Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reflections about the Edge of the Jewish World

There's been too much excitement around here recently about matters that may well not be remembered six months from now, not to say six years. Time to take a longer look at things that have survived all tests of time.

The late Second Temple era saw the greatest diversity of cultural and religious creation in the Jewish world, to an extent not replicated until the 20th century. In spite of considerable political turmoil and occasional wars, Jews allowed themselves to express their Jewishness in all sorts of ways, some of them hardly mutually compatible. Not everyone liked it that way, and at times the arguments turned violent. Still, so long as there was a temple in Jerusalem which everyone could accept as the center, everyone muddled along.

Immediately after the destruction the rabbinic authorities focused like a laser (they wouldn't have recognized my term): if you're with us, this is how we do Judaism; if you don't, you're out. Good-by, and good riddance. Quite a gamble, if you stop to think about it, but they were uncompromising. Nor was this a temporary measure: it went on for centuries - arguably, more than a millennium. A long time indeed.

The story of Ben Sira can demonstrate this - sort of.

Ben Sira is a book written in Hebrew around 200 BCE, give or take a generation. Its author probably thought he was writing a treatise about ethical behaviour, and had someone told him that later on some such treatises would be canonized into the Bible, he might have expected his to be included. In any case, it was regarded as a religious tome.

It was also translated to Greek, apparently by the author's grandson, which was a good thing because when the laser started cutting things out, 200 years later, Ben Sira was out. The practical implication was that it wasn't copied and recopied in Hebrew, nor learned by heart as the oral tradition was, and so was lost; the Greek version, however, having entered the Septuagint, waspreserved; in some traditions it is even part of the New Testament (in Greek it's called Sirach). Only in the 20th century were largish sections of the original Hebrew discovered, in the Cairo Geniza and on Massada. (More on the book, here).

One of the operators of that laser was rabbi Akiva, and there's a Mishna in Sanhedrin where he rules that Jews who read the wrong books (Sefarim Hitzoni'im, external books) won't go to heaven. On page 100b there is then a fascinating discussion among Amora'im, another few centuries on, about Ben Sira: the rabbis agree that rabbi Akiva had it on his list of forbidden books, but they're not quite certain why. The entire page is a series of quotations from the book (by now 500 years old, and say 250 years since the casting out) which are evaluated: this saying is OK, that one isn't and must have been what generated rabbi Akiva's ire, oh come on that's harmless, maybe it was this section.

You get my point: it's forbidden literature, but the rabbis know it by heart, even as they shudder over it's content (or not). Did the general Jewish public also know it? I expect not, but I doubt anyone really knows. It's hard enough figuring out what people think right now; reconstructing popular literacy at a distance of 1700 years is impossible.

That was my first story about the edge of Jewish identity. Here's a second, which appears on page 102b in Sanhedrin.

The Mishna lists three Biblical kings who were not allowed into heaven: Yerovam, Ahab and Menashe. Rav Ashi (later 4th century CE) once told his students in the yeshiva that their next day's lesson would deal with "our friends" or perhaps "our collegues" (haverin), those three kings (he was saying they were scholars before they were sinners) - and note how the Gemara observes itself in action: rav Ashi is teaching it and is in it, simultaneously. That's what you get when you spend 700 years creating one book.

That night Menashe appeared to rav Ashi in his dream:

- You dare call us your colleagues? (who do you think you are, little upstart). If you think you know so much, tell me from what part of the loaf are you to eat first upon blessing over the bread?
- I don't know.
- Such a simple thing, you don't know it, and you dare call yourself our colleague?
- So tell me, and I'll teach it tomorrow in class, in your name.
- You eat first from right under the crust.
- If you know so much (if you're such a scholar, this is rav Ashi asking the terrible sinner Menashe), how come you (and the other sinners) succumbed to idolatry?
- Ah, what do you know. Had you been alive in those days, you'd have raised the hem of your garment so as to run faster to worship those idols, so great was their attraction.
Then next morning, the Gemara tells us, rav Ashi opened his lecture by saying: Today we'll learn from our rabbis (our betters, not our colleagues).

Defining the edges seems to have been problematic, even in the days when doing it was an existential imperative.

[This thread started and is explained here]

1 comment:

NormanF said...

Judaism was under grave threat after the destruction of the Temple and Jews needed guidance as to what was proper and what was not. Anything not written in Hebrew was out. This included Jewish works written in Greek and also the emerging New Testament among the Christians - also being written in Greek.A conscious process of selection and reification created what we know as the Jewish World of today. And what is remarkable at how successful it was in the face of all the pressures ancient Jews faced and which their descendants must still deal with even today.