The Jewish people endured three crises during the formation of what would become the Jewish canon, which significantly shaped their religion. The destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E., the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., and the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of Rome in 363 C.E. each signaled the apparent end of Jewish religion. Instead of succumbing to defeat and despair, Judaism arose from each crisis as a result of its religious leaders’ reinterpretation of its sacred texts. In Transformations, Jacob Neusner reasons that the Jewish canonical writings—the Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmuds, and the Midrash—illustrate Judaism’s response to those three social, cultural, and political crises. Faced with these catastrophic events, the rabbinic sages explored anew the paradigms of piety and practice that they had received from previous generations. The result was that they discovered a truth both continuous with the past and responsive to the unanticipated crisis—a truth that carved out a path for the future. This process, represented in the Jewish canon, continues to define modern Judaism.
Jacob Neusner’s Transformations in Ancient Judaism is a masterful presentation of the conclusions of his studies, over the course of more than twenty years, of the documents of ancient Judaism in their historical settings. Building on the recognition that religion is a public phenomenon—an ‘act of shared culture’—Neusner recounts the development of subsequent Judaic systems as they respond to the major challenges of ancient Jewish history. This is not a dry history of religious systems preserved in documentary records; it is a dramatic history of religious geniuses overcoming catastrophe—a story of ‘how hope overcomes despair’.
—David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, Jewish Theological Seminary
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