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A Brief History of Jewish Sects
by Yoseif Yaron

Judaism is one of the most fertile religions in the history of the world. Sects within Judaism can be traced back as far as the time of the giving of the Torah, and they continue to develop to this day.

There are certain characteristics that uniquely define Jewish sects, and yet one must be careful in defining them because these characteristics are not as simple as they may, on the surface, seem. The fact that a particular theology or philosophy is conceived of and followed by a group of Jews does not, in and of itself, make it Jewish.  Christianity was founded and followed initially by Jews, and yet no Jew would recognize it as a Jewish sect today.  The followers of Jesus constituted, at one time, a Jewish sect, but they separated themselves to such an extent from Judaism that today, the Jewish roots of Christianity are barely recognizable.

One thing that binds all religious Jews, regardless of their affiliations, is a meaningful relationship to the Torah as a living, legitimate guide for Jewish life, or source of cultural wisdom. Any sect that fundamentally rejects the Torah at its heart cannot be considered Jewish.

EARLY SECTS

The earliest Jewish sects can be traced back to the time of the wanderings in the desert. Our first record of a sect in the Torah is found in Exodus, when the children of Israel form a short lived cult of the golden calf made by Aaron (Exodus 32). Another short lived sect was formed by Korah, Datan and Aviram, members of the Levites, when they challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron and sought to create their own priesthood (Numbers 16).  Later on, following the rule of Solomon, there is Yerav`am [Jeroboam] ben Nevat, who lead the rebellion against Rehav`am [Rehoboam], the son of Solomon.   The TaNaKh tells us that he set up cultic ritual centers in Beth-El and Dan (a cult with golden calves again) to keep the Israelites from going to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, lest they develop a desire to reunite with what was then Judah (I Kings 12).1

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