A Brief Look at Jewish History: The Modern Period


Have you ever wondered how Judaism got its start, or what makes it different today than in its infancy?  As Christians, do we understand how to rightly relate to the Jewish people, with whom we share our roots?  Over the past few days I have tried to provide helpful insight to that line of thought, and today we finish up the series on Jewish history.  If you are new to this site or haven’t followed for the past few days, you may want to review these articles before proceeding with today’s:

Now, to Modern Judaism, with the same disclaimer as before: this is not intended to be an exhaustive report on Jewish history, but simply enough basic information to help develop an appropriate understanding that allows us to rightly relate to the Jewish people.

Through covenants with Abraham and Moses, God seems to have outlined a two-pronged identity for the descendants of Abraham (the Jews).  In the Abrahamic covenant, God promised land and descendants (among other things).  In the Mosaic covenant, He provided the law, which was ceremonially carried out through Temple (and other) sacrifices.  Over time, the Jews lost both their land and the Temple, creating problems that are explained in the three links above.

It seems clear that Judaism in its original form has disappeared and the chasm between modern Judaism and the original is ever-increasing.  Today, at least three things have a bearing on the state of Judaism:

  1. The idea that the world can be understood and lived apart from God is rampant in every culture, including Jewish culture.  According to the Jerusalem Post (in 2010), 42% of Jews over 20 identified themselves as “secular,” and another 25% defined themselves as “not very religious traditionalists.”
  2. Even in Israel where history records miracle-after-miracle, they are increasingly discredited due to “science.”  Again, the thought is that, if humans work at it, they can figure life out.  Israel is home to some of the most brilliant people on the planet, but brilliance seems to dull the spirit when it comes to recognizing that God, and God alone, is the Creator and Sustainer of the world in which we live, and it can’t be lived apart from Him.
  3. Confusion regarding their two-pronged identity.

These three elements (and perhaps others) caused a breakdown in Jewish identity.  How is a Jew to dress?  Could Jews be citizens of other nations?  Is one Jewish by religion or by nationality?  How does one continue to practice the Jewish faith without a Temple? What about observing Passover?  Circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant…is it still necessary?  Is it different if a Jew lives outside of Israel?

The questions go on and on, and responses to them have differed from person to person throughout generations, so that today there are different types of Jews.  Here are some examples:

  • Assimilated.  Assimilated Jews believe that the Jewish identity has ended and it is time to assimilate fully and completely, both nationally and religiously.  They may or may not hold to another religion, but they do not practice Judaism.  They also take up life in a different land, becoming a citizen of that particular country.  Some also turn to socialism as a way of life.
  • Liberal/reformed. These Jews tend to hold to Jewish methods (customs, traditions) of things, but under no ritual laws.  They have a “modern ID” that doesn’t look or act traditionally Jewish, and they hold no national identification as Jews.  Nationally, they may be “Israelites,” but do not identify as “Jews.”  Typically, if living outside of Israel, they have less a desire to return to the homeland, but prefer integration into the country in which they live.
  • Ultra Orthodox. Tradition is very important to Ultra Orthodox Jews.  They wish to maintain traditional Jewish lifestyle and will not compromise the laws.  They have an internal community in which they associate, and they shy away from modern Judaism.
  • Modern Orthodox. These somewhat orthodox Jews wish to take on some of the more modern aspects of Judaism.  Adherence to Jewish law and tradition is a bit lax, though they still may participate in some of the rituals.  Typically, there is tension between this group and the more orthodox groups.
  • Almost diametrically opposed to the liberal/reformed Jews, Zionists are extremely nationalistic.  They wish to establish and maintain their own land and their own language, and they tend to be ethnic-based without much regard to religion.  They fight vehemently for the State of Israel.

The point here is not to judge the “rightness” or “wrongness” of these positions, but to illustrate that there is now considerable lack of agreement about what it means to be a Jew, and how one should live it out.

Can you see the difficulty?  Hopefully the basic information shared over the past few days provides a bit of insight into Jewish history.  As Christians, we owe our heritage to the Jews.  Keep in mind that Jesus was Jewish, and so were almost all of the writers of the Old and New Testaments.  We owe our salvation to the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37), who made a New Covenant with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-33) and extended it to us (Luke 22:20).  So, how do we rightly relate to the Jews?  We do our best to understand their plight, we stand firmly with them and bless them in every way possible (Genesis 12:3), and we eagerly pray for the day the scales fall from their eyes, allowing them to recognize their Messiah (2 Corinthians 3:14).

May you be blessed as you bless Israel!

2 thoughts on “A Brief Look at Jewish History: The Modern Period

  1. Jana Reible says:

    This has been great information. I had no idea of the different struggles among Jewish people. Thank you.

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