Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice by Michael L. Satlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have always told my friends that in important ways, Judaism is not a religion: it's a lot more than that. Satlow helps me explain why. Jewish communities have lived in nearly every country in the world, for thousands of years, and they lived in ways that bear only a family resemblance to each other. Even today (as the first chapter shows), American Judaism and Israeli Judaism look starkly different. What is "Judaism"?
Historically, Satlow says, what has held these diverse communities together is a lively and heated conversation about three things: Jewish identity (what it means to be a Jew, who is and who's not); relationship to sacred texts (the list of which has changed over time); and practice. Jews don't have to believe the same things, which has shocked many members of other religions. Satlow tells the story of the Calvinist Dutch government in the 17th century tolerated Jews but tried to enforce their own idea of what all Jews believe! Within the Jewish fold,in the Middle Ages, Maimonides listed 13 principles of faith. Today we sing them but we don't study them.
It was only in the 19th century that Jews began to define their differences along ideological lines, and that has led to the different "movements" and in fact to "Judaism" as we know it today. Even then, Satlow makes the point that the founders of the Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox movements all kept kosher and wouldn't have any trouble sitting down for dinner at one another's tables. That has changed--but still, you cannot tell much about the everyday life of a Jewish "lay" person by asking him or her what "kind of Jew" he or she is. You would have to watch them from day to day.
I found this book fascinating because it showed me how Jews have always been influenced by the trends in the larger culture in which their communities were situated. Because we live in the early 21st century, the book is particularly interesting when it shows the ways that Jewish and Muslim currents of thought flowed in and out of each other. In the Muslim world in the 8th century, people were arguing about whether only the Qur'an was holy or whether the hadith, a set of traditions about Muhammad and his circle, should also be studied like sacred texts. Muslims considered the Torah sacred, although some thought the Jews had a corrupted text, and many believed the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah (in the midrash and Talmud) had distorted the truth given to Moses at Sinai. Look at the Jews in the same time and the same place, and you find many of the same arguments. The Karaites wanted to get rid of the rabbinic commentary and go straight back to the Torah. Meanwhile, the rabbis were working to recognize the Talmud (the work of earlier teachers, from the 2nd through 6th centuries) as equally worthy of study as the five books of Moses--and for a time, they succeeded as the Muslim scholars did with the hadith. This is a very different conversation than went on in Christian lands at the same time, or ever.
Creating Judaism is not a perfect book. It starts out strong and straightforward, but in later chapters it tries to cover too much ground too quickly and falls into the academic habit of referring to history instead of explaining it. Still, it is a perfect book for right now. It shows how we can recognize that our most cherished beliefs are historically and culturally relative and still continue to cherish them, which is the only honest way to be part of a religious community in the 21st century.
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