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The Jews: Diversity With a Common Loyalty

By: Steve Herzig

The history of a people is like a river that flows between two banks. Even when it twists and winds through different lands, it is still the same river.

It is the same river because its banks hold the waters together.1 [1 Klapperman, Gilbert and Libby, The Story of the Jewish People (New York: Behrman House, Inc., Publishers, 1958), vol. 3, p. 11.]

How can two people be so different and still be from the same family?” Haven’t you heard this question asked? Children from the same parents, raised in the same home can look and act as if they are not even related.

So it can be with entire nations. The sons and daughters of Israel have a lineage that can be traced to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have a land described as a place flowing with milk and honey. The Jewish people share a language of worship as rhythmic as music. They have a common loyalty grounded in a deep commitment to one God.

While it is true that Jewish people share many family traits, it is also true that they can be as different as night and day. All Jews do not look alike, nor do they all know Hebrew. They certainly do not all live in Israel. Their views on spiritual matters are as diverse as the colors of the rainbow.

This chapter examines the geographical and physical diversities within the Jewish race. The next chapter will examine their religious differences.

While the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities affected Jewish language and worship (some 30,000 Jews from the Middle East came to Israel speaking Aramaic), the harbinger of change came in 70 a.d. In absolute fulfillment of both the Old and New Testaments, the Temple was completely leveled, and God’s Chosen People were scattered to the four corners of the earth. Two distinct groups emerged as the Jewish people began to settle: the Ashkenazic Jews and the Sephardic Jews. It has been said that the Sephardim were concerned with what they should know, while the Ashkenazim were concerned with what they must do.2 [2 Menes, Abraham, The Jews: Their Religion and Culture, ed. Louis Finkelstein (New York: Schoken Books, 1971), p. 179.]

The Ashkenazim are traced to the northeast part of France and an area in Germany along the banks of the Rhine. Geography determined the kind of life these people lived and the language they spoke.

The medieval rabbis believed that the term Ashkenaz found in Jeremiah 51:27 refers to Germany.3 [3 Rosten, Leo, The Joys of Yiddish (New York: Pocket Books, 1970), p. 19.] 4 [4 Rosten, Leo, The Joys of Yiddish (New York: Pocket Books, 1970),preface xvi.] It was the Yiddish language that bound together the millions of European Jews who immigrated to the United States at the turn of this century. Well before that oceanic exodus, however, there was the more gradual migration of these Jews into Poland, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Yiddish, the language that developed from this area, is a form of low German mixed with Hebrew and a number of other languages. It has been called the “Robin Hood” of languages, in that it steals from the linguistically rich to give to the poor.

The Ashkenazim “brought to eastern Europe a devotion to Talmudic studies in which they were to become the undisputed leaders.”5 [5 Patai, Raphael, The Vanished Worlds of Jewry (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1980), p. 10.] This commitment to do caused them to isolate themselves from the world. They scorned the secular. Intellectual pursuit was limited to the Talmud and the Torah.6 [6 Rosten, Leo, The Joys of Yiddish (New York: Pocket Books, 1970),preface xvi.] This same group of people was harassed and harangued through the Crusades, the pogroms, and the Holocaust. These Jews of eastern Europe were suppressed by the outside world, which saw them as Christ killers, devils, and subhumans.

A sect developed within the Ashkenazic Jews known as the Hasidim—the pious ones. They emphasized piety rather than learning, serving God through joy rather than denial. Their chief rabbi, the Tzaddik, is believed to be a miracle worker.7 [7 Patai, Raphael, The Vanished Worlds of Jewry (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1980), p. 10.] Israel b. Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of modern Hasidism, summed up their philosophy by stating that all he had achieved had been through prayer, not study.

It was the Ashkenazic Jews who became peddlers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and bakers. In the United States, most people equate Yiddishkeit, or Jewishness, with the Ashkenazic traditions. From them come Fiddler on the Roof, deli food, and such Yiddish expressions as “Oy vey!” and “chutzpah.”

Distinctive both geographically and physically are the Jews who made their home in the Iberian Peninsula, which today is Spain and Portugal. They are known as the Sephardim, from the Hebrew word for Spain (Sepharad).

From the eighth century to the time of Columbus, these Jews enjoyed a golden age under the protection and encouragement of the Moors. The Moors (Muslims from North Africa) had a wonderful view of life as well as a love for the arts. In such an environment, the Sephardim were able to fulfill their desire to know.

The Jewish language that developed from this area of the world is known as Ladino. Like Yiddish, it is written in the Hebrew alphabet, but it is primarily Spanish peppered with Hebrew.

With the freedom allowed in this environment, the Jewish people became involved in their communities. The secular was not to be feared. They were drawn into learning, philosophy, medicine, law, and poetry.

The most revered Sephardic theologian was Moses, son of Maimon, also referred to as the Rambam—Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon. It is said of him, “From Moses to Moses, there is none like Moses.”8 [8 Klapperman, Gilbert and Libby, The Story of the Jewish People (New York: Behrman House, Inc., Publishers, 1958), vol. 3,p. 40.] Rambam gave the Jewish people the Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of which states, “I believe that the Messiah will someday come.”

But the golden age did not last for the Spanish Jews. By the end of the 15th century, persecution was so great that they were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. In 1492 and 1497, Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal. They began to settle in North Africa, Southern France, Italy, Turkey, Palestine, and the Balkans.9 [9 Rudaavsky, David, Modern Jewish Religious Movements (New York: Behrman House, Inc., Publishers, 1967), p. 113.] Many Jewish people in Spain were publicly baptized and became part of the church while continuing to practice their Judaism secretly by keeping kosher homes and observing the Sabbath. The Christians called them the Marranos, a Spanish word for swine. Among themselves they were called Anusim—those who were forced.10 [10 Klapperman, Gilbert and Libby, The Story of the Jewish People (New York: Behrman House, Inc., Publishers, 1958), vol. 3,p. 61.]

The descendants of the Marranos were among the first Jews to settle in America. “Twenty-three men, women and children, aboard a French ship, the St. Charles, left for New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony that later developed into New York City, in the year 1654.” 11 [11 Klapperman, Gilbert and Libby, The Story of the Jewish People (New York: Behrman House, Inc., Publishers, 1958),vol. 4, p. 20.]

The Sephardic rabbis developed their own system of rituals for the daily lives of their people. The Shulchan Aruch, or prepared table, covers laws of prayer, hygiene, and food. This code was not completely accepted by the Ashkenazic rabbis. Thus, today, differences still exist in customs and in some interpretations of the Law of Moses. Because of these differences, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic synagogues also exist.

Although the majority of Jewish people come from either Ashkenazic or Sephardic backgrounds, there are other, smaller groups of Jews in various parts of the world. In recent years, our attention has been focused on the Jews from Ethiopia. We have witnessed an historic event—truly a modern miracle—as almost an entire population of practicing Jews was flown from their geographical home in East Africa to their spiritual homeland in Israel. Although viewed by some as one of the “lost tribes,” they are more probably the descendants of ancient converts to the God of Israel.

Since Israel became a state in 1948, Jewish people from all over the world have made aliyah; that is, they have returned to their national homeland. Their former homes—countries such as Yemen, Iran, Libya, Turkey, and Syria—are now almost completely free of Jews. Russian Jews by the hundreds of thousands, possibly as many as three million, are going to Israel. These Jews, who were raised in a Godless, Communist society, long to live in the land of their ancient forefathers. Russia, too, could be free of Jews by the end of this century. Recently, all the Jews in Albania left that country for a new home in Israel.

Not all Jews have left the places of their birth, however. India, South America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe maintain sizable Jewish populations. But the river of Judaism, although still divided, has begun to come together.

Yes, there is diversity within Judaism. Jewish people come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. They have lived or are living in just about every area of the world. Yet, within this diversity they have been bound together by one God and by the Book that He gave them. In the next section, we will see how they differ in interpreting that Book, the Bible, and how they approach the God who gave it to them.

About Steve Herzig

Steve Herzig is director of North American Ministries for The Friends of Israel.

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