Veteran readers may have noted that it's been quite a while since I blogged in the Daf Yomi series. (Recent readers can find the introduction and explanation of this thread here). The main reason has been that about three months ago we finished the Nezikim order, which deals with commonplace things such as legal transactions, courts and contracts, which are as relevant today as they were 1,800 years ago, and started the Kodashim order, which concentrates (mostly) on holy ritual, some of which is rather outlandish from a modern perspective. The first tractate, which we finished today, was Zevachim, Sacrifices (120 pages).
How outlandish? Quite, to be honest. The Bible commands four types of sacrifices, which are then divided into sub-groups. Each sacrificial act is divided into a series of actions, which need to be done in very specific places, mostly but not always by priests (cohens) of varying degrees of purity, with specific tools, in specific order, and with specific intentions. The time of day (or night) is also important, as are lots of very detailed aspects of the alter (blood from sacrifice A has to be splattered above the red line on the left side of the alter, or below the line in a different context). Then the accidents have to be taken into account: what happens if something falls, onto what, and is then replaced. Or not. Also, was the priest wearing the correct uniform when it happened, and does it need to be laundered immediately, or later, or not at all? Quantities are important, sometimes. Or is it always, but in different ways? Did I mention the problem of scarifying an animal which is in the wrong section of the Temple Mount but it's throat was in the right place, or was it the other way around, the animal was in the right place but it's throat reached out over the line but then turned back just in time not to be too late, if it isn't already irrevocably too late because the intention to eat it by whomever changed in the meanwhile?
It's not the arcane details which make all this so strange. Observe any present day insurance company lawyer doing her best to prove her client actually doesn't owe you anything, and it will rapidly become just as arcane. What makes it so strange is the content. We can't imagine sacrifices, and only dimly can we appreciate matters of purity and impurity, or even religious tithes and all that goes with them.
The thing that's historically so interesting about the tractate is that the rabbis can't really imagine it, either. The Temple was destroyed in the early mishnaic era, which means only the earliest generations of the Mishnaic rabbis, the Tana'im, had any personal knowledge of the matter; the latter Tanaim and all the Amoraim, i.e the large majority of the Talmudic rabbis, had never seen any of this, nor had it been happening in living memory. Occasionally the tractate cites a Zkan Hacohanim, which seems to mean the last of the cohanim still alive to tell how things were, but even then their authority isn't clear. At one point the tractate spends many pages discussing the dimensions of the alter and Temple plaza; the entire section is scholasticism, meaning it's based upon interpreting the verses of the Bible, not reconstructing the physical place (which, having been razed, can't be done) or looking for someone who might have preserved or recorded real memory.
Actually, scholasticism plays an unusually large part in the tractate, even more than usual. Many of the detailed arguments aren't about how things were supposed to work, but rather how they can be learned from which words in which verses. Some of the discussions in Nezikin move so far away from the original Biblical verses it's obvious the rabbis have enacted laws which relate to their social reality, not the one of Deuteronomy. (The laws of inheritance, for example, which are developed well beyond the rudimentary commandments in the Pentateuch). Not so in Zevachim, which goes on endlessly about who learns which arcane detail from which confluence of words in two separate verses, but has no reason - obviously - to adapt the practice to the real world of the rabbis.
At one point the tractate even says this explicitly. An Amora has pronounced on halacha: the law is that it's done this way, not that, and the tractate basically says "Huh? Who cares? No-one does any of this anyway? We're studying so as not to forget". Yet the deeper we got into it, the more it became clear to me that even that wasn't the case. Keep in mind that the Tamud is the central creation of the Pharisees, rabbinical Judaism, who were often at war - sometimes even violent war - with the Sadducees .The Saducees were the ones running the Temple, and they decidedly didn't use the rabbinical form of learning, which means that even if we could invent a time machine and go back to the Temple, we wouldn't see the practices described in great length in the Talmud. There must have been some resemblance, but it would have been limited.
The Talmudic scholars spent centuries discussing the most arcane minutiae of the practice of the Temple so as not to forget it, and never to loosen the Jewish ties to a physical place which had been gone for centuries, and they did so by describing a reality which never existed in the form they created for it.
Yet it worked. Judaism became a religion which could exist without its concrete, physical heart, because the imagination of that heart had become central to Jewish civilization.
Ironically, almost everyone I talked to about the tractate these past few months has agreed that it's very outlandish, and we're not particularly enjoying it; it's too foreign. But that's part of the greater irony of Zionism, which arose and succeeded in a historical era when the old forms of preservation were losing their potency. Either Zionism arrived at the last possible moment, as the civilizational binds that held the Jews together were about to slip off, or it arose because the old forms were weakening and there was no option but to go back to the basics of land, language and national political life. Choose whichever explanation you prefer.
Either way, the slowly widening gap between the Jews of Israel and America is very serious. For most of America's Jews, not only Zvachim is outlandish, the entire Talmud is also, as is the prayer book, the Jewish calender, and of course Jewish rituals of all kinds. It may not be urgent, but after a while one does need to ask what holds Jews together when the traditional ties are gone, and the more common national-political ones aren't compelling either. I come by this theme from time to time, it's not new. Shmuel Rosner has apparently just written a book about it (in Hebrew), and has an interesting chapter (in English) here. What happens, he asks, when the political agenda of the Israelis is different from the political agenda of American Jews, on American subjects, not on Israel's security or well-being. Say, if Israeli Jews admire an American president the American Jews despise. Well, when it was George Bush II, the resounding answer was that America's Jews split from Israel. Yet not because of any major argument. It was simply that the Israeli position didn't interest America's Jews, and this itself was a sign of the growing indifference large numbers of American Jews display towards Israel.
Which brings me back to Zvachim. You can find it outlandish, and look forward to the time when the Daf Yomi series will return to less far-fetched topics. That's qualitatively different than having a Judaism which is indifferent both to the cultural and also the geographical center. A Judaism which focuses mainly on its local agenda and not on the ones which unify all Jews, will someday have to explain to itself what makes it Jewish, and why the rest of the Jews should care.
Update: Yehuda Mirsky has thoughts on Jewish identity in America today, here. Some of it (not all: don't jump on me) doesn't much look like Judaism at all to me.