Here's something I've been wondering about for going on for twenty years,
but had (some) new insights into in the last year or two, as I shall
explain. Orthodox Judaism of today portrays itself as being how Judaism
has been practised for millennia (until the rise of the Reform in the
early nineteenth century), but is that really the case? ( Collapse )Sometimes I look at Judaism and think the fundamentalists took over the
religion. This is not, however, I think a recent phenomenon. Looking at
the literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it seems to be the case that the
fundamentalists had taken over there too (for at least the Qumran sect).
And even in the time after the return from the Babylonian exile, we see
Nehemiah imposing much stricter standards on the returnees than they had
themselves been adhering to.
Of course, there was a group of people who did take over Judaism
almost two thousand years ago: the rabbis, whose movement represented the continuation of
Pharisaism. ( Collapse )
Last Shovuos the topic came up in conversation with Rabbi Reuven Firestone
of the kingdom of Ḥimyar in present-day Yemen, which was Jewish (or at least
its royal family and much of its population) in the final century or two of its
existence before its destruction in the sixth century. Why were there so many
Jews there? Reuven told me that after the Mishna was written, it—meaning
rabbinical Judaism in general—was generally accepted in the Land of
Israel, but not in Babylonia. The rabbis sent emissaries to Babylonia to
convert the Jews there to accepting the Talmud; thus the people the Talmud
portrays as "ignoramuses" were actually not non-practising Jews but those
practising a different stream of Judaism.
As the Babylonian community gradually became increasingly hostile to
non-rabbinical Judaism, it is thought, so Reuven said, that Ḥimyar became a
refuge for those who would not accept the authority of the Talmud. With the
destruction of the kingdom however, the last bastion of pre-rabbinical Judaism
came to an end.
( Collapse )
So what are we left with, when we manage to avoid looking at Jewish
history through rabbinically-tinted glasses? Sometimes I think Judaism as
we have it came
"off the derech" centuries ago. But the
corollary of Judaism having come off the derech is that there
is a derech. The question is only one of how to find
it, when the Torah doesn't give clear instructions on how to obey it.
( Collapse )
I only recently discovered the remark of an early advocate for reforming
Jewish law (his name was Jesus of Nazareth, you may have heard of him) that the
Sabbath was made for people and not the other way around". I think there's a
lot to be said for this. But the solution is not to simply junk three thousand
years of tradition and just go with what you like (or not if you're not a
Reform Jew at least, which I'm not). The solution is to pore through the
evidence and try and find what Shabbos observance (or kashrus, or whatever)
looked like before the fundamentalists got ahold of the religion, or to put it
another way: what the essence of these practices is.
But that's not really possible because the earlier (i.e. Biblical) writers
took knowledge of this all for granted, and evidence from the Second Temple
period either suffers from a taboo on writing down oral law, or is sectarian
(i.e. divergent from the path that led to modern Judaism. So what, then, am I
The answer is of course keep grappling with the issue. After all, "wrestles
with God" is what the name of my people, Israel, means.
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