There are many histories of the Jews, the latest among them being the second volume of Simon Schama’s projected trilogy. But there are very few histories of Judaism as such, and it is this gap that Martin Goodman, professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, is trying to fill. He has given himself an extremely difficult task, at least in part because he is writing about religion as it is lived. That means writing about those who practise the faith as much as about the faith itself, and that can morph into something of a history of the Jews. But, because he does not want to fall into that trap, Goodman is sometimes too reluctant to fill in some of the historical detail that would explain more fully the glorious diversity of expression in Jewish identity and belief over the long course of Jewish history. It would be useful, for instance, to have an explanation of just why so much Arabic and Greek scientific and philosophical material was translated into Hebrew by the ibn Tibbon family in Provence in the medieval period, and of how it influenced both Jews and Christians in Europe thereafter. And it would help the telling of the story of Azariah de’ Rossi’s study of Jewish history and culture, The Light of the Eyes, if there were more discussion of Italian Jewish scholarship generally and of how Jews in Italy managed to study as widely as they did in the non-Jewish world.
Nevertheless, his book is a hugely welcome addition to the library of Jewish studies for the general reader and an absolute godsend for rabbis always perplexed by what book they should recommend to people about how Jewish beliefs and practices have evolved. Goodman starts with the Romano-Jewish scholar