Sunday, April 17, 2011

Judaism on its Own Evolution

Judaism is famously both a religion and a nationality, though this is not a matter everyone likes to accept. Recently I've been revisiting various topics and seeing them through the prism of the knowledge I've accumulated over the years, and I'm beginning to suspect the case for Jews being a nation is even stronger than Jews as a religious belief; at the very least, the beliefs have repeatedly and dramatically evolved over the ages. Given Judaism's unusual longevity, there's been a lot of time for evolution.

Of course this isn't a particularly startling insight. The entire Koran reflects divine words handed down in the single lifetime of Mohamed. The New Testament covers, what, two centuries? The Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) spans at least 1,500 years, if you start counting with Abraham. Most of what was recognizably Jewish on the eve of the Emancipation, in the 18th century, was created or added after the completion of the Bible. So it's banal to say that Judaism contains very thick layers of historical memory. King David and his contemporaries, whatever their culture was, didn't much resemble the earliest creators of the Mishna, who were roughly contemporaries of Jesus, and while we can trace the line from them to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and to his contemporary Abraham Joshua Heschel, it's unlikely the Tanaim would have foreseen either scholar.

This also works backwards. The Holocaust plays a central role in the identity of America's Jews, yet it obviously didn't play any role in the identity of their great grandparents who migrated at the turn of the 20th century. The destruction of the (2nd) Temple and the yearning for Jerusalem were absolutely central to the identity of Jews for some 2000 years, but no-one had ever heard of them when the Hasmoneans. What did Judaism in Jerusalem in Isaiah's time look like, in the 8th century BCE? There's no real way of knowing, but even if it was as memory based as Judaism has become, it was laden by perhaps 8 centuries of it, not 35. (I'm not discussing modern theories of ancient history here, nor am I discounting them. That's not the topic, and doesn't change my point).

Predictably, but perhaps not fully appreciated, the Jews have long been aware of this dynamic. Nothing better demonstrates this than the story of Moses' visit to the yeshiva of Rabbi Akiva, as told on a daf we passed last week.

Rabbi Yehuda told in the name of Rav: When Moses went to the heavens [to receive the Torah] he saw the Holy One Be He Blessed tying ktarim to the letters [ktarim being decorations which appear above some letters which have no use since the letters are recognizable without them]. Said Moses
- Creator of the World, who's delaying You [who needs the ktarim]?
- There will one day be a man, after some generations [about 1,400 years, to be precise], named Akiva son of Josef, and he will learn many halachot from each thorn and thorn [katrim look a bit like thorns].
- Creator of the World, can you show him to me?
- Walk back behind you.
Moses found himself in the yeshiva, and sat at the back of the room behind all the scholars. He didn't understand anything that was being discussed no matter how hard he tried, until at one point the disiples said to Rabbi Akiva "Rabbi, how do you know that?" "It was given to Moses at Sinai".
Reassured, Moses returned to God.
- Creator of the World, You have such a man in your world, and you've chosen me to bring down the Torah?
- Silence. That is my intention.
- Creator of the World, You've shown me his greatness in Torah, can you show me his reward?
- Walk back behind you.
Moses found himself at Rabbi Akiva's execution, as the Romans were slowly torturing him to death.
- Creator of the World, that's Torah and that's it's reward (zo Torah ve-zo sechara)?
- Silence. That is my intention.

Menachot 29b. This thread is introduced and explained here.


Anonymous said...

Throughout history Jews have been identified as a foreign nation where ever they lived, thereby justifying the denial of rights to Jews. The 19th and 20th (and probably earlier) are replete with failed attempts to shed the national element and make Jews acceptable to the majority cultures. Zionism is the recognition of the futility of that attempt. If they are going to treat us like a nation, then we might as well be a nation, by Golly.

Ironically, only since the advent of Zionism have the the enemies of the Jews started to say we are a religion, not a nation.

May the Passover season bring freedom, joy, celebration, great light, redemption and renewal to all of us.


NormanF said...

The Jews are a nation.... whose story begins with Passover. Before the Exile in Egypt they were nothing more than a collection of feuding tribes at odds with each other as we know from the story of Joseph. This is still the case with the Arabs today, who are more often than not, mutually hostile tribes concealed behind a flag of national convenience.

Egypt changed the Jews. And Passover tells us the Jews have a long way to go, despite the establishment of Israel, to attain full freedom and justice. Until then, every Jew is still a slave who has just emerged out of Egypt.

May Passover this year bring the Jewish People one step closer to that cherished dream becoming a reality at last upon this earth!

Jon said...

Not sure that "that is my intention" is the best translation here, but you obviously know that already.

Y. Ben-David said...

The Talmudic story of Moshe Rabbenu visiting Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash and not understanding what is going on and his shock at finding out what will happen to Rabbi Akiva is one of the most beautiful I have seen and played a major role in bringing me around to adopting a religous lifestyle. The brutal honesty in showing the murky way halacha developed and the nature of reward and punishment showed me people who are willing to grapple with the most difficult questions and the refusal to hide these difficulties in the name of giving people "simple answers" in order to keep them "frum".
Thanks for posting this and reminding me of this as we confront the major difficulties of our era.

RK said...

K'tarim are usually translated into English literally as "crowns."

Shalom, NJ said...

As we'll all say at the seder: Baruch Ha'Makom, Baruch Hu.