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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Beginnings of Judaism is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 106.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The roots of Jewish history Audio download. I listened to these lectures (while reading along with the more-than-adequate notes) in order to fill gaps in my understanding of both the history of the Levant/Judea and the history of the Jewish people. Dr Gafni was up to the task, with his well-organized and clearly articulated lectures. For those considering purchasing this course be prepared for an historical discussion, not one of faith...this is not a religious course, but you will learn a lot about the roots of that religion. I have completed courses involving the history of the area from several different points of view from several different secular and nonsecular authors, ranging from Egypt to Mesopotamia to Macedonia to Rome all of which dovetailed quite nicely with these lectures. From a religious history point of view I found it interesting that the origins of the christian religion (beginning with the writings of Paul) corresponds surprisingly well with the post 2nd Temple, rabbinic (and messianic) period of the Jewish religion...and, really, why shouldn't it. I recommend this series for anyone interested in history...and if you are like some reviewers who rate courses having listened to one lecture, then I recommend Lecture 24, a well-presented and thoroughly entertaining summary of an excellent lecture series. It's often on sale...and when a coupon is applied, it's a real bargain.
Date published: 2016-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Scholarly and entertaining This is a terrific series of lecture (so far - I have heard half of the 24 lectures). The course is a mixture of history, theology, literature, anthropology, and even some linguistics and archeology. Some lectures drill down pretty deep, providing more details than some might be interested in. Nevertheless, the delivery is always lively, engaging, and animated on the audio files. The material is just fascinating. The professor is a star, in my opinion.
Date published: 2016-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The information and history presented in this course is comprehensive and historically detailed - so much is presented that it is almost - not quite, but almost - too much information to absorb in one sitting. The professor is extremely energetic and passionate about the religion of Judaism, and it truly shows in his presentation - much new material and a new perspective is gained - I know much about Judaism and its practices, but you will not be bored with this course! I recommend highly even if you have studied Judaism extensively already.
Date published: 2016-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Audio Version - Excellent course on Early Judaism! I bought the audio version. Two or three lectures in, I realised that this is an exceptional course. This is probably my 40th or so The Great Courses purchase, so I have some relative perspective on which ones are five stars. This one certainly is one of them. Professor Isaiah Gafni is clearly knowledgable and passionate about this subject matter, and it clearly shows. His pace, tone, variation of tone & volumes, and emotions expressed in his speaking are also excellent for audio purchasers of this course. Although I am familiar with the Christian Old Testament (Bible), this course taught me a lot about early Judaism including the following: 1. I didn't know that post Solomon (c. 928 BC), the kingdom of Israel was split into two: The northern kingdom (10 tribes of Israel) and the southern kingdom of Judah (tribes of Judah and Benjamin). Subsequently in 722 BC the northern kingdom (capital, Samaria) was conquered by the Assyrian armies of King Sargon II, and most of its population exiled (and assimilated) to Assyria. 2. The southern Kingdom of Judah (capital, Jerusalem) was captured by the Babylonian empire in 597 BC and the first temple (completed by Salomon) was destroyed in 586 BC. Babylonian Exile occurred from 597 BC. 3. The Persian empire then defeated the Babylonian empire and in 538 BC king Cyrus allowed (and funded) the rebuilding of the second Temple in Jerusalem, as well as facilitated the return of some Jews back to Judea. The second Temple was consecrated in 516 BC, 70 years after the first Temple was destroyed.. 4. Ezra and Nehemiah were instrumental in their leadership of the Jewish returnees to Jerusalem. 5. Although Persian rule was somewhat permissive and supportive(?) of the Jewish practices in Israel, the Hellenistic influence after Alexander the Great's conquest of Judea (332 BC onward) provided a stark contrast. Hellenisation cultural forces were very strong in trying to homogenise ancient cultures dominated under the Greek rule. This was a serious threat to Judaism as a culture. 6. Many Jews in this era became proficient in both Greek and Hebrew and translation of the sacred texts into Greek became the norm. 7. Judah the Maccabees and his brothers (Hasmoneans) led a rebellion in 167-164 BC against Greek Seleucid rulers. The second Temple was reconsecrated in 164 BC. The Hasmoneans ruled an independent Jewish state and kingdom from 141-63 BC, until Roman general Pompey took Judea. 8. Herod became a Roman-backed king from 37 - 4 BC, followed by his son from 4 BC to 6 AD. After that, Judea became a Roman province. 9. Learnt the difference between the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes (Dead Sea (Scroll) Sects). 10. Jewish uprising in 66-70 BC was squashed by the Romans and led to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD. Another bloody rebellion by Simon Bar Kokhba (132 - 135 AD) was also squashed by the Romans. This ended the military rebellions by the Jews against the Romans. 11. Primarily due to he destruction of the second Temple, Judaism had to further adapt through the frameworks of local synagogues throughout the diaspora and legacies of exegesis of sacred texts led by spiritual leaders (rabbi's), leading to important traditions and documents (including the Mishnah and the Talmud's) that enabled Judaism to survive and thrive until today. Key early leaders in this rabbinic tradition were Yohannan ben Zakkai (c 70-80 AD), Rabban Gamaliel II (c 80-115 AD) and Judah the Patriach (c 200 AD onward). All in all, this was an excellent course. I truly enjoyed it and learnt a lot from it.
Date published: 2016-01-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding introduction to beginnings of Judaism This will be a short review. Simply outstanding. I have had undergraduate, graduate, and seminary courses on Judaism so have some basis for comparison. The approach, the content, the presentation are all excellent. Does an excellent job of demonstrating how Judaism is much more than simply what one finds in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament). The only teeny tiny nitpicking comment is Professor Gafni's voice is like the ocean, going up and down in volume, which is great, but tends to DROP towards the end of (words and phrases...) so sometimes a little hard to make out what he's saying. Otherwise informed, engaging, and informative.
Date published: 2015-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but... I enjoyed this course, which I found balanced and insightful. Professor Gafni's presentation got better through the course (or maybe I just got used to it). I was hoping for a little more about how the Israelites came together, especially some of the recent theories about various local tribes and their different names for God being incorporated into the scriptures. The course is strongest in its middle period.
Date published: 2015-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful introduction to the subject This was one of my first Great Courses/Teaching College courses. I stumbled across it by accident while searching for background material on Judaism which I could easily consume. While I've worked for Israeli companies, I'd never been to Israel, and when the opportunity came to visit I jumped at the chance, as well as adding some personal time in Jerusalem. At that point I realized that having grown up in a slightly Christian but mostly secular culture, I knew almost nothing about the history of the Jews and even less about Judaism. This course proved to be an outstanding introduction to both. When we toured the Old City, I knew what I was looking at, and why it was significant. I gained so much more from the Citadel museum, and when Orthodox Jews invited me to pray with them at the Tomb of David synagogue, that too had special relevance. There's just so much history there that if you suddenly plunge into it with no prior preparation you are at risk of drowning beneath waves of unfamiliar names and dates and places. I cannot think of a better way to keep your head above water than this course. I found the professor's speaking style to be extremely engaging and easy to listen to. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Background to Judiasm I listened to the audio version of Beginnings of Judaism as a supplement to a Catholic taught class I was taking. The Catholic course, hosted by my diocese, was on the Theology of the Mass, which dedicated about half of its time to explained ancient Jewish rituals and how they influenced the formation of the mass. I found Gafni's class to reinforce and to expand upon what I had been learning through the Church. Although it is mostly a history class, I did appreciate that Gafni brought in comments about how various religions, both Jewish and Christian, interpreted certain topics. Since Judaism is the first of the Abrahamic religions, this course would be appropriate for anyone who wants to learn more about his or her own religion or neighbor's religion.
Date published: 2015-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best This excellent course is one of the best and most insightful I have ever taken. Growing up as a modern Jew in America you are given a smattering of the vastness of Jewish history, but it is (or was for me) scattered and disjointed. We are taught that Temple worship, the priesthood and sacrifice were a part of Judaism until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E, but how we got from there to synagogues and rabbis is mostly a mystery. It is a mystery that is clearly explained by Professor Gafni and he brings the whole picture together by teaching us the roots of modern Judaism really began during the exile in Babylonia beginning in 586 BCE. He shows that this exile and the necessity of keeping Jewish identity during the brief period between between the destruction of Solomon's Temple and the rebuilding that was allowed and encouraged by the new and tolerant Persian Empire that replace the Babylonian really led to the ability of the Jewish people to start refining their beliefs from a locally based cult into a much broader religious expression. Much of the course relates to the late Second Temple period and clearly places the Jews of Judea and elsewhere in the currents of history that were swelling all around them. Professor Gafni explains how the Hellenistic world view was simultaneously rejected and accepted by the Jews, and how the Greek world reacted with both indignation and fascination at Jewish teaching and practice. He shows us how roots of synagogue worship and pre-cursors to rabbinic Judaism were already in place when disaster struck Jerusalem in 70 CE, as well as how the early rabbis directed the new practice and observance that saved Judaism from extinction. He also teaches extensively about the Judaism that developed in Alexandria and other places controlled by the Syrian and Egyptian Greek empires, and eventually by the Romans. He devotes extensive study to the Pharisees and the Sadducees so prominent in the New Testament and gives us a good overview of the Essenes and the Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.,and while Professor Gafni is clearly an observant Jew, he never strays from rigorous historical objectivity. He also has a very Jewish way of talking with his hands and body movements which I found quite charming and nostalgic. My only minor objection was to the constant repetition of some of the graphics. There is a statue of Antiochus Epiphanes which looks like he is wearing earphones. Nobody explains this odd statue (Professor Gafni was probably not even aware of it) and we see it about thirty times. Other less strange pictures were also repeated ad nauseum. The course is 8 or 9 years old and thus is set in the old window, podium and picture set which was used for every Great Course at that time, and also shows at the beginning of each section a shot of the teacher chatting with a classroom full of students who then disappear. I am so so grateful that actual production values have finally come to TGC.
Date published: 2015-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Very Interesting Course This course is a great look at how the Jewish faith moved from a Temple/Priest-led/sacrificial community to a Synagogue/Rabbinic/prayer and study one. Not being of the Jewish faith, I found this course very helpful to my understanding of the Jewish religion. The Professor is obviously very knowledgeable, but able to make the information easy for the lay person to understand. I gained a much better understanding of all types of Jewish scripture and literature, as well as Jewish thought on Messianic ideas. While I highly recommend this course for anyone who would like an introduction to Jewish history, I would also recommend watching or listening to the course "The World of Biblical Israel" first. It will help you understand the time periods covered by this class better and have a better overall sense of the context in which the events discussed in this class are taking place. I would also recommend the course "The Holy Land Revealed" for anyone interested in this subject.
Date published: 2015-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Favorite Judaism Course I have watched all but one of TGC's courses on or about Jewish topics and this is by far my favorite. Gafni does a great job presenting the history of the Jews through the bar Kokhba revolt. Note that this is a history course, so it doesn't cover the early biblical times in depth, but really starts with the late biblical times which overlap with the earliest historical times. He very clearly takes us through the history of the people as well as the evolution of the religion from priests and kings to rabbis. I strongly felt that Gafni approached this as a scholar rather than as a believer. That is, the material is presented objectively, based on historical and archeological evidence rather than on theological beliefs. I definitely appreciated this approach. Gafni's presentation was easy to understand and followed a logical path. I would definitely be interested in him doing more courses on Jewish history.
Date published: 2015-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beginnings of Judaism i liked the course - Gafni knows his subject very well and can give insightful perspective on the evolution of Jewish belief - particularly during the period of the Second Temple - and those ideas, people and forces which shaped this belief, including other movements and impulses of the time such as early Christianity, at its beginning yet another of the then many judaistic streams . He limns the hopes and aspirations which then were of long standing, and directed those intellectual efforts which adapted Jewish thought and belief into the paths which lead to the present day, An intellectual and political history of great value.
Date published: 2015-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth having This course presents the history of the old Testament and the books recognized by the Jewish people in detail that many would find they know little about. The professor's presentation is slightly different in style but you recognize his knowledge is more then just notes to follow in the presentation. The content is such that many ministers would benefit from knowing this course and find that it is well worth the the time spent.
Date published: 2015-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sophisticated, but clear and accessible Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian, I was somewhat familiar with the Old Testament story of the origins of Israel. As an adult in a town with an active Jewish community, I have become familiar with the local synagogue and some of the elements of modern Jewish religious practice. The two images are very different, and I've often wondered about the transition from temple centered to text and synagogue centered religious practice, the demise of the priesthood and rise of the rabbinical tradition, and the abandonment of animal sacrifice and the adoption of prayer and Torah study as the central religious rites. This course explains how these developments occurred, and presents a nicely nuanced view of key historical events that contributed to Judaism's ability to adapt, survive and thrive in the diaspora. There's enough interesting detail to make the course useful, but not so much that an amateur gets overwhelmed. I'm looking for other courses by this professor.
Date published: 2014-12-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding History Course. (Not theology.) This is an excellent overview of the early history of the Hebrews/Israelites, later to be known as Jews, from the mix of fact and legend in Genesis through the early Roman empire. It ends with the end of the temple-centered religion, and the novel development of synagogues and rabbis. The course is rigorous history; Professor Gafni is careful to note the sources, and especially to note when we have inadequate or possibly biased information. Note that this is not a course in the theology of Judaism. This is partly because of the stress on objective evaluation, and partly because the theology was not deeply developed during the era covered. Professor Gafni is outstanding - deeply knowledgeable, superbly organized, and a fine speaker. His enthusiasm for his subject is continuously evident. The visuals are adequate, not outstanding. The Course Guidebook is very good, quite complete, with a timeline, glossary, biographical notes, and a nicely annotated bibliography. Clearly the course has my highest recommendation for anyone interested in this area.
Date published: 2014-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This makes great sense As a Hebrew school student, I learned a lot of historical facts, but was never able to tie them together to make a logical progression of events and their effects. This professor does that for me. He delivers a lot of information in a logical way and ties in traditional Jewish concepts with secular analysis. I have found this course extremely valuable in better understanding my history. I strongly recommend this course to those interested in the "evolution" of Judaism.
Date published: 2014-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best We've watched many Great Courses--religion, history and art mostly. This course is one of the best. We really liked the professor's enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for the subject. He seemed very even-handled, bringing in the good and the not so good during the development of the subject. Most of all, we never felt he tried to talk down to his audience. He presented the material in a very considered, learned manner. The course really filled in a lot of details that were missing or only covered briefly in some of the other courses we've watched. We really learned a great deal. Thank you Dr. Gafni!
Date published: 2014-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I wish all the instructors... ...were this intellectually rigorous. Much of the material in this course relates to areas of very active research and debate, research Dr. Gafni is very involved in. But rather than give just his interpretation, or just the currently dominant understanding, he explains why researchers think what they think, and conveys alternating opinions in what seems to me (as a non-student of the topic) to be very balanced both in tone and content. The topic is certainly important, as it discusses the evolution and adaptation of Judaism to changes in the ancient world. But it becomes more important as Dr Gafni analogizes that process to the Jews of today, and to any group that simultaneously has a homeland and is in the midst of a large diaspora.
Date published: 2014-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Historical Excellence This course is one of several that we have purchased on the subject of religion. Dr. Gafni's course on the beginnings of Judaism is among the finest we have encountered. His organization, lucid explanations and authoritative perspective on the subject matter facilitates learning this most interesting history of the early Hebrews. Having taken this course, we now have deeper understanding of the stories that, until now, were simply presented in clear text. I wish that I had taken this course years ago, to better understand the eras in which the Jewish people lived, and the societies that dominated their existence. Not only does Dr. Gafni teach this history, but he then goes on to explain the implications. His masterful comprehension and presentation style, reflective of his many years of teaching in Jerusalem, are simply not to be missed. If you are interested in the origins and history of the Jewish people, you owe it to yourself to view Beginnings of Judaism.
Date published: 2014-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Although I have not written many reviews, I have listened to and watched many courses. I can therefore say that this course is one of the best of I have heard. It took Professor Gafni a lecture or two to really get going. But from Lecture 3 on, Mr. Gafni filled every 30 minutes with clearly presented history and ideas. Mr. Gafni knows his material well and has organized it into well-structured lectures. He is also an engaging speaker.
Date published: 2014-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Distant Times Brought Near Professor Gafni depicts the intimate, human and situational roots of many modern Jewish beliefs (and some Christian). Particularly fascinating to me were the deep roots of the Rabbinate and the synagogue before the destruction of the second temple and the role of ancient diaspora (SO similar to today). I felt like Ezra, Yohanan ben Zaccai and Philo were going to raise their hands and chime in.
Date published: 2014-01-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course! Five stars are inadequate for rating this wonderful course by Professor Gafni. I'm a serious student of Jewish & Near East history with about 300 books on the subject matter in my library, and, this course brings them all together. Should serve as an excellent foundation for the beginner and an excellent overview for the more advanced. Professor Gafni's scholarship is readily apparent, even using Persian & Greek terminology where appropriate, and his use of dates, while not overwhelming, is very helpful in placing events in their correct historical perspective. I enthusiastically recommend Professor Gafni's course and no I'm not related to him! :)
Date published: 2013-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough and engaging Purchased this course in conjunction with The Holy Land Revealed prior to a trip to The Holy Land. They were very complementary. This course provided the background on the people and the history of the religion up through the Bar Khokba Revolt. As a non-Jew I learned more about the religion's origins and history than I'd ever thought about. There were many "eureka" moments when I understood why or how something is so important. I enjoy going back to listen to an episode a second or third time and find I learn or understand even something I missed the first time. As it's audio only, it doesn't take up too much room on my iPad and the lectures are perfect for listening to on airplanes. My only complaint is it's audio only. The professor is so engaging and personable I would love to see him teach!
Date published: 2013-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A hidden gem (Audio version) This is a fascinating course that goes virtually unnoticed at the bottom of the Religion section. Almost everybody who grows up in the Judeo-Christian tradition will be familiar with the thrust of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. This course picks up where the Old Testament ends, with the destruction of the first Temple, and follows Jewish history through to the century after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans. This is an amazingly important piece of history that is almost completely overlooked by non-religious history courses, except when the material overlaps with famous figures and writings of the Classical era (such as those by Tacitus and Josephus). It's really a shame, because there is a significant literary and cultural history to be digested in this course that extends well beyond the "Jewish story"...the Greek wars against the Persians, the emergence of Saducees and Pharisees, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the power vacuum in Rome after Augustus' death all figure significantly. Moreover, this course can provide a wealth of insight to people with an interest in Christian history; there's a careful examination of the environment from which Christ and his Apostles emerged, and the state of the Jewish population in which they spread his message. Prof. Gafni is a warm and engaging speaker. The material is dense and complicated at times, but I never found it difficult to follow. He covers all aspects of the course with a total mastery of the subject matter. A very enjoyable course!
Date published: 2012-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enriching Intellectual Journey This is a superb course and clearly sets out the formative influences and events of the Jewish Faith up to the period 200CE ie covering the destruction of the second temple and development of the rabbinic tradition in judaism. I have listened to Profesor Gafni's other course and actually found it helpful as a "primer" for this more detailed treatment of the Faith. The Professor is wonderful to listen to- i bought the CD version- his erudition obvious as was his charm and dry sense of humour. One imagines it would be a joy to be in lectures with him and TTC have allowed us this blessing through this course. The course was part of my journey to study the great religous traditions -doctirnes, practice and history-as part of a focus on greater appreciation of the spiritual dimension of life. This course has helped me greatly as have the many other TTC courses I have studied. It was powerful , for example, to learn and perhaps properly begin to understand the seismic effect of the destruction of both Temples and the effects on Judaism. It was also fascinating to learn of the way in which the Jewish genius for flourishing in often dreadful circumstances was able to adapt and develop the rabbinic tradition-which we see today-and incorporate liturgucal practices that allowed Jews to practice Faith in the absence of the cultic centre of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was also inspiring to learn about some of the great sages of the Faith (Akiva, Yohanan ben Zakkai). Highly recommended course.
Date published: 2012-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Great Courses Professor Gafni may be short of stature, but he's a religious and intellectual giant. I so enjoyed his lectures --- I was glued to his every word.
Date published: 2012-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superlative Course - Surprisingly Fascinating I was sort of lukewarm on the idea of this course when I bought it, but it exceeded my expectations in every way. In fact, it's one of my favorite TC courses. In terms of the substance, it sheds light on Judaic history during and immediately following the Biblical period, up to Bar Kochba. In so doing it provides an excellent, historically-oriented adjunct to the more literary or theologically-oriented courses that address portions of the same period (Old Testament, New Testament, After the New Testament, Intro to Judaism). It also develops in much greater detail and depth some of the history that Prof. Ruderman addresses in only summary fashion in his Jewish Intellectual History courses. And the substance of the course does not disappoint. I don't know why I thought this course might be a little dull, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Other than one of my three undergraduate courses in Religion, I can't think of anything that's taught me more or helped me to understand better either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or how Judaism came to be what it is. In his prior TC course, Great Religions: Judaism, I found Prof. Gafni clear and interesting but a little turgid in his presentation. This course could not be more different -- you can tell that this is his area of expertise, and that he is truly passionate about it. His enthusiasm comes through and is contagious. He summarizes the course perfectly at the end: "The very complexity of Judaism as we have come to know it in these lectures enabled Jews throughout history, and even in modern times, to identify their roots in the period and processes that we have analyzed here." If you have interest in either the Bible or Judaism or early Christianity or ancient history, you really ought to check it out.
Date published: 2012-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from SUPERB PRESENTATION AND VALUE This is another highly-recommended educational course by the affable and likeable Dr Gafni: well-constructed, comprehensive and compelling. I now feel that I truly "have a handle" on Judaism and will seek to learn more, while realising that I will never be an expert, of course. Dr Gafni's talks on the Septuagint and Apocrypha are superb: clear, easy-to follow explanations and details, including the fact that the 70 translators (Septuagint) of the bible from Hebrew to Greek actively made changes to suit their agenda! Note especially Isaiah 7:14 (Hebrew original "a young woman shall conceive" vs the Greek translation "the virgin shall conceive") -- a remarkably serious alteration by the translators, having enormous significance. I'm not sure the Book of Jubilees justified an entire lecture, but it is linked to Qumran and it is a fascinating book. Dr Gafni expounds very lucidly on the Dead Sea Acrolls -- may I mention here that there is an excellent Great Courses 24-lecture set on the Dead Sea Scrolls by Professor Gary A. Rendsburg which I recommend strongly. I obtained the Beginnings of Judaism course in CD audio version 2nd-hand at auction for a very low price, lucky me! I missed being able to see the lecturer. I'm familiar with Dr Gafni, having recently viewed his excellent 12-lecture course on Judaism. His body movements & facial expressions form an important part of his presentation. In voice-only form, he came across somewhat staccato. A little quirky point: I did a double-take when he (twice) said "zealousness" instead of "zeal". For a few years now there seems to have been a trend to tag "ness" on to an adjective even when a valid noun exists; odd! Please forgive my indulgence here, should I seem pedantic. The course deals with the development of mainstream Judaism and at times is quite detailed for a 24-lecture package. "The Shaping of Rabbinic Judaism" is a particularly valuable talk. Dr Gafni also relates how the destruction of the second Jewish temple was a true watershed in the history and shaping of the religion. Where appropriate, the professor reveals his sense of humour, while remaining respectful at all times. I would mention that for Christians (who may comprise the majority audience), this course illustrates clearly and vividly the sort of world and environment into which Jesus Christ was born and in which he preached & conducted his ministry. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2012-07-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from HISTORICAL ENLIGHTENMENT My knowledge of the Bible is rather extensive for a layman, but my interaction with Jewish friends led me to desire more knowledge of their culture and history. This lecture series met my expectations. For example, I better understand why the Book of Daniel is classified with the Writings rather than the Prophetic Books in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) since most Jewish scholars believe it was written in the second century BCE which is after many of the "prophecies" in the Book of Daniel. Professor Gafni’s lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls are very illuminating, but I wish he had gone into greater detail as to revelations from the scrolls. It is easy to fathom that historical documents from BCE offered far better authentication than the copies written a thousand years later, but I do not recall that Professor Gafni offered tangible illustrations of conventional contemporary thought that needed to be revised due to the scrolls revelations. An illustration may be that it is my understanding that prior to the discovery of the scrolls, many scholars questioned the validity of the initial dating and authenticity of the Book of Isaiah since it was supposedly written 1,500 years before the oldest known fragments of the book; nevertheless, the copy of Isaiah found with the Dead Sea Scrolls confirms that it was written at least BCE and the later dated copies are virtually identical with the scroll found at Qumran. Initially, I had to adjust to Professor Gafni's presentation style, but after the first or second lecture, I became fully accustomed to listening to him and enjoyed his lecture style. His presentations on the Maccabees, the Septuagint, and the Apocrypha were especially helpful.
Date published: 2012-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A religion of the book or of the land? Dr. Gafni’s Beginnings of Judaism is exactly what it’s advertised as: a historical review of how the Judaism that we know today developed from the (very different) religion described in the bible. The course covers the years 538 BCE - when the descendants of the Israelite exiles to Babylon were allowed to return to Judea by the Persian king (and Babylonian conqueror) Cyrus the Great – to 132 CE – when the Israelites were exiled from Judea again by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The course covers how the practice of Judaism evolved during that period, from the end of the first exile to the beginning of the second, into the religion of Judaism that we know today. Prof. Gafni’s principal thesis is that Judaism was able to withstand and survive the shock of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of its people into the Diaspora precisely because it had been evolving in that direction for the entire time covered by the course. Prof. Gafni argues that the Jewish (or Israelite) people transitioned from the Israelite people who were an ethnic community with their foundation in a common land (who happened to have a common G-d) to the Jewish people who were a religious community with their foundation in a common book (who happen to have a common tie to an ancient land). He suggests that, if the Israelite/Jewish community had not already transitioned from the land to the book, they would have disappeared as a distinct people upon the destruction of their temple. The course makes this argument while covering the history of the period both within Judea and in the Jewish communities in the already existing Diaspora, mainly in Babylon and Alexandria. He relies principally on the writings of the Apocrypha, 1 & 2 Maccabees, and the writings of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. He uses these sources, as well as some of the latter canonical works, as a historian and from a neutral, non-faith based perspective. Who is this course for? This period, the Second Temple Period, is of interest not only to Jews who want a deeper understanding of the relationship between the religion we practice and the religion described in the Torah, but also to Christians, whose origins and sacred writings all date to the end of this period. In addition, as Prof. Gafni points out, Christians interested in the origins of their own religion will find not just the end of this period of interest, but the entire course; because Christianity’s origins and sacred writings come out of the context of the Judaism that was evolving at the end of the Roman period. To understand that origin and those sacred writings, it is helpful to see how that context came to be. For example, Prof. Gafni points out that Paul used the synagogues as his fundamental base of operations in each new city he visited. What was the role of those synagogues in the Jewish Diaspora communities that Paul was visiting? From a Jewish perspective, this course should be of interest to all religious perspectives, from the totally non-religious to the very orthodox. He treats religious issues with sensitivity and respect. I did not find anything in the course that would have offended even my most deeply orthodox friends. From a Christian perspective, I would imagine that most Christians would find this fascinating: to gain a deeper understanding of the context in which Jesus preached his ministry within Judea and Paul did his work in the Diaspora communities. Although one reviewer was offended by Dr. Gafni’s use of Daniel and the suggestion that it was written in the Maccabean period rather than the Persian, I thought Dr. Gafni handled this issue deftly and with respect. From a historian’s perspective, using these books as historical sources requires that we understand the book in its likely historical context. While it is, of course, possible that the Book of Daniel was written in the Persian period and actually successfully predicted the future course of Israelite history up to the Maccabean period, such a reading is unlikely from a historical perspective. Although not noted in this course, there were many other apocalypses written during the second temple period, some of which have survived to the present. Many of those books also utilize the same technique and purport to be written in one period and then successfully predict much of the future. (There is even the Apocalypse of Adam!) One suspects that the reviewer who was so offended by Prof. Gafni’s treatment of Daniel would not defend the absolute veracity of these apocryphal apocalypses. (Dr. Gafni explains why my use of "apocryphal" is technically incorrect here.) But the only way to distinguish one apocalypse from another is on the basis of faith, not history. At no point does Dr. Gafni undermine or question a reader’s faith-based reading of any of the books of the Bible. I actually wonder if Dr. Gafni is not himself religious. He certainly reveals no clue one way or the other. Those thinking about buying the course will note a number of very positive reviews from church based teachers. I certainly did not take Dr. Gafni’s tone to be cynical of religion. I, and apparently most other reviewers, found his course to be respectful and deferential to religious sensibilities. Speaking of tone, one final note about delivery: one reviewer found Dr. Gafni’s delivery to be so annoying, the reviewer couldn’t even get through the first lecture. Leaving aside the propriety of filing a two-star review after listening to half of one lecture, Dr. Gafni’s delivery may take a little getting used to for some listeners. His delivery has a lilt that is common to native Hebrew speakers of English. It may sound odd to someone who’s never been exposed to it. However, I’ve never found this accent to be difficult to listen to or annoying. I suggest giving it more than 15 minutes and I think all listeners will find it to be perfectly clear. Dr. Gafni is a very engaging lecturer, and I think most listeners will find that to be true after getting used to his cadence.
Date published: 2012-04-18
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