Beginnings of Judaism

Course No. 6457
Professor Isaiah M. Gafni, Ph.D.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
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Course No. 6457
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Course Overview

How did Judaism develop from its biblical roots to the highly developed system we know today? What has changed—and what has remained constant? The answers to these questions are relevant to all faiths, as well as to anyone seeking to broaden their understanding of ancient history—a past that is inexorably linked to the present.

The roots of Judaism reach back to the Hebrew Bible—also known as the Old Testament by Christians. For thousands of years, Jews have looked to these scriptures for their origins, and have located in them the tenets of their faith. The Bible provides Jews reasons for sadness and joy, wisdom, and most of all, a profound belief in what God expects of them and has promised to them.

Though Jews of every generation have recognized and cherished the Bible as the ultimate source of all Jewish existence, much of what is recognized today as Judaism does not appear in the Bible.

For example, worshipping in places other than the single, original Temple in Jerusalem is expressly forbidden by the Bible. Nevertheless, Jews today worship in synagogues wherever there might be a Jewish community. Similarly, the Rabbinic model, for centuries the most visible example of religious and communal leadership among Jews, is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

In Beginnings of Judaism, Professor Isaiah M. Gafni of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem leads a spirited and provocative exploration of how the Jewish faith struggled to continually redefine itself during the first thousand years after the completion of the last books of the Hebrew Bible, tenaciously clinging to existence through circumstances that might well have torn it asunder.

This course explores the evolution of an ancient faith into a system of beliefs, practices, and laws recognizable today as Judaism. We discover a tradition of vigorous and joyous debate—where reinterpretation coexists with profound acceptance of the original instructions from God regarding the practice of faith.

Insights into this historical evolution—especially with respect to the roles of Jerusalem and the Diaspora in Jewish history—can also deepen one's perception of the historical, psychological, and religious forces at play in the Middle East today.

How Did Judaism Survive the Destruction of Its Most Sacred Place—Twice?

The crucial millennium on which Professor Gafni focuses twice witnessed the destruction of the Jewish people's most sacred place: the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It was first destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and, after having been rebuilt 70 years later, was razed once again by the Romans in 70 C.E., after the Jews waged a fierce uprising against Roman rule in the province of Judea. A major portion of the course is devoted to the period between these two landmark events that altered Jewish history forever.

The destruction of the Second Temple, according to Professor Gafni, is "arguably the most important watershed in the history of the Jewish people," bringing about "a total reshaping and redefining of the Judaism that had evolved for centuries prior to that event."

Indeed, in the wake of the second destruction, Judaism's earthly religious and political center was literally removed. What came next was not an end, but a beginning. Synagogues replaced the Temple. Prayer came into being as an alternative to sacrificial worship. And Rabbinic Judaism in time became the dominant model of the faith. But as Professor Gafni emphasizes, the evolution of a reshaped Judaism took place amid constant tension created by two competing forces.

On one hand, there was the fervent belief in the unchanging continuity of Judaism's scriptural roots—a belief clearly expressed in the Rabbinic formulation, "Whatever an established student is destined to teach has already been revealed to Moses at Sinai."

At the same time, however, the challenges brought about by a rapidly changing world and the need to adapt the practice of the faith to new and often bitter realities in order to survive introduced a constant process of innovation.

What Does One of the Most Famous Rabbinical Stories Reveal about Judaism?

A ready awareness of this tension—the axial theme of Professor Gafni's approach to the course—has always been implicit in Judaism. Indeed, a candid admission of its power forms the core of a famous legend told by the rabbis themselves. The story recounts how Moses was granted the privilege of an incognito visit, many hundreds of years after his death, to a class of students studying the same Torah, or book of learning, he had received from God on Mount Sinai.

The class is led by Rabbi Akiva, the most prominent Jewish sage of the 2nd century. As Moses listens to their animated discussion of the Torah, he hears Rabbi Akiva ascribe a particularly difficult issue as a law "given to Moses at Sinai." Moses realizes he cannot even recognize this law they are discussing—the law supposedly given to him.

The legend makes clear that the legal system on which Judaism rests has continuously been reinterpreted, and even innovatively recast, to reflect changing realities. At the same time, that law is still understood, without apology or a need for explanation, to have been revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai. Indeed, the innovation and reinterpretation necessary to deal with new realities could never be labeled as such, lest the links to the divine revelation at Sinai be broken.

One of those new realities was the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., which had been built by King Solomon in the mid-10th century.

That destruction—accompanied by the capture and exile to Babylonia of 10,000 of Judea's priests, officers, warriors, and most respected families—denied the people of Israel the sanctified place where the scripturally mandated practice of their faith should be carried out. And with so many of their nation seized and expelled, they also received their first glimpse of the phenomenon of Jewish Diaspora—or dispersion—which forever altered the social and cultural structure of their people.

"The lessons that Jews would have to learn now, after the destruction of their First Temple, after their new and initial dispersion around the Middle East," notes Professor Gafni, "would accompany them throughout all of Jewish history. And they go to the heart of understanding Judaism, and the complex makeup of Judaism, which at times is a faith but at times is a land-oriented religion. And Jews would constantly juggle these two components of their self-identity.

"When do you stress the ethnic? When do you stress the geographic? When do you play down the political and say, well, we are really a faith, we are really a way of life, and, as the prophet Jeremiah advised the exiled Israelites of his own day, we should establish that 'way of life' wherever we might reside, even in captivity?"

In telling this story, our riveting lecturer draws on more than four decades of teaching skills and a broad array of approaches—including historical narrative, biblical episodes, anecdotes, and some wonderfully apt Rabbinic tales—designed to bring into clear focus an ancient past. Professor Gafni's expert instruction reminds us that a master teacher can help us see the past from the perspective of a participant.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Beginnings of Judaism—Biblical Roots
    Much of today's Judaism developed after the completion of the Hebrew Bible, which Jews have nevertheless traditionally referred to as the source of their history, beliefs, and practices. In examining Judaism's biblical roots, we discover how the Jewish religion reconciles this seeming contradiction. x
  • 2
    New Challenges in the Late Biblical Period
    We encounter the historical contexts in which post-Biblical Judaism developed. The Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman empires, as well as the short-lived Jewish kingdom founded by the Hasmoneans, all made unique contributions to Judaism's development, both in the land of Israel as well as in the Diaspora. x
  • 3
    Jews under Persian Rule—The Return to Zion
    Persian rule over Israel lasted for more than 200 years. Beginning with the return to Judea of the descendants of the Jewish captives who had been forcibly removed by the Babylonians, we follow the rebuilding of Jewish communal life in their homeland. x
  • 4
    The Challenge of Hellenism
    Alexander the Great's incorporation of Palestine into the greater Hellenistic world, and the broad-based acculturation—or even threatened assimilation—that followed posed a challenge to Jewish identity that would be a constant factor in the lives of Jews for centuries to come. x
  • 5
    The Maccabees—From Rebels to Kings
    The revolt of the Hasmoneans—a family of Jewish priests led by Judah the Maccabee—against the Seleucids, who ruled over Judea in the early 2nd century B.C.E., ultimately led to the establishment of an independent Jewish state that would survive until the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.E. x
  • 6
    The Canonization of the Hebrew Bible
    After the gradual emergence of a tripartite canon of sacred texts—Torah, Prophets, and Writings—during the Second Temple period, Jewish authors embarked on the study, interpretation, translation, imitation, and retelling of these extant sacred scriptures. x
  • 7
    Translating the Bible—The Septuagint
    If the Hebrew Bible was to be made accessible to all Jews, a Greek translation was required. The version that emerged, in stages, is known as the Septuagint (Latin for "seventy"), because of the number of scholars said to have produced it. x
  • 8
    Adding to the Bible—The Apocrypha
    In its final form, the Septuagint includes not only the earliest complete translation of the Hebrew Bible, but also 14 or 15 texts not found in the Old Testament. We look at these texts, commonly referred to as the Apocrypha, Latin for "hidden." x
  • 9
    Tobit—A New Path of Righteousness
    We take a closer look at the Apocrypha's book of Tobit, a delightful novel on the merits of righteousness, which in many ways points to a new or reinforced set of religious and ethical values that would become particularly relevant for Jews in the Second Temple period. x
  • 10
    Retelling the Bible—The Book of Jubilees
    The canonization of the Bible opened the way for new retellings of biblical stories, with new interpretations read into ancient characters and situations. One of the most impressive is the revised rendition of Genesis and Exodus supplied by the book of Jubilees in the 2nd century B.C.E. x
  • 11
    Revealing the Unknown
    By the late Persian or early Hellenistic period, Jews believed that ongoing prophecy in its biblical form had been discontinued. But mankind's thirst for knowledge of the innermost secrets of the world was not quenched, and this information was now supplied by a new literary genre known as Apocalypse. x
  • 12
    "Judaism" or "Judaisms"?
    As Second Temple Judaism evolved into a "religion of the book" and its central texts became more accessible, diversity of opinion and interpretation naturally increased. Religious disputes led to sectarianism, with each group convinced that it alone observed the Law properly. x
  • 13
    Sectarianism—Pharisees and Sadducees
    At some stage of Hasmonean rule in Judea, three distinct schools of thought arose within the Jewish community. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes embraced different opinions about God's relationship to this world, and were no less divided along political and social lines. x
  • 14
    Out of the Caves—Discovery at Qumran
    In the spring of 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd entered a cave south of Jericho and set into motion the most spectacular archaeological discovery of the 20th century, encompassing far more than what have come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. x
  • 15
    The End of Days—Messianic Eschatology
    The post-biblical period introduced some major changes into the entire range of eschatological contemplation. During the Second Temple period the focus shifted beyond God's administration of a just system of rewards and punishments in this world to also include each individual's "life after death." x
  • 16
    Other Lands, Other Jews—The Diaspora
    One of the most significant departures of post-biblical Judaism from its earlier biblical days was the establishment of a widespread Jewish Diaspora, or dispersion. What the prophets had considered the ultimate punishment for sins had now become reality. x
  • 17
    Judaism in the Hellenistic World
    Jewish literary activity flourished in the Greek-speaking world, and especially in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, with Jews adopting almost every literary genre in their attempts to present Judaism to the Greek mind, as well as to a Jewish community that had adopted Greek as its primary language of discourse. x
  • 18
    Changing God's Address—Temple to Synagogue
    The Second Temple period represents a major turning point in Judaism's self-image. While the primary focus of religious expression remained the Temple of Jerusalem, an alternative institution—the synagogue—began to appear, leading to a major decentralization and democratization of Jewish religious behavior. x
  • 19
    Rome Arrives in Jerusalem
    Jewish independence under the Hasmoneans came to an abrupt conclusion with the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.E. The Romans experimented with different approaches in attempting to establish control, but the ultimate result was anarchy, a violent uprising, and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. x
  • 20
    Parting with the Temple
    Religious ideologies are not always limited to the spiritual world of contemplation, but frequently serve to motivate individuals or groups toward political involvement and even military action. We look at the impact of some of these ideologies on relations with Rome. x
  • 21
    From Jerusalem to Yavne—Rabbinic Judaism
    As Judaism evolved into a "book religion," teachers or interpreters of the sacred texts slowly assumed a position of prominence alongside the traditional priesthood. Removal of the Temple gave these teachers—rabbis—an unchallenged position of spiritual authority. x
  • 22
    The Shaping of Rabbinic Judaism
    Six hundred years of Second Temple history, culminating with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., witnessed the erosion of the biblical frameworks of the Temple and priesthood, monarchy, and prophets. We see how the values of Rabbinic Judaism, no less than the revised forms of religious expression, became the new standards of Judaism. x
  • 23
    A Violent Epilogue—Bar Kokhba
    Not all Jews opted immediately for the Rabbinic alternative to Second Temple realities. Sixty-two years after the destruction of the Temple, the image of a militant messiah at war with Rome appeared once again. x
  • 24
    From "Roots" to "Tree"
    This closing lecture puts the lessons of the course into perspective, addressing key issues that include diversity in Judaism; Judaism's self-perception as either a nation, a religion, or a culture; the triumph of the Babylonian rabbinate; reconciliation with an ongoing dispersion; and the directions taken by Judaism during the past two millennia. x

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  • 152-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Isaiah M. Gafni

About Your Professor

Isaiah M. Gafni, Ph.D.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Dr. Isaiah M. Gafni is the Sol Rosenbloom Professor of Jewish History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. and has taught for more than 40 years. He was formerly the Director of the Mandel Center of Jewish Studies at the university and also previously served as Director of Graduate Studies at the university's Rothberg International School. He has been a visiting professor at numerous American...
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Reviews

Beginnings of Judaism is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 100.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome teacher! Dr. Isaiah Gafni is an AWESOME teacher! He holds my attention in just about every lecture and if you want to understand Judaism from a Jewish perspective, he definitely is the way to go! This is the best lecture I’ve purchased yet. Thank you!
Date published: 2019-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fascinating Course Professor Gafni is a wonderful lecturer. His material is informative and well presented. I am delighted with this course.
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Transcipt book is s great read A terrific read. Learned so much I didn’t know about my own religion
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beginnings of Judaism Exceptional in both presentantion and content. Best presentation of historical Judaism I have heard or read.
Date published: 2019-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I enjoyed it a great deal. Having watched other "Great Courses" and my limited knowledge of the Bible the history of the course seemed to dovetail with things I already knew. The professor did a good job of keeping me engaged and was great at explaining things that may have been confusing. I learned a lot.
Date published: 2019-01-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good course The content is excellent. Very informative and well organized. The speaker sound like he is shouting. Not pleasant to listen to.
Date published: 2018-12-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good This course describes the transformation of Judaism from an ancient religion centered on Temple practices into a modern religion centered on learning and ethical practice. It is good for Jewish students who are interested in better understanding their Jewishness. It is also good for Christian students who are interested in better understanding a closely related religion. This course focuses on the period from the Maccabees (c. 160 BCE) to the Bar Kochba Rebellion (c. 200 CE). The course relies heavily on documentary sources such as the Hebrew Bible, apocryphal writings, the Christian New Testament, Qumran documents, and other historical writings. It also relies on some archeological finds, although less so. From these sources, Dr. Gafni weaves together a story of how “Judaism” was actually a spectrum of multiple “Judaisms”, some of which survived catastrophic events and some of which faded away. Ultimately, events led to the dominance of Rabbinic Judaism. Dr. Gafni is a very good teacher. He clearly understands his topic and he presents it well to those who are not particularly familiar with the topic, although perhaps a slight familiarity would be beneficial. Dr. Gafni is respectful of other religions. I took the audio version. I believe the video would not have added anything significant.
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well organized and well delivered. I stayed up late to listen to sequential lectures. I found course material quite compelling.
Date published: 2018-11-19
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