Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice



Table of Contents



How can we define “Judaism,” and what are the common threads uniting ancient rabbis, Maimonides, the authors of the Zohar, and modern secular Jews in Israel? Michael L. Satlow offers a fresh perspective on Judaism that recognizes both its similarities and its immense diversity. Presenting snapshots of Judaism from around the globe and throughout history, Satlow explores the links between vastly different communities and their Jewish traditions. He studies the geonim, rabbinical scholars who lived in Iraq from the ninth to twelfth centuries; the intellectual flourishing of Jews in medieval Spain; how the Hasidim of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe confronted modernity; and the post-World War II development of distinct American and Israeli Jewish identities. Satlow pays close attention to how communities define themselves, their relationship to biblical and rabbinic texts, and their ritual practices. His fascinating portraits reveal the amazingly creative ways Jews have adapted over time to social and political challenges and continue to remain a “Jewish family.”


“This book will give readers a new perspective on a very old product of human creativity.” — CHOICE

“Creating Judaism is a work of uncommon synthesis that draws upon frameworks provided by the academic study of religions to offer a sympathetic and insightful overview of the nature and development of Judaism from ancient to modern times. Michael Satlow displays exceptional erudition and range in these pages, and he allows the reader to understand the dynamism and diversity as well as the coherence that has marked Judaism as a religious tradition throughout the ages. Creating Judaism will be of genuine interest and import to students of Judaism and scholars of religion alike. I recommend it most highly.” — David Ellenson, President, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

“Satlow’s insightful, lucid, and often daring account locates each period of Jewish history in its larger immediate context yet linked in complex, unforeseen ways to antecedent Jewish collective identities, sacred texts, and ritual practices. Judicious, erudite, and speaking in his own personal voice, Satlow adroitly describes how the Jewish heritage has repeatedly remolded itself—and what that flexibility signifies today. A book of great value to sophisticated novices and informed academics alike.” — Robert M. Seltzer, professor of Jewish history, Hunter College, and the author of Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History


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Book Resources

Creating Judaism can be read profitably both individually and in the classroom.

I have developed two syllabi based on the book:

  • Undergraduate class [pdf] [Word]
  • Adult education (Me’ah program) [pdf] [Word]


Below are short chapter summaries of Creating Judaism with discussion questions.


Discusses the problem of “Judaism”: What links the diverse religious communities that all understand themselves to
be its practitioners?  Argues that rather than seeing a single “essence” to Judaism (or any other religion for that
matter), “Judaism” might best be seen as a family of religious communities united by a more or less shared sense of
self-identity, discourse (tradition), and set of practices.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is “religion”?
  2. What is “a religion”?
  3. Before reading this chapter, how would you have defined “Judaism”?  How similar is the definition given in the
    chapter to your definition?
  4. How do “first-order” definitions in religion differ from “second-order” ones?
  5. What are three questions that are inappropriate for the academic study of religion?  Three appropriate
    questions?  What makes a question appropriate for a given context but inappropriate for another?

Promised Lands

The distinctive historical and cultural conditions of contemporary American and Israeli Jews decisively shapes each
community’s Judaism.  This chapter surveys the major Jewish ideological movement and the popular practices and
beliefs of American and Israeli Jews, and argues that one can identify a distinctly American Judaism, especially when
seen against its Israeli cousin.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the ideological differences between modern Jewish denominations?
  2. Are is the relationship between these ideologies and actual Jewish practices?
  3. What are the issues that most divide and unite Jews today?
  4. Do you think that American Jews are more similar to Israeli Jews, or to non-Jewish Americans of their same social
    and economic backgrounds?
  5. Messianic Jews (e.g., Jews who accept Jesus as the messiah) and Black Hebrews (genealogical non-Jews who
    adhere to biblical precepts) claim their religion to be Judaism.  By what criteria should such claims be evaluated?

Creating Judaism

Is Judaism the religion of the Bible?  Discusses the many Bibles that exist today; the shape, origin, and contents of the
Hebrew Bible; and its place and role among Jews.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the Bible?  Are all Bibles the same?  How might a Jewish and Christian Bible differ?
  2. In what ways is the Bible a Jewish book, and in what ways is it not?
  3. Does it matter whether the Bible is a true account of events (that is, an accurate history as we might use the term)
    or not?
  4. How was the Bible canonized?
  5. How different were the ancient Israelites who lived prior to 586 B.C.E. from the Judeans who returned with Ezra to
    Jerusalem a little over a century later?

Between Athens and Jerusalem

During the time that the Second Temple stood (ca. 515 BCE – 70 CE) there emerged a stunning variety of Jewish
religious communities, including the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls and those who would eventually call themselves
Christians.  How and why, though, did the vast bulk of these communities die out as living communities and are known
today only through incidental mention and archaeological scraps?

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the “Second Temple period”?  Do you think that this is a useful designation of the period, or not?  What
    are alternative ways to label this period?
  2. What languages did Jews use during this time?  Did they use different languages for different purposes?
  3. Were there any Jews in antiquity who in any meaningful way resisted Hellenism?  What does it mean to talk of the
    “hellenization of the Jews”?
  4. What role did the Bible play for Jews during this time?
  5. What did it mean to be a “Jew”?
  6. Do you think that the division of modern Jewish movements is similar to ancient Jewish sectarianism?

The Rabbis

Judaism, as we more or less know it today, was largely shaped by the Rabbis of late antiquity (ca. 70 CE – 614 CE).
Although working from inherited traditions and practices, they transformed these resources through the cultural
lenses (mainly Palestinian and Babylonian) of the worlds in which they lived.  This chapter traces their history, their
context, and their enormously influential literary legacy.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who are the Rabbis?  What was their relationship to the Pharisees?
  2. What is the difference between midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud?
  3. In what ways is rabbinic literature “multivocal” and “dialectical”?  How is rabbinic literature like and not like previous
    Jewish and Israelite literature?
  4. What role did “Torah” play in rabbinic thought?
  5. Whence did the Rabbis derive their authority?  Did anybody accept their claims?

Rabbinic Concepts

One of the most peculiar characteristics of rabbinic thought is its flexibility and multivocality: The Rabbis rarely had
one opinion about anything and often held contradictory opinions.  “Rabbinic thought” thus looks less like our idea of
what “religious belief” should look like, and more like a spectrum of possibilities.  This chapter maps some of this
enormous range of beliefs.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does it mean to talk of the “theology” of the Rabbis?  Do the Rabbis have a theology?
  2. Who was a Jew for the Rabbis?
  3. Why do good things happen to bad people and vice-versa, according to the Rabbis?
  4. What are the rabbinic meanings of “covenant”?
  5. Why is the doctrine that in the World-to-Come there will be resurrection of the dead so important to the Rabbis?
  6. Do the Rabbis offer useful intellectual resources for thinking about or even answering modern problems?


Rabbinic Judaism has often been called “orthoprax” rather than “orthodox,” prescribing a set of normative practices
and rituals rather than belief.  This is partially correct, but the reality is far messier.  This chapter discusses rabbinic
mitzvot (commandments), their history and their meanings.  One argument of the chapter is that many of the mitzvot
were left “underdetermined,” and could thus serve in future generations as a container for changing meanings.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does “mitzvah” mean for the Rabbis?  How is it related to their notion of covenant?
  2. Are all mitzvot created equal?  What are their sources of authority?
  3. Do all mitzvot apply to everyone?
  4. What is the “meaning” of Shabbat?  Of “Kashrut”?
  5. How do the practices of the liturgical year create a paradigm or lens through which the Jew understands the process of time?
  6. What is the relationship between a practice or custom and a ritual?  How do customs gain authority?
  7. The chapter argues that successful rituals tend to be underdetermined.  What does that mean, and do you agree?

The Rise of Reason

Given the massive effort and output of the Rabbis, it is surprising that in their time the Rabbis appear to have been
quite marginal.  The “victory” of the Rabbis only occurred in succeeding centuries, under the authority and guidance
of the “Geonim.”  These Rabbis, living under Islamic rule in the area of modern day Iraq, canonized, codified, and
promoted the vision of the Rabbis.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who were the geonim?
  2. How did the geonim view the authority of the Rabbis who preceded them?
  3. Why are the geonim important for understanding the development of rabbinic Judaism and Jewish prayer?
  4. Who were the Karaites?  Why did the geonim oppose them?
  5. How did the geonim draw upon surrounding Islamic culture?
  6. What was Se’adyah Gaon’s position on reason vs. revelation?  If you can imagine him alive today participating in contemporary discussions of teaching creationism (Intelligent Design) in the schools, what do you think he would say?

From Moses to Moses

Moses Maimonides was one of the greatest, and most controversial, Jewish figures of his time.  As this chapter
argues, he was in fact also very much of his time, his efforts and thought fundamentally shaped by the rich
environment in which he lived.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who were the mepharshim, and in what ways did they continue and depart from the activity of their predecessors?
  2. How did the Islamic culture of Andalusia shape the activities and understandings of the Jews who lived there?
  3. How did Judah HaLevi’s views draw from and reflect his wider context?
  4. How did HaLevi and Maimonides define what it meant to be a Jew?
  5. Did Maimonides convert to Islam?
  6. What is innovative and distinctive about Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah?  Why did he write it?
  7. For Maimonides, what role does the study of philosophy (e.g., secular knowledge) play in religious devotion?

Seeing God

For Maimonides, the true path to God ran through one’s rational faculties; only the philosopher could be a prophet.
Other Jews, though, in reaction to Maimonides developed a new mythic understanding of the divine and its
relationship to us.  Known as “Kabbalah” and exemplified by the Zohar, this unique form of Jewish mysticism led to
unexpected developments.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is mysticism?  Do you think that “mysticism” or “spirituality” exists outside of particular religious traditions?
  2. How would Maimonides react to the Zohar? How did Jewish mystics react to Maimonides?
  3. On what earlier rabbinic texts does the Zohar rely?  In what way does the Zohar give, and not give, authority to those earlier texts?
  4. What do you think is the Zohar’s most fundamental innovation?
  5. What is Lurianic Kabbalah, and how does it differ from the Zohar?
  6. Why, according to Kabbalah, is there evil in the world, and what is the appropriate human response to it?
  7. Why has Kabbalah become so popular today?

East and West

The notion of religious “traditions” as ideological systems of meaning largely developed in the eighteenth to early
twentieth centuries in Western Europe.  This chapter charts the development of Jewish ideologies (that is, the modern
Jewish movements) against the background the emancipation of Western European Jews, and contrasts it with the
Jewish experience of Eastern Europe.

Discussion Questions

  1. For the Jewish community of Amsterdam, what was Baruch Spinoza’s sin?  How do you think the specific history and context of this community conditioned their response to him?
  2. This chapter argues that “Judaism” as we understand it is largely a product of nineteenth century Germany.  Do you agree?
  3. Compare a work like Heinrich Graetz’s History of the Jews to the Zohar and the Talmud.  Do you think that they attempt to answer similar questions, or do they do fundamentally different cultural work?
  4. Why is the Lithuanian yeshivah just as much a response to modernity as Reform Judaism?
  5. Why do you think that so few Jewish “canonical” texts have been produced over the last 400  years?

Epilogue: Whither Judaism?

Less a prediction of the future than some concluding reflections.  How can the “academic” approach to religion
enhance our understanding of both religion and the human condition, and how can religion be useful even to those
who don’t subscribe to it?