Thursday, May 15, 2008


Most non-Jews would regard it as presumptuous to advise Jews as to how to interpret the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, and how to conduct their worship and prayer observances. After all, this is America, and religion, we believe, is not a matter of public policy. (I observe, parenthetically, that secularist tend to suspend this rule of tolerance when it comes to protestant Fundamentalists. The Fundies abundantly return the favor.)

In addition, most of us feel that the Jews have gone through so much, especially in the terrible twentieth century, that they deserve to be left in peace now. Even those who oppose the Israel Lobby and its influence over our foreign policy do not, to my knowledge, offer any criticisms of the Jewish religion.

To be sure, such tolerance is not necessarily a complement, because benign neglect is still neglect. Occasionally, when one delves more deeply, as with the matter of circumcision, the result are disturbing. Better then, not to delve deeply

That said, there is a good reason to suspend the benign-neglect principle when it comes to the Hebrew Bible. The reason is that that vast compilation of texts is foundational for Christianity--and to a large extent for Islam as well. Christians and Muslims have a stake in the interpretation of those texts. Their way of reading may be misguided, especially from a Jewish point of view--but that is the way their faith traditions have approached the texts.

Moreover, those without any religious affiliation, and scholars in general, have an interest in the meaning of ancient texts and what they might tell us about what happened in earlier times. Individuals with this interest will wish to disregard (when necessary, and chances are it is necessary) the traditional reading, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, in favor of one in keeping with the findings of modern scholarship.

Still, the idea persists that today's Jewish readings are authoritative, as they stem from the people who created the texts. In other postings in this blog I have sought to show why we cannot take that assertion of authority at face value.

Modern Judaism is quite varied. Most of us are aware that, in North America at least, there are four main strands: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. To one extent or another, though, all these varieties reflect a historic passage through the gates of the Mishnah and the two Talmuds.

Marking the inception of Rabbinic Judaism (a.k.a. Normative Judaism or neo-Judaism), the Mishnah or Mishna (“repetition”) was redacted about 200 CE, ostensibly by Judah haNasi. It offers many brief citations from earlier sages, known as the Tannaim, stemming from the period 70-200 CE. For this reason it is sometimes thought to be an authentic record of the period immediately after the fall of the Second Temple, and perhaps even of the immediately preceding era. All the same, this florilegium is a selection, determined by the views of the redactor or redactors. We have know way of knowing what has been filtered out.

Purportedly, the Mishnah is not the development of new laws, but simply the gathering of existing traditions. This last claim is the start of the persistent error that there is a seemless web between original Judaism (if the faith of the Tanakh is so to be described) and neo-Judaism. Yet even a small sampling the tractates included in the Mishnah shows that, by comparison with the Hebrew Bible, they are entirely different in tone, atmosphere, detail, and doctrine.

The Mishnah quickly attained the status of an indispensable book. Commentaries created over the next three centuries in its wake are generically termed the Gemara. Most of this material was marshaled into the two Talmuds.

The Jerusalem Talmud, also known as the Palestinian Talmud, is a compilation of teachings of the schools of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Caesarea. This Talmud reflects the expansion and analysis of the Mishnah that was developed over the course of nearly 200 years by the Academies in Palestine. Traditionally, this Talmud was thought to have been redacted in about the year 350 CE by Rav Muna and Rav Yossi. Nonetheless, further additions and editorial work were performed, and the final date of closure cannot be fixed with assurance. Some think that it was complete by 425 CE when the Christian emperor Theodosius II tried to put an end to formal Jewish scholarship. Nonetheless, some surreptitious work probably continued afterwards, perhaps until about 600 CE.

The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) was transmitted orally for several centuries prior to its compilation by Jewish scholars in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in the fifth century CE. Since the Exile to Babylonia in 586 BCE, there had been Jewish communities living in Mesopotamia as well as in Judea, as many of the captives never returned home. Incorporating the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud draws upon the Babylonian Gemara, the bearer of the analysis that had flourished orally in the Babylonian Academies. Tradition ascribes the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud in its present form to two Mesopotamian sages, Rav Ashi and Ravina, Accordingly, traditionalists argue that Ravina’s death in 499 CE is the latest possible date for the completion of the redaction of the Talmud. Clearly, though, it incorporates some later material. Some modern scholars have concluded that it did not reach its final form until about 700.

Whatever the exact date, many authorities would say that the closing of this second Talmud marks the conclusion of the unfolding of the Oral Torah. Others hold that more was to come, so that the medieval contributions of Rashi and Maimonides, for example, also belong to the Oral Torah.

Whether one takes a narrower or broader view of the vehicular scope of the Oral Torah, one thing is clear. This material is in no way comparable to the commentaries that classical scholars have made on Homer and Plato. Nor does it resemble the Biblical expositions of Christian Patristic writers, such as Origen and Augustine. These last, while highly prized by mainstream Christians, cannot aspire to the exalted status of the Oral Torah. The latter, no mere commentary, is sui generis, because it is not subordinate to the Written Torah: it enjoys an equal status. It is this dyarchy, if you will the coregency of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, that lends Rabbic Judaism--what I prefer to call neo-Judaism--its distinctive character. This character must not be conflated with the Judaism of the Second Temple period, when the concept and substance of the Oral Torah were unknown (setting aside, of course, the obvious fable of its purpoted Mosaic origin).

It is my belief that the beliefs and practices codified in the Mishnah and the two Talmuds constitute an essentially new religion, not to be identified with the religion that is documented in the Hebrew Bible--though it derives from it. By any standard this neo-Judaism is truly a remarkable intellectual creation. This great effort came about, as Jacob Neusner has emphasized, in response to two catastrophes. The first was the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The second was the need to respond to the rise of Christianity as promulgated by the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. (Because of the claim that the Oral Torah went back to Moses, any Christian influence would seem to be completely ruled out. Since, as we have seen, these redactions occurred after the formation of the Christian Church, some seepage, as it were, from Christianity cannot be excluded. There are also classical strands, including methods of argument stemming from Roman law.)

A less resilient group of people would have accepted the two great setbacks, the destruction of the Temple and the triumph of Christianity, as definitive, meekly conforming to the new norms (which were indeed imposed in an imperious and intolerant way). Accordingly, as part of a vast and ingenious survival kit, they created the elaborate contrivance known as the Oral Torah, ascribing its origins (in an easily detectable falsehood) to Moses himself. It is because this new Oral Torah proved so powerfully intrusive that it needs to be distinguished--for scholarly purposes, at least--from its companion, the Written Torah. For it is indisputable that the latter, the Hebrew Bible, came first. For this reason, these texts, whether they are called the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, or the Old Testament, deserve to be treated as an independent, stand-alone corpus.

Some years ago there was, according to report, a small protestant congregation in Queens whose members reflected seriously on the fact that Jesus and the Disciples were all Jews. That is certainly true. Yet they drew consequences that were not warranted, for they held that in order to be faithful followers of Jesus they must follow the observances of modern Orthodox Jews. They adopted Hasidic dress and hair styles; they carefully separated the milk and meat dishes in their kitchens; more generally they sought to adhere to the 613 mitzvot; and they placed mezuzahs beside their doors. Well, I’m not sure about the mezuzahs, but the point is clear. These protestants created their own version of “Jews for Jesus.” Yet their premises were not sustainable.

These earnest Christians were not getting closer to the world of Jesus through such observances. In fact, the Savior and his Disciples would have been bewildered by their behavior. For none of these practices were characteristic of classic Judaism, or even of its Hellenistic extension that formed the immediate background of the Jesus movement.

These observances and most of the rest make up the devotional complex that modern Jews call Halacha. Halacha is often rendered as "Jewish Law," though a more literal translation might be "the path" or "the way of walking." Halacha guides not only religious practices and beliefs, but numerous aspects of day-to-day life. While these practices have been endowed with some form of Scriptural pedigree in the form of proof texts, most of them are later inventions, or fantastic elaborations of much more restricted commandments. An example of the latter is the separation of milk and meat dishes, supposedly enjoined by the admonition “thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19, 34:26; Deut. 14:21). As such, these observances are characteristic of neo-Judaism, an essentially new faith that began to emerge about 200 years after the death of Jesus. To be sure, neo-Judaism is an authentic faith of long standing. Doubtless it is the repository of much wisdom, which it would take me years just to begin to assimilate--were it not for time’s winged chariot, which does not permit me that luxury.

Still, in order to understand the world of the Bible, the Tanakh, we need to separate it from this host of additions that neo-Judaism has spun forth in its name. This subsequent body of beliefs and observances was assembled much later, under different auspices and conditions.

In conclusion, let me put the matter in the vernacular. Do you need to see the movie “Judaism I” before seeing “Judaism II”? No, but it helps. And above all, don’t conflate the two pics, even if they happen to be shown back to back.

Continuing in this mode, I remark parenthetically that if the Judaizing protestants of Queens had wanted truly to recapture the world of the Hebrew Bible, they would have adopted polygamy. But maybe it is not necessary to go that far, though Joseph Smith thought otherwise.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you please elaborate on Kol Nidre or Hoforat Nedorim? I hardly find those even remotely aspiring as these alone do characterize the talmudistic neojudaism as being full of filth and treason, which aligns quite nicely with your description of it being very apart from Tanakh -- my understanding is that it's probably as far as satan inspired writing could be from God inspired writing.

I also consider Aaron Russo a great Jew (there were others like him either), while e.g. some Rothschilds are smart beasts but at the end of the day, mindless ones.

Michael Shigorin

7:15 AM  

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