New! Essential Lectures in Jewish History Series (Short and Interesting, like a lot of us)

Rosh Hashanah Card, early 20th c. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Rosh Hashanah Card, early 20th c. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This brief lecture inaugurates a new series: Essential Lectures in Jewish History, brief overviews of major themes and periods, designed as introductions to more detailed treatments in the Jewish Biography as History s series. Enjoy in good health! Lectures by Dr. Henry Abramson.

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HIS 155 1.7 The Talmud

The Sea of Talmud


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Excerpts from The Sea of Talmud: A Brief and Personal History

Henry Abramson (2012)

The Yeshiva administration must have put considerable thought into the wording of the hand-lettered sign posted outside the cafeteria. Many young men studying Talmud at this Jerusalem institution were taking advantage of the free food by eating their meals, then taking a second (or third) plate of food up to their dormitories for later consumption. A good number of the students were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and their behavior might have been the result of their childhood experiences of the social upheaval and economic instability of those early years of political independence. Nevertheless, the cost to the Yeshiva must have been significant, not to mention the fact that the dirty dishes left in the hallways attracted some formidable insects.   When the early afternoon minhah prayer concluded and the students left the study hall for begin lunch, a clutch of students gathered around the entrance to the cafeteria to examine the sign:



Lunch progressed without further incident, and I don’t recall whether or not students were compliant with the new policy.  After eating our usual fare of baked chicken, couscous and the traditional Israeli salad of vegetables cut in small cubes, we returned to the bet midrash to continue our studies. I happened to glance back at the sign, which someone had altered in a subtle manner:



With three tiny, playful alterations–a question mark, an exclamation point, and an underscore–the meaning of the text was completely transformed.  The anonymous student who defaced the sign exhibited skills typical of Talmudic study: a profound command of the ambiguity of language, an ability to see past first impressions and perceive the underlying philosophical structure of a statement, and an understanding of the multivalent implications of any idea committed to expression in text. The administration relented, and the sign was permanently removed before supper.

* * *

The “Constitution of Judaism”

The Talmud has been called the “constitution of Judaism,” an apt metaphor in terms of its central importance to this ancient religion but inexact in terms of the function of the document. Basically, the Talmud is an extended, multi-author commentary on the Mishnah, a third-century compilation of Jewish law and lore. The word “Talmud” is derived from the Hebrew root term “lamad,” which means “to learn” or “to teach,” and therefore “the Talmud” might be best translated as “the teaching.”  The Aramaic equivalent is the word Gemara, and these terms are used interchangeably to describe the same book. To avoid confusion, we will restrict ourselves to using the term Talmud rather than Gemara, largely because Talmud is more commonly used in English.  

The principal function of the Talmud is to explore and clarify the meaning of the Mishnah and identify its implications for halakhah, Jewish law.  The Talmud is not, however, a code of law or a statement of principles like the United States Constitution or the Bill of Rights. It is rather a collection of highly coded arguments, conforming to a unique set of hermeneutic rules of argument, that form the basis of ongoing debates in Jewish law and philosophy to the current day.  It is impossible to understand Judaism adequately without engaging the Talmud, and the Talmud retains its relevance and immediacy in every society that Jews have lived in since it was written nearly two millennia ago. For example, the rapid evolution of medical technology presents numerous ethical challenges that are without precedent in human history. What is the true definition of “death” when medical intervention can keep a brain-injured individual breathing artificially despite a lack of higher cognitive activity? What is the legal relationship between a woman and the child she births when modern medical technology obviates the need for mother and child to share a genetic relationship?  Amazingly, these questions and thousands more are addressed in arguments held between Rabbis in Babylon and Israel in the second through the fifth centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud is a document that retains its value and importance far beyond the time and place it was composed.

The Torah itself is a more fitting candidate for the term “constitution of Judaism.” Traditional Jewish theology holds that the Torah, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), is the written blueprint of the universe, given directly to Moses by God.  The surface meaning of the Torah is usually easily grasped, but more probing analysis reveals incredible depths and great variety of possible interpretations.  According to Jewish tradition, the Torah has “seventy faces,” meaning, a vast number of possible readings. Several movements have attempted to limit the possible readings in a radical manner and use the Torah as the sole source of authority, notably the Karaites of the ninth century. This approach is rife with difficulty, as the Torah itself is often opaque and abstruse, its meaning impossible to comprehend without commentary that clarifies the text.

Orthodox Judaism holds that a parallel body of teachings was also conveyed to Moses to serve this clarifying function.  Known as the Oral Torah because it was not committed to writing for centuries, this body of teachings was handed down from student to teacher for generations.  The Talmud is considered the penultimate link in the chain of Oral Torah; the final link is when it literally becomes oral, that is, when two students engage in argument over the meaning of the Talmud itself. Unlike the written, canonized text of the Torah, the Talmud does not stand on its own, fully sufficient and independent. The Talmud has meaning only when it receives voice in a literal sense. Like the sign outside the Yeshiva cafeteria, it needs someone to add the punctuation.

* * *

The Talmud in the Context of Jewish Religious Literature

The prime distinction between Judaism and later religions that developed from its culture is the Oral Torah. Both Christianity and Islam make some use of the teachings of the Oral Torah, the former especially by incorporating Jewish interpretations of problematic verses and the latter with a body of teachings that function in a structurally similar manner. Still, the Oral Torah is essentially Jewish, and it is the Oral Torah that makes Judaism highly distinct from these successor faiths. The Written Torah, that is, the Five Books of Moses, acts as the skeletal structure of Judaism, giving it a basic physical form.  Just as a skeleton is a crucial element of the human body, providing stability and structure to the human form, the Torah undergirds everything Jewish. A skeleton alone, however, is not what makes a human being recognizable to others. Only a radiologist can identify someone by an x-ray photograph. It is rather the material that surrounds the skeleton–the flesh, skin and hair–that we recognize as a person. The Oral Torah is related to the Written Torah in the same manner. The Written Torah, that is the Five Books of Moses, makes up the skeleton, and the Oral Torah provides the musculature, the circulatory and digestive systems, and finally the skin and hair that makes up the externally recognized form of the person. The Oral Torah builds upon the teachings of the Torah and literally vivifies the document, making it real in a human sense. The Written Torah is therefore a better candidate for the title “constitution of Judaism,” but it is absolutely impossible to separate the Oral Torah from this organic whole and still call the religion “Judaism.”

The Oral Torah consists of three basic types of information: midrash, Mishnah, and mysticism (often referred to by the Hebrew term kabalah, which means “that which is received” or “tradition”). Although all of these teachings were originally maintained as strictly oral communications between teachers and students, at various points in history they were committed to writing as well, and today students of Judaism work with printed texts that are more or less canonized.

Midrash (plural: midrashim) is essentially a huge collection of ancient rabbinic teachings connected to the biblical text, in particular the Five Books of Moses, but is also to other works in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) as well.  These midrashim may have legal import, i.e., they may clarify the meaning of a biblical text so that it may be properly implemented in actual practice, or they may be homiletic in nature, offering insights on theology or human nature. The Mishnah is in the main a collection of legal pronouncements and positions held by ancient Rabbis.  Since it forms the most important structural foundation of the Talmud, it will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 2. Mysticism, the esoteric teachings of Judaism known as kabalah, comprises the third category of teachings in the Oral Torah.

The Talmud is essentially an extended discussion of the Mishnah. In order to understand the text properly, the authors of the Talmud frequently invoke citations from the other branches of Oral Torah. Accordingly the Talmud forms a distillation of all three and is known as the “wine of   Torah” for this reason.

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Talmudic literature continued well after the text of the Babylonian Talmud was closed in the fifth century. Three principal categories of Talmudic literature developed, and all of them continue into the 21st century: commentary, analysis, and codification. The work of Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaki (1040-1105), better known as Rashi, from the Hebrew acronym of his name, emphasizes line-by-line commentary on the Talmud, with the purpose of explaining its basic meaning.  Another, more complex, trend in Talmudic literature is analysis, exemplified by the work of the Tosafists, a school of Talmudists that flourished in Europe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Although their contributions (known as Tosafot, or “additions”) occasionally contributed Rashi-like comments on the text, their principal approach to the Talmud was a critical analysis, comparing passages widely dispersed throughout the Talmud and resolving apparent inconsistencies. This type of Talmudic literature also continues to grow in the contemporary period as scholars produce volumes of hidushim, or “novellae,” on the Talmud.  Finally, Talmudic scholars in the medieval period began the difficult process of codification of the Talmud, gathering legal decisions from across the scope of the Talmud and organizing them into collections, or codes, of Jewish law.  Important examples include the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) and the Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575).  Modern codes, or more precisely, modern commentary on existing codes (especially the Shulhan Arukh) continue to be produced in the contemporary period, as the demands of a rapidly changing social and technological environment pose new questions not addressed in earlier codes. An example of  a modern commentary is Nishmat Avraham, which deals with the implications of twenty-first century medical technology for Jewish Law.

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* * *

The Two Talmuds

Let us begin with the fact that there are actually two Talmuds. The earlier version, compiled in Israel, is known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Palestinian Talmud); the other, somewhat larger and generally considered more authoritative, is the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). When people speak of “the Talmud,” or the Aramaic synonym Gemara, it is likely that they are referring to the latter, which has been the subject of far more study over the centuries.  The daf-yomi program, for example, is based on the Babylonian Talmud, although some students also participate in a Yerushalmi-yomi program as well.  Our focus in this work will be on the Babylonian Talmud, but let us quickly glance at the most significant differences between the two.

The principal reason for the greater popularity of the Babylonian Talmud is that it represents a more up-to-date version of Talmudic material.  Compiled some two centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud freely cites teachings from the Jerusalem Talmud. During this time the Jews of Israel were living under increasingly dire circumstances, with major upheavals such as the Roman-Jewish wars and the subsequent expulsion of the late first century, and the failed Bar Kokhba uprising and the subsequent Hadrianic persecutions of the second century.  Jews were exiled to settlements in North Africa and elsewhere. The Babylonian Jewish community, already over six hundred years old by the time of the Roman destruction of the Temple, replaced Israel as the scholarly center of the Jewish world. The Babylonian Talmud may be understood as an improved version of the Jerusalem Talmud, even though it omits some highly relevant material, such as the agricultural laws generally observed only in Israel (for example, the commandment to let the land lie fallow in the seventh, Sabbatical, year). These laws were not necessary for life along the Tigris or Euphrates rivers. They retain their eternal relevance for Jewish settlement in Israel, and thus a resurgence of interest in the Jerusalem Talmud accompanied the rise of modern Zionism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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The two Talmuds represent the voices of literally thousands of individuals. By the time the Babylonian Talmud was codified, sometime in the fifth or sixth century of the Common Era, the Oral Torah had been circulating for roughly two millennia. Each generation of transmission from teacher to student added clarifications and illustrations, included like parenthetical notes jotted down in the margins of a worn history textbook used over and over again by students in public school.  The compilation of these notes into a comprehensive and cohesive role is attributed to Rabbi Yohanan for the Jerusalem Talmud and Ravina and Rav Ashi for the Babylonian Talmud. Although the work of  redacting the Talmud into its current form represents a signal achievement in scholarship, arguing that they were the authors of the Talmud would be like saying that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are the authors of the English language.

The literary origins of the Talmud are described in the very first Mishnah of that little book that Bob Gibbs gave me back in the late 1970s: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” In context, it is clear that this passage refers to the Oral Torah, as the Mishnah continues by quoting teachings that are not found anywhere in the Written Torah, often with explicit reference to the Written Torah as a separate document: “They said three things: be deliberate in judgement, raise up many students, and erect a fence around the Torah.” The last clause, “erect a fence around the Torah,” is widely interpreted as an exhortation to enact protective measures that will reinforce observance of the laws described in the Written Torah. If writing is forbidden on the Sabbath, for example, a law prohibiting the handling of writing materials would be a “fence around the [Written] Torah.” This type of activity is typical of the Oral Torah.

The transmission of the Oral Torah becomes manifest with a generation of scholars known as the zugot, or “pairs,” in the last two centuries before the Common Era. These highly influential Rabbis included the famous Hillel and Shammai, who each formed large schools of followers (Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, “the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai”). Their debates over the interpretation and implementation of the Torah were continued by a generation of scholars known as the tana’im (“teachers,” singular tana), and recorded in the Mishnah, which was codified in the early third century by the tana Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi. Debates continued for a few more centuries (as the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions”) during the post-Mishnaic era.  These scholars were known as the amora’im (“speakers,” singular amora). The Talmud was completed toward the end of this Amoraic period, sometime around the fifth century CE.

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In terms of actual words on the page, traditional printings of the Talmud feature two basic texts, with layers of commentary that reach up to the 21st century.  The core text is the Mishnah, codified in the third century. The Talmud itself, also known as the Gemara, follows.  These two texts are printed in the center of the page.  Since the Talmud is considerably larger than the Mishnah, the reader will often progress through several pages of Talmud before reaching the next Mishnah. Surrounding the text are additional texts of the three types of supporting materials: commentary (e.g., Rashi), anaylsis (e.g., Tosafot) and various navigational tools that allow the student to find parallel texts elsewhere in the Talmud (e.g. Mesorat ha-Shas) or look up references in the codes (e.g., Shulhan Arukh).


Since the Talmud is essentially an extended commentary on the Mishnah, it follows the same structure of six orders.  The term Shas is often used to describe the entire Talmud, when it is  actually an abbreviation that refers to the Six Orders (shishah sedarim, thus forming the acronym   Shas from the opening letters).

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The six orders form another acronym: ZMaN NaKaT, an Aramaic phrase that can be loosely translated as tempus fugit, or “time flies.” Of the six orders, the tractates most commonly studied in traditional Yeshivot are selected from Nashim (women) and Nezikin (damages).  Zera’im is well represented in the Jerusalem Talmud, but only the first tractate appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot, which deals with blessings to be recited over food and related matters).  Even though tractate Berakhot is the technical beginning of the Talmud, the work is not cumulative in structure, and new students will be as lost starting at the beginning as if they had begun near the end or anywhere in the middle. Certain sections, such as the second chapter of tractate Bava Metsia, are generally understood to be slightly more accessible to the first-time reader, although even they require considerable mediation and training to gain comprehension.

The Sea of Talmud is far more welcoming at such shorelines, with sandy beaches and long, shallow waters that allow the inexperienced swimmer ease of access to the wonders of the ocean, with promise of a safe return to dry land.  Other points of entry are extremely dangerous, with turbulent waves crashing on rocks or rip currents that threaten to pull the swimmer out to unfathomable depths, or crowded with poisonous jellyfish and teeming with underwater predators. It’s important above all never to swim alone. As the Yehoshua ben Perahaya puts it in Pirkei Avot (1:6), “appoint a teacher for yourself, and acquire a friend [to study with].”



The Talmud is written in two closely related languages, with frequent linguistic borrowings from several others.  The Mishnah is recorded in an early form of Hebrew known as lashon Hazal, the “language of the Sages” (Hazal, sometimes transliterated Chazal, is a Hebrew acronym for the phrase “the wise ones, whose memory is a blessing”).  It differs from biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew in ways that are beyond the scope of this short work.  The Talmud, on the other hand, is written in Aramaic, a Semitic language written in Hebrew characters that became the Jewish vernacular for several centuries, making an impact on the liturgy with the kaddish prayer, for example. Lashon Hazal is relatively accessible to readers with some Hebrew knowledge. Aramaic is another story altogether. The languages are closely related, but even tiny differences between them can be very misleading. The prefix letter shin in Hebrew acts as the preposition “that,” whereas in Aramaic the letter dalet performs the same function.  Sometimes identical words have almost diametrically opposite meanings.  For example,  the Hebrew root word shakhah means “forget.” The same root word in Aramaic means “find.”

Beyond the simple translation is the difficulty posed by the highly coded syntax of the Talmud. Parsimonious when it comes to spelling out an argument, the Talmud will quite often lay out the general parameters of a question and then abruptly change a variable to pose a different question.  For example, the Talmud might be discussing the ownership of grain that spilled over an area of four square cubits, and then transition to a phrase like “two cubits, then what? One cubit, then what?” The reader who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the fundamental question (grain spilled over four square cubits) will be lost.

The Talmud often assumes that the reader already has extensive background knowledge of the subject matter under discussion. Biblical verses are quoted as proof texts, but often in a highly truncated fashion, as if the reader should be so familiar with the Hebrew Bible that it would be unnecessary to provide the entire verse (even though the omitted portion of the verse is precisely what makes the text important). Unlike much western philosophical literature influenced by the Greek tradition, the Talmud does not move from the general to the specific. It does not lay out basic information and then examine particulars.  Everything is presented in medias res, as if the student stumbled into a room filled with Rabbis halfway through a furious debate, when no one will stop and explain how the argument erupted. Fortunately, one kindly old Rabbi notices the befuddled student, and with a few brief running comments whispered into the ear of the student, the Rabbi slowly clarifies the meaning and significance of each speaker’s position. This Rabbi, of course, is none other than Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaki (1040-1105), known by the acronym of his name, Rashi.

Rashi’s commentary, an essential tool for understanding the Talmud, intimidates many new students because it is written in an unfamiliar font popularly called “Rashi script.” Contrary to popular opinion, Rashi did not create this cursive font, but later publishers used it when printing his commentary. It’s basically an italicized version of traditional block Hebrew letters, widely used in both manuscript and printed forms of the Talmud to distinguish the text of the Mishnah and Talmud from the supporting commentaries. In reality, there’s no reason to be intimidated by  Rashi script because only a few letters are radically different from the familiar block letters: eight, to be exact.

The Way and the Telling

The Talmud consists of teachings than can be loosely divided into two overlapping categories: halakhah and aggadataHalakhah is literally translated as “the way,” and it deals with the comprehensive aspects of Jewish law. The Aramaic term Aggadata means “the telling” (related to the Hebrew Hagadah, the book read at Passover seders) and represents everything that is not halakhah: philosophy, anecdotes from the lives of the Sages, popular Babylonian sayings, recipes, medical information–whatever the Sages felt was relevant or interesting for inclusion in the Talmud.

Halakhah is huge.  Jewish law does not recognize valid distinctions in importance between various types of activity–ritual law is equally important to civil or criminal law–and therefore every aspect of human behavior is included. Halakhah discusses seemingly insignificant matters such as how to tie one’s shoes, alongside much more weighty issues such as major real estate transactions or premeditated murder.

For most of Talmudic history, halakhah has received the privileged position over aggadata. Far more commentaries have been written on halakhah, and it forms the overwhelmingly dominant portion of the curriculum of Talmudic studies in Yeshivot.  This predominance of halakhah has deeps roots in the Jewish tradition, which generally emphasizes the practical and pragmatic over the theoretical. The term “Orthodox,” for example, is really a misnomer. Coined in the nineteenth century as a borrowing from ecclesiastical Latin, the word means “right opinion,” implying that the traditionally observant community based their identity on a core set of essential beliefs. In reality, a much better term would have been “orthopractic,” or “right practice.” Traditional Judaism holds only a handful of beliefs to be inviolate (Unity of God, life after death, etc.), whereas the practice of Judaism must conform to a definite set of standards, otherwise known as halakhah. The Mishnah prioritizes the observance of the commandments over everything else in the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (Avot 1:16)–“the study is not the essence, rather the practice.”

Orthodox Judaism is not monolithic, however, and even this emphasis on orthopraxy yields a variety of expressions that are considered entirely legitimate.  For example, a Talmudic passage that combines both halakhic and aggadic significance is teaching of Rabbi Hiyah bar Ami in the name of Ula (Berakhot 8a): “since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One who is Blessed has nothing in this world except for the four cubits of halakhah.” Leaving aside the huge theological implications of this statement, it is worth noting that the Talmud refers to the “area” of halakhah as four square cubits (Hebrew: amot, singular amah).  In modern measurements a cubit is roughly eighteen inches, therefore four square cubits would mean approximately six square feet (two square meters). A lot of people can stand inside six square feet, and each may have a perfectly valid halakhic position. Hence Sephardic Jews, with ethnic roots in the medieval Spanish Jewish diaspora, will have slightly different halakhic practices than Ashkenazic Jews, who trace their background to Germany and Eastern Europe.

The study of aggadata has lagged far behind halakhah. This may be because aggadata does not lend itself well to the same kind of analytical tools used for close inspection of legal issues. Aggadata often demands an immediate, visceral response rather than a sustained dissection. Taking the passage cited earlier, for example, what are we to understand by the statement that God has “nothing in this world except for the four cubits of halakhah”? If this were taken as a halakhic statement, the Sages would debate why four and not five cubits, which of the various measurements of a cubit to use, where exactly these four cubits are located, and so on. This approach would probably destroy the central meaning of the text, which in my humble opinion refers principally to the notion that a relationship may be formed between humanity and God only through careful attention to the study and practice of halakhah. The study and practice of halakhah thus replaces the connection that was once possible through the performance of the rituals of the Temple, now destroyed. On the one hand, one may mourn the loss of a practical, concrete way of reaching God; on the other, that connection is now made manifest in every aspect of Jewish observant life.

Aggadata is like a poem that must be absorbed in its entirety and receive focused meditation.  The boundaries of such ideas are often blurry and suffer by comparison with other, apparently competing aggadot. Unlike halakhah, which demands a seamless compatibility of all ideas, aggadata may entertain mutually exclusive interpretations and other contradictions without losing its value.

The Mishnah: Creating a Portable Judaism HIS 155 Lecture 1.5

Alter Kacyzne, "Pinsk Jews Reading Mishnah," 1924. Source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research via Wikimedia Commons.
Alter Kacyzne, “Pinsk Jews Reading Mishnah,” 1924. Source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research via Wikimedia Commons.

Compiled by Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi in an exceptionally difficult time for the Jewish people, the Mishnah created the possibility of creating a “portable Judaism.” After the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the dramatic escalation of the diaspora, the Mishnah allowed Jews to define their religion within an intellectual and textual context, outside of the traditional Temple service.

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Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

5. The Mishnah

By the middle of the second century, Judaism and the Jewish people were in dire straits. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, the religious and political center of the Jewish people had disappeared, with no serious second option available. The disastrous failure of the heroic Bar-Kokhba revolt of 132-136 and the punishing persecution under the Emperor Hadrian sapped the remaining will for political renaissance, and the scope of the diaspora extended dramatically as Jewish families sought more peaceful homes and livelihoods throughout the near east. All that remained were the small group of Rabbis centered primarily around the town of Tiberias in the Galilee, diligently teaching the Torah they had learned  orally from their masters, struggling to maintain the chain of tradition back to Sinai. The very survival of the Jewish people and their Torah was in doubt.

We must understand the existential crisis facing this embattled minority during those difficult years. The very center of Jewish identity, the Temple in Jerusalem, had been gone for three generations–elderly grandparents could only relate hazy childhood memories to their descendants, and even that weak understanding of the Temple was rapidly disappearing. Decades of discriminatory economic policies, specifically designed to weaken Jewish attachment to Jerusalem and the Torah, inexorably took their toll. Brutal, intrusive regulation banned the public study of Torah and central Jewish rituals such as circumcision. These and many other centrifugal factors drove more and more Jewish families out of the Land of Israel, seeking more peaceful economic climates where they could practice their faith unmolested or, for untold thousands of Jews, to abandon their religion altogether.  Demographic studies of the period show a dramatic decrease in the population of Jews during the first few centuries following the destruction of the Temple, and the reasons for the decline are obvious. The loss of the Temple was a far greater tragedy than the elimination of a national shrine. Losing represented the creation of a vacuum at the very heart of Jewish identity. How could the Jews survive such an elemental blow to their communal self-image?

The response came from Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, a visionary leader who saw the need for bold, dramatic measures to preserve the Jewish heritage and secure the Jewish future. According to Talmudic legend, he was born on the day Rabbi Akiva was martyred at the hands of the Romans, foretelling the great leadership role he would occupy in the struggling Jewish polity. Famously wealthy, the Talmud demonstrates his financial standing with an example that is quaint by modern-day standards but inspired wonder among the ancients: it is said that he was so wealthy that his household seved radishes year-round, regardless of season.

He held the title Nasi, or “Prince,” a designation that signified the last remnant of Jewish power ceded the Jews by the Roman authorities (his name is sometimes anglicized as “Judah the Prince”). The position was largely ceremonial, as the limited Jewish self-government was completely subordinated to Roman governing control, but he maximized the power of his office through carefully limiting the scope of his affairs and, especially, through cultivating strong relationships with important Romans. In particular, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi had an extensive running theological dialogue with a mysterious “Antoninus.”  According to The Talmudic account of these exchanges, they shared a friendship from childhood, extending through Rabbi Yehuda’s appointment as Nasi, and Antoninus’ tenure as Emperor. The elevated philosophic tone of their debates suggests that Antoninus was none other than Marcus Aurelius, although he would have been much older than Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, and some historians identify Rabbi Yehuda’s interlocutor as a later Emperor.

The essence of Rabbi Yehuda’s bold innovation was his recognition that Judaism had to transform itself to a portable religion if it was to survive the challenges of the second century. Unhooked from the Temple and it’s rituals, the Jews needed something that would preserve their identity in a rapidly expanding diaspora. This novel challenge had a partial precedent In the Exodus, when the Jews wandered the wilderness with a tent-like Tabernacle (mishkan) that was dismantled and reconstructed at each new encampment. Those early years of migration proved that the Jews were sufficiently resilient to withstand the physical and spiritual challenges of a peripatetic faith–could that strength be tapped once again, after centuries of sedentary existence? Moreover, could the Jews repeat this feat in the absence of both Temple and tabernacle?

Rabbi Yehuda’s genius, and his courage, lay in his decision to radically break from tradition by committing the Oral Torah to writing. Disregarding fierce opposition, he argued that the exigencies of the time demanded a bold measure, if Judaism was to survive the challenges of persecution, dispersal and assimilation. Specifically, he utilized the prestige of his office and his phenomenal intellect to collect all the oral traditions circulating among the Jewish people and commit them to writing in a single, massive document. Together with the biblical text (the first five Books of Moses, otherwise known as the Written Torah) this document would act as the spiritual, intellectual, and legal glue that held the Jewish people together for millennia.

The huge amount of data in this oral tradition had been overwhelming at the time, and several important sages such as Rabbi Meir had kept personal written copies of major teachings, although they were careful not to circulate them in deference to the ban on writing the Oral Torah. While Rabbi Yehuda respected the religious opposition to his innovation, he argued that that the ban would become irrelevant if it intimately caused the Jews to lose the teachings altogether (and with it, their very identity as a people). Taking the verse in Psalms as his guide, he maintained that it was a “time to act for God–they have destroyed Your Torah.”

Ultimately, the teachings were condensed into a text called the Mishnah,which is derived front the Hebrew word “to teach” and “to repeat.” Broken into six sections, the Mishnah covered the following topics:

Hebrew Title

English Translation

Main Topic

Zera’im Seeds Agricultural law

Appointed Times

Sabbath and Holidays
Nashim Women Marriage and Divprce
Nezikin Damages Civil and Criminal Law
Kodashim Holy Things Temple Rituals
Taharot Purifies  Ritual Purity

These six sections, abbreviated by the term Shas (shisha sidrei Mishnah) covered every legal aspect of Jewish life. The Talmud, which is discussed later, is essentially an extended commentary on the Mishnah. 

Rabbi Yehuda applied two basic principles to his editing work on the raw texts that formed the Mishnah. First, he practiced a studies conservatism, hesitant to discard texts even when they appeared deeply flawed. Fragmentary, misleading or redundant teachings were not included in the carefully crafted Mishnah, but they were nevertheless retained and ultimately preserved in other, less authoritative collections such as the baraitot and the tosefta. These rejected texts ultimately became very useful in the formulation  of the Talmud, as Rabbis used them as evidence in their heated arguments over the correct interpretation of the Mishnah.

Second, he intentionally preserved the oral character of these teachings by retaining variant opinions, even (or especially) when these voices contradicted accepted practice or ruling. Individual passages in the Mishnah typically express the opinion of two to four different opinions on a topic under discussion, without indicating which opinion is considered authoritative. In other words, the Mishnah is certainly not a law code, for if that were its main purpose, the only opinions presented would be the definitive, correct expressions of Jewish law. On the contrary–the Mishnah may appear to the novice student a jumble of opinions, without any sense of direction or purpose. Subjecting the Mishnah to the searching analysis of the Talmud, however, the finer subtleties of Rabbi Yehuda’s brilliant editing hand become obvious.

Ironically, it is the very ambiguities of the Mishnah that preserve the philosophical and pedagogic demands for orality.  Like many ancient texts, the Mishnah cannot be adequately learned without the guidance of a qualified teacher. More significantly, however, the Mishnah requires a study partner, or hevruta (Ashkenazic pronunciation: hevrusa, the “h” pronounced as a mild guttural).  The Mishnah alone is decidedly unhelpful to students working through the text on their own, since it filled with so many missing facts, logical dead ends, and dramatically inconclusive arguments. Like following a faint trail through the forest, A lone traveller can easily mistake slight variations in the terrain for the correct path, and ultimately end up very far from the intended destination. During the medieval period some important commentaries were penned by luminaries such as Maimonides, diminishing the opaque nature of the Mishnah, but Rabbi Yehudah’s remarkable achievement made a lasting imprint on the nature of Jewish learning, because the only way to effectively master the Mishnah was to process it, not merely read it. Processing meant the active engagement in the text, arguing interpretations with a hevruta, and consulting with a senior scholar to resolve lingering doubts. The Mishnah was not like a modern newspaper or novel that could be consumed in splendid isolation–by its very nature, it demanded a community of fellow learners to discover it together.

Thus the oral quality of the Oral Torah was largely preserved, and in fact deepened, because the scholarly energies that once went into faithful memorization of the text could now be expended in more sophisticated discussion of its contents. While praised for their intellectual toil, the unnamed sages who committed massive amounts of Rabbinic tradition to memory became more and more of a rarity. Those Rabbis, known as the tana’im or “teachers,” were replaced by a new type of scholar, the amora’im  or “speakers.”  The tana’im produced the texts that Rabbi Yehudah would assemble into the Mishnah, while the amora’im  would build on this to create the massive Talmud on the foundations of the Mishnah.  We will turn to the Talmud later in this work.

* * *

Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi exercised incredibly prescient and courageous leadership at a crucial turning point in Jewish history. The destruction of the Temple and the devastation of the population through dispersion, persecution and assimilation threatened to put an end to the millennial culture of Judaism. His brilliant conversion of the legal aspects of the Oral Torah into a written text artfully preserved the oral quality of the Rabbinic teachings, so carefully preserved over the centuries, and transformed the Jerusalem-centric religion into a portable faith that could (and would) exist I’m any climate. Accused of potentially destroying Judaism, his bold innovation actually preserved it.

The Fox in the Ruins: The Roman-Jewish Wars (HIS 155 Lecture 1.3)

Coin from the Bar-Kokhba movement. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. on Wikimedia Commons.
Coin from the Bar-Kokhba movement. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. on Wikimedia Commons.


To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.

Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

3. The Roman-Jewish Wars

Our sources for the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second centuries are more substantial than those of earlier periods, primarily because the importance of developments in this tiny region of the middle east extended far beyond its borders into the heart of the Empire itself.  From the Jewish perspective, the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple represented a collapse of Jewish nationhood that represented a dramatic interruption in the very cosmos. Rabbi Eleazar (no relation to the Eleazar of the 1st century) teaches, “from the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron separates the Jewish people from their Father in Heaven” (Talmud: Berakhot 32b). From the Roman perspective, this tiny country on the Mediterranean coast represented a perennial irritant, rebelling with the slightest provocation and draining military and administrative resources for centuries. Thus the Roman-Jewish wars received more historical attention, however biased, than any other period in Jewish history.

The principal Jewish source for the era is the Talmud, a massive and sprawling document that took centuries to compose, editing the oral teachings of Rabbis who lived well before the beginning of the Common Era and codified in its present form in the third century (the Jerusalem, or Palestinian Talmud) and the fifth century (the Babylonian Talmud). The scope and content of the Talmud will be discussed later in this work, but for our purposes at this point it is sufficient to note that the Talmud’s concern with history is principally religious in nature. Extracting historical data from the Talmud requires careful reading, often at odds with the intent of the authors of a given passage, who were more occupied with the transmission of ethical and spiritual truth than accurate historical data. Consider, for example, the Talmudic locus classicus on the causes of the  destruction of the Temple (Gittin 55b-56a):

Rabbi Yohanan said…the destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa in this way. A certain man had a friend named Kamtsa and an enemy named Bar Kamtsa. He once threw a party and said to his servant, “go summon Kamtsa.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtsa [by mistake]. When the host found him at the party he said, “…what are you doing here? Get out!”  Bar Kamtsa replied, “since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The host refused. Bar Kamtsa said, “then let me pay for half the cost of the party.” The host refused. “Let me pay for the whole party.” The host refused, and threw him out. 
 Bar Kamtsa said, “since the Rabbis were sitting there and did nothing, this shows that they agreed with the host. I will go to the state and malign them.” He went and said to the Emperor, “the Jews are rebelling against you!”  The Emperor asked, “how can this be proved?” Bar Kamtsa said, “send them an offering and see whether they will accept it as a sacrifice.” The Emperor sent Bar Kamtsa with a fine calf. 
 While on the way, Bar Kamtsa inflicted a wound on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place that constitutes a blemish for a sacrifice for Jews but not for others. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order to avoid offending the state, but Rabbi Zekharyah ben Avkulas objected, saying “people will say that blemished animals are accepted as sacrifices.”  The Rabbis then proposed that Bar Kamtsa be killed to remove the threat he represented, but Rabbi Zekharyah ben Avkulas said, “is it a capital crime to inflict a wound on a consecrated animal?” 
 Rabbi Yohanan then noted, “Rabbi Zekahyah ben Avkulas’ attention to detail facilitated the destruction of our House, the burning of our Temple, and our exile from our land.

This passage continues with more geopolitical and regional political information, but for the composers of the Talmud, the underlying cause of the first Roman-Jewish war had nothing to do with taxation or national oppression. The real cause of the destruction of the second Temple was in fact “baseless hatred” (sinat hinam), exemplified by the cruel treatment of Bar Kamtsa and his outsized demand for revenge. Also implicated are the Rabbis (the Talmud, like the Hebrew Scriptures in general, rarely fails to miss an opportunity for scathing self-criticism), first for ignoring the insult to Bar Kamtsa, and then later for their inability to see past the immediate ritual detail to the larger national implications of Bar Kamtsa’s plot.  For the Rabbis (Rabbi Yohanan in particular), this historical analysis is ultimately the most important takeaway message from the first Roman-Jewish war, and in fact Rabbi Yohanan’s interpretation conforms closely to the general nature of internal Jewish sectarian politics as well as the general tenor of Roman-Jewish relations. It remains relevant even if, for example, the entire story of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa is entirely fictional.

From the Roman side, our principal source is the prolific and complex figure of Flavius Josephus, a Jew who initially participated in fighting against the Romans.  Among his extensive literary achievements is an autobiography, a longish history of the Jews entitled Jewish Antiquities, and a major work on the first Roman-Jewish war, easily the most important contemporary source on the topic. Unfortunately, Josephus’ historical work presents many problems of interpretation, especially because only his Greek-language version has survived. Josephus also composed a version in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Jews of that era (more on this language later). The Greek version was certainly written for his Roman patrons and the wider population of the Empire, and it is difficult to imagine how he might have phrased things for a more parochial  Jewish readership in the land of Israel. His relationship with the Jewish population was certainly compromised by his defection to the Romans, especially given the particulars of his capture: surrounded by hostile forces, Josephus proposed a Masada-style mass suicide, but so engineered it that he would survive and then surrender. His decision has been characterized as treasonous, or at the very least a type of Pharisaic accommodation to overwhelming force, but at the very least it colors his depiction of the conflict as a whole.

Roman bust believed to be a likeness of Flavius Josephus. Looks Jewish to me.
Roman bust believed to be a likeness of Flavius Josephus. Looks Jewish to me.

* * * * *

With the decline of the Hasmonean kingdom in the first century BCE, the land of Israel came under the sway of the powerful Roman Empire. By 37 BCE the Romans ruled Israel directly through Herod, a descendant of the Idumean people whose conversion to Judaism was considered highly suspect by the Pharisees. Herod attempted to legitimize his rule by marrying a Hasmonean princess named Mariamne (Miriam), but later had her executed as part of a highly dysfunctional family dynamic that would satisfy the most jaded 21st century reality TV fan.  A controversial and powerful ruler, among his more lasting contribution to Jewish history are major renovations to the Temple and construction of impressive palaces.

Herod’s building campaign required extensive taxation, a burden on the Jewish population whose impact was felt decades after his death in 4 CE. Israel was divided among Herod’s sons, and then further downgraded to the status of a mere province of the Roman Empire. Tensions increased under the rule of Emperor Caligula (reigned 37-41 CE), particularly in the Jewish diaspora in Egypt, as Jews bristled under the imposition of civic requirements that directly assaulted their religious sensibilities.  Roman officials could not seem to understand that the Jews, with their intense monotheism and high aversion to physical representations of worship, would refuse to bow down to statues of the Emperor and the like. Such acts of overt obeisance and fealty were anathema to the Jews, even though Romans considered them simply markers of good citizenship, like standing for the national anthem at a sporting event today. Classical literature, both Greek and Latin, is rife with references to the supposed misanthropy of the Jews, invariably the result of basic misunderstandings of Jewish culture. Circumcision and the dietary laws were seen as exclusionary and clannish, the Sabbath laws were interpreted as inherent laziness and sloth, and so on. The Weltanschauung of the Jews was diametrically opposed to that of the Romans, and there seemed to be no way to mediate this conflict.

Judea erupted in open revolt in the year 66. According to Josephus, the flashpoint occurred in the coastal city of Caesaria, where Roman officials tolerated an open display of idol worship in front of a Jewish synagogue.  In Jerusalem, a Temple official named Eleazar formally ceased prayers on behalf of the Roman Empire, prompting a swift and brutal reaction from the Romans, which in turn ignited a larger outbreak led by the zealots, who overran the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.  Many of the leaders of this early revolt came from a group known as the sicarii (“knife-men,” from the latin term for dagger), a splinter group of Zealots.

The rebels enjoyed early successes, including a remarkable victory over the Romans at Bet Holon, but the endgame was inevitably in favor of the Romans. The Emperor Nero appointed his general Vespasian to manage the conflict, whose strategy apparently included a profound understanding of Jewish rebel behavior.  Vespasian intentionally ignored Jerusalem for the initial period of the war, allowing the Jewish rebels to engage in brutal and violent internecine struggles that eroded their strength without Roman interference. Vespasian and his son Titus conquered the Galilee region in the north, and then slowly made their way down the Mediterranean coast, leaving Jerusalem for last. Vespasian did not complete the task, as Rome was thrown in turmoil by the suicide of Nero and a succession of brief-lived emperors. In 69 Vespasian was proclaimed ruler of the Roman Empire, and he left Titus to crush the remnants of the Jewish rebellion.

Vespasian’s invitation to Rome had important reverberations in Jewish history. The Talmud describes Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s foresight in the context of the rebellion, as well as shedding light on the nature of Pharisee-Zealot relations. Convinced that the rebellion was doomed, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai sought to negotiate with Vespasian and create a kind of intellectual Noah’s ark, ultimately preserving the spiritual heritage of Judaism. The Zealots, however, refused to allow him to leave the city, suspecting that he would betray their cause. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his students request permission from the rebels to remove his coffin for burial, but the rebels remained suspicious.  Permission was granted, but only after the rebel guards drove iron bars through the top of the coffin to prove that he was in fact deceased. Amazingly, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai survived, and emerged from his coffin outside the city walls to meet with Vespasian.  The Rabbi surprised Vespasian with the accurate prediction that he would become Emperor, and in gratitude Vespasian granted Rabbi Yohanan his three requests.

“Give me Yavneh and its Sages,” asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, a fateful statement that would ensure nothing less than the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Vespasian agreed to allow the Rabbis to congregate unmolested in the coastal city of Yavneh.  Vespasian also spared the descendants of Rabban Gamilel and allowed a physician to treat Rabbi Tsadok. Unwittingly, Vespasian’s promise to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai would ultimately allow the Jews to outlive the Roman Empire itself. Jerusalem would fall, and Vespasian would have his victory, but Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s triumph was still greater.

Jerusalem succumbed to Titus’ forces shortly thereafter.  The Temple was destroyed, an event that has been commemorated by Jews ever since on the 9th day of the month of Av, a day of fasting and mourning.  There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of the French Emperor Napoleon entering a synagogue on the 9th of Av, expecting a warm welcome from the Jews for destroying the ghetto walls and proclaiming their freedom. He asked why they fasted and sat on the floor, and the story relates that he was amazed to hear that the Jews were mourning the destruction of the Temple and the loss of their homeland. “Any people who can mourn their homeland and Temple after nineteen hundred years,” he is reputed to have said, “will one day regain their homeland and Temple.”

* * * * *

Even with the Temple in ruins, the Zealots continued to fight on against the Romans, making their last stand at Masada, a stark and imposing flat-topped mountain next to the Dead Sea. Isolated in the arid Judean Desert and scorched by the sun at the lowest point relative to sea level on the face of the planet, the Zealots held off the Romans until the year 73, when they massacred themselves in a huge suicide pact which only a few survived.  In the twentieth century, Masada took on huge symbolic importance for the fledgling Israeli state, and many officers in the Israeli Defense Force were sworn into duty atop the mountain to the slogan “Masada will not fall again.” Josephus’ account of hundreds of suicides does not seem to be supported by the archaeological evidence, however, and the issue of suicide remains problematic in Jewish law, not to mention political ideology. The last stand at Masada and the characterization of role of the Zealots in the first Roman-Jewish War continues to be a subject of debate among Israelis.

The Second Roman-Jewish War was fought in the following century.  A much more modest conflict, some historians prefer not to use the term “war” to describe the conflict at all, while others prefer to call it the Third Roman-Jewish War, considering a revolt in 115 the second.  At any rate, the Bar Kokhba movement was clearly the most influential in Jewish history after the First Roman-Jewish War, and we will follow that designation here.  A charismatic leader by the name Shimon bar Kosiba, known popularly as Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”) because the Aramaic translation of his name could be rendered “son of a lie,” rallied Jews for another challenge to Roman domination (after the failure of the insurrection, his detractors used this in a derogatory fashion). His movement had very strong religious and even messianic overtones, and the elderly Pharisaic scholar Rabbi Akiva openly endorsed it, proclaiming Bar Kokhba the long-awaited Messiah despite the opposition of many of his contemporaries.

The movement learned from many of the errors of the earlier conflicts, and in the year 132 struck a Roman garrison in Modi’in. The Romans were unprepared for the conflict, and Bar Kokhba’s forces were able to hold them off for three years of brutal guerilla warfare before they succumbed at a final battle at Betar.  Emperor Hadrian imposed horrific persecutions following the defeat of the rebels, including the grotesque execution of Rabbis who had supported Bar Kokhba, known in Jewish tradition as the “Ten Martyrs of the State.”  They included Rabbi Akiva himself, whose death by flaying with iron combs was immortalized by his students in the Talmud. “All my life,” he said as he endured the Roman tortures, “I wanted to fulfill the verse, ‘and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Now I finally have the opportunity to love God with all my soul, will I not take advantage of this?” He died with the verse, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” on his lips, the last phrase that a Jew must utter before dying.



Judaism and the Origins of Christianity HIS 155 Lecture 1.4

Synagoga, Notre Dame de Paris (19th c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Synagoga, Notre Dame de Paris (19th c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Born in turbulent times, Christianity emerged from its intensely Jewish roots to become the official religion of the Roman Empire within a remarkably brief period of time.  As a daughter religion to Judaism, however, dissent between the two faiths slowly dominated the discourse as Christianity became less of a Jewish movement, and more of a choice favored by gentiles throughout the Empire.

To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.


Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

4. Judaism and the Origins of Christianity

From a Jewish perspective, the pivotal figure in the birth of Christianity was Saint Paul rather than Jesus.  A self-described persecutor of the early followers of Jesus, he never met Jesus in life, but recounts a dramatic conversionary experience while on the road to Damascus sometime around the year 35 CE.  Jesus appeared to him and addressed him by less well-known Jewish name Saul, asking why he insisted on attacking the nascent movement.  Struck blind for three days, Paul emerged from the encounter as Jesus’ most devoted disciple, ultimately traveling throughout the eastern Mediterranean and initiating the landslide of support for Jesus that would culminate in the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early 4th century CE. Without Paul’s activity (and precluding any Divine status, of course), the ultimate trajectory of Jesus’ teachings Jesus would probably have been lost to Jewish history.

Who was Jesus, Jewishly speaking? Despite the phenomenal impact he had on world history, the sources we have to understand his life are precious few and deeply flawed. Specifically, we must rely on the testimonies of his followers, recorded often decades after Jesus’ death sometime in the 30s, and later redacted into the Christian Bible. Four of these texts, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, describe the life of Jesus and his relationship with the larger Jewish community. The nuanced changes between these texts reflect not only the relationship of the authors to Jesus himself, but the image of Jews as they were perceived in the decades following Jesus’ death when the Gospels were set to writing. Other books in the Christian Bible, notably the many works of Paul, are also valuable as insights into the way Jesus was perceived by the Jews of his day.

Working with the four basic religio-political orientations of the early first century, it seems clear that Jesus be understood as a “rebellious Pharisee.” The predominant thrust of his teachings are certainly well in line with the Rabbis, in particular Hillel, whom Jesus borrows from liberally. Jesus’ emphasis on humility, pacifism, and the importance of basic ethical conduct place him squarely within the parameters of traditional Pharisaic, or Rabbinic, Judaism. Indeed, many of his most eloquent pronouncements are actually paraphrases or even direct quotations of biblical passages or rabbinic teachings, including Matthew 22:36-40, in which Jesus refers explicitly to the Hear, O Israel prayer (the shema, Deuteronomy 6:5) as the greatest commandment, followed by “love your neighbor as yourself” (quoting Leviticus 19:18).

At the same time, Jesus was known for his unconventional and often assertive challenges to authority, even Rabbinic authority. Consider for example one of his childhood exploits, the “overturning of the tables of the moneychangers,” described in Matthew 21:12-13. The Temple rituals required a large number of sacrificial animals, including doves that were purchased by pilgrims in Jerusalem. Furthermore, certain mandatory offerings required the use of specific coinage such as the half-shekel contribution. As a result, the Temple courtyard was a place of considerable business transactions, a  market where buyers and sellers would trade for religious purposes. Jesus evidently found this crass commercialism unbecoming to the dignity of the Temple, and created something of a ruckus, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and exclaiming “it is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer”…and you have turned it into a den of robbers!” The sentiment would sit well with the Rabbinic aversion to duplicity in business, but Jesus’ actions would clearly put him on the extreme end of the spectrum of Pharisaic response to corruption, hardly the  “strategic retreat” described in a previous chapter.

Christ Expels the Moneychangers from the Temple, Cecco del Caravaggio, 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Christ Expels the Moneychangers from the Temple, Cecco del Caravaggio, 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another example of Jesus’ difference from conventional Pharisees would be his pronounced populism, a tendency that often put him in circles that the Rabbis would generally avoid, including prostitutes, thieves, and even tax collectors. Invariably, these individuals were admirably transformed by their contact with Jesus, but the very fact that Jesus ministered to them stands in contrast to many Rabbinic teachings, such as Nitai of Arbel’s statement, i”distance yourself from an evil neighbor” (Avot 1:7). Jesus clearly defined his own path, although the general direction of his teachings were clearly in line with the views of the Pharisees.

Readers of the New Testament may therefore be puzzled by the fact that Jesus has some remarkably strong debates with Pharisees.  How could he be a Pharisee himself, and voice such harsh criticism? Consider for example Matthew 23, in which Jesus launches into a chapter-long condemnation of the Pharisees, describing them as two-faced, cold, arrogant figures who care only for their own honor and little for the people as a whole. Passages such as this have caused the word “Pharisee” to enter the English language as a synonym for “hypocrite” or “self-righteous.”

In reality, Jesus’ invective must be understood as a type of family dynamic: Jesus condemns the Pharisees so harshly precisely because he is closest to them. Just as a sibling will not hesitate to voice strong criticism to a brother or sister because their close relationship permits such communication, so too Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because he considers himself (and was probably so considered) a member of the family.  Jesus and his teachings are best understood as the expressions of a strong statement of Pharisaic Judaism, perhaps couched in a stronger form than was considered appropriate for the Rabbis of his day, but nevertheless squarely within the family dynamic.

* * *

From the perspective of Jewish history, however, Jesus’ death was far more significant than his life. Jews have suffered centuries of persecution for their perceived role in his crucifixion, a charge which not only has no basis in historical reality, it also has no relationship to the Gospel text itself. Nevertheless, Jesus’ cruel fate, known as the Deicide or “killing of god,” was often the pretext for violence against Jewish communities well into the twentieth century.

The basics of Jesus’ end are well known to readers of the Christian New Testament. Jesus is betrayed by one of his own followers (the unfortunately named Judas) to the Roman authorities. This betrayal was likely viewed with sympathy by the Sadducees, represented by the High Priest Caiaphas, who convened a trial in the Jewish court of the Sanhedrin to condemn Jesus (described in Matthew 26). The Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate jailed Jesus and, as per a custom undocumented in any other source, he offered the Jews the opportunity to free him as an act of Roman clemency. The Jewish mob assembled before Pilate, however, insisted that he free Barabbas, a common thief, instead. When Pilate asked the Jews to confirm this choice, they responded “his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). Pilate then famously “washed his hands” of the affair, sealing Jesus’ fate. He was scourged and crucified, the typically Roman form of capital punishment. The Jews’ response, recorded by the author of the Gospel According to Matthew several decades after Jesus’ death, would be understood by contemporary readers as a prefigurement of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Unfortunately, readers in later centuries have interpreted this passage as a biblical sanction for Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, with dire results.

Blaming Jews for the death of Jesus is also a direct violation of the very basic Christian theological principal that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, and not because of historical accident of any particular group’s behavior at the time, neither Jew nor Roman nor Greek (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). As we will discuss in later chapter, however,  even a fundamental and inspiring Christian theological concept of the collective human guilt for Jesus’ death is no match for the elemental force that is human hatred. As Jean-Paul Sartre once famously put it, “if the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.”

* * *

The rise of Paul, Jesus’ most prominent disciple, signified a dramatic change in the fledgling Christian movement. Born in Tarsus to a middle-class Jewish family of tent makers, Paul’s personal conversion to early Christianity marked the beginning of an increasing gentlization of the movement, as more and more non-Jews chose to become followers of the martyred Jesus. Paul, in contrast to many of the other apostles, encouraged this trend, arguing that Jesus’ message of salvation was too big for the tiny circle of Jewish followers he had attracted in Judea, and deserved to be heard by Greeks and Romans as well.

Paul’s position provoked a major debate among early Christians with regards the proper role of the Torah, or as Paul repeatedly put it in Greek, “the Law” (nomos). Two aspects of the debate are especially relevant for our purposes. First, what was the relationship of the practical commandments of the Law for Christians, Jew and Gentile?  Did Jesus’ ministry obviate the standard requirements of Jewish life, including the dietary laws, the Sabbath and so on, or did halakhah remain as authoritative as ever?  Furthermore, were Gentile converts to Christianity similarly obligated as Jewish Christians to submit to circumcision and other Jewish practices? It must be remembered that “Christianity” per se did not even exist at this time, merely a circle of Jews struggling to articulate the legacy of their late, charismatic leader. Paul’s record on the demands of the Law is somewhat ambivalent, but history decided the matter for him: as Gentile Christians steadily outnumbered the dwindling percentage of Jewish Christians through the second and third centuries, the observance of any form of halakhah withered.

The second debate concerning the role of the Law was perhaps still more significant. As mentioned earlier, the very antiquity of Judaism was highly valued in the ancient world, and the Torah was correctly viewed as the central proof for the validity and value of the faith. If Jesus’ teachings were viewed as a departure from that text, the movement would lose a considerable amount of prestige among would-be Gentile converts. A passage in Deuteronomy illustrates the disdain the ancients had for the faddish new religions that Jews seem prone to adopt “for they worship gods that no one heard of, and people say, ‘oh,  that’s just a new Jewish thing.”  Christianity’s organic connection to the Torah was obvious to the early Jewish followers, but how would Gentiles understand it? Furthermore, it was very clear that the Torah and later prophetic writings were an extended story of a particular people and their God–how did the new religion describe the relationship of Gentiles to this story? In particular, what was to be done with the numerous passages that affirmed the Jews as God’s “chosen people”?

The consensus that emerged from Paul’s ministry is known as the Concept of Election, an aspect of the Pauline Doctrine that transformed Christianity into a Gentile movement. Basically, the solution to the contradiction between the chosen status of the Jews in the Bible and the elevation of the Christians (including Gentile converts to Christianity) was that Jews had lost God’s favor through their refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.  This act of betrayal irreparably severed the relationship between the Jews and God, argues the theory, and this connection can only be regained through acceptance of Jesus as Messiah. The true inheritors of the biblical promise are the Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, and the Hebrew scriptures must be read as an extended and sophisticated prefigurement of Jesus’ ministry and the future life of the  Church.

* * *

Representation of Church and Synagogue from the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. Note the upright staff of the crowned Church, contrasted with the broken, bareheaded Synagogue. Church holds the Holy Grail whereas Synagogue is slowly releasing the tablets of the Law. Most significantly, Church’s eyes are open , while Synagogue’s eyes are blinded by an ominous snake wrapped around her head. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Representation of Church and Synagogue from the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. Note the upright staff of the crowned Church, contrasted with the broken, bareheaded Synagogue. Church holds the Holy Grail whereas Synagogue is slowly releasing the tablets of the Law. Most significantly, Church’s eyes are open , while Synagogue’s eyes are blinded by an ominous snake wrapped around her head. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The separation between traditionalist Jews and Jewish Christians was mutually reinforced by the turn of the first century with the institution of a specific “blessing” in the daily Amidah prayer.  Composed by Samuel the Lesser, the text of this liturgical insertion specifically calls down condemnation on the “informers” (malshinim) understood in context as a reference to Jewish Christians who may have slandered the Jewish community to Roman authorities. This insertion—which remains in the traditional liturgy to this day—was used as public litmus test to eliminate Jews who harbored Christian sensibilities from the broader community. A person suspected of Christian leanings would be asked to lead the prayer services, and the audience would listen carefully for the inclusion or exclusion of this new passage: if the prayer leader uttered it, that was a demonstration of fidelity to the community and a rejection of Christian belief. Omitting the passage would reveal the individual’s sympathy for the Christian movement, and could lead to forcible eviction from the synagogue and widespread communal ostracism.  Some scholars believe the apostle John suffered such a fate, and in fact the Gospel of John contains some of the strongest anti-Jewish language of the all Christian scripture. 

By the second or third decade of the second century, the rift between Judaism and Christianity was complete. Belief in a corporeal son of god was simply incompatible with traditionalist beliefs, let alone a deceased Messiah. Unlike many other heterodox movements within Judaism, however, the increasing proportion of Gentiles participating in the early Church, particularly given their non-observance of Jewish law, made reabsorption of Jewish Christians into the traditionalist community impossible. Writing decades and even centuries later, the Rabbis of the Talmud look back on this separation with a variety of perspectives, often condemning Jesus in harsh terms. One passage found in Tractate Sotah (47a), however, presents a more wistful perspective.  The section is hardly historical, yet it says much about how the Rabbis retrospectively viewed the development of Christianity.

The passage is cited in the context of a discussion of proper pedagogic behavior: teachers are urged to “draw close with the right hand and push away with the left,” meaning, make students feel valued (draw close with the right, stronger hand) while maintaining appropriate professional distance (push away with the left). Teachers should not, the Talmud warns, “push away with both hands…like Yehoshua ben Perahyah, who pushed away his student with both hands.” His student is identified as none other than Jesus, and the Talmud records an incident that, at least metaphorically, marked the origins of Christianity.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah were traveling and stopped at an in, where they were treated with great honor and hospitality by a female inkeeper. The Rabbi remarked to Jesus, “How pleasant is this woman,” using a Hebrew word (na’ah) that could be misunderstood as “beautiful.” Jesus, the story goes, took the Rabbi’s comment the wrong way, and responded “well, her eyes are a little too round.” Incensed that Jesus thought he was speaking of her physical appearance, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah placed Jesus in excommunication with a blast of four hundred shofar horns (a typical Talmudic use of hyperbole). Chastened, Jesus begged forgiveness on several occasions, only to be repeatedly rejected. Finally, Jesus approached his teacher during the shema prayer, which may not be interrupted. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah had in mind to accept Jesus back into his good graces, and held up his hand to indicate that he should wait until the prayer was concluded. Once again Jesus misunderstood the gesture, thinking it was yet another rejection, and he left for good. The separation—the result of tragic miscommunication—was complete.

The fascinating aspect of this story, and its inclusion in  the Talmud, is that the point of the story for Jewish readers is not the origins of Christianity, but the criticism of Jesus’ teacher. His overly harsh treatment of Jesus, “pushing away with both hands,” contributed to the divorce between Judaism and early Christianity, with far-reaching ramifications.

Two Jews, Three Opinions: Jews and Judaism in the Year Zero (HIS 155 Lecture 1.2)

Duro-Europas Synagogue Mural (3rd c.).  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Duro-Europas Synagogue Mural (3rd c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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 Excerpt from

“The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

2. Jews and Judaism in the Year Zero

Two Jews, three opinions. 

The year zero was not nearly as auspicious or significant for Jews as it would later be for Christians. Jews observe a calendar beginning with the Biblical account of Creation, which would make 0 in the contemporary Gregorian calendar the year 3760 through 3761 in the Jewish calendar. Why 3760 through 3761?  The Jewish New Year (Hebrew: Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year”) occurs in the fall, perfectly timed for maximal interference with the beginning of the school year. There’s a lot more to say about the nature of the Hebrew calendar (like, for example, Rosh Hashanah actually marks the beginning of the seventh month, not the first), but let us just clarify one small point: the Jewish holidays are never “late” or “early” in relation to the Gregorian calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunisolar, meaning, it follows the lunar calendar of approximately 354 days per year, with periodic corrections to keep the seasons aligned with particular months. It is unlike the purely lunar Muslim calendar, in “loses” eleven days out of the 365 solar cycle every year, thus shifting the seasons every eight years (imagine January in the middle of the summer).  The Jewish calendar is also unlike the solar Gregorian calendar of 365 days, which corrects itself by subtracting a day in leap years which occur approximately every four years. In place of that small, periodic adjustment, the Jewish calendar adds a leap month seven times over a sixteen-year cycle.

Returning to our discussion of the non-event of the Year Zero: it may not have been an auspicious date, but it has a certain ring to it, and it serves as a good marker to illustrate the fractious and difficult nature of Jewish communal politics of that era. It was certainly a time when the proverbial statement, “two Jews, three opinions” would apply, as Jews were divided along several major fault lines regarding one crucial notion: what to do about the Roman occupation of Israel. These fault lines would deepen though the course of the first century, ultimately ending in political disaster with the outbreak of the Roman-Jewish wars, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews from their homeland.

* * * * *

Our primary sources for the earliest period of Jewish history may be classified into three basic categories. First and foremost, we have the Bible, a massive and massively important document that is at the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and western culture in general. Second, we have the texts that were also-rans to the Hebrew Bible, books that circulated in the ancient period yet were not incorporated into the canonical text. Finally, we have exogenous sources, meaning those texts that originate from outside the Jewish tradition, authored by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Let us briefly consider each of these in turn.

The Hebrew Bible is known by the acronym “TaNaKh,” which stands for Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim (Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings). According to traditional Jewish theology, the Torah is the complete and correct transcript of God’s dictation to Moses (although some medieval commentators disagree regarding the passage in Deuteronomy 34 that describe’s Moses’ death and burial). The Prophets and the Writings, on the other hand, are understood as the writings of individuals blessed with divine inspiration. These books are placed within a coherent narrative tradition by a parallel body of teachings known as the Oral Torah, using a complex and  distinctive hermeneutical system of interpretation, a subject that we will return to later in this text. For our purposes at this point, it is significant only to mention that the Tanakh is an excellent source of religious information, but its authors were not primarily concerned with the production of a scholarly historical document. The Tanakh is a religious document, intended to promote spiritual edification and conformity to the will of God. The fact that it includes some valuable historical data is ancillary to its main purpose.

Nevertheless, the Tanakh is our first go-to source for early Jewish history, and we can only attempt to verify or modify its account with other discoveries such as new archaeological finds. It is from the Tanakh that we derive the ur-history of the Jewish people, originating with Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia to Israel, followed by the descent of the Jews into Egyptian slavery (Genesis), their miraculous redemption and wandering in the desert (Exodus and Numbers in particular), conquest of Israel (Joshua, Judges), and their first monarchies (Samuel).

Alongside the Tanakh are a series of fascinating books that circulated in the ancient Jewish world but did not, for various reasons, make the grade of inclusion in the Tanakh. These works, known in Rabbinic literature by the scandalous term “outside books” (sefarim hitsoni’im), were nevertheless sometimes incorporated into the canonical texts of other faiths under the Greek term apocrypha (“writings that are hidden away”). In contemporary usage, the term apocryphal carries the meaning of something that is obscure and perhaps not totally reliable, consonant with the mainstream Jewish perspective of the ancient period. These books, most of which were authored by Jews and with broadly similar intent to the books collected in Tanakh, tend to date from the later centuries of the ancient period, and provide additional clarification and details on historical events that are ignored or mentioned only in passing in the Tanakh and later Rabbinic literature.  The Catholic Bible, for example, included two apocryphal works entitled I and II Maccabees that shed tremendous light on the Hasmonean movement of the 2nd century BCE.

Finally, we have scattered references to Jews in explicitly non-Jewish literary and archaeological sources. The earliest of these sources is the stele of the Pharaoh Merneptah (c. 1230 BCE), discovered in 1896. The text includes a passage that reads “Israel is wasted, it’s seed exists no more.” A dire and evidently false statement, it stands in ironically dramatic contrast to the remains of the Pharaoh Merneptah himself, who is not holding up nearly as well as his stele is.

Merneptah Stele
Merneptah Stele. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Merneptah. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Merneptah. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This illustrates two obvious drawbacks of non-Jewish sources from the ancient period. First, they are rather few in number, in marked contrast to the huge role that Jewish history would play in the development of western culture. Second, they are highly tendentious, more often than not portraying the Jews in an unnecessarily negative light. Usually these early ruminations on Jews and Jewish culture are based on simple misunderstanding. For example, many cultures found the Jewish Sabbath hard to comprehend, and the mandatory rest on that day was often confused with laziness. Similarly, the dietary restrictions of kashrut meant that only specially prepared food could be consumed, and this was misperceived as a type of misanthropy or clannishness. Thus non-Jewish sources, while valuable for their perspective, must nevertheless be put into the context of their preconceived notions of Jews and Judaism.

* * * * *

The last historical events treated in the Tanakh include the division of the early Jewish polity into two warring states, Judah in the south and Israel in the north (see the the Book of Kings), followed by the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians in the late 8th century BCE and the deportation of the population (the so-called Ten Lost Tribes). Another conquest, this time by the Babylonians in the sixth century resulted in a fairly brief exile of much of the Judean population to Mesopotamia (Jeremiah). After a few decades, the Jews are allowed to return and rebuild the Temple (Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel).

The scene for most post-biblical history begins in the late 4th century, when Alexander the Great emerges from Macedon and creates a massive empire linking the entire eastern portion of the Mediterranean, stretching through Mesopotamia and extending as far as contemporary Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander’s conquest allowed for the rapid spread of Greek culture throughout the region. Hellenism, from the Greek word “hellas” for Greece, refers to the infusion of Greek ideas, everything from philosophy to science, from literature to art, from political theory to aesthetic value. Hellenism found a deeply receptive audience in the Jews, and the impact of Greek thought is pervasive in virtually every area of Jewish activity after the Alexandrian conquest.  In many ways, western culture as a whole can be tied to this specific moment, the point of contact between Greek and Jewish thought, the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem.  The Greeks provided much of the logic and basic principles that underpin western thought, whereas the Jews provided ethical monotheism, the concept of a personal Deity who listens to prayer, who rewards and punishes based on a consistent behavioral code laid down in a revealed text.

The Jews immediately recognized the complementary aspects of Greek and Jewish thought, incorporating for example much of the style of Socratic argument into debates over the meaning of scripture, recording them later in the Talmud. In other ways, however, Greek and Jewish thought were polar opposites, exterting conflicting gravitational pressures on the Jewish people that threatened to destroy the integrity of their national community. Take, for example, the Hellenistic concept of beauty. There was nothing more beautiful than the naked human form engaged in strenuous athletic activity. The Greeks celebrated this through nude wrestling competitions, and spectators enjoyed the display of athletic prowess of the contestants as an aesthetic event. Judaism, on the other hand, emphasizes the value of modesty in dress.  Also relevant is the contraditction between the distinct and emphatic Jewish prohibitions against male homosexual activity on the one hand, and Greek adulation of relations between men as the ideal form of love (the origins of the often misused term “Platonic relationship”).

Matters came to a head in the middle of the 2nd century BCE when a revolt lead by Matthias, known as the “Hammer,” developed into a full-scale civil war between the Hellenizing Jews, known in Hebrew as the mityavnim (literally, “those who make themselves Greek”) and the more traditionalist-minded Jews who sought to reject the creeping influence of Greek mores into Jewish society.  The Maccabees were ultimately successful in wresting control of the region from their Greek-supported coreligionists, initiating the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish rule. The entire conflict, celebrated in the Jewish calendar as the holiday of Hanukah (“dedication,” so named for the removal of Greek from the Temple and its rededication to traditional Jewish worship), is fundamentally a triumph of traditionalism over assimilation. It is therefore the height of irony that the holiday falls in December, when mistakenly celebrate it with symbols of ecumenism like a “Hanuakhah Bush.” Decorating a Christmas tree with blue-and-white Stars of David is precisely the kind of phenomenon that started the Hanukah rebellion in the first place.

* * * * *

Internal conflict within the Hasmonean dynasty led to its inevitable decline and ultimate subjugation to the power of Rome ascendant, and Israel was firmly under Roman rule by the last decades of the 1st century BCE.  Four distinct strategies developed among Jews on the question of how to relate to the Roman overlords, and no love was lost between the adherents of each position. It is too trite to apply the tired cliché “history repeats itself” to Jewish history, but the bon mot attributed to Mark Twain may be appropriate: “history never repeats itself but it rhymes.” The example of Jewish disunity in the face of disaster is a trope that plagues the Jewish people from time immemorial.

The first major group were the Sadducees, who argued that capitulation to the Romans was the best national policy for the Jewish people. Roman power was overwhelming, toppling far greater empires than the tiny Jewish state, and its control would ultimately stretch from Atlantic in the west to eastern shores of the Black Sea. Moreover, the Romans were content to allow the Jews their cultic Temple rituals, and therefore the Sadducees sought to cement their power around the Temple and its mandatory, daily sacrifices. They differed on key points in Jewish theology, particulary regarding the authority of the Oral Torah and the existence of life after death. Protected by Roman authority, they grew further and further from the Jewish masses.

By contrast, the Pharisees advocated a policy of tactical retreat. Faced with the choice of revolt against the Romans or complete surrender, the Pharisees elected to separate themselves from political debate as much as possible, even though this meant ceded control of the Temple rituals.  Known in Hebrew as ther perushim, or “those that separate,” the Pharisees maintained small circles around populist, charismatic teachers. Closer to the people than to authority, the Pharisees engendered strong discipleship, with students eagerly attending to the teachings of their master, then passing that wisdom onto their students in return. Jews who did not have the freedom or ability to engage in in-depth study of the Torah (and especially the Oral Torah) were known as amei ha-arets, or “people of the land,” a term that was obliquely syonymous with “unlearned.” Despite the inherent elitism fostered by the intellectual meritocracy of the Pharisees, they were largely respected by the larger population, and ultimately formed the basis of what would later be called Rabbinic Judaism.

A third strategy was advocated by the Zealots, an umbrella term that includes several groups united by the quixotic and ill-fated goal of driving the Romans out of Israel. The Zealots, completely unrealistic in their assessment of Jewish and Roman military might, often fought with Jewish groups that opposed their self-destructive strategy. Ultimately, the Zealots’ policy of rejection of Roman rule would precipitate the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second century, a topic that will be treated more extensively in the next chapter.

Finally, it should be recalled that Israel, then as now, is a perpetual vortex of spirituality. The belief that the long-awaited Messiah was nigh permeated, in one form or another, all of the groups mentioned so far, but none greater than the Essenes and other ascetic Jewish groups that advocated immediate and radical withdrawal from the political environment. Celibate and often living in remote isolation, these groups argued that Jews should retreat from everything and focus on preparation for the end of history. Much of what we know of this last category of political stategy is revealed by the discovery in the 1950s of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a treasure trove of documents (including portions of all the books of the Hebrew bible) found in a cave near Qumran, near the Dead Sea.

Ultimately, these four political strategies (the capitulation of the Sadducees, the tactical retreat of the Pharisees, the rejection of the Zealots and the radical retreat of the Essenes) defined the borders of Jewish political thought in the Year Zero, and set the stage for the conflagration that would shortly engulf them all.

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“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” (HIS 155 Lecture 1.1)

Merneptah Stele, earliest non-Jewish reference to Jewish history. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Merneptah Stele, earliest non-Jewish reference to Jewish history. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Instructions: please watch the lecture, review the reading below, and kindly take the anonymous poll.  Thank you!

To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.


Excerpt from The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History

Henry Abramson

1. What is Jewish History?

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” 

So runs the old joke, condensing the massive scope of Jewish history into a single pithy statement. From Pharaoh to Haman, from Hadrian to Hitler, this vision of Jewish history describes a pattern of persecution by vicious, even pathological enemies, followed by miraculous salvation and a brief respite before the cycle begins again. Implicit also is the belief in an ultimate and final redemption that will finally bring everything to a glorious and fulfilling end. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (paraphrasing Theodore Parker), “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In the Jewish tradition, Maimonides’ statement of faith encapsulates the confidence in the final denouement of Jewish history:  “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, nevertheless I await his arrival.”

History in general, and Jewish history in particular, should be understood as the encapsulation of a distinct and coherent narrative that lays a strata of meaning on the otherwise chaotic and random series of events that make up quotidian life. History provides a framework for the creation of civic mythology, the term used here not in the sense of something false, rather in the sense of widely shared stories that define the essential values of a culture or society.  Circulated in a Homeric fashion, children are often taught these stories at an early age, inculcating a common consciousness of the elements that render meaning to the assembly of a discrete group of people and their collective activity.  What American child, for example, has not heard of George Washington’s response to his father, surveying a fallen cherry tree: “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet?” The fact that this story may have emerged fully-formed from the imagination of an early 19th century biographer, without any basis in reality, is not relevant: children hearing this story about the first President of the United States learn that truthfulness, courage, and even repentance after error are all American values (not to mention wanton disregard for the environment). The veracity of historical data is not nearly as important as the willingness to share a common perception of that reality.  It is no coincidence that the word “story” is fully embedded in the word “history.”

Jews, perhaps more than any other people on this planet, have mastered the narrative power of history, imbuing this power into centures of shared ritual activities that initiate children and reconfirm adults, generation after generation. Consider the narrative impact of the Passover ritual, a classic example of the “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” narrative. The family gathers around a table that has been radically transformed for the event, completely removing all leavened products from the home. Each participant is given symbolic equal access to the historical data in the form of the Haggadah, translated and illustrated to maximize its communicative ability as the text is read, studied, and debated. The patriarch of the family typically leads the seder, but great prominence is given at the beginning of the meal to the youngest participants, who must ask the four ritual questions, all of which focus on the purely physical and even technical minutiae of the evening: why do we lean, why do we dip our food twice, and so on. The observations of the mundane provide an excuse for a deep communal participation in historical memory,  a multi-media event that stimulates not only the intellect but even the body through the gastronomic experiences.  I remember myself how, when I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old and my father insisted I taste a small amount of my Aunt Enid’s ground horseradish. Never having eaten anything like it, I took a generous helping of what I thought was a candy-like substance into my mouth. It was as if my entire body rejected the bitter herbs all at once: my eyes thickened and teared, my temperature rose several degrees, my throat constricted, and so on. I turned to my father in surprise and shock, and he said to me, “that’s slavery.” I remember thinking that if just a small spoonful of slavery tasted this bad, how awful it must have been to endure it for an entire day, a year, a lifetime!  The historical experience of the Exodus was forever seared in my memory.

Thus the Jews, throughout their millennial travels, translated their narrative of history into thousands of rituals large and small, communicating common values through shared storytelling.  The term “storytelling” has a distinctly childish connotation, but its importance is deadly serious. Without storytelling, the Jewish people cannot survive. Good stories–stories that are logical, comprehensible but sophisticated, stories with mystery and wonder–serve a distinct social function by reinforcing commitment to group integrity. The breakdown of these stories, or the dearth of good storytellers, represent challenges to the spiritual, philosophical, and even physical well-being of the Jewish polity. Stories convey meaning to group existence: when there is no story to be told, there is no point belonging to a community, a nation, or a people.

Ironically, the traditionally Jewish narrative of history is not weakened by periods of persecution, it is strengthened thereby. Another Jewish ritual to illustrate: hard boiled eggs are customarily consumed on occasions of loss or tragedy, such as after funerals, on the eve of Tisha B’Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem), and even as an appetizer in the aforementioned Passover meal. This is because Jewish tradition compares the egg to the Jewish people as a whole: the longer it boils, the harder it gets. Persecution, loss, and tragedy make the Jewish people stronger, not weaker.  How so? Through the narrative power of history. The experience of persecution links a generation to their past, absorbing the meaning of that specific tragedy within the larger narrative of the long arc that describes the Jewish passage through time. “In each and every generation,” reads the Haggadah, “someone arises against us to destroy us, but the Holy One who is Blessed rescues us from their hands.” Just as the readers at the Seder may reflect on whatever tribulations affect them in their immediate present, they simultaneously validate the second proposition: we are here because we survived the earlier persecutions, and just as we survived those, the Jewish people will survive the current difficulties.  This is followed, of course, by the festive meal.  “Let’s eat.”

* * * * *

The narrative power of history is certainly useful in an anthropological or sociological sense, but what does it actually say about history itself? Furthermore, what value can be ascribed to the traditional Jewish understanding of history, if we look it as merely a device for maintaining group alliances? Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) recognized these questions in his pioneering research in the field of historiography, that is, the discipline of writing history.  He stressed above all the need for accuracy in reporting, or in his memorable phrase, wie es eigentlich gewesen war, “the way it actually was.”  Historical data must be presented comprehensively and objectively, in order to describe as valid a portrait of the past as possible.  Jews, perhaps the most historical of all peoples, reacted to his thinking with remarkable alacrity.

Jewish historical documents are at at the very beginnings of western culture. The Bible, after all, contains a wealth of historical accounts, from the Exodus through the conquest of Canaan and the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, and so on. After the biblical period, documents such as the ancient Scroll of Fasts (Megilat Ta’anit) that chronicle historical events for the purpose of maintaining a commemorative calendar and medieval histories such as Rabbi Menachem Meiri’s 13th century Seder ha-Kabalah continued this tradition. These texts, however, were not composed with von Ranke’s sensibility, rather they were purposed with the task of reinforcing Jewish attachment to Judaism, and should properly be viewed as primarily religious in nature. Their primary concern was not “the way it actually was,” rather “the way it actually should be.” They contain immeasurable historical value, but they are not histories in the modern sense at all, and reading them in that manner would distort both the author’s intention and likely the historical record as well.

Research into Jewish history began in earnest in the middle of the 19th century in Germany, with the works of early scholars like Isaac Marcus Jost (1793-186)  and especially Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891). Many were associated with a movement called  Wissenschaft des Judenthums, or the “science of Judaism,” an attempt to create a modern analytical approach to Jewish civilization in all its elements. German Jewry was enduring an exceptionally tumultuous period at the time, and much of the research undertaken by adherents of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums movement was directed toward political and social goals, explicitly or otherwise. Jews were struggling to achieve emancipation, that is, the granting of equal citizenship alongside non-Jewish Germans. This was a goal achieved by French Jewry in the aftermath of the 1789 revolution, and throughout the century Germany’s neighbors followed suit one by one.  Even in Germany itself (which was not a unified country for most of the century), Jews enjoyed brief periods of emancipation in the wake of the short-lived 1848 rebellion. Disillusioned by the lack of progress, many German Jews elected to simply convert to Christianity to gain social and economic advantage, including the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who famously described baptism as his “ticket of admission into European culture.”

Some Jews, arguing that emancipation should be granted without conversion, felt that Jews had to somehow “earn” the right to stand alongside German non-Jews as equals by demonstrating their value and loyalty. Some, like Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) of the Liberal (Reform) movement, felt that Judaism itself had to adapt to the sensibilities of the modern era, and instituted innovations into traditional Jewish practice such as the introduction of organs into the synagogue service, the removal of the mehitsah separating men and women during prayer, and so on. Others were more traditional-minded, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), who argued that Jewish practice may be adapted to modern sensibilities only to the point that Jewish law would not be violated. It is in this context that Jewish historians began to compose modern histories. Some historians scoffed at traditional understandings of historical events (especially those impinging on religious doctrines), and hoped to demonstrate that Judaism and the Jewish people could be sufficiently reformed to meet 19th-century German social standards. Others downplayed this approach, preferring instead to emphasize the heroic aspects of Jewish history, portraying them as a wrongfully persecuted minority who invariably conferred benefit on whatever society welcomed them.  Heinrich Graetz was clearly in the latter camp.  He enjoyed widespread popularity among Jewish readers (not surprising), but attracted the ire of reactionary German historians (also not surprising).  His contemporary Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) accused him of distorting Jewish history, and argued that the Jews only brought destruction and decay to their neighbors. In his memorable phrase, later adopted as a slogan by the Nazis, die Juden sind unser Unglück, “the Jews are our misfortune.”

The point for us, as early 21st century students of Jewish history, is obvious: despite von Ranke’s exhortations to record history “as it actually was,” we cannot separate it from “who we actually are.” 19th-century German Jewish historians cast their work in terms of their struggles for emancipation. 20th-century Israeli historians cast their work in terms of their perception of the ideological basis for the modern Jewish state. Who are we, and what coloration will that have on our understanding of Jewish history? It doesn’t take much to imagine the concerns that impact our perspective: we live in an era slowly emerging from the long shadow of the Holocaust, when it is harder and harder to meet people who have Nazi tattoos burned on their forearms. Israel is firmly established as a geopolitical reality, but constantly threatened by hostile neighbors, and its government often adopts policies that dissatisfy large swaths of Jewish opinion, both within the state and in the larger Jewish diaspora. American Jewry, a huge demographic chunk of world Jewry, is drowning in its own wealth, with assimilation far outpacing anything Jews have experienced in two millennia, despite a resurgent Orthodox minority.  These are the conditions, for better or worse, under which this book is written.

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