Schisms and Divisions in Jewish History

Course Description: 

Recent research in Jewish cultural history, following post-modernist or situational perspectives, has voiced strong objections against any essential definition of Jewishness. In Judaism, with its characteristic absence of a central authority, religious and cultural norms indeed presented themselves often as matters of choice inside a grid of internal divisions. Students will learn to problematize generalizations about Jewish identity, but also observe that the different „Judaisms“ (a plural introduced by Jacob Neusner) hardly ever produced formal schisms: while strongly resenting and rejecting each other’s convictions, the parties ultimately recognize each other as competing partners in a common collective destiny that would be incomplete without the adversaries. In a popular joke, the Jewish Robinson Crusoe builds two synagogues on his lone island: he prays in the one and piously avoids the other.



1 Judah and Israel: the Dichotomy of Faith and Idolatry in the Hebrew Bible

2 Hellenizers and Maccabees: Greek Models of Acculturation and Rebellion

3 Sadducees, Pharisees, and Apocalyptics: Party Politics under the Romans

4 Rabbanites and Karaites: the Conflict around the Authority of the Talmud

5 Philosophers and Talmudists: Medieval Judaisms and the Maimonidean Controversy

6 Exiles and Marranos: Forced Conversion and the Division of Sephardi Jewry

7 Mystics and Lithuanians: The Zoharic, Sabbatean, and Hasidic Controversies

8 Reformers, Conservatives, Orthodox, and Ultra-Orthodox: Jewish Denominationalism

9 Westjuden, Ostjuden, Orientals: Class Struggle and Ethno-Cultural Antagonisms

10 Communists, Liberals, and Nationalists: Interwar Politics in the Jewish Street

11 Lobbyists and Post-Zionists: Contemporary Jewry in the Middle East Conflict

12 Religious Revival and Secular Jewishness: Jewish Identity at the Crossroads

Learning Outcomes: 

By encompassing the most sharply conflictual divisions in a long-term perspective, this class will serve as an introduction to the complexity of Jewish history, perceive its recurrent elements, and exemplify the constitutive and productive function of internal Jewish pluralism.


30% class participation, 20% oral presentation (book review), 50% term paper.