Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, and this brief overview of Jewish history is also an outline of the development of Judaism.
The Biblical history of the Jews begins with Abraham and the Jewish patriarchs. Abraham rejects idolatry, and declares the adherence of his people to a single incorporeal God, the creator and ruler of the universe and the source of moral law.
Abraham journeys from Ur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to Canaan, and receives the Divine promise of descendants and a land. This covenant is renewed with his grandson Jacob, renamed ‘Israel (‘he who struggles with God’, following a metaphorical wrestling with an angel)). Hence the names “The Children of Israel” and “The Land of Israel”.
The Exodus from slavery in Egypt.
Moses receives the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, at Sinai. It comprises both early history and law, including the Ten Commandments.
The Jews settle in the Land of Israel, as described in the Books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel.
David and Solomon are kings in Jerusalem. The first Jewish Temple is built there by King Solomon.
After Solomon’s death the land is divided between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, as described in the Books of Kings and Chronicles.
The northern kingdom is destroyed by the Assyrians and its population exiled and lost.
The earlier Books of the Prophets, including most of the book of Isaiah, are written.
The first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians, and most of the population is exiled to Babylon.
The later Prophetic books, including Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are written.
Fifty years later, after King Cyrus of Persia defeats the Babylonians, Jews are allowed to return from exile and they commence the re-building of their Temple, about 515 BCE.
c.410 BCE – c.310 BCE
One hundred and twenty sages of the Great Assembly collate the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’). It is a collection of sacred books written over a period of some hundreds of years, which record the history of the Jewish people, their laws, poetry and philosophy.
A revolt by the Jewish Maccabees against the successors of Alexander the Great reflects the contest between Hellenism and the Jewish tradition.
Under the rule of the descendants of the Maccabees the Apocryphal books are written and the concept of Midrash (Biblical commentary) is developed. The Sanhedrin and other Rabbinical Courts are established and rabbinical commentary on the law begins.
After more than a hundred years of intermittent war, the Romans destroy the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This is the traditional date for the beginning of the Jewish dispersion.
The Romans celebrate their victory by erecting a triumphal arch, the Arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome. The Arch shows Roman soldiers carrying sacred Jewish objects out of the Temple, including the seven-branched golden candlestick (‘Menorah’) which is described in the Bible.
A second Jewish revolt is put down by the Romans. The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that 580,000 Jewish soldiers are killed and over 900 villages and towns destroyed. The Emperor Hadrian decrees that name of the land should be changed from ‘Judea’ to Syria Palestina – ‘Philistine Syria’. The dispersion of the Jewish people as captives, slaves and refugees is accelerated.
Rabbi Judah the Prince collates the Mishnah in Galilee. It takes the form of a logically organised code of Jewish law summarising rabbinical discussion over the previous centuries.
The post-Temple concept of synagogue worship and the form of the liturgy are also developed during this period. The liturgy (until today) includes daily prayers for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
c.300 – c.500
The rabbinical academies in Babylon produce a lengthy and detailed commentary on the Mishnah, which is known as the Gemara. The Mishnah and Gemara are together known as the Talmud.
Jews arrive in Spain following the Muslim conquest, and enjoy a “golden age” of prosperity and intellectual achievement. This continues until forced conversions to Islam begin in the twelfth century. The Christians “reconquer” Spain over the next three centuries.
Emperor Charlemagne invites Jewish communities to settle in France and Germany to develop international trade. Jewish trade routes reach to India and China, and Jews are later invited to settle by emerging medieval kingdoms in Europe, including Norman England. The Medieval rabbis in the Rhineland are very active in biblical commentary and the development of Jewish law, making important improvements in the status of women.
Jews are massacred as the Crusaders march through the Rhineland. As strangers and outsiders in Western Europe, they are oppressed by discriminatory laws and subjected to persecution, periodic expulsions and occasional slaughter.
Joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella order the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This follows the final defeat of the Moors in Spain and the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 against “heretics” (mainly Jews forcefully converted to Christianity and accused of secretly practising Judaism).
Continuing a trend of anti-Jewish decrees which commenced in 1215, a Papal decree orders the Jews to be confined to “ghettos”. Jewish ghettos exist in Western Europe until the emancipation of the Jews in the nineteenth century.
Lithuanian and Polish rulers invite Jews to settle in eastern Europe, promising self-government and freedom from the ghettos.
With the French Revolution, Jews receive equal rights as citizens. This is eventually followed by similar emancipation in Britain and the German states and most of Western Europe.
Emancipation during the nineteenth century leads some Jews to seek to adapt Judaism to the prevailing European cultures. In Germany this marks the beginning of Progressive Judaism and greater participation in German cultural life.
In Russia the Haskalah (‘Enlightenment’) revives the the use of Hebrew as a secular language, leading to a new Hebrew literature. At the same time the Bund (‘organisation’ in Yiddish) promotes the Yiddish language and culture, and socialism.
As German Jews settle in the US, Progressive (often called ‘Reform’ or ‘Liberal’) and Conservative Judaism become more influential. ‘Modern Orthodoxy’ also develops, reflecting Anglo-Jewish traditions. This is the Judaism respresented by Sydney’s Great Synagogue.
Anti-Jewish laws are revived in Russia (which then includes much of Poland). These require the conscription of 12 year-old Jewish boys for 25 years in the army, and restrict Jews to living in designated areas. The laws are accompanied by ‘pogroms’, violent attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods.
Nearly three million Jews emigrate from Russia and Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, mainly to America, but also to Britain, Canada, South Africa and Australia.
Another response to the renewed oppression in the Russian empire and the growth of nationalism in Europe is the emergence of an organised political Zionist movement. This movement translates the ancient and continuing religious longing for the restoration of the Jewish homeland into a practical program, commencing with the establishment of settlements in Turkish Palestine in the 1880s. Zionism becomes an international political movement with the first World Zionist Congress of 1897.
Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany after an election in which the Nazi Party receives over 40% of the vote. Anti-Jewish laws are introduced in 1935. By 1945 six million Jews have been murdered in Europe in conditions of unprecedented atrocity.
The State of Israel is established as the restored homeland of the Jewish people. Israel is now regarded as central to Jewish life and identity.
Mass movement of Jewish population as Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and refugees from Arab and other lands settle in Israel and other parts of the world. Many come to Australia, where the Jewish population increases from 23,000 in 1933 to 60,000 in 1960 to about 110,000 by 2008.
600,000 survivors of the Holocaust settle in Israel, brining the Jewish population to 1.4 million.
840,000 Jews flee or are expelled from Arab countries after the establishment of Israel. 580,000 settle in Israel.
Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union. About 1,000,000 arrive in Israel.
100,000 Ethiopian Jews are airlifted to safety and new lives in Israel.