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).


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The Great Revolt – 21

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


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The Mishnah – 22

Most of the Tannaitic literature belongs to the halachic genre, and is made up of laws, as opposed to the aggadic genre, which is made up of stories, legends, sayings and ideas. In many educational settings in the Jewish world today, which are not committed to a halachic way of life, this literature is therefore neglected, with biblical texts largely preferred, as well as some aggadic stories gleaned from the literature of the sages.

In his classic essay “Halachah and Aggadah“, Hayim Nahman Bialik (considered Israel’s national poet, though he died before the foundation of the state) decries the focus of his generation on Aggadah, and the neglect of Halachah. He advocates a renewal of the study of Halachah, both as a literary genre, and as a way of life – not necessarily the traditional Halachah of the Shulchan Aruch, but the concept of commitment to a way of life.

We will read an excerpt of Bialik’s essay both to see how deeply grounded some modern-day figures in the Israeli literary world are in the world of the ancient texts, and to understand Bialik’s claim that Halachah and Halachic literature should not be abandoned as irrelevant in this day of Aggadah. Then we will study some of the texts from the Mishnah to which Bialik refers, and end by discussing whether these texts can be used in our classrooms.


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