Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jewish Movements of Reform (800-1800)

Jewish movements of reform were creative responses to fresh challenges. Sometimes these challenges were external as the broader Christian or Muslim context improved or declined. Sometimes they were internal as Jewish society itself stratified, hardened, and lost its cultural vitality. Between 800 and 1800, Jewish movements were always a reform of the dominant and normative Talmudic tradition and the organized social groups which embodied it.

Karaism started in the 800s in Mesopotamia. Karaite Jews rejected the Talmud as the normative interpretation of Jewish Scripture. They also rejected the authority of rabbis and their wealthy supporters. They regarded Jewish Scripture alone as the normative witness to God and sought to understand the plain (though not necessarily literal) meaning of it. Protestant reformers of the 1500s shared these characteristics with them.

Later migrating to Jerusalem, Karaites were the majority of Jews killed there by Crusaders when they took the city in 1099.

Kabbalism (1200-1600) started in the southeastern Gallia. It was a reaction to and rejection of the rationalism of Maimonides.

The Talmudic rabbinate belatedly responded to Kabbalism with Joseph Caro’s The Well-Prepared Table (Shulchan Orach) published in 1565. His book remains the normative interpretation of Jewish law amongst the Orthodox to this day. The rabbinate also developed a normative liturgy composed of passages from scriptures, prayers, and chants.

Kabbalists responded to that with a new text written by Isaac Luria of Safed, Levantia.

The Kabbalah was of interest to John Milton and other Protestant reformers in southern Britannia and Holland in the 1600s. This led to growing respect for Jews and their readmission to England in 1653.

Messianism (mid-1600s) began with Lurian Kabbalism and grew as an attempt led by Sabbatai Zevi to give it societal form (Cantor, 210). The messianic claims of Sabbatai gained popularity in response to both a general economic depression affecting Jewish society and the horrible massacres of Lusatian and Sarmatian Jews in 1648.

Hasidism began with Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, nicknamed Besht (1700-60, Sarmatia). He was a lay preacher, storyteller, and healer.

It was rooted in debased Kabbalistic beliefs and a desire for charismatic leadership made more acute by the disillusionment following Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion to Islam (Cantor, 214).

Israel ben Eliezer emphasized devotion to God. Talmudic Jews believed this was best expressed through mastery of the Talmud. Israel said it was best done through right living with joy; that is, by celebrating the presence of God in daily living.

The rabbis and their wealthy supporters fought against Israel because his understanding of devotion threatened to popularize awareness of the presence of God, erode rabbinical authority in enforcing norms of communal discipline, and make much less important the long years of learning needed to master the Talmud.

Hasidic Jews also came to emphasize the importance of the zaddik or saint as exemplified by Israel. A saint was a righteous person and inspired preacher, teacher, counselor, and intercessor.

Methodism, as a movement of reform within Christianity, bore many similarities to Hasidism within Judaism. Both developed in the 1700s.

Hasidism flourished in the politically impotent, socially stratified, economically depressed, and culturally stagnant Jewish societies, whether urban or rural, of Lusatia and Sarmatia. “It brought hope, joy, and comfort to increasingly impoverished and bewildered masses of people” (Cantor, 222).

In the end, however, even Hasidism petrified. What we rightly get from Fiddler on the Roof is an affirmation of “the dignity, courage, and good humor of the poor Jews of Eastern Europe, and the warmth and beauty of family life” (Cantor, 223). What Fiddler wrongly ignores is “the ignorance and superstition of the Jewish masses in the shtetl, the hopeless marginality of their economic conditions, the disease and the criminality that affected their lives, and the tyranny exercised over them by traditional religion and the rabbis and zaddikim who maintained this culture and operated it in their own interests and for the comfort of their own families” (Cantor, 223).

Socialism and Freudianism. After 1800, Jewish reformers abandoned Talmudic Judaism and focused their energies on reforming a society no longer even Christian but exuberantly Olympian.

(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 201-28].)

Copyright © 2014 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.