is the foundation of Judaism.

"The Israelites had long debated how to understand God's place in the world. Is God the only god?"

You say that the Torah is a product of the Exile, but was it entirely written in this period?

No. Most modern scholars agree that the Torah more or less attained shape in the Exilic Period and the period of the return. We do not mean that the Torah was written from scratch at that point. It was obviously not. Clearly in earlier centuries there were stories, laws, genealogies that were circulating, perhaps in written form. But it is this period, the 5th century B.C.E., when these diverse strands were woven together to create a single book, or in this case, a five-part book, the Torah.

[For more, see Writers of the Bible.]

Guided by Scripture, devoted to one God

What are the main differences between Israelite religion and Judaism?

How do we contrast Israelite religion with Judaism? We can do it in a number of different ways. We can begin institutionally: Israelite religion has a temple; Judaism has a synagogue. Israelite religion has priests; Judaism has sages or rabbis. Israelite religion has animal sacrifice; Judaism has prayer. Israelite religion is located primarily in the homeland of Israel; Judaism is found in any land. Israelite religion has prophets; in Judaism, prophecy has ceased.

Israelite religion has sacred interpreters, but it's only Judaism that has sacred interpreters, sages, studying a sacred text. And the sacred text is meant to be the property of the entire community. This is a sign of Judaism, not a sign of Israelite religion. Israelite religion, theologically speaking, believes that God rewards and punishes in this world. Judaism develops theories of reward and punishment in the hereafter.

These are some of the contrasts between Israelite religion and Judaism, and the transition from one to another is not an event; it's a process that will take centuries, and the Babylonian Exile and the restoration in the 5th century B.C.E. are important moments in that process.

A computer recreation of Solomon's Temple

Before the Exile, when Solomon's Temple still stood, animal sacrifice played a large role in a religion that most Jews today would consider a pagan practice. Enlarge Photo credit: © DamnFX

Is it also in this period, the Exile, when the Israelites come to understand their god as the one God, the universal God?

The Israelites had long debated among themselves how to understand God's place in the world. Is God the only god? Is God the chief god of gods? Is God simply our god, and other people have their gods? Some Israelites thought, it's perfectly fine to worship the God of Israel and worship some other gods too, especially gods of neighboring peoples. Other Israelites argued vociferously that this is completely forbidden. Some Israelites thought it was fine to use images, other Israelites thought it wasn't.

The view that triumphs, of course, is that there is only one God. The gods of other nations, if they exist, are entirely subordinate to this one God. This one God is God of the entire world, the entire universe—the creator of everything that we see and all that is within it. This view clearly has roots back in ancient Israelite times, but it comes to the fore in the time of the Exile.

Editor's note: Shaye Cohen, like other academic scholars, uses the term B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of B.C. (Before Christ).

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program "The Bible's Buried Secrets". See the original site for more related features.

Interview conducted in September 2007 by Gary Glassman, producer, writer, and director of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, senior editor of NOVA Online

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