Okay, survivors, by now you should be getting the hang of things. You have survived three Existential Crises, so hopefully this one should be easier. The Jewish communities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had the relative peace and security necessary to create the structures of their future survival, and in particular to create the amazing Babylonian Talmud. No time to relax, though, because things are going to get very tough again, very soon. The Jewish people will face internal dissent with the rise of the Karaite movement, and soon they will come under attack from without as well. What survival lessons can we learn from the Sassanian period?
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The Sassanian Empire was the home to one of the most intellectually productive periods of Jewish history, when communities along the lower Euphrates and Tigris created the massive Babylonian Talmud. Sometimes called “The Constitution of Judaism,” the Talmud built upon the Mishnah to create an all-encompassing world of standard law, while allowing sufficient philosophical and methodological flexibility to adapt to future centuries of Jewish civilization.
Required Survival Gear:
Required Survival Reading:
Excerpts from Sea of Talmud.pdf
I did some additional outside reading for this challenge about the Sassanian rulers and their relationship with Jews. Essentially, if they were treating Jews badly, they were treating other, non-Zoroastrian religions badly, typically during times of national crisis or when a king was politically weak and seeking to assert his authority. But those times were rare compared to when the Sassanians either lived peaceably alongside the Jews or actually drew leaders for the nation from among their ranks. Most of the mentions of the Persians in the Talmud are tolerant, some positive. This was not a time when the rulers were actively seeking the conversion or destruction of the Jews.
So, the challenge we focus on here is with the two directions on the oral tradition – to go forward with the Talmud, or to reject it and go without it, as the Karaites did.
This leads to a big question – if mainstream, historic Judaism involves the oral tradition, are the Karaites Jews? There is the historic case of Rabbis in Russia asserting that Karaites were not Jews in order to save them from destruction, but that left them exposed to Seraya Shapshal, who wanted the Karaites to be non-Jews for his own self-aggrandizing purposes. I even watched a video of a man asking people of Israel what they thought of Karaites. In the course of the video, the interviewer found a non-observant Karaite – so, is a non-observant Karaite a non-observant Jew?
This reminds me of an argument I once had among my students about whether or not Jehovah’s Witnesses were Christians. I asked the non-Christians in the class what they thought. “Do they believe in Jesus?” Yes, they do. “Well, then they’re Christians to us!” To me, and I confess I am not Jewish, I see the Karaites doing many things that are very similar to Judaism. Had I not known about Karaism, I would have assumed they were Jews, perhaps with some sort of cultural differences in practice.
But whatever the answer to that big question may be, there is still the matter of the differences between Rabbinite Judaism and Karaite practice. Thanks to this course, now I know about them. And while the population of Karaites relative to the global Jewish population is relatively small today, such was not the case during this period. Estimates place roughly 40% of Jews in the Muslim world as being Karaites during this time period following when Anan ben David composed his “Book of the Precepts”, which codified Karaite differences from Rabbinite Judaism.
Whether or not the Karaites existed prior to Anan ben David or whether or not there was a political motive behind Anan ben David’s disavowal of the oral tradition, what Rabbinite Judaism had to face was a division among the people that pulled away nearly half of the people from their influence. Their reaction to the challenge of Karaism is why we don’t speak of Rabbinite Jews as a minority of the global Jewish population.
Saadia Gaon’s refutations of Karaism drew a distinct line between where they stood and where Rabbinite Judaism stood. His were the most prominent of such demarcations, which served not only to state from the Rabbinite view where the Karaites were incorrect, but were able to expound to the Rabbinites themselves the reasons to remain faithful and committed to Rabbinite practice. Even today these views are echoed as a reason to preserve the oral traditions and their codification in scholarly works over time.
The Talmud was not created to deal with the challenge from Karaism – but it served as a fortress that was able to withstand that challenge. It was not the scholarly development of the Talmud that responded to Karaism, but the commitment to the texts that responded. This would correspond to survival skill #6 on the Abramson Survival Model. 🙂
This can also be argued by eliminating the other possibilities. There was no need to fight or flee, so #7 is out. Though the Jews often held high government posts in the Sassanian Empire, they did not need to utilize those positions to save their people as Queen Esther famously did, or anything like unto that, so #3 is ruled out. Things were not so bad for the Jews under the Sassanians, but neither were they so good. The Hand of the Almighty was not needed to smite any enemies with miraculous power, so #1 is not in consideration. Had the Talmud been written to respond to Karaism, I’d cite #2 as the survival strategy, but it wasn’t, so I won’t. That leaves #4 and #5, the ones regarding community.
Since the Karaites were removed from the main communities of the Rabbinites, communal authority had no meaning for them, so #4 cannot be a strategy for this period. And because the Jews did not have to band together to altruistically support one another – these were logical discussions they were having with people very close to their belief, not much in terms of displaced humanity or the like – #5 is not the survival strategy for this period.
No, the Rabbinite Jews had to turn to their books and find more than wisdom in them. They had to find purpose and deep connections with their belief and practice. If there was nothing to the Talmud and oral Torah, then why keep it around? No, there absolutely was something there, something eternal, and those who knew it could not deny it.