Journal: Early rabbi surprises

This is the second in a series of journal entries corresponding to the weeks of an Introduction to Judaism class I’m taking through the Union of Reform Judaism.  Each week we are given a topic and asked to journal about that topic.  What follows is one such journal entry, possibly redacted to protect the innocent, guilty, or potentially embarrassed (which would be mostly me.)

My intro class recently cast its attention back into early rabbinic history, which is the period of the last few centuries before the common era and the first century of the same. It’s the post-exile period in which Biblical Judaism descended into controversy and emerged redefined as the rabbinic religion that is practiced to this day.   We were asked to reflect on three things that surprised us about this period, so here are are mine

Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity developed at about the same time, and are indeed sibling religions.

I guess this idea wasn’t entirely new to me, but I’d never explore it in depth.  It’s also pretty contrary to the widely held belief (among Christians) that their religion more or less supersedes Judaism.  I more or less grew up with this point of view, even though I was raised on a Christianity that was in most ways open and ecumenical.  In retrospect, this is a bit frustrating.  After all, it’s not as though signs of the turmoil preceding the destruction of the second temple are not central to all of the Christian gospels.  I recall, for example, the several rabbinic factions that Jesus was always encountering.  (He constantly battled the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he himself was likely something of a Zealot.)

All of this intra-Jewish division didn’t resolve itself until a couple of hundred years later, when both the Christian and rabbinic (Talmudic) cannons were set.  Sacrificial, temple-based Judaism was in fact a common ancestor to both traditions.  In the case of rabbinic Judaism the path was perhaps more direct and less divergent, but still, this is a pretty cool fact to ponder.

Babylon was pretty important.

Jerusalem and Judea get all of the play.  But without the safe-ish haven of Babylon as a second, and sometimes unique, center of Jewish practice and thought. Jewish history (if it had continued at all beyond ancient times) would have looked very very different.  There are many amazing facts connected to this theme, but the two that have stuck with me are the fact that the Babylonian Talmud was much bigger and more developed than the Judean one, and the fact that after the exile, it’s thought that only a minority of now-Babylonian Jews decided to move back to the area of Palestine and rebuild the temple.

To the early rabbis, the destruction of the second temple was not an unmitigated disaster

When the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 AD, it was a direct result of a series of revolts by Zealots and other Jewish sects against the ruling authorities.  The Pharisees, who by this time had begun to establish centers of learning (Synagogues) outside of the temple in Jerusalem, tended toward the philosophy of dinah d’malchuta dina — the law of the land is the law.  They were able to imagine a continued Jewish holiness in the presence of empire/occupation and apart from the sacrificial center. Meanwhile, one imagines that with each successive revolt, the Sadducees found their own crisis deepening.  They had no recourse to anything except the temple, and no philosophy or outside network like the Pharisees.  When Jerusalem was finally destroyed, their line came to a complete end, and concluded the long-running dispute between the two groups.  The Pharisees, through tragedy, had won and were soon to be free to establish what we now know as rabbinic Judaism.

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