A General Introduction to Jewish History
JewishHistory.com celebrates a longstanding tradition of Jewish remembrance,
offering a space where past and present come together for an exploration of
the rich heritage of the Jewish people. Jews are commanded to remember: the
Hebrew word zakhor, "to remember," appears no fewer than 168
times in the Bible. In every age, the Jewish people designed prayers, rituals,
texts even whole educational systems dedicated to remembering
key ideas and events like the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the destruction
of the original Temple, the fortitude of the Maccabee Jews against the ancient
Greeks, the victims of the Holocaust, and the formation of the State of Israel.
History contains the connections between memory and meaning. While each era
of Jewish history is defined by certain events and personalities [click here
to learn more], several themes recur throughout Jewish history. Following is
an introduction to these themes, as context for understanding this website's
unique collection of artifacts and other historical content.
A Legacy of Ideas
"Observe what is right and do what is just." - Isaiah 56:1
The Jewish people's unique path through history began with the "first Jew."
When Avram (Abraham) set out from Haran to Canaan almost 4,000 years ago with
a commitment to one God, he introduced the idea of ethical monotheism to the
world and a revolution in morality began. The idea of one God championed by
this early rebel seeded one of the most complex and rich legal systems in history,
one obsessed with a search for justice and personal responsibility.
The legacy of Jewish leaders such as Abraham has encouraged Jews throughout
the centuries to follow their own internal compasses. In his book The Gift
of the Jews, Thomas Cahill asserts that in social and world issues, "In
order to make the right choices I must consult the law of God written in my
heart. I must listen to the Voice, which speaks not only to the great leaders
but to me
And in this way, after many catastrophes, the people who became
Jews could begin to go from the I of [King] David to the I of
the spirit to the I of the individual to the I of compassion-for-the-I-of-others."
The modern era has felt the impact of the radical thoughts of famous Jews such
as Freud and Einstein. Other Jews have broken ground in the arenas of the arts,
philosophy, and social policy (such as Gloria Steinem in the feminist movement
and numerous civil rights activists such as Louis Brandeis and Emma Goldman).
While the fruits of their labor may not be termed "Jewish" per se, their willingness
to break with the status quo stands with the tradition of Abraham.
This focus on following the "I within" has shaped the history of the
Jews and their interaction with the world around them. Nearly every great world
power in the past 3,300 years, from the ancient Roman Empire to modern Nazi
Germany, has had a "Jewish problem" because members of this ethnic minority
would not bow down to idols of their ruling country or bend to their will, argues
author Jonathan Sacks in his book Dignity of Difference. The rulers of
these systems all required blind obedience, but the Jews were ruled by an internal
compass that often gave them courage to resist. The loyalty inspired by both
a tribal and individual commitment to ethical monotheism has profoundly shaped
the history of the Jews, contributing to their ability to survive as a minority
even when faced with tremendous hardships.
"All things are mortal but the Jews, all other forces pass but he remains.
What is the secret of his immortality?" - Mark Twain
Through the centuries, Jews and Judaism migrated, sometimes by force, sometimes
by choice, and came to inhabit all corners of the globe. Jewish people and their
ideas were not always welcomed with open arms by other cultures and rulers.
However, despite efforts across time and space to persecute and even destroy
them, the Jewish people have survived and thrived. In the ancient world, Jews
survived the destruction of their central religious institution the Temple
in Jerusalem twice. Medieval Jews faced expulsion, riots, and crusades.
Modern Jewry has survived widespread social anti-Semitism, pogroms, the Holocaust,
and continuous attempts to destroy the State of Israel.
"If I forget thee O, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue
stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above
my greatest joy." - Psalm 137
Judaism was born in the Middle East and Jews have maintained a spiritual and
physical connection to the land since ancient times. Jerusalem served as the
site of the ancient Temple, and the center of ancient Judaism. Therefore the
Temple's destruction, first in 586 B.C.E. and then again in 70 C.E., engendered
a sense of physical and spiritual exile that characterized Judaism from that
point forward. For the people living in the Diaspora, longing for Zion became
a theme in Jewish life. Certain rituals and prayers enshrine this memory, such
as the finale of the Passover seder when Jews around the world exclaim, "L'shanah
haba'ah b'Yerushalaim!" ("Next Year in Jerusalem!"). On one level, the Jews
of the Diaspora are expressing a wish to travel to the earthly Jerusalem. However,
Jerusalem is not just a physical locale, but also an embodiment of Jewish hopes
and dreams a state of fulfillment and wholeness.
In modern times, political notions of nationalism fused with the historical
longing for Zion in the establishment of Zionism, the movement dedicated to
creating a Jewish state. Starting in the late 19th century, Zionists began to
immigrate to Israel (then called Palestine) with hopes of establishing a third
Jewish commonwealth. Following World War II, Jewish immigration to Palestine
intensified, as war refugees attempted to resettle there. The destruction of
European Jewry during World War II demonstrated the need for a Jewish homeland
to the international community.
In 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of the creation of a Jewish state
in Palestine. After a yearlong transitional period, Israel proclaimed its independence
in 1948. Still, the longing continues for both the blissful redemption of a
spiritual Jerusalem and for peace in the earthly city. The final ritual of Passover
seders in Israel is the recitation of "L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalaim habenuyah""Next
year in the rebuilt Jerusalem."
"My heart is in the East [Jerusalem] and I am in the depths of the West."
- Judah HaLevi, Medieval Jewish poet
It is notable that, from ancient times, the majority of Jews have lived in
other countries outside of the land of Israel (collectively referred to as "the
Diaspora"). As a minority among other peoples and cultures, Jews have adopted
ideas from the surrounding culture. In every period and place, Jews have borrowed
language, dress, foods, art, and social customs. In turn, Jews also have made
significant contributions to the larger cultures in which they live. The first
and arguably the most outstanding of these contributions was the Hebrew Bible,
which introduced ethical monotheism to the world and became the cornerstone
for Christianity and Islam.
This coexistence has ranged in character over time from peaceful to precarious.
Medieval expulsion and ghettoization (repeated by the Nazis in modern times)
represent extreme manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiment and low points in
intergroup relations. In contrast, a positive Jewish-Christian-Muslim symbiosis
characterized the medieval "Golden Age" in Spain, as well as the creation and
growth of the interfaith movement in postwar America.
The dynamism of Jewish life in the Diaspora highlights one of the constant
challenges of Jewish continuity: how Jews can maintain their traditions while
living among non-Jews, and how to simultaneously be a part of the larger, non-Jewish
society while maintaining a distinctive identity within it.
JewishHistory.com invites you to explore the rich material of the history and
heritage of the Jewish people.
Click here to explore the first historical era.