Exiled from their homeland after disastrous wars lost to the ferocious Roman army, the Jews wandered deeper into the Eastern Roman Empire. They immediately sought out ways to preserve their ancient tradition, including in particular the development of the Mishnah as a kind of “portable Judaism.” Using the Seven Survival Skills, how would you contribute to Jewish survival in his hostile Existential Crisis?
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With the destruction of the Temple, the Bar Kochba rebellion and the Hadrianic persecution, Jews began a new period of wandering in exile with daunting challenges to survival. Perhaps the greatest achievement was intellectual–the dramatic decision to codify the Oral Torah into the Mishnah. The creation of the Kehillah structure also contributed much to the stability of the Jewish people, now a minority population wherever they lived. Prepare yourselves to survive this initial foray into the long post-Roman exile.
Required Survival Gear:
Required Survival Readings:
Catherine Brewer, “The Status of the Jews in Roman Legislation: The Reign of Justinian, 527-565 CE” European Judaism 38:2 (2005) 127-139
Recommended Survival Gear:
“Byzantine Empire,” History Channel (https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/byzantine-empire)
How did the Jews survive this period? The answer is a little obvious when we read in strategy 4 about the kehilah… and the Mishnah, that would be number 6. But it would be a poor student to just list off two numbers and move on to the next lesson. It was the combination of the two that made the true impact on survival, which bears further explanation.
The Byzantine world was set on destroying Judaism through conversion and attrition. When Christian riots destroyed Jewish places of worship, the Emperors forbade their rebuilding. Jews had to serve in public positions that required personal expenditures to support government functions. Jews were required to use languages other than Hebrew in worship services, should their congregations request so. Jews were also forbidden to use the Mishnah, according to an edict of Justinian.
And yet, the Jews used the Mishnah. This collection had an unusual twist to it. Whereas other religious works were compiled in order to be authoritative – and final authorities, at that – for their faiths, the Mishnah offers up no such authority or finality. Appeal to the Book of Luke or a Quranic Sura, and the Christian or Muslim has perhaps the end of a discussion. Appeal to the Mishnah, and the discussion leaps from the pages and into the mouths of those who would continue it. The Mishnah is not the authority – the continuing, ongoing discussion is the authority.
Much as in an online community, the discussions went on and on and on and on. While the Jews could have remained as communities with just their language, cuisine, and familial relationships, those communities would have blended in with the locals, wherever they were. They needed something that would keep their focus on religion, and that was the debate arising from the Mishnah. With people engaged in religious debates, they had to think carefully and considerably about their belief, day in, day out. Even those that would hang back and let others speak were nevertheless a committed audience, likely to keep the faith alive.
And with the structure of the kehilah, those communities had definition and organization. Moses had his captains of ten and of fifty: the Medieval Jews had their Rabbis and Tuvei Ha-Ir. The kehilah could guide the Jews through the wilderness of persecution and scattering, keeping their discipline and order intact.