Monday, April 19, 2010

The Lost Jews of the West

Just completed the reading of a small book with a large thesis. It's the joint project of two local scholars, Arye Edrei (Law, Tel Aviv University) and Doron Mendels (History, Hebrew University). Because of the vagaries of academe, they both live in Hebrew, their research is based on sources in Hebrew Aramaic Greek and Latin, they published their findings in two articles in English, but the book which contains the fullest presentation of their findings exists only in German, Zweierlei Diaspora, Zur Spaltung der antiken juedischen Volk. The two earlier articles appeared in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 2007 and 2008.

The reason I'm getting into all the bibliographic stuff is because of my frustration that such a ground-breaking and fascinating study is hidden in such remote nooks and crannies as to ensure that no-one ever finds them, except for some dusty old eggheads.

The thesis: About 2,200 years ago the Jews split into two language groups. The Western half forgot Hebrew, and in spite of its size was eventually lost to Jewish history.

The Jewish world from the 3rd century BCE onwards was split between the western communities which spoke Greek, and the eastern ones which spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic-speaking ones knew Hebrew, read the Bible in it, created the Mishna in it, and then developed the Talmud and its auxiliary creations in Aramaic interspersed with Hebrew. In the west, meanwhile, the Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), so the Greek-speakers no longer needed Hebrew and forgot it.

In the Land of Israel itself there were Jews of both camps. Moreover, until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70CE the division was not necessarily troubling because everyone accepted the utter centrality of Jerusalem, and Jewish practice focused on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem removed the center of Judaism. The pharisees, who had already begun developing an oral law, managed to forge a new form of Judaism, rabbinic Judaism; the Jews of the west, not having any of the languages, were simply not part of it. They did not contribute to it, and there are only rare indications that they even knew it existed. Nor, as time went on, is it clear that the Jews of the east remembered that the Jews of the west were still there.

There was also the matter of Christianity: the Septuagint enabled anyone to read the Bible, and now ever growing numbers of non-Jews were claiming themselves to be Israel; this caused the rabbis to insist that their Talmudic tradition never be written: an oral tradition of immense complexity in languages most Christians didn't know would be impossible to translate and expropriate. In practice this meant dropping the Jews who couldn't participate.

Prior to the late 18th century rabbinic Judaism was the only sort there was (though within its limits it was of course extraordinarily rich and variegated). The Jews of Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe simply didn't know about it.

So how did they live? As what? Initially, they lived according to the Biblical precepts, meaning the basic laws of Kashrut and the Sabbath and holidays. Yet Edrei and Mendels speculate that many of them may have joined the early Christians, who were not obviously all that different from them initially. By and by they stopped sending money to the center, because it wasn't there anymore, and thus they lost another form of connection. And then?

In the 9th or 10th century rabbinic Judaism appears in Europe; by the 11th it is stronger there than in the east. How did this happen? The book offers no clear answer, and when I pressed Arye Edrei he said he doesn't know, because the sources are too weak. He seems to incline to the explanation that rabbinic Jews traveled to the west and settled there. Did they find remnants of the local Jews and teach them the rabbinic tradition? Was there anyone left to teach?

Which leads to the obvious question: in the long run (centuries), can Jews exist as Jews without Hebrew?


David Gleicher said...

The person who did much to try to answer your question as to the origins of rabbinic Judaism in Europe was Irving Agus (1910-1984) in the introduction to his book, "The Heroic Age of Franco-German Jewry." IIRC, his thesis was that an elite remnant of Italian Jewry (those who kept rabbinic Judaism alive) moved northward during the Dark Ages eventually settling in the Rhine valley under Charlemagne. They numbered under 10,000, but are the ancestors of most of today's Ashkenazim. Over the years, many other historians have disagreed with the Agus thesis, but it seems as plausible as any other explanation.


Didi Remez said...

Thank you, fascinating.

Language is culture and because any social cohesion require culture, the answer to your final question is probably negative.

I didn't quite understand the reference to "prior to the 18th century." Am I correct in assuming you meant 8th century.

NormanF said...

The Jews of Ethiopia didn't know of the existence of rabbinic Judaism. They retained the sacrificial cult, the kohanim and a very literal reading of the Torah. They managed to survive as Jews with a very scant knowledge of Hebrew. The obvious question is why keep the Jewish identity when Christianity and Islam were much more attractive and offered greater economic benefits and social mobility? The survival of the Jews across time and in different societies is the greatest of all mysteries.

Yaacov said...

No, Didi, I meant 18th. Think of Jewish culture as a road: in the late 2nd Temple era it's a broad highway with many lanes, eventually even with a low barrier in the middle. After the destruction there are two separate lanes. One, the western, Greek-speaking one, eventually detaches itself and they lose sight of one another. The Eastern one grows ever broader on its own, with new lanes. Sometime in the 9th or 10th century it reaches Europe, at which point the old western track, probably quite narrow at this point, rejoins it - or perhaps the western track has long since ended. The eastern road is now the only one: rabbinic Judaism. While it grows broader over time and adds lanes (think of Hassidism), it is still recognizably one road until sometime late in the 18th century. Since the early 19th century the Jewish world has had a growing number of tracks, to the extent they may no longer all be compatible, or if so, then only with some effort. Taking this metaphor one step further, I'd hazard the guess we now have a diversity even greater than at the end of the 2nd Temple era - yet since the story of the 20th century went the opposite direction as the 1st, with growing cohesion around Hebrew and Zionism, history may not be repeating itself.

Norman: You're right about the Ethiopians, sort of. I left them out of my post so as not to distract. Yet I think even the story of Ethiopian Jews becomes significant for the main story only after Zionism and Hebrew forged a new-old center to which the Ethiopians could return. Without Israel, they wouldn't have returned. (I can't prove this, of course).

Avi said...

How does this account for the Sephardim in the Iberian peninsular? As far as I understand it, the original pre Christian Jewish communities were serverly attacked by the newly Christian Visigoths. Their savior was the Islamic invasion of the eighth century. Most people know the story of the subsequent "Golden Age", followed by the persecutions by Muslims, renewal of the communities under the Christian reconquest and final expulsion.
When they started fleeing to Morocco in the 12th and 13th centuries, they came across the "toshavim" the Berber Jews who has been there since Roman times.

All of them knew each other and the lingua franca was not Greek.

Notwithstanding the above, the Jews in Iberia and Provence did play a major role in translating Classical works from the Arabic into Latin but I do not know if Greek had a role as I understood that the translations went through Arabic.

Also, what about Roman Jewry? I have always been taught that they have all of their own traditions (including using an organ for music on Shabbat in synagogue) dating back to the Roman pre Christian period.

Anyway, as a Jerusalem resident for the past 30 years, I agree completely about the importance of Hebrew.

Yaacov said...


The thesis doesn't claim there were no local Jews in the West, rather that they aren't part of the Jewish national discussion for a thousand years, by the end of which there may still have been a few of them around, or not, or very few...

The examples from Spain after the 10th century don't relate to the thesis: by the 10th century the rabbinic Judaism (and rabbinic Jews?) were reaching the west.

Rome is in interesting case. Yes, the theory is that they were there the whole time, and perhaps they were: but they left no contribution to Jewish history. Not even the Jews of Rome.

AKUS said...

Yakov - in my genealogical research, I found two main streams of migration that might help with this. See what you think.

One was the eventual migratioon eastwards out of Spain to Eastern Europe, and we know that the Sephardi Jews spoke and wrote Hebrew as well as Ladino e.g., Yehuda Halevi circa 1100 AD. and Maimonides, a little later, who was apparently born in Spain before moving to Egypt who must have received their Hebrew via a maintained Hebrew-speaking community and tradition. As these Spanish-origin Jews moved eastwards to the Low Countries and Britain, they took their knowledge of Hebrew with them. One stream apparently went through Switzerland to Northern Italy, Southern Germany, and today's Austria, eventually moving further east and north into today's Slovakia. My wife's family can be traced back to a little town in Northern Slovakia (then Austro-Hungary) in the 1700's and her ancestors were, if not rabbis, rabbinical students in Slovakia

This would seem to suggest that the thesis that "Western Jews" forgot their Hebrew is inaccurate, unless I'm missing something.

The less well known migration was with the Roman northwards through what is now Romania, then areas that today are Slovakia, Hungary etc. and into southern Belarus (once Poland). The would have taken their Hebrew with them as well.

Perhaps those two streams of migrant Jews carried Hebrew with them?

Yaacov said...

AKUS and others -

you're missing the sheer length of Jewish history. Edrei and Mendels can't argue against a thriving Hebrew-reading rabbinical Judaism anywhere in the west after the 10th century - but that was still 1,000 years ago. The crusades, the split of Christendom, the Renaissance - these all happened less than that long ago, as did the Golden Age in Spain, the Rishonim in Germany and France. They're not even saying there were no Jews in the west in, say, the fourth century, when Augustine argued against them, thought they seem not to have participated in any way in rabbinic culture. But then? What happened then?

Sylvia said...

No, Yaacov, there were TWO Eastern tracks: The Babylonian and the Palestinian who each produced a Talmud and were in contact with each other. What about the Exilarchate? What about the Babylonian Geonim and Saadia in particular, who were in contact with far away communities and it is their c porrespondance that formed the body of the responsa?
The Babylonian Talmud is the basis for Sephardic Judaism to this day.

Yaacov said...

Of course, Sylvia - but those two tracks never lost contact with each other, and they united once again well over a thousand years ago.

Sylvia said...

"In the 9th or 10th century rabbinic Judaism appears in Europe; by the 11th it is stronger there than in the east. How did this happen? The book offers no clear answer, and when I pressed Arye Edrei he said he doesn't know, because the sources are too weak."

The Babylonian academies (Suraa, Pumbeditha, Baghdad) declined after the death of Saadia (942)? And were replaced by the new centers of learning elsewhere in the Muslim world, such as Kairouan (today Tunisia), Spain, Fez (Morocco)?
And from there to France?

(Not my idea, this is just how it was taught to me).

Sylvia said...

I'll add to those two tracks a long tradition since the Saduccees of anti-Rabbinical halakha movements. Those are the various movements that Philo called the "literalists", namely the 9th century-modern-day Karaites. They were bitterly opposed in Spain, North Africa and Babylonia by the Rabbinites, starting with the Gaon Saadia. Now how could there have been such a war going on in so many countries if Jews were not aware of Rabbinic halakha?

I'll mention only Rabbi Itzhaq El Fassi - 11th century, who studied and wrote in Fes, North Africa, many of the responsa that you study today concerning taxes halakha on trade, etc.

Avi said...

The point is well taken with respect to impact or rather lack of impact of these Jews on Jewish culture. As Jewish culture is definitely a written one then those communities who can not speak the language will disappear. Another example from the much later period is the Jews of Kaifeng in China.

I have always termed the the communications network which served the Jews around the Mediterranean basin and into Iraq over 1,000 years ago as Internet 0.2. It works exactly the same as email except that the messages sent to Sura and Pubedita in Iraq are read at each stage and the local community can add it's slant onto the questions being asked.

If you want an example of the problems faced by a minority international community that lacks a written tradition just look at the gypsies. We recently met some of the Domari in Jerusalem and they get it from every direction, internally and externally.

Sergio said...

As an aside: there was a small jewish community here in Brazil, in the northeast region of Recife, during the Dutch occupation (1630-1654; the recently excavated synagogue there is thought to be the oldest in the Americas). They fled when the Dutch were finally expelled by the Portuguese, and ended up in...New York, New Yoooooooooooooork! :)

Anonymous said...

Apropos the Italian Jews:

A friend of mine once asked an Italian Jewish colleague (who was a fairly prominent scientist) if his family were Ashkenazim or Sepharadim. The colleague replied, somewhat huffily, "We are not Ashkenazim. We are not Sepharadim. We are Italian Jews who have lived in Italy since the time of the Roman Republic". Not those newcomers who showed up during the Empire :).

David E. Sigeti

Anonymous said...


This paragraph confuses me:

"Prior to the late 18th century rabbinic Judaism was the only sort there was (though within its limits it was of course extraordinarily rich and variegated). The Jews of Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe simply didn't know about it."

What is the "it" they didn't know about that you are referring to? You can't mean "rabbinic Judaism" or "Hebrew."


Sylvia said...

Indeed a few concepts here are extremely confusing. What is meant by "the West". Is that the conceptual (Israeli and "orientalist") idea of the West or the geographic, Westernn Mediterranean West? Does "the West" refer to North-Western Europe north of the Pyrenees? Does it include Eastern Europe?

Perhaps by not including Spain you are missing the answer, Yaacov. The same (external) major event that has affected the Mediterranean world in the 10th century has affected both Spanish and European Jewry.

I think by "prior to the 18th century" Yaacov means until the Aufklarung/Haskala
movement but I could be mistaken.

Anonymous said...

OT for Sylvia
here is a picture of "the ash-tinted sunset from the Calais beach."

Sylvia said...

Thanks, Silke. This is very impressive.