Great World Religions: Judaism

May 23, 2016 Book Reviews 0 ★★★★½

Great World Religions: JudaismGreat World Religions: Judaism Series: Great World Religions
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Also in this series: Great World Religions: Christianity

What is the essence of Judaism? Is it the Ten Commandments, given by God to Israel at Mount Sinai? Or is it the totality of teachings in the Hebrew Bible? Or is it symbolized by something outside the Bible? However Judaism is defined, the beliefs, practices, attitudes, and institutions of Jews through the ages display a striking diversity, despite the fact that all would ascribe to a common heritage.

Professor Isaiah M. Gafni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem addresses these and other issues as he explores the ever-changing 4,000-year-old saga of Judaism, one of the world's most ancient and influential religions.

Great World Religions: Judaism is a lecture series from The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company.)


Great World Religions: Judaism offers a clear and often fascinating introduction to the history and character of Judaism. Professor Gafney is engaging and easy to understand. I found his occasional search for a word endearing; it certainly makes him seem very approachable. He’s not in the least intimidating. At the same time, there is no mistaking either his intelligence or his passion for his subject.

Don’t go into this lecture series expecting a deep exploration of Jewish theology. Various tenets of the faith are of course discussed, but not always in the depth I would have liked. Also, Prof. Gafney presupposes at least a passing familiarity with major figures and events of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments (to use the Christian terms.) His discussions of later Jewish rabbis and scholars (with whom a Gentile audience will be less familiar) are a little more explanatory. However, this is very much a survey or introductory course—there’s a limit to how much can be covered in a mere six hours. It left me curious to find out more about some of the topics and people Prof. Gafney covered.

For me, one of the most interesting facets was the whole question of “What is Judaism?” Is it a religion or an ethnicity/nationality? The answer appears to be “both”, with one or the other dominating at different points in history. This makes Judaism unique among the great world religions, which generally lack the ethnic/national dimension. It also explained things which I’ve observed over the years, which as a non-Jew I have found puzzling.

The course consists of 12 lectures, each a half-hour long. I’ve listed the titles below. I highly recommend Great World Religions: Judaism to those seeking a better understanding of the nature and history of this ancient faith.

What is Judaism?
The Stages of History
The Jewish Library
The Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism
Jewish WorshipPrayer and the Synagogue
The Calendar: A Communal Life-Cycle
Individual Life-Cycles
God and Man; God and Community
Philosophers and Mystics
The Legal Frameworks of Judaism: Halakha
Common Judaism or a Plurality of Judaisms?
Judaism and Others




Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • The Backlist Reader (TBR) Challenge 2016
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