There are all kinds of Jews in the world. Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Haredim and Chassidim in the strictly observant communities and there are Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews in English-speaking and central European countries. Where did Judaism begin?
It did not start with Abraham, born in Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia where the moon god was worshipped nor did it start with Moses who was born and educated in Egypt where Isis and Osiris were among the multiple gods. Nor did it start with King David or his son, King Solomon.
Those people were known as Hebrews, not Jews.
Historically, Judaism began after the division of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judea following the death of Solomon. He was succeeded by his very cruel son, Rehoboam who afflicted his people with hard labor. “My father scourged you with whips but I will scourge you with scorpions”.
The greater part of the kingdom rebelled against him and 10 tribes separated from him and chose a new king, Jereboam of the tribe of Ephraim. They called the new northern kingdom Israel.
The two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, remained loyal to king Rehoboam and they called their new kingdom Judea. Jerusalem remained the capitol of Judea while Samaria became the capitol of the kingdom of Israel.
The people of the northern kingdom were no longer called Hebrews. They became Israelites. The people of Judea were now called Jews.
After twenty years, the northern kingdom of Israel was laid siege by the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V, who made the lives of the Israelites miserable for three years until 722 BCE when the kingdom was conquered and laid to waste by the Assyrian monarch, Sargon II and the ten tribes of Israel were taken into captivity.
Thus the ten tribes assimilated and were lost forever. Only the Jewish kingdom of Judea survived.
They survived until 586 BCE when Judea was overrun by Nebuchadnezzar and the might of Babylon. And in the great Babylonian exile, Judaism was born and the greatest of our rabbis and teachers lived and wrote in Babylon. While the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, the volumes of the Talmud were written in Babylon.
In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia, who had conquered Babylonia, issued the famous Edict of Return which permitted the captive Jews to return from exile to their ancient homeland and there to rebuild their temple and develop Jewish life.
Several years later, in 458 BCE, a scribe named Ezra returned to the land of Zion. He established the Great Assembly, strengthened the religion based upon Torah laws, revolutionized the use and style of the Hebrew alphabet, made new laws and re-interpreted old laws. For that, Ezra is regarded as the “father of Judaism”.
Thousands of other Jews followed him, leaving the glories and wonders of Babylon behind them.
Among them was Nehemiah, a prophet, who arrived in Jerusalem about the year 445 BCE and worked together with Ezra the scribe to establish a Jewish religion and to assist in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Their work had been made easier by Ezekiel the prophet who lived several generations earlier in Babylonian exile. It was Ezekiel who kept the Jews bound together as a people.
The people asked “how can we worship God without our holy temple?” Ezekiel replied: “build your communities to worship there” (The Greek word for communities was “synagogus”..places of assembly).
Next the people asked “how can we offer sacrifices without our holy temple?” Ezekiel replied:”offer the sacrifices of your hearts” (prayer).
But the people again asked “who will teach us the prayers and what to say? Our priests are without our holy temple”. And Ezekiel replied: “we will have teachers, rabbanim, who are skilled in the laws of Moses “(rabbis). And thus, the earliest foundations of Jewish religious worship began.
In the year 70 of the Common Era, Judea was captured by Rome and Jerusalem was destroyed. Once again, the Jews were driven into exile but their synagogues, prayers, rabbis and teachers went with them. The longest exile lasted almost two thousand years until the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948.
However, in exile, Judaism flourished, grew and after hundreds of years new interpretations and practices evolved.
Born in 1720 in the Lithuanian city of Vilna, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Gra or the Gaon (genius) of Vilna set the standards for Torah study which are observed by ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, and modern Orthodox Jews to this day. But soon a revolution was to occur.
In 1700 another Jewish giant was born in Russia. He was Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, best known as the Besht, or Baal Shem Tov.
Perceiving God in all nature and in all creation, he inspired the poor and illiterate Jews to worship God through prayer, songs and dance. God was to be worshipped not only in long hours of Talmudic study (63 tractates and 6,200 pages) but also in hours of joy.
His religious movement became known as Hasidism and it was denounced and ridiculed by the scholarly followers of the Vilna Gaon. The rift between the followers of both movements lasted over 100 years.
In 1848 there was a revolution in Germany. Art, literature, sculpture, music, medicine, philosophy were all encouraged and German Jews, now liberated from their miserable ghettos, were free to study at German universities and to practice their religion openly.
But rabbis like Abraham Geiger and others wanted to free German Jews from the “burdens” of archaic laws. German Jews were intended to be Germans of the Mosaic Faith, and in 1848 the seeds for the Reform movement were planted in German soil.
Kashrut (dietary restrictions) were abolished. Christians worshipped in their churches on Sunday mornings, so Reform temples held their Sabbath services on Sunday mornings also. Reform temples had choral singing and organs to enhance the beauty of worship. Men were no longer required to cover their heads while praying and separate seating for men and women was abolished.
Reform Judaism became something abhorrent to observing Jews. Reform temples were compared with Christian churches. And thousands of enlightened German Jews were flocking to the new Reform movement.
To stem this tide, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel of Breslau, opened in 1854 the first Jewish Theological Seminary for the training of rabbis who sought to “conserve” the Jewish religion from Reform. This was the birth of the Conservative movement, based upon tradition and change.
Its message spread across the ocean to America and the Jewish Theological Seminary was opened in New York City in 1886.
In that same year and in the same city, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary (now Yeshiva University) opened for the training of American-born English-speaking Orthodox rabbis.
A young man named Mordecai Kaplan was ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, Isaac Jacob Reines, and he served as rabbi of the Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. In 1912 together with a few colleagues Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan created the Young Israel movement of modern Orthodox Judaism.
From 1933 until 1970, he was a Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and published several books expressing the need to “reconstruct” Jewish worship and Jewish religious practices.
He perceived that many Jews no longer could accept the tales and legends of the Bible and Midrash and they required a rational Judaism steeped in philosophical thought and meaningful practice. He sought to create an egalitarian Judaism in which men and women could participate equally in worship services including reading from the Torah.
Having no sons, he officiated at the first Bat Mitzvah in America on March 18, 1922 when his daughter Judith was called up to the Torah. Thus, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Kaplan’ creation of the Reconstructionist movement spread. Hundreds of his Conservative students at the Jewish Theological Seminary followed Kaplan’s revised theology which centered on the idea of Judaism as a civilization.
He was considered one of the greatest liberal Jewish thinkers in 20th century America. He continued writing books until the age of 90 and he died in New York in 1983 at the age of 102.
Judaism has endured many changes over many centuries. That it has so endured is the miracle of Judaism. No matter what label a Jew attaches to his or her religious beliefs, they practice Judaism and give praise to the One God of our fathers in a language which emanates from a Jewish heart.