More on how Judaism changed

                                                              when meeting other cultures


Jewish practices and theology continued to evolve as Jews met people of other cultures such as the Canaanites, Greeks, and Christians.



Many of the biblical books describe the various practices that the early Israelites adopted as a result of their integration into the Canaanite society. The Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, warns the Israelites repeatedly not to live with the Canaanites, even going so far as to order the Israelites to destroy them.  As I showed in my books on Joshua and Judges,[1] the Israelites ignored the divine command, offered peace with the Canaanite nations and lived together with them.[2] Joshua felt strongly that he must not make peace with the pagans in Canaan,[3] but after his death, the Israelites ignored his view. The integration went so far that even the judge Samson married a non-Israelite woman and had relations with two others. All of the biblical books describe the multitude of practices the Israelites adopted from their neighbors, including the worship of idols, pillars, and trees.[4] The prophets repeatedly criticized the people of the two kingdoms Judea and Israel for abandoning the basic teaching to worship God and not idols.[5]

It boggles the mind how much the idol-worshiping Israelite society must have differed from Torah Judaism and what effect it had on the observance of Torah. For example, David Weiss Halivni, an observant Jew and a world recognized scholar, developed an original idea in his Revelation Restored. He was the 1997 winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship.

Halivni adhered to the traditional view that God interfered with natural law some three thousand years ago and revealed the Torah, the five books of Moses, to the Israelites after they escaped Egyptian bondage. This Torah, Halivni stated, was perfect. God revealed it because he wanted to give humanity a gift of perfect knowledge that would teach them how to behave.

The problem occurred following the revelation when God stopped interfering with the laws of nature that God created and ceased being involved in human affairs. The people ignored the Torah and worshipped idols; and the Torah fell into disuse.

Despite neglect, fragments of the divine Torah remained here and there. Along with the ancient divine fragments were ancient human versions, faulty memories of the lost and disused Torah, what people thought the Torah had said. Some recalled that God told Noah to save a pair of each animal, others that it was seven of each. Some were certain that the original Torah had Reuben save his brother Joseph from being killed by the other sons of Jacob, while some people were just as certain that it was Judah. As a result both versions are Genesis 7 and 37.

In short, Halivni maintained the traditional belief in revelation while agreeing with Bible critics that Ezra compiled fragments and constructed the Torah we have today, because he felt that a radical change occurred in Judaism during the period the Israelites worshipped idols.



We do not know exactly when many Judeans first met Greeks, learnt from them, and incorporated what they learnt into Judaism. We do know that Alexander the Great passed through Judea in 322 BCE and that Judeans had extensive contacts with his soldiers as well as the many camp followers at that time and for years afterward. It is also possible, even likely, that quite a few Judeans met with Greek merchants who sailed around the Mediterranean Sea years earlier. The Judeans learned about Greek ideas that made a huge lasting impression upon their religion.

For example: the Greeks believed in the existence of an incorporeal soul and life after death, two concepts that are not mentioned or even hinted in the Torah. These ideas became central theological concepts for Jews after they acquired them from the Greeks. Needless to say, once Jews began to believe that people have souls and souls continue to live after the body dies, they insisted that the concepts are in the Bible. The Hebrew word used today for “soul” is nefesh. The word is in the Torah, but it refers to a person, as in Leviticus 2:1, “When a nefesh offers a sacrifice.”  Many rabbis interpret the command to honor parents so that you will live long[6] as an implicit teaching that the reward for honoring parents is long life after death. However, the twelfth century scholar Abraham ibn Ezra explained that the Torah is saying: if you show honor to your parents, your children will see it, learn from you and treat you the same; and because of their fine treatment of you, you will live longer.

Jews also took parables contained in the Greek philosopher Plato’s writings and placed them in Midrashim. These included Aristophanes’ explanation in Plato’s “Symposium” that the first human was a combined single being that was both male and female, but this being was later split. There were rabbis who claimed that Plato stole the idea from the Jews.



After splitting off from Judaism, Christianity began to develop notions that are not Jewish in origin, but the vast number of Jews not knowing this heard the new ideas repeated often, were told they are religious concepts, and began to believe that the ideas were originally Jewish. A good example of this is that many Jewish laypersons and rabbis are convinced that the concept of “original sin” is Jewish, even though it was clearly invented by the Christian St. Augustine in the fourth century and even Christians did not believe this notion before Augustine invented it.

The concept that people today are punished because Adam and Eve ate the fruit of “the tree of good and evil” is opposite the Jewish view that people are not punished for the deeds committed by others even if the others are their ancestors. It also portrays God punishing innocent people in a malicious manner.

Two prophets wrote that children should not be punished for their parents’ misdeeds. Jeremiah (655–586 BCE) wrote: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth were set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; everyone that eats sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”[7] Ezekiel (622–570 BCE) wrote: “The person who does wrong shall die; the son shall not bear the guilt of the father with him; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”[8]



[1] Part of the “Unusual Bible Interpretations” series.

[2] While the early books of the Pentateuch state that the Israelites should not offer a peace treaty, Moses changed this and offered peace.

[3] We do not know why Joshua abandoned Moses’ view.

[4] A good book on the subject of tree worship is Frazer’s “The golden Bough.”

[5] Curiously, they do not berate the people for failing to obey Torah commands even though a careful reading of the narratives in the biblical books shows they did not observe the Torah commands. I discuss this problem at length in all the books of my “Unusual Bible Interpretations” series.

[6] In the Decalogue.

[7] Jeremiah 31:29 and 30.

[8] Ezekiel 18:20. See also Babylonian Talmud 7a, Sanhedrin 27b, and Makkot 24a.