Jewish Identity

Notes on a complex issue

In the case of the Jews and their story, the beginning is lost in the mists of antiquity. The people from whom today’s Jewish people are descended, physically in some cases, and spiritually in others, originated in what today we term the ‘Middle East’. According to the story which the community has told for thousands of years, the earliest named ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah, came from the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia, in present day Iraq. The ancestral legends tell how Abraham was called by God to travel to the West, to a land then known as Canaan, roughly present-day Israel and Palestine, a land which one day his descendants would possess. But before that could happen there would be a long period in which the people, who eventually came to refer to themselves as Israel, would be in Egypt, first as refugees from famine, later as an enslaved people serving the Egyptians.

Moses and the Burning Bush by Marc Chagall

After about four centuries, a leader named Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. After living in the wilderness for forty years, during which time God gave them divine instructions to guide their lives, they finally entered the ‘promised land’. For many generations they occupied the territory assigned to them by God. Initially the people chose leaders for themselves as circumstances demanded. These leaders were known as ‘Judges’. Eventually the demand arose to choose someone to be king over all Israel. The first king appointed was a successful warrior named Saul. He was succeeded by David, another successful warrior, who enlarged the kingdom and captured Jerusalem which he made the capital. His son Solomon built the first temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem.

This account may be wholly, or partly, true. There is no sound historical evidence that any of the events took place or that the persons mentioned existed; but certainly there is also no proof to the contrary. The sole source for these accounts is the texts which we have inherited from ancient Israelite sources. We know that some of the material is very ancient, but it has been heavily edited over many centuries. The history and development of these texts forms a major discipline in Biblical Studies. Those who find these fascinating questions of interest are directed to works such as Bernhard Anderson’s The Living World of the Old Testament (Longman, 1988, fourth edition), Richard Eliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? 1997 Harper Collins or John J. Collins A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible 2007 Fortress Press.

It is only about the eight century B.C.E. that we find non-biblical historical sources, discovered through archaeology, which relate to events in the history of Israel. In the royal archives of the Assyrian empire we find references to two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. This is, I believe, still the earliest undisputed confirmation of the Bible’s history from an outside source.

The Bible tells us that after the long reign of king Solomon his kingdom divided into two, the larger, richer and more powerful Israel (Yisrael in Hebrew) in the north, and Judah (Yehudah in Hebrew) in the south with Jerusalem as its capital. About two hundred years after the division of the Israelite kingdom into two smaller kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian army in 722 B.C.E. The elite of the population, the royal court, the priests, wealthy landowners, anyone who might lead resistance to the Assyrians, were rounded up and deported to other parts of the empire. They never returned, leading to fanciful speculation ever since about the fate of the ‘ten lost tribes of Israel’. The bulk of the population, poor subsistence farmers and the like, remained to serve new rulers.

Judah continued to survive as a small independent kingdom for almost another century and a half. It is this group who were to continue the history of the Israelite people, but now using more and more the additional designation of Yehudim, that is, Judaeans or Jews.

In 586 B.C.E. Judah and Jerusalem fell to the army of Babylon and its leading citizens were deported to an area near Babylon, close, in fact, to the homeland of their claimed ancestor Abraham. There the king, the royal court and the educated, literate priestly caste are pictured by Psalm 137 as weeping by the waters of Babylon as they remembered Zion, that is, Jerusalem.

After two generations of captivity when, in all probability, few of the original exiles still remained alive, Babylon itself was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus. He had a different policy toward conquered peoples than that of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Rather than deport the leadership to undermine resistance, he allowed previously deported communities who wished to go to their ancestral lands to do so. The Yehudim, the Jews of Babylon were offered official help and financial support to return to Judah.

Babylon was, at this time, the greatest city in the world known to the Yehudim. Many had prospered in exile. Few took up the offer to go to Judah and Jerusalem. This is of crucial historical significance for, thus began a diaspora, a dispersal, of the people known as Yehudim, which was to develop until most Jews were living outside their ancient homeland. This situation of dispersal among other nations, accompanied by the lack of any independent Jewish majority land, was to endure for almost two thousand years.

Following Cyrus’ decree allowing exiles to go home, one or more delegations intended to provide leadership to the Yehudim who had remained in and around Jerusalem were dispatched from Babylon with official Persian support. This official help allowed Jerusalem’s city walls to be rebuilt and the Temple to be repaired and the priestly sacrificial cult to be restored. The locals, having been leaderless for two or three generations at least, were re-taught the basics of their religion by the priests sent from Babylon. The other possible source of religious leadership, the prophets, eventually ceased to function.

A model reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple

In the political sphere, the monarchy was not restored. Thus, during this historical period, known as the ‘Second Temple’ period, the people of Israel, the Yehudim, became ruled by the priesthood. In time the Chief Priest became, effectively, second in authority to the Imperial provincial governor. This situation continued under Greek rule following the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. Only in the second century B.C.E., following the Maccabean Revolt which began in about 162 B.C.E., was a Jewish monarchy restored.

This partial freedom lasted only a couple of generations. In 80 B.C.E. the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem and there began almost seven hundred years of rule by the Roman Empire which lasted until the Muslim Arab invasion of the region.

As Roman rule pacified the whole of the Mediterranean world making travel and trade freer and easier than ever before, communities of Yehudim, already established in urban centres around the Roman Empire grew in numbers and in prosperity. In the great city of Alexandria it was estimated that there was a Jewish population of over one million.

The Romans and the Jews never really got along in the Jewish homeland. In 66 C.E. the Jewish-majority population of the Roman provinces in the former Jewish kingdoms rose in rebellion seeking to drive out Roman forces. They almost succeeded. But Roman might was eventually to prove too much. By 70 C.E. Jerusalem was under siege by Roman troops. The city eventually fell, and the great Temple, extended and beautified by Herod the Great just a few decades earlier, one of the great wonders of its day, was burned. The last few pockets of Jewish resistance were overcome by the year 73 C.E. and the great revolt was ended.

But resentment against Roman rule was not ended. In 132 C.E. revolt broke out once more. Again, as in the year 66, the Jewish rebels scored initial success against the Roman garrisons. But, as in the past, the rebels underestimated the capacity of the Roman Empire to gather overwhelming forces. By 135 C.E. Rome had triumphed again. But the aftermath was different this time. The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, embarked upon a campaign of revenge designed to teach a lesson. The most conservative figure which historians give for Jewish losses in Hadrian’s retaliation is about half a million deaths. It may have been more.

Rome: The Arch of Titus. Scene showing soldiers carrying looted treasures from the Jerusalem Temple

Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, everything demolished. The city was ploughed up and sowed with salt creating a barren wasteland. Only the massive stone wall supporting the platform of the extended Temple precinct could not easily be brought down. Only that, which was not part of the Temple proper, survives today. Over this cleared ground the Romans built a new city, a pagan city, into which no Jews were allowed on pain of death.

In the aftermath of the persecution by Hadrian, many Jews fled the region, to Egypt and other parts of the Roman Empire and to Babylon, beyond Rome’s reach. This reduced the surviving Jewish population of the former Jewish kingdoms to a minority of the world’s Jewish population. This situation has still not been reversed. Even today, more people who identify themselves as Jews live outside that ancestral homeland. Indeed, it is within living memory that the last Jews left Babylon, or modern Baghdad, after 2,500 years of unbroken residence there.

This diaspora is a significant and characteristic feature and experience in Jewish life. It plays a major part in questions regarding Jewish identity. Who are the Jews? Well, once upon a time they were the Judeans, the Yehudim, the people who lived in the land of Yehudah and who spoke the language of that land, Hebrew. But how did Yehudim identify as such when outside the land of Judah and, in some cases, when they no longer spoke, at least for everyday use, the ancestral language of Hebrew? Questions of Jewish identity came to be resolved by reference partly to descent, who your ancestors were, but also through identification with the religion of ancient Israel and Judah.

This religion had evolved over many centuries, eventually becoming focused very much on the rituals and priesthood of the Temple in Jerusalem. For something like two to three centuries before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, an alternative focus for religious activity had been slowly developing. We know it as the synagogue (a Greek word since Greek was the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean region from the second century B.C.E.). The synagogue functioned as community meeting place, study house and place of prayer. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the loss of the priesthood’s major role in conducting animal sacrifices and managing other offerings, the synagogue and the Jewish family home developed as two new places of enhanced importance in communal and religious life.

A Synagogue in the Moorish style.

A new form of religious leadership, the Rabbis, developed and Jewish religious observance was recast as a system of study, prayer and good deeds. By the early centuries of this era, to be Jewish meant to be born into this community through a Jewish mother, or to enter it through prescribed religiously-significant means, including study, circumcision for male candidates and ritual immersion in water.

Temple Emanuel, New York, the world’s largest Reform Synagogue.

The pattern of Jewish life as we know it today, what scholars call Rabbinic Judaism, has thus been established for more than fifteen centuries. But from about 1800 onwards the forces which worked to keep Jews separate from non-Jewish society were significantly weakened. The Jews were allowed entry into modern European society and its professions and universities. The closed nature of Jewish society characteristic of previous centuries opened up. Jewish traditions were challenged by modern knowledge in areas such as science, history and psychology. One significant consequence of this was that Jewish identity ceased to be a relatively clear cut issue.

Holocaust Memorial, Johannesburg, South Africa

In the twentieth century two momentous historical events happened which have significantly changed the Jewish experience. The first of these was the murder of about one third of the world’s Jewish population by the Nazis and their allies in the Second World War and the second, in 1948, was the establishment of the State of Israel.

For the first time in nearly two thousand years there is a country with a majority Jewish population, a sovereign Jewish state. This poses fresh versions of old questions. Who are the Jews now? Are they the people who inhabit the land of Yehudah or Yisrael and who speak Hebrew? Or are Jews those people living anywhere who subscribe to the beliefs of some modern version of a religion, i.e. Judaism? What of those who live in the land, even in Jerusalem, who declare, in perfect fluent Hebrew, that they are secular and have no religious beliefs? The riddle of Jewish identity continues to confront us.

The Official Emblem of the State of Israel

Rabbi Dr Robert Ash