Pluralism in Judaism

Gerhard Pfandl

Pluralism in Judaism

When Jacob and his household entered Egypt, they were a family; when 430 years later, Moses and the Israelites left Egypt, they were a nation. Under Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel remained united. Following the death of Solomon in 931 B.C., Israel was divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). At the same time, idolatry became a major problem in both kingdoms.

The people’s stubborn refusal to listen to God’s voice through the prophets eventually led to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The Assyrians took the leading citizens of Israel, the artisans and craftsmen, and transported them to Assyria and the conquered lands in the east and settled people from the conquered lands in the East in Israel, making it difficult for these people to foment a rebellion in a foreign country. The result of this policy for Israel was that in time, the peasant population of Israel that was left in the country mingled and intermarried with the alien population that the Assyrians had brought into the country, producing the Samaritan people we meet in the New Testament.

Although the people in the southern kingdom (Judah) saw what had happened to Israel, they did not learn from it. Because of their apostasy, the Lord gave them into the hands of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who conquered Judah and made it a vassal state. In three successive deportations, he took many Jews into captivity to Babylon, as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted. In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar also destroyed Jerusalem.

During the Intertestamental Period (circa 400 B.C. to circa A.D. 50), different Jewish groups developed in Judah, each interpreting Judaism differently. The most important of them were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The New Testament describes the Pharisees and Sadducees; the Alexandrian Jew Philo (circa 20 B.C. to A.D. 50), the Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37-100), and the Dead Sea Scrolls portray the Essenes.

Pharisees. The Pharisees (“the Separated Ones”) took the greatest care to separate themselves from anything unclean. They originated in the Maccabean period (165 to 37 B.C.). When the ruling class in the Maccabean kingdom embraced Hellenism, religious traditionalists, calledHasidim (“pious ones”), rejected the Hellenistic assimilation. Among the various groups that came out of the Hasidic movement were the Essenes and the Pharisees. The latter were opposed to the Sadducees and became the spiritual fathers of rabbinic Judaism, following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

The main point of division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the issue of the authority of the Oral Law, which the Pharisees claimed had been delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Law (the Torah) and had been passed on by word of mouth ever since. In addition, new circumstances required new legislation not covered by the Written Law or Oral Law from Mount Sinai. Thus new laws had to be produced by analogy to, and inference from, that which already existed. This Oral Law continued to evolve and achieved written form in the Mishnah (200 A.D.), the core of the Talmud (200 to 500 A.D.).

The Pharisees looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and the messianic kingdom. They believed in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead. They were champions of human equality and believed that what happens is the will of God, although humans have free will to choose good or evil.

Sadducees. It is generally assumed that the Sadducees derived their name from Zadok, the leading priest in the time of David, and ancestor of the most influential priestly family in the time after the Babylonian exile. They are first mentioned as a “school of thought” in Judaism in the time of the Maccabees in the second century B.C. by Josephus.1 They constituted the priestly hierarchy and the ruling class in Judah, who held a clear majority in the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious body of 71 elders in Judah.

The aristocratic makeup of the Sadducees, their power in the Sanhedrin, and their hold on the high priesthood made it inevitable that they also controlled the political fortunes of Judah. They usually aligned their views with whatever kingdom (Persia, Greece, Maccabees, or Rome) ruled over them. Their primary concern was to keep the nation peaceably together. With the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the Sadducees disappeared from history.

Theologically, the Sadducees held a conservative attitude toward the Bible, accepting as authoritative only the Mosaic Law, which they interpreted quite literally. Hence they denied the Pharisaic contention that the Oral Law could be traced back to Moses and that it was authoritative and binding. The Sadducees believed that God was totally removed from any active involvement in this world, making all human affairs the result of human freedom. They also denied any form of resurrection of the dead or the existence of an afterlife.

Essenes. The meaning of name Essene is not certain; both Josephus and Philo emphasize their holiness in connection with their name. As mentioned, their origin goes back to the Maccabean period, circa 150 B.C., and they disappeared toward the end of the first century A.D. According to Josephus, there existed about 4,000 Essenes in his time. They lived in semimonastic communes, sharing all property, strictly observing the Sabbath, shunning slave-ownership and the taking of oaths. Most of them also rejected marriage. The Qumran community, who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, is generally identified as a group of Essenes.

The Essenes believed that God had called them out of the world and had made a covenant with them because the last days and the appearance of the Messiah were near. They believed in the immortality of the soul, that everything was preordained by God, and that human beings in reality have no choice or free will to act as they wish.


Pluralism in Modern Judaism

Following the period of Jewish Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, which advocated better integration into European societies, several movements evolved in Judaism that developed into Jewish denominations, particularly in Europe and America. Well-known are the three largest groups known as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism. The term orthodox was first applied by advocates of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century to the traditionalists, whose program called for “unconditional agreement with the culture of the present era; harmony between Judaism and science, but also unconditional steadfastness in the faith and traditions of Judaism.”2 Orthodox Judaism holds to the principle of the Pharisees that both the Written Law and the Oral Law were divinely inspired. It considers the 613 commandments of the Torah as fixed and unalterable. Nevertheless, in response to the pressures of modern life, Orthodox Judaism has had to make some concessions (dress, education), which a segment of the Orthodox population, who became known as “Ultra-Orthodox,” has rejected. Ultra-orthodox Jews seek to separate themselves from the non-religious world.

Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism is the offspring of the Jewish enlightenment of the 18th century. It advocated assimilation into the prevailing culture and called upon Jews “to abandon their religious-cultural ‘exclusiveness’ and to cease being a ‘peculiar people.’”3 Reform Judaism today maintains that Jewish traditions should be modernized, i.e., Jewish law needs to undergo a process of renewal and should be seen as a set of general guidelines rather than as a list of restrictions whose literal observance is required of all Jews.

Conservative Judaism. Like Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement also developed in Europe in the 19th century. Conservative Judaism occupies the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. The term conservative means that Jews should attempt to conserve Jewish tradition, rather than reform or abandon it. Yet it does not accept the orthodox doctrine of a direct verbal revelation of the Torah. And while it expects a kingdom of God here on earth, and considers the State of Israel a step toward its realization, it rejects the concept of a personal supernatural Messiah.

The pluralism in Judaism, as in Christianity and Islam, is the result of the influence and pressure of society and the prevailing culture. In addition, philosophical and scientific theories and movements, as well as different methods in the interpretation the Old Testament have contributed to the different expressions of the Jewish faith.



1. Antiq. 13. 5. 9.


2. Nathan Ausubel, The Book of Jewish Knowledge: An Encyclopedia of Judaism and the Jewish People (New York: Crown Publishers, 1964), p. 231.


3. Ibid., p. 233.