Friday, November 21, 2014

The Rise and Decline of the Talmud

During the Age of Christianity (AD 1-634), Jews in Olympia suffered five disasters: (1) Roman victories over Jewish rebels in Judea in AD 70, (2) Alexandria in 117, (3) and Judea again in 135; (4) the growth of Christianity into a more appealing, powerful, and hostile opponent by 200; and (5) the establishment of Christianity as the sole legal religion of the Roman Empire in 386. Between AD 1 and 634, Jews loss half their population and much of their status, wealth, and morale.

But their history was more than simply suffering disastrous loss. There was also tremendous creativity. By AD 70, Jews had their Scripture. By 600 they had also created a set of writings that arguably became even more important: (1) the Mishnah (by 200), (2) Jerusalem Talmud (by 400), and (3) Babylonian Talmud (by 600).

The Talmud is divided into two parts. The first is the Mishnah or the written version of a long oral tradition of reflections on Jewish Scripture. This redaction of oral tradition was the first creative response by Pharisaic leaders to the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple of Yahweh there. Originally organized in scriptural order, the rabbi Judah (“the Prince”) organized it by subject matter and his version became normative around AD 200.

The second part of the Talmud is the Gemara. It contains written reflections on the Mishnah and other writings made by leading Pharisaic intellectuals in Galilee (AD 200-400) and Babylonia (AD 200-600). These intellectual leaders systematized Scripture and Mishnah, written and oral teachings, and applied both to every important aspect of life at the time of writing. The Hebrew edition of both parts of the Babylonian Talmud runs about 6,000 pages long.

The Talmud edited in Babylonia was longer than the one of Galilee and eventually became the normative one for Jews. This confirmed the fact that Olympia outside of coastal Levantia had become the dominant context for Judaism. It would remain so until the 1900s.

After 600, men became rabbis, or Jewish community leaders, by immersing themselves in the study of the Talmud under the guidance of those who had already mastered the material. Mastery required not just knowledge of the material but an ability to debate, interpret, and apply it in the same spirit. Communal leadership required the ability to think and lead as a judge, teacher, and counselor in creative response to diverse and sometimes severe challenges.

Rabbis instructed in and trained by the Talmud disliked extremes. They avoided emotionalism, messianism, and non-Jews as much as possible. They disciplined their communities to maintain their distinct identity and survive in generally harsh circumstances.

Rabbis as masters of the Talmud became the acknowledged leaders of Jewish communities throughout Olympia after AD 600 when the Babylonian Talmud took its final form. They remained so until the 1700s and the rise of a movement known as the Jewish Enlightenment. Leaders of that movement profoundly questioned the continued meaning of the Talmud and the rabbinical authority based on it. They set Jewish life on different foundations.

By 1900, millions of Jews were leaving their Talmudic, Orthodox, Jewish communities in Lusatia and Sarmatia (eastern Europe) in hopes of a better life in America and elsewhere. For most of those who emigrated, and many who remained, Talmudic rabbis had become as controlling as any Olympian leader and the vitality of communal life and personal lives had shriveled accordingly. Mendele Mocher Seforim, a Jewish novelist living in Sarmatia and writing in the late 18- and early 1900s, witnessed to this painful reality in books with titles like The Parasite.

Then came the catastrophic destruction of Jewish communities and murder of millions of Jews between 1939 and 1945.

Afterward, novelists like Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote books with a more nostalgic view of Talmudic life in Sarmatia.

Today’s Orthodox Jews continue to maintain a way of living based on the Talmud. They represent, however, perhaps only ten percent of all Jews in the world.

(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, pp. 81-2, 102-13]).

Copyright © 2014 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.