Living under the Portuguese Inquisition, Uriel da Costa (1583-1640) fled with his family to Amsterdam to reclaim his Jewish heritage. Tragically, the years of attempting to reconstruct authentic Judaism under the scrutiny of a zealous Church led him, like many crypto-Jews of his generation, to basic misunderstandings about the fundamental ideas and practices of his ancestral religion. A combination of a personal struggle with mental illness and an inability to accept the discrepancy between his imagined Judaism and the way it was actually practiced led him to become an outspoken critic of Jewish leadership as he wandered between Amsterdam, Hamburg and Utrecht. He was censured with repeated excommunication, and ultimately took his own life in 1640 after penning a brief autobiographical statement cataloguing his inner spiritual conflict. His writings are brief and confused, but they had a significant impact on the work of Baruch Spinoza, whose own conflict with traditional Judaism paralleled da Costa’s in many ways.
Image: from Henryk Berlewi’s book cover to a 1931 Kultur-lige biography of da Costa.
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (d. c. 85 ce) was one of the most influential figures in ancient Jewish history. Emerging from the ruins of the destroyed Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai led the Jewish people through the dangerous first years after the devastation of the last remnants of their state by the Romans. A disciple of Hillel, he was of the “national-realist” school that favored tactical surrender to the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire. In his most famous act, he arranged to fake his own death in order to escape his enemies among the Zealots to negotiate a peace treaty with Vespasian, who would later become Emperor. “Give me Yavneh and its scholars,” asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, setting in place the foundation for the existence of Judaism after the Temple could no longer serve as the center of Jewish religious life. Part of the Jewish Biography as History series available at http://www.jewishhistorylectures.com.
The discovery of the mutilated body of a young boy in Kiev led to the false arrest of a Jewish laborer named Mendel Beilis. Ignoring the argument of investigating officers, the Russian government under Tsar Nicholas II pressed ahead with the prosecution of Beilis, arguing that the boy was murdered as part of a Passover-related Jewish plot. After two years’ imprisonment, Beilis was freed by a Ukrainian Jewry that could not be persuaded to agree with the Russian prosecutor. Part of the This Week in Jewish History series by Dr. Henry Abramson.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
Here’s a new version of the Albert Einstein lecture, edited by the wonderful people at TorahCafe.com to include the PowerPoint. It’s basically the same, except without the lame jokes. Click on the icon below to watch the video.
A presentation on the life and work of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Seventh Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. A native of Nikolaev, Ukraine, and educated in Germany and France, his leadership transformed his Hasidic followers into an international movement that continues to shape the lives of Jews world wide. The lecture was held at the Young Israel of Bal Harbour on Wednesday, June 5th.