Egypt – Prototype of Jewish Diaspora – 6

Up until now the biblical story has been centered in or at least focused on thelandofIsrael. The land has been the pivot of the Patriarchal narrative.  Divine promises of its inheritance combined with the forefathers’ attempts to realize and pass on that vision have fueled the story even when the action was taking place somewhere else.  The story of Joseph is a turning point; it literally moves the characters out of thelandofIsraeland centers on the unfolding story inEgypt.  From the time Jacob joins Joseph until the end of the Pentateuch thelandofIsraelno longer serves as the stage on which events unfold or the focus of the narrative. The questions we will discuss over the next three lessons are: Why? What does this shift in emphasis tell us about the role of the land in our national consciousness? What is the significance of the exile, enslavement and exodus – then and now?

This lesson will discuss the story of Joseph as a prototype of different Diaspora experiences throughout the ages.

(more…)

Continue ReadingEgypt – Prototype of Jewish Diaspora – 6

The Desert Experience – 8

The saga of the 40 years of wandering in the desert  takes up the better part of  two books in the Pentateuch – the Book of Numbers (called Bamidbar – ‘In the Desert’- in Hebrew), and Deuteronomy describe the experiences of the people of Israel in the desert. In this lesson  we will try to examine the different ways the desert experience affected and influenced the people and its relationship to thelandofIsrael. We will do so by closely studying two specific episodes – the story of the spies and that of the two and a half tribes that requested the land outside the promised borders. These stories form “bookends” to the 40 years of wandering in the desert. The sin of the spies resulted in the decree that the nation would not enter the land until all the present generation had died and is therefore the beginning of the extended desert stay. The story of the two and a half tribes takes place at the end of the forty years as the new generation prepares to enter thelandofIsrael. As such they provide an interesting contrast to each other and cast light on the entire period. (more…)

Continue ReadingThe Desert Experience – 8

The Hellenistic period and the Hasmoneans – 19

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.

(more…)

Continue ReadingThe Hellenistic period and the Hasmoneans – 19

Palestine under Roman Rule – 20

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).

(more…)

Continue ReadingPalestine under Roman Rule – 20

Israel and Babylonia – 23

A Jewish diaspora has existed since the times of the First Temple. The balance of power between Eretz Yisrael and the diaspora was in a constant flux, depending on the sizes of the communities, their economic and political wellbeing, and the existence of a temple which served as the religious center for the Jewish world. In this unit we’ll look at Eretz Yisrael-diaspora relations in the time of the second Temple and after its destruction, always keeping in mind the (somewhat striking) parallels with phenomena we observe today. As an example of a large and powerful community (somewhat like the North-American Jewish community today?) we will examine in more detail the Babylonian community. We’ll look at the two Talmuds, one from Babylonia and the other from Eretz Yisrael, to see the differences and why they emerged, and examine one particular story which appears in both Talmuds, with subtle but telling difference.

(more…)

Continue ReadingIsrael and Babylonia – 23