Leverhulme Project on Toleration of Variant Practice and Theology within Judaism since 200 BCE

Project Leader: Professor Martin Goodman, FBA

Leverhulme Research Fellows in Judaism (2009-2010):

  • Dr Joseph David
  • Dr Corinna Kaiser
  • Dr Simon Levis Sullam


Successful histories of Judaism as a religion have been rare because of difficulties in defining what exactly the history should be about. There has been much debate whether it is more appropriate to write such a history as (at one extreme) a narrative of the development of a single entity or (at the other extreme) as a description of a variety of discrete 'Judaisms', each valid in its own light and therefore to be treated as equally valid in historical evaluations. The first approach risks imposing on the past assumptions drawn from hindsight, as if the essence of what was to become the most common form of Judaism was bound to emerge. The second approach risks a different sort of anachronism, since references to 'Judaisms' (in the plural) are not to be found before the nineteenth century. More recently, there has been growing interest in the study of sects and sectarianism within Judaism, but this approach risks reducing the history of Judaism to an account of a series of conflicts. The project seeks a middle way, in order to produce a history of Judaism that will do due justice both to the continuities over millennia and to the considerable theological, liturgical and behavioural variety which flourished within Judaism at many times and in many places.


The project aims to investigate the evidence for tolerance of variant theology and practice within Judaism from the completion of the Hebrew Bible to the present, and to look for explanations of such tolerance (where it can be found) in the context of developments within Judaism; the social, cultural and economic status of the Jews affected within the wider society in which they lived; the religious, cultural and political assumptions of that wider society; and the personal predelictions and affections of the leading actors in the case studies investigated. Evidence for variety within Judaism is considerable, from the Samaritan schism and the varied groups of the Late Second temple era to the tannaitic notion of heresy, the Karaites, distinctive regional forms of rabbinic Judaism in medieval Europe, the followers of Shabbetai Zvi, the Hasidic communities of the early modern period, and the varieties of Judaism which have flourished since the Enlightenment. The aim of the project is to find out how Jews of these different religious persuasions have in practice behaved. How much have they argued with or attempted to discipline each other? How much have they simply ignored each other? And why did they choose to adopt the approach to their opponents that they did? The project is intended to provide answers to these questions by providing material, in the form of case studies, to inform a new narrative history which will explore how different expressions of Judaism related to each other not just through conflict but as part of a single religious system. The case studies themselves will be published with full supporting documentation. The narrative history will use the case studies alongside accounts of dissent and antagonism, in order to provide a paradigm for writing the history of Judaism which takes account of such cases of tolerance of variety.


Case studies of tolerance and cooperation between Jews of different religious orientations will be investigated in an attempt to establish the extent and spheres of such cooperation. Most evidence for such tolerance will be sought not by gathering data from explicit statements in surviving writings from different periods (most of which tend to attest to a history of conflicts) but by examining the evidence for the behaviour of such Jews, seeking to find out when and where Jews of different views prayed together, accepted legal decisions by each other, married into each other's families, bought food from each other's shops, and presented a unified face to the outside world. In all the case studies, the possible reasons for cooperation will be examined, from acceptance of a shared rhetoric of unity to personal relationships, attitudes to religious tolerance in the wider society in which Jews were living, and the attitude of that wider society towards Jews.