Is Judaism Composed of Many 'Small Religions' Or One


Underlying Religion?
Judaism or Judaisms? It has been argued that Judaism can be
seen not only as a single religion, but as a group of
similar religions. It has also been pointed-out that
through all the trials and tribulations that Judaism has
suffered, that there have been common themes that have
proven omni-pervasive. Any institution with roots as
ancient and varied as the religion of the Jews is bound to
have a few variations, especially when most of its history
takes place in the political and theological hot spot of
the Middle East. In this discussion, many facets of Judaism
will be examined, primarily in the three temporal
subdivisions labeled the Tribal / Pre-Monarchy Period, the
Divided Monarchy, and the Hasmonean / Maccabean and Roman
Era. Among all the time periods where the religion has been
split, these three seem to be the most representative of
the forces responsible. As for a common thread seen
throughout all Judaism, the area of focus here is the place
be covered in detail first, and then the multiple Judaism
arguments will be presented. In this way, it is possible to
keep a common focus in mind when reading about all the
other situations in which the religion has found itself. A
brief conclusion follows the discussion. A Place to Call
No other religion has ever been so attached to its
birthplace as Judaism. Perhaps this is because Jews have
been exiled and restricted from this place for most of
their history. Jerusalem is not only home to Judaism, but
to the Muslim and Christian religions as well. Historically
this has made it quite a busy place for the various groups.
Jerusalem is where the temple of the Jews once stood; the
only place on the whole Earth where one could leave the
confines of day to day life and get closer to God. In 586
BCE when the temple was destroyed, no Jew would have denied
Jerusalem as being the geographic center of the religion.
From that point on, the Jewish people have migrated around
the world, but not one of them forgets the fact that
Jerusalem is where it all began. It is truly a sacred
place, and helps to define what Judaism means to many
people; a common thread to run through all the various
splinters of the religion and help hold them together. Even
today, as the Jewish people have their precious Jerusalem
back (through the help of other nations and their politics)
there is great conflict and emotion surrounding it. Other
nations and people in the area feel that they should be in
control of the renowned city, and the Jews deny fervently
any attempt to wrestle it from their occupation. It is true
that there is no temple in Jerusalem today, nor are all the
Jews in the world rushing to get back there. But it is
apparent that the city represents more to the religion of
Judaism than a mere place to live and work. The city of
Jerusalem is a spiritual epicenter, and throughout
Judaism's long and varied history, this single fact has
never changed. 

Tribal / Pre-Monarchy Judaism's roots lie far back in the
beginnings of recorded history. The religion did not spring
into existence exactly as it is known today, rather it was
pushed and prodded by various environmental factors along
the way. One of the first major influences on the religion
was the Canaanite nation. Various theories exist as to how
and when the people that would later be called Jews entered
into this civilization. But regardless of how they
ultimately got there, these pioneers of the new faith were
subjected to many of the ideas and prejudices of the time.
Any new society that finds itself in an existing social
situation, can do no more than to try and integrate into
that framework. This is exactly what the Jews did. Early
Judaism worshipped multiple gods. One of these gods was
known as Ba'al, and was generally thought-of as a 'statue
god' with certain limitations on his power. The other
primary deity was called YHWH (or Yahweh) and enjoyed a
much more mysterious and illusive reputation. He was very
numinous, and one was to have great respect, but great fear
for him at the same time. Ba'al was not ever really feared,
as his cycles (metaphorically seen as the seasons) were
fairly well known, and not at all fear-inducing. The fact
that the early Jews and Canaanites had these two radically
different representations of a deity active in their
culture, basically assured that there would be splits in
the faith. One group inevitably would focus on one of the
gods, and another would focus on another. In this way, the
single religion could support multiple types of worship,
leading to multiple philosophies and patterns of behavior,
which could then focus more and more on their respective
niche, widening the gap into a clear cut distinction
between religious groups. 

This early time period was generally quite temporary and
non-centralized, stemming from the fact that technology was
at a very low level, and people's lifespan was fairly
short. These conditions led to a rapid rate of turnover in
religious thought, and left many factions of people to
their own devices. Widespread geographic distribution
coupled with poor communication certainly did not help in
holding the many faiths together. The Tribal Period in
Jewish history is one of the more splintered eras in the
religion, but since these people were all living in the
area near Jerusalem, the common thread can be seen clearly
through the other less-defined elements of the religion. 

Divided Monarchy; by its very name, it is apparent that
this period of history is host to a great deal of
divergence in the Jewish religion. When Solomon was king,
people began to grow more and more restless. Some objected
to worshiping a human king, while others balked at the
oppression of the poor. Political unrest in this period led
to a decisive split in geographic territory, and thus a
split in religious views. A group of people left the area
of Judah and traveled North to found Israel, where they
could be free to practice their own political flavors, and
their own religious flavors as well. This sort of behavior
has come to be seen as common with oppressed people, and
the result is almost always a great deviation in the ways
of the 'old world'. A perfect example of this comes when
examining the point in American history where independence
was declared from England. Now, mere centuries later,
America is vastly different in its politics, religions, and
social forces. This was most likely the result when Israel
was founded, far back in Biblical history. Communication
between the two cities was sparse. The priests and prophets
were undoubtedly addressing items pertinent to one group,
but not necessarily the other. The influence of foreign
traders to each of the two places, as well as the political
attitudes of each all would have had enormous impact on a
newly-spawned religion. Thus, it can easily be seen that
the religion was split into (at least) two major divisions
during this time period. 

Toward the end of the Divided Monarchy, it seems that the
prophets began calling for major changes in the basic
foundation of the early Jews' lives. The kings and priests
had no major disputes with the status quo, but apparently
the prophets were calling for a reorganization. This sort
of 'turmoil within' can do nothing but further split
follow the kings and the priests, who have guided us and
kept us safe, or follow the far-seeing prophets, who are
more like us and honestly have our best interests at heart. 

As the next major historical division occurred this sort of
argument would continue, and thus the Jewish people were
left to practice their religion in whatever way they felt
many forms of Judaism as it existed toward the end of the
Divided Monarchy. Hasmonean / Maccabean and Roman Era This
time period in Jewish history is politically tumultuous,
leading to high levels of splits and variations in the
religion itself. One of the most disruptive types of all
wars is a civil war. And this is exactly what occurs at the
outset in the Jewish homeland of Jerusalem. The Jewish
civil war was against the extreme Hellenizers (people who
tended toward utter reason in their beliefs) and the
moderate Hellenizers (people who can see things rationally,
but believe there are more items to consider than this --
ex. the Maccabean family, who became the Hasmonean kings).
So right away, it is apparent that the ideas that the
Greeks introduced into Jewish culture have acted as
time-bombs of social memes, and have created a major split
in the religion. When the violence of the war has subsided,
the moderate Hellenizers have won ("everything in
moderation!") and rule for a short time, until the Roman
empire attacks and throws even more kinks into the Jewish
society. When the Romans take over, the Hasmonean kings are
left in place as 'puppet kings,' which ultimately forces
the general population to question their governing body.
When the Romans destroy the temple in Jerusalem, it is made
painfully clear that some changes are going to be made.
Most obvious, the priests suddenly have no major role in
the religion. Their primary purpose had been to tend to the
sacrificing of animals, and since it is illegal to
sacrifice an animal outside the temple, the priests were in
an unsettling position. As can be seen in countless other
examples, politics and religion are invariably tied, and
people began practicing their own flavors of Judaism after
their civilization had been so radically altered. 

At this point in history, there is really no solid rule to
prevent such splits, and for a time a mixed form of Judaism
with many varieties flourishes. No one was sure what to do
once the heart of Judaism (the temple) had been destroyed,
but it soon became apparent that an appealing option was
arising. Two major social groups of the time period were
vying for power. The first group, the Saducees were
associated with the displaced Hasmonean kings. The second
group, the Pharisees, had an idea that would help work
around the tragic destruction of the temple. People were
split, once again. They could stay with the traditional
Saducees (who had the political power, believed in only
written Torah, and did not subscribe to resurrection --
basically a conservative view), or they could side with the
newcomers, the Pharisees (who had religious power, believed
in both the written and the oral Torah, and believed in
resurrection) and hope to preserve their Jewish heritage by
worshiping outside of the temple, in their everyday life.
It was not a hard decision, and the Pharisees eventually
gained power, leading the Jewish religion into its next
phase of Rabbinic Judaism. 

It is apparent that in each of the three time periods
discussed above that many factions of the same religion
were active. Competing philosophies, outside political
forces, and geographic isolation are among the most obvious
of the dividing forces. However many other influences
'pound' each and every day on a given social institution,
subtly forming it and changing it into something it was
not. For this reason, the answer to the debate whether
Judaism is a single, or multiple religion(s) is an obvious
one, depending upon how you choose to look at it. Every
religion has many pieces, but as long as there are a few
constants (such as the birthplace, the language,
literature, etc.) it is possible to view the whole as a
single force, and still acknowledge variations that will
inevitably spring-up.

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