Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman of New York University’s “From Text to Tradition: A history of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism”[1] is an excellent comprehensive and readable history of Judaism during a span of over a thousand years. It tells how and why Judaism accepted the hegemony and authority of the Babylonian Talmud over that of the Bible. It is the history of Judaism from Temple to house of study and synagogue, from Torah to Talmud, from priest to rabbi, from holy text to tradition.

What is Judaism?

Professor Schiffman stresses that Judaism is not a single view of God, the world, and human duties. It is a collection of divergent religious, cultural, and legal traditions and civilization of the Jewish people as developed, changed and passed down from biblical time until today. It is “not a monolithic phenomenon”; it encompasses many different approaches. Schiffman’s approach is not to tell the story of people, “but rather to tell the story of ideas,” ideas that make up the Jewish tradition and heritage.

True, “the traditions of the biblical world were axiomatic for later Judaism…all agreed that biblical tradition was binding.” But Jews differed in ancient times and today on how to interpret the Bible and its requirements.

It is clear that the tendency of biblical law was to go beyond laws such as the Code of Hammurabi and to provide equality before the law to all citizens and to move away from excessive punishment, a pattern continued later in talmudic times resulting in changes in biblical law.

Schiffman tells about changes made in Judaism during the Persian Period, when in 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great gained control over the entire are of Mesopotamia, and allowed Jews who had been exiled from Judea to Babylon when the First Jewish Temple was destroyed, to return home. During the First Temple period, for example, it was possible to join the Jewish people in an informal way by moving physically into the land and adhering to its religion and laws. There was no system of conversion, but the idea developed during this period, an idea not in the Bible, that a person was a Jew only if his mother was a Jew.

Soon, sometime around 400 BCE, we do not know precisely when, Ezra came to Judea from Babylon and “devoted himself to making the Torah the center of the religious life of his people. But the Torah had one deficiency as a legal text. There were apparent contradictions and inconsistencies between the legal rulings in its various sections.”

“Thus there was born the method which later Hebrew termed midrash.” The earliest form of midrash dealt with Jewish law, what the rabbis later called halakha. This early midrash did not contain the stories that the rabbis added to teach lessons to the populace. Schiffman shows how although the Torah does not prohibit marrying non-Jews, and even describes ancient Jewish leaders such as Moses and Joseph marrying even daughters of pagan priest, Ezra used midrash to forbid intermarriage.

Then, after telling us much more about the Persian Period and the changes introduced into Judaism at that time, he speaks about the Hellenistic Period. This is the time that Judaism was influenced by the philosophy of Philo (around 20 BCE to 50 CE) and his view that much of the Bible should be understood as allegory, and not taken literally. Philo was influenced by the Greek Plato. It is the period that influenced Maimonides (1138-1204), Judaism’s greatest philosopher, who stressed that the philosophy of the Greek Aristotle was correct, that people need to use their intellect, otherwise they are no better than plants and animals. Many words in Judaism today, such as synagogue is Greek in origin, and means assembly, coming together (to pray).

Schiffman devotes a chapter to “Sectarianism in the Second commonwealth,” the period of the second Temple, from 515 BCE to 70 CE. This was a time when there where many different groups of Jews, including Sadducees, Hasidim, Essene, and Pharisees, from whom the rabbis claim they are descendant. He tells about the Hasmonean Revolt against the Syrian Greeks and the dynasty the Hasmoneans created leading Jews for about a hundred years.

It is likely, he stresses, that the Hasmonean dynasty prompted the fruition of sectarianism. Each group accepted the primacy, truthfulness, and the divine-inspired nature of the Torah, but each interpreted the words and rules of the Torah differently. The Pharisees, which first appear in history around 150 BCE, had three major characteristics. First, they primarily represented the middle and lower classes. Second, they were not as Hellenized as the upper class and remained mostly Near Eastern in culture. Third, they accepted the nonbiblical customs that had been passed down through the generation, the traditions of the fathers, what the later rabbis called the oral law after adding to these laws.

The Pharisees espoused views that are not mentioned or even hinted in the Torah, but which were later incorporated into rabbinic Judaism. The accepted the ideas of the immortality of the soul and of reward and punishment after death, ideas that the Sadducees, which also were first recognized as a group around 150 BCE, denied. The Pharisees also believed in the existence of angels, that God sometimes interferes in human lives, which the Sadducees also denied. It is possible that these ideas originated sometime before 150 BCE, but we have no evidence that this is so.

We do not know why the Sadducees disagreed with the Pharisees. Rabbinical Judaism insists that the Pharisees were following the oral law that was given to Moses when God revealed the Torah, and that the Sadducees rejected this divine oral law. They contend that the title Sadducees derives from the high priestly family Zadok, from whose family the high priests were chosen, and Sadducees used this name because many of them were priest.

The problem with this view is that there is no mention of an oral law before this period, and the Pharisees themselves used the words traditions of the fathers, not oral law. Additionally, about a decade before the emergence of the Sadducees, the high priesthood was snatched from the Zadok family and assumed by the Hasmoneans. It is therefore possible that Sadducee comes from the word Zedek, “just,” referring to their belief that they were carrying on the ancient undiluted Torah mandates, while Pharisee derives from the root p-r-s, separate, those who separated from ancient traditions, reformers.

Schiffman continues with eight more chapters telling readers about the Jewish-Christian schism, the revolt against Rome, the development of the Mishnah which he calls “the new scripture,” Judaism coming of age, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, the current Jewish life, and the hegemony of the Babylonian Talmud in Jewish life. All in all, it is a comprehensive history of Judaism by a well-recognized scholar told in an easy to read and interesting way.  

[1] Ktav Publishing House, 1991.