For many of us, the experiences of Hebrew school, synagogue classes, and educational lectures have left the impression that Jewish history is a dull affair populated by pious old men with long beards who spend their days and nights studying obscure points of religious law while waiting for the next pogrom. Academic students of Jewish history and culture know very well that this is not the case: Out of the traditional Jewish texts emerge a living, breathing society whose inhabitants represent an enchanting variety of personality types, in which poets, mystics, scoundrels, and statesmen mix freely with rabbis and saints. When the sources are interpreted with imagination and sympathy, we realize that the Jews of earlier generations were actually very much like ourselves, and faced issues that sound surprisingly familiar to us. This is the Judaism they didn't teach you in Hebrew school. Unfortunately, academic scholars who have contributed to the research of the Jewish past have not often successfully presented the fruits of their studies to the broader public. This has resulted in widespread portrayals of Judaism as static, dogmatic, and dull. The present volume offers the intelligent layperson a taste of the Jewish past in a relaxed and popular style, as viewed form the broader perspective of historical and cultural scholarship. Though the variety of topics covered in these essays does not easily lend itself to summarization, some of the more prominent themes include: The complex historical development and diversity of opinion that underlie many familiar Jewish customs and practices, the political dynamics of Jewish communities and institutions, interactions and mutual influences between Judaism and other religious traditions, the uncanny similarities that exist between phenomena from traditional Jewish literature and current events and the uses and abuses of Jewish scholarship.
by Eliezer Segal
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