The answer to the question ‘what is Judaism?’ is almost as tantalisingly elusive as the answer to ‘who is a Jew?’ Answers to these questions tend to be polemical in nature, highly tendentious and specific community-bound. So, like many people I was overjoyed to see the release of Prof. Martin Goodman’s new book on the subject ‘A History of Judaism’. It’s not that such a topic hasn’t been attempted before, but Prof. Goodman* brings to it a wealth of first century knowledge and understanding, the Roman Sitz im Leben, that opens up windows of clarity in an otherwise now distant, murky historical-religious world.
It is one of Prof. Goodman’s candid assertions however that catches the eye. He writes ‘the Judaism of today bears little resemblance to the religion ascribed to Moses in the Bible from which it purports to derive’. I doubt that anyone from a Jewish background will be shocked to read this, yet for many this may be a deep revelation. On the face of it, why should the two be even close, after all, we have lived for the last 2000 years out of the Land and Judaism is, if nothing else, deeply bound up with living in the Land. It’s no wonder the meanderings of theological history have taken us to ‘strange places’. Prof Goodman acknowledges the ‘secret’ that in fact so many know about but often fail to communicate because the implications just might be too challenging: what counts today as Judaism is in fact Rabbinic Judaism, a Judaism created to survive the crushing defeat by Rome and the need to centralise Jewish authority in a diaspora world. And to be fair, we should praise our rabbis and sages of old whose spiritual creativity and survivalist instincts helped form a Judaism that would survive a disconnect from our ancestral Home. Yet I hesitate to call this ‘rabbinic’ Judaism because, as Goodman posits, it is the TEXTS that have framed our experiences. It would be safer to describe this form as ‘Talmudic Judaism’. I doubt there would be many dissenters for this, as it is a fundamentally fair description of the reality on the ground, at least of its origin.
Judaism today represents the sum of this inherited textual contouring. So the texts, so the life. One example of course can be seen in the reasonably recent festival of Rosh Hashanah where in the tractate of the same name in the Talmud the celebration was ‘fleshed out’ with additional expectations and commandments, including the later acceptance of the name change from Yom Teruah to Rosh Hashanah (a designation the Torah itself is silent on). In fact there is only one Mitzvah on that day according to the Torah text, and that is to hear (not blow) the shofar. This is not to say that the additions in the Talmud are necessarily wrong or unhelpful, but it illustrates how texts frame your Judaism. The same of course is true of Messianic Judaism. The ‘Messianic Writings’ (NT) form the basis from which we draw our lifestyle and practices, beliefs and Jewish identity today. The teachings of Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah, should be the authoritative source to which we go. His teachings are drawn directly from Torah (not just purported to do so) and are still recognisable as such, even today. They represent a Jewish faith that is vibrant and flexible, able to handle the diaspora AND, more crucially, life back in the Land. So the text, so the life. Messianic Judaism needs to insist on this radical source re-orientation if it is to become not just an inevitable subset of current Orthodoxy, but take its place as a contender for the title of ‘Judaism’, an answer to the ages old question.
*Prof Goodman is Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University.