Is Judaism Best Described as a Religion, a Culture, a Race or something else?

Within academia the debate regarding the definition of the word ‘Judaism’ as a political identity or as a religious community has been on-going, thus it is imperative that a number of definitions should be established, and kept in mind when considering this paper. To begin with the term ‘Israel’ has a number of meanings as it encompasses an individual, an ancient Biblical tribal people, a geographical region and national identity, a culture, and a social group based on religious affiliation. The earliest documented mention of the Israelite people is on a stela erected by the Pharoah Merneptah (1213-1203BCE) in which there is mention of an ethnic group residing in the highlands of Palestine. From an archaeological perspective the ancient Israelites were materialistically poor, with their sense of identity being based upon life style which in turn had its foundation in the religious beliefs and rituals of the community, and thus carried religious implications as it was used in reference to people who had accepted YHWH and followed Mosaic Law. In more recent times ‘Israel’ carries both national and racial connotations that underpin the hostilities in modern Palestine.

By virtue of its geographical position on the coast of the Mediterranean with access to both military and trade routes Palestine was often a region of conflict and invasion by other dominant political powers of the Middle East throughout history.

O’Donnell suggests that the term ‘Hebrews’ for the peoples of this region may be associated with the term habiru, which refers to unsettled groups of people, which were patriarchal social groups or clans who would in times of famine move into new areas and confront more settled societies for access to natural resources which could possibly result in dislocation and unrest to the point of bearing arms. Denver takes this idea further by suggesting:

“…that the tribal peoples who became early Israel…may indeed have been guided through the desert by a charismatic sheikh-like leader with the Egyptian name of Moses…”.

In Josephus’ account of Jewish history he uses the term ‘Hebrews’, while later literature refers to the Israelites as ‘Judaeans’, which was used to differentiate the ‘local’ population from those of Hellensic heritage. Later during the Roman occupation of the region this term ‘Judaeans’ was used in reference to all the local inhabitants, irrespective of their traditional tribal lineage. With the passage of time this term for the traditional inhabitants of Palestine would within a few centuries give rise to the English ‘Jews’.

The religious tradition known as Judaism as a long and complex history during which it came under the influence of other cultures and charismatic individuals, with its foundation firmly resting upon the observation of its principles and rites as the state religion of Judaea and also as a means of inherited cultural identification by a particular group of people, the people of ה׀ה׳ , which is transcribed into the Roman letters YHWH (Yahweh).

The fact that a form of monotheism was embraced was most unusual in societies of this time and larger geographical region, and it needs to be kept in mind that YHWH though considered the supreme deity also had company in the form of a wife-consort Asherah as well as a number of other deities such as Asterte, Baal, Chemosh and Molech. The date for the emergence of the YHWH movement, better known within academia as ‘Deuteronomists’ , within the ancient society of Judaeans can not be determined and it appears to been adopted not because of any compelling attraction or obvious merit but rather because it was persuasively advocated or imposed by force by the social elite of the culture.

During the reign of Hezekiah on the throne of Judah (c.715-687BCE), Jerusalem became both the administrative and religious centre of the kingdom, promoting the unification of numerous tribes under the authority of a king and the religious Priesthood. A Historian can then with a degree of certainty safely assume, in light of events in other cultures, that the YHWH monotheism gained substantial support in a further effort to unify the numerous tribes under a single deity, thus the Priesthood of the Temple gained power and influence, especially economically with the collection of tithes and taxation as well as the fact the Temple also became the treasury for the emerging kingdom. With this centralisation of the Priesthood coupled with the abolition of rural/village synagogues (Note: The word ‘synagogue’ is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew ‘beet keneset’ meaning a gathering centre for the community (Coogan)) the Priests gained control over religious traditions and rites, which in turn further enhanced the power of and in Jerusalem. In 621BCE, during the reign of Josiah (640-609BCE), the Temple in Jerusalem underwent repairs and renovation. During the work a hidden scroll was recovered that included the Book of Law which prompted the codification of Hebrew ethical law and the re-establishment of the YHWH/ Deuteronomist religious movement, centralised in Jerusalem, as well as the abolition of other religious cults.

Within two decades, in 597BCE, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar II, for the king of Judaea, Jehoiakim, had with-held tribute and had thus made an attempt to gain political independence from the then Babylonian overlord. Jehoiakim’s son and heir, Jehoiachin, upon inheriting the throne upon his father’s death, surrendered Jerusalem after a three month seige. Josephus writes that Jehoiachin

“…Took his mother and kindred, and delivered them to the commanders sent by the king of Babylon, and accepted of their oaths that neither should they suffer any harm, nor the city; which agreement they did not observe for a single year, for the king of Babylon did not keep it, but gave orders to his generals to take all that were in the city captives…”

Nebuchachnezzar, as a measure to ensure the control of the conquered region seized as captives political, military, religious and other social elites, those in any position of power and influence as insurance against possible future rebellion. Judaea was left desolate, with only the poor and lowest of the social strata being left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, yet open for re-settlement by members of the local communities rather than by foreign colonies.

A factor that must be kept in mind by the modern historian is that Nebuchaddezzar’s hostility was based solely on political matters, of putting down a rebellion in a Persian province. Josephus mentions that

“…ten thousand and eight hundred and thirty-two…”

Israelites were taken to Babylon, who were settled in the rich agricultural Cheber Valley and allowed comparative freedom to continue their way of life and culture, as well as take advantage of economic opportunities regarding trade between Babylon and Nippur. Many Judaeans became merchants and traders , while others joined the military forces of the Persian Empire or entered government service. As was common practice of the time Nebuchadnezzar

“…took some of the most noble of the Jews that were children…and delivered them into the hands of tutors…and had them instructed in the institutes of the country…”

this ensured that the rising generation would not only develop Persian sympathies but also adopt the culture as their own, which in turn ensured the continued loyalty of the conquered regions for the immediate future. This period of exile from their homeland was a time of religious transition within the Judaean community for although many Exiles from Jerusalem assimilated into Babylonian society and intermarried others declined to do so, this behaviour in turn removed from the Judaean community those who were less committed to the YHWH/ Deuteronomist movement which eventually over time resulted in the emergence of an ethnic religious based community. The community of Exiles sought to cling to what they could of their culture, of their identity, through the revision and composing codes, histories and other documents; yet during this formative stage of what would become Judaism there was exposure to the dominating religion of Babylon at the time: Zoroastrianism. For example the influence of Zoroastrianism can be observed through the adoption of the features of Aralu to the already existing idea of She’ol (the equivalent to the Christian ‘hell’).

Within the Exile community two persons came to predominance: Ezekiel and another who has been given the awkward name of Duet-Isaiah by historians and scholars. Ezekiel was from a priestly family and was taken captive to Babylon where he assumed the responsibilities of pastoral leadership and care of the Exiled Judaeans, his philosophy combined the idea that the ordinary person could approach YHWH through the professional Priesthood who maintained both physical and ritual purity coupled with the perception of personal responsibility. These ideals, reflect an influence from Zoroastrianism and although not implemented fully did cast a long shadow over the later development of Israelite spiritual attitudes. The other person, identified as Deut-Isaiah, widened the stage upon which YHWH acted from the limitations of a single geographical region and people to an universal deity for all peoples and provided a guide for the Israelite community during the later period of the exile, and this philosophy also cast a long shadow over the centuries that followed upon the return to Jerusalem and later the emerging early Christian Church.

It was in Babylon that the YHWH/Deuteronomist movement became the dominant religious sector within the community of Exiles and as a consequence it was Jews, in the modern sense of the word, that went to Jerusalem from Babylon, rather than returning Israelites when Cyrus II, the Great (reigned 539-333BCE), conquered Babylon in 539BCE. Cyrus issued a decree offering the Exiles the opportunity to return to Jerusalem, which was at the time part of the Coele-Syria province of the Persian Empire. Josephus records that Cyrus, in letters to governors and others in his decree declared that

“…I have given leave to as many of the Jews that dwell in my country as please to return to their own country, and to rebuild their city, and to build the temple of God at Jerusalem…”

Having been in Babylon two, if not three generations some of the Exile community chose not to return to Jerusalem having assimilated into the society, culture and economy; however Josephus records that

“…the number of those that came out of captivity to Jerusalem were fourty-two thousand, four hundred and sixty-two…”

with appointed leaders in Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachin, and Joshua, a priest of the Zadokite branch of the Levite tribe of Israel, representing political and religious spheres respectively. However on the return of the Exiles, with their well established YHWH religious tradition and culture, to Jerusalem with wealth reclaimed their families’ former social position, and then proceeded to impose the strict monotheism of the YHWH/Deuteronomist movement on the entire society. This in turn divided the social strata of Jerusalem between those who had been taken to Babylon, who had idealised Jerusalem and the religious laws, and those who had remained in the ruins of the city and had intermarried with Ammonites, Edomites, and Samaritans, who were perceived as both social and religious ‘outcasts’ for failing to keep the Deuteronomic standards.

After several years of social unease two men left Babylon under the authority of the King to restore order: Nehemiah with the powers of Governor to administer the community and the rebuilding of defensive city walls and Ezra who had been granted the responsibility of instructing the people in both religious and secular law, and in the appointing of Judges, who in turn had the power to punish anyone who broke either of these law codes, thus there is a merging of both secular and religious laws into being one and the same. During this time the Temple of Jerusalem gained economic predominance as it was the treasury for the province of Palestine and thus thereby making the members of the Priesthood the wealthiest social class. Thus we see with this interweaving of ethnic identity through the expression of religious beliefs the emergence of a theocracy in which jurisdiction was in the hands of the Temple Priesthood where the High Priest was both the religious and civic leader of the community.

During the Hellenistic period, between 333-63BCE, there were numerous Jewish settlements throughout the Mediterranean, and although each community developed independently they were unified through the Jerusalem Temple and the Hebrew Bible, of which more will be written later in this paper. However these communities also came under the influence of the Greek schools of thought, and most notably the conscious use of logical rules of thinking. This adoption of external cultural aspects of the Greek civilisation by the Jewish social elite, that included members of the Priesthood, gave rise to the Rabbis establishing a set of rules for what methods of interpretation of the Scriptures would be accepted as valid, which in turn resulted in the translation of the Torah into Greek in the 3rd century BCE, known as the Septuagint.

When discussing the Hasmoneans Revolt, it is important to keep in mind that at this time the term Judaeans referred to only those living in Judaea, while others of the Diaspora, living outside the geographical region of Palestine, were referred to as either Hebrews or Israelites, and that these people were only unified under the religious administrative authority of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. While another point to keep in mind is that although Palestine would accept political dominance from another civilisation, when their religious freedom was perceived to be under threat the people would rebel, to death. This Revolt in 141BCE was against Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE) of Seleucia (Syria) in an attempt to establish an independent Judaeaic state, with their own king and government and was a result of Antiochus’ attempt to forcibly Hellenize Judaea, with bans against religious rites and ceremonies of and by the local population. This revolt is also known as the Maccabeus Revolt as it was led by the five sons of the Mattias, a Temple Priest in Jerusalem. It was a successful military campaign as Judas Maccabeus defeated four armies and forced a fifth to retreat, as well as recapturing the city of Jerusalem, with the exception opf the fortified and garrisoned castle. Judas was killed in battle, 161BCE, as was his heir and brother Jonathan, until ultimately the only surviving brother Simon was appointed High Priest, military leader and ethnarch (national political leader) in 140BCE as the first of the Hasmonean Dynasty under Roman authority.

The end of Judaean independence, even the illusion of this perceived independence, came to an end less than eight decades later when Pompey, in 63BCE, seized Jerusalem and Palestine was reduced to a Roman province, and although there was political dominance the Judaeans were allowed to continue to practice their religious rites and ceremonies without Roman interference. The people of Judaea became a religious community, and it is during this time that the philosophy of the tradition of the Hebrews underwent further change. This is evident with the emergence of three main sects within the Temple community of the time: the Sadducees; the Pharisees and the Essenes.

The Sadducees, with the foundation lying in the ruling clan of the Priesthood, the Zadokites and the support of the Hasmoneans were conservative observing the written law and rejecting oral traditions. The Sadducees were the Priesthood who had dominance in and of the Temple at Jerusalem as the High Priest was involved in all spheres of society for politically he was the leader of the people and involved with international relations, economically through the collection of taxes and tribute, as well as religiously as the leading priest in the Temple, he was to a certain degree even above the Law, both civil and religious which were by this time one and the same, for his personal actions were only subject to be checked by the Gerousia, or a council of Elders, that would later be known as the Sanhedrin. In spite of their conservative attitudes the Sadducees readily acknowledged that the legal and economically stability of Judaea, and thereby ‘getting along’ with the foreign power that held the region as a province was paramount as a means for ensuring the continuation of socio-religious cultural traditions.

The Pharisees had no interest in the political or economic spheres of society, opposing both the Hasmoneans and Roman authorities. Rather the Pharisees concentrated on the religious aspects of society accepting both the written and oral traditions of the emerging Judaism as well as accepting the messianic concepts. It was during this time there was an expansion of the role the local synagogue played within the smaller communities outside Jerusalem as a multi-purpose building for it was a community centre, a school and a place for religious ceremonies and rites. The Pharisees, with the final loss of Jerusalem, with their moderate attitudes, became the dominant form of the Judaic religious thought and practice, and ultimately developed into the orthodox ‘Rabbinic Judaism’ of the present day.

The third sect are the Essenes which were removed theologically and ritually from the Temple in Jerusalem, living apart from society in monastic seclusion at Qumran, near the Dead Sea and elsewhere throughout Judaea/Palestine. The men who resided within the Essene community observed strict physical purity that included ritual cleansing in the form of baptism, the Sabbath and other rites, and concentrated on the copying of scriptorial scrolls of importance for the community. A collection of these were hidden in nearby caves during the Jewish Wars against the Romans in sealed clay pots and upon the discovery, recovery, preservation, translation and on-going study of the now famous and so-called Dead Sea Scrolls historians and scholars have been able to extend the academic knowledge of the sect in several ways that are beyond the scope of this essay.

A person of note, and worthy of mention is Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who founded the Yavneh Academy at Jamina/Tiberias in northern Judaea/Palestine in the late 1st Century with permission from Vespasian. This institution of learning was a result of Zakkai recognising the fact that with the loss of the Temple the only avenue open for the continuation of Judaean traditions was through the transmission of Jewish learning and consolidating the doctrines, rituals and laws through discourse and discussion and the written account of commentaries and opinions, and thereby save Judaism from extinction. Eventually this Academy replaced the Sanhedrin as the authoritative voice for the teachings and rituals of the faith, for it spoke upon political, judicial and religious affairs.
The head of this Council was the Nisi, or Patriarch, who was the representative of the Judaean Hebrews/Jews to Rome and the authority to ordain rabbis and maintain contact with other Jewish communities, and it is worth noting that this patriarchate was demolished in 425ADCE. This Institute continued until 640ADCE and produced collection of works known as the Palestinian Talmud, thus making it impossible to determine the extent of its influence upon Jewish life even to the present day.

When considering a religious tradition a scholar must also have a look at its scripture and other associated texts, particularly when considering that they play such an authoritative role in the religious life of observant Jews and thus form the foundation of a culture as well.

The first issue that must be faced is the correct terminology used in the description of this collection of tomes, and the interweaving nature of these works, familiar to many as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, consists of a compilation of thirty-nine books which are divided into three collections: the Torah which contains the five books attributed to Moses, the Nevi’im or writings of the Prophets and finally the Ketuvim, a collection of miscellaneous books deemed to have historical or theological importance. The Torah contains the following five books: Bereshit (Gensis); Shemat (Exodus); Vayyikra (Leviticus); Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy). The second collection, Nevi’im consists of the books titled Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, Iasiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
Finally the Ketuvim includes the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. Between 250-240BCE under the orders of Ptolemy Philadelphus this collection of thirty-nine was translated from the Hebrew into Greek, and this work is known as the Septuaginta for there was a group of seventy scholars who compiled it in Jerusalem which was completed in the 2nd century ADCE. The poetic nature of the early scripture is indicative of it being, initially, an oral transmission, which can on one hand be precise over several generations, yet on the other open to distortion, exaggeration and misunderstanding, thus taking on the attributes of myths and legends.

Both the Tanakh and Mishnah are studied as guides to the Jewish lifestyle throughout the world, the Mishnah is a vast collection of rabbinic oral traditions along with the Gemara, a work of ‘supplementary learning’. The Mishnah was compiled and edited under the authority of the Sanhedrin, and as previously mentioned the (Palestinian) Talmud, which literally translates as ‘the teaching’, or simply as ‘study’; which concentrates on the religious rather than the nationistic aspects of Judaism. Along with another talmud, from Babylon these tomes emerged from the rabbinic academies of the Dispora as discussions and debates continued over the significance and implementation of religious principles and practices. The Talmud from Palestine was the most influential in Egypt and Italy while the Babylonian version gained superiority through the political dominance of the then known world by the Empire. The Talmud consists of two parts: the Halakah, or the formally recorded and defined law and traditions and the Haggadah, the informal oral traditions, with a total of over six hundred mitzvah/mitzvoth (commandments).

Along with the Tanakh and Mishnah is the collection of writings regarding the interpretation and opinions of over one hundred and fifty rabbanic theologians compiled over several centuries entitled the Midrash, which can be translated as ‘enquiry’ or ‘investigation’. This work provides a stable theological foundation for the continued evolution and development of Judaism, and forms the prime foundation tome for the Canon of Judaism. It consists of a massive correllation of over four thousand precepts of rabbinic law, however without the establishment of the context in which those precepts were formed, and discusses numerous topics of interest which are divided into six main categories, which are then further divided into sixty-three tactates. These six main categories include guidelines and laws governing the practice of the Judaic faith such as the appointment of festivals and Sabbath observance; laws of preservation for ritual purity within the Temple and certain domestic circumstances (ie.such as the preparation of kosher meals); the system of civil and criminal law such as property ownership, marriage and divorce; and laws of agriculture, such as resting the land every seventh year.

Although many Judaeans readily accepted the dominating foreign power for the social and economic benefits the main contributing characteristic that enabled them to remain as a people throughout the pages of history was that whenever there was a potential undermining of their identity there was a response of renewed effort to preserve their own traditions.

This identity was first established upon geographical grounds, of national identity, as a means of remaining ‘seperate’ from the dominating cultures who occupied the region of Judaea through preserving and the continued practice of social behaviours, rites and activities, under the guise of religion. Eventually Judaism has lost its nationalistic aspect as all who adopt this religious tradition are considered ‘Jew’, regardless of their personal genetics or nationality, for it is not limited to existing within a single national state or the borders of any one geographical country. The challenges of defining the Jewish identity as caused heated debate and internal contraversary between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements within Judaism, which have further been complicated with the events of more recent history with the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict over the disputed land rights over a geographical area which have promoted a renewed sense of awareness, loyalty and pride in their inheritence of being people of said region, yet with the political interests of Jews (ie religious, followers of Moses) elsewhere in the world there is the potential of an internal schism. Thus in conclusion it is possible to state that through time the meaning, the definition of Judaism has undergone several changes from a means of national identification through the observance of cultural traditions under the guise of religious principles and rites to the modern day, where it may be perceived as solely a religion.


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