In order to understand the Jewish community of today – we need to examine all sorts of phenomena that explain why the Jewish community today, in different places in the world, looks the way that it does. We need to understand too, why the idea of Jewish community has been so central to Jews for thousands of years.
For this and the next two chapters, we will be following the strange path of the Jewish community as it wends its way through time, changing and developing as it encounters new situations and finds itself forced to adapt to strange and often difficult circumstances. We will see how the framework and the content of the lives of our ancestors changed and indeed revolutionized themselves in the three periods in question. Let us now open our story and plunge into the first period: how does the whole story begin?
In this chapter we will examine the dynamics of Jewish community in the emerging Diaspora center. We will see the growth and the decline of great Jewish communities, each with their own Rabbinic leadership in different parts of the world. The basis had been laid in Palestine. The results were to be seen throughout the world. The story of the Jews was changing yet again.
We will discuss the covenantal view of history and its implications for our reading of the biblical historical narrative and rabbinic texts; does God determine history as a response to our merits/sins? Does this imply we should undertake a passive role when national disasters occur, since they are simply the hand of God dealing out our due punishment? Is there a rational way to interpret the same concept of historical consequences for our actions? How do we relate to and teach this concept after the Holocaust? What does this mean for the modern State of Israel – do we have an unconditional right to the Land, or is it dependent upon our actions?
David (with help from the Philistine enemy) succeeded in creating a united kingdom of all the tribes, and withstanding a number of challenges to his sovereignty. His successor Solomon continued the work of consolidation and institutionalization, the crown of this effort being of course the Temple. Clearly, Solomon’s Temple continues to serve as a crucial symbol in Jewish consciousness and belief, and a key factor in the traditional connection to Eretz Yisrael.
The glory was short-lived: already with Solomon’s death centrifugal forces dominated, and the kingdom was re-divided with the ten northern tribes splitting off from Judah and Simeon. 200 years later, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, who apparently adopted a policy of destroying the national identities of subject peoples by forced migrations – and thus the ten tribes disappeared from history and moved into legend. Our sovereignty over the land was restricted to the area of Judah – until it too was lost just over a century later. (see next lesson)
The question that is relevant for us to consider as we examine these events is: what is the ideal relationship among Jewish religion, a Jewish state, and the land of Israel? How do we feel about “the good old days” of Solomon? How do we respond to the traditional idealization of that period? To Full Post
After the forced exile of the 10 tribes from the kingdomof Israel, Judahcarries on alone. It continues to be buffeted by the clashes between the great powers on its borders, and its kings must choose their alliances wisely. The kings of Judahare not always successful in this, and Judahis swept by a series of invasions which ultimately end in the exile of the top echelons of society, the destruction of the temple, and the termination of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. To Full Post
After all the promises and all the tests, and the centralization of our connection to God in the Temple, the destruction of the Temple and of our sovereignty constituted a major spiritual crisis. It seems likely that many people saw this disaster as evidence that God was a failure, or non-existent. The prophets’ challenge was now not just to get the people to obey the laws, but to get them not to give up on the whole project. At first, the assumption was that this disaster was indeed a punishment, but that it would pass: we had paid the price of our sins, so now God could forgive us and get over His anger, and restore an anointed king of David’s line (anointed one = mashiach = messiah), and the Temple service. As time went on, however, this neat picture never materialized, and we had to find a way to cope with painfully . and indefinitely postponed redemption. And so, as the messiah receded into the future, he loomed larger and larger in terms of his expected role in the world. At the same time, we learned to live (mostly) with a “permanent” tension between present reality and our imagined utopian restoration to the good old days (that were not as good as we imagined them).
This lesson traces the development of the messianic concept, and looks ahead at its impact on later Jewish history. Our relationship to the land of Israel – and the state of Israel – is intimately tied up with this powerful and interesting concept.
The destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the elites to Babylonia were of course a huge shock to our system, theologically, socially, and politically. It seems that the people’s expectation, encouraged by the prophets, was that this punishment would be a harsh but passing blow – that in the near future God would relent and accept our repentance and restore our sovereignty and our connection to Him through the Temple ritual (see, for example, Jeremiah 29). And indeed, so it happened – with the Persian conquest of Babylonia, a new policy was instituted, and the emperor Cyrus allowed the restoration of autonomy in Judah and the rebuilding of the Temple (but not, significantly, the restoration of the monarchy!) just 50 years after the destruction. Therefore it is remarkable that the response was . not a mass return, but rather a trickle, with many of the exiles choosing to stay in their new home. And thus was created the model of Diaspora Jewish life coexisting with a Jewish state. Moreover, the process of rebuilding and reorganizing the community in Israel was difficult and frustrating, and didn’t look much like the promised redemption. The period of Shivat Tziyon therefore offers suggestive parallels to our own modern situation of Israel-Diaspora coexistence. This unit explores the somewhat sketchy historical knowledge we have of the period, focusing on the apparent dilemmas raised by the exiles’ ambivalent response to the possibility of restoration.
With the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great (331 BCE), Judah confronted a new cultural context, different in important ways from the cultures of Mesopotamia that had dominated the region for almost 500 years. The dilemma of how to draw the line between faithfulness to the Torah and acceptance of values and behaviors from the dominant culture became more complicated during the Hellenistic period than in the days of the First Temple. The same problem of the connection between political and cultural independence continued to exist, but was made more difficult by certain emphases of Hellenistic culture: on individualism, on cosmopolitanism, and on rationalism. These qualities made it possible for the individual Jew to define an integrated identity, incorporating elements of both Jewish and Hellenistic cultures. Thus, the meeting with Hellenism confronted Judaism with new challenges.
The period of Roman rule of Eretz Yisrael is important in our consideration of “teaching Israel” for several reasons:
- Continuing the conversation that began with Shivat Tziyon, about the significance of land, autonomy, sovereignty, and exile: if we are living in our land but do not have sovereignty, are we in a kind of exile? Or does exile only refer to physical separation from the land? How important, in our relationship to the land, is political independence?
- Another conversation that continues and blossoms during this period is about Judaism’s relationship to foreign cultures. The Jewish-pagan polarity that is so evident in the Bible becomes much more complex and nuanced during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This brings us to down to the modern discussion of “what is Jewish culture?” and “What is Israeli culture?” Is any culture that is rooted in Israel ipso facto Israeli? Jewish?
- It is during this period that the basic documents of the Oral Law are codified; thus, the “Jewish Tradition” as we know it, both Halachah and Aggadah, is founded upon the records of the discussions of the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael under the Romans – and this includes, of course, the place of the land itself in that tradition (see lesson 22, The Mishnah).
The Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple represent, of course, a major turning point in Jewish history from every perspective. The pattern of life in exile had been established previously, with the creation of the Babylonian community; however, the diaspora as we know it is really only known to us from 70 CE onward.
A few key points regarding this period that are of interest for our teaching of Israel:
- The escape to Yavneh: trading the struggle for political sovereignty for acceptance of limited religious/communal autonomy
- The Bar Kochba revolt and the historical power of messianism
- The historical memory and observance of the destruction in the Jewish tradition (this was dealt with in lesson 15, on the destruction of the first Temple)
- The two revolts as symbols in modern Israeli culture