In A History of Judaism, the British scholar Martin Goodman traces the religion’s development from the 1st century CE to the present day. Praising the book, Elliot Jager describes it as a “clear, skillfully synthesized one-volume work” that tells its story with “just the right amount of razzle-dazzle.” One theme that emerges from Goodman’s book, Jager writes, is Judaism’s emphasis on the covenant:
For Goodman, there can be no Judaism without the covenant, and his history grapples with how Jewish civilization has interpreted the covenant over time. Judaism has never been static, yet it has a core. He writes: “At root, certain religious ideas percolate through the history of Judaism and render contemporary notions such as secular Judaism, an affiliation divorced from any belief in God, problematic.”
This claim reminds me of how the eminent psychologist Carl Jung put it: “Bidden or not bidden, God is Present.” For Goodman, the covenant binds God “specifically to the Jewish people and lays special duties on them in return.” For me, the covenant is broader: the contractual relationship between the God of Israel, the people of Israel, and the land of Israel. It is a triad that expresses the foundational myth of Judaism. . . .
Another theme Jager detects is the emphasis on mentshlikhkayt—a Yiddish term Jager renders as “human decency”—in so many traditional Jewish texts. On this note, the book also conveys some lessons that might be helpful in today’s era of Jewish disunity:
Can today’s progressive and traditionalist Jews show mentshlikhkayt toward each other? It seems that [various] streams of Judaism coexisted during the Second Temple era. Pharisees emphasized an oral tradition and introduced . . . the idea of reward and punishment of souls in an afterlife. The probably more marginal Sadducees rejected the legitimacy of non-written traditions and believed that God did not directly intercede in human events. These camps shared space in the Temple, Goodman writes.