This post is a companion to my post on twenty notable rabbis coming later today. One of the conclusions of my research for the 20 rabbi post is that Rabbinic Judaism, with a few notable exceptions, missed an opportunity to make significant contributions to World theology and to mankind, and at the same time, isolated the Jewish people and failed to protect it from persistent persecutions from other nations.
In the beginning…
The genius of Judaism, or Hebraism (Note 1) I should say, is the idea of One God. Maybe the original Hebrews borrowed the idea from another place or another tribe in Canaan or in the Euphrates region, but Abraham and his cohorts made it work. Monotheism became and is now the leading and most successful World theology. The Rabbinic system of Judaism took off after the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 BC and replaced the priestly system that was in place then. The early rabbis felt that they needed to rebuild the religious foundation of a people who had just lost its land, power and temple for the second time in 600 years. One of their priorities was to write down and discuss Jewish laws (Halakha).
Rabbinic Judaism has some important and positive attributes: it values intellectual honesty and justice, it is (or was) largely a merit-based, democratic system (no central authority.) Rabbinic Judaism formed the basis of a Jewish education system long before other nations, providing opportunities for dissenting opinions, and generally advocating a positive, life-affirming approach.
Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:
- With a few exceptions, discourse in Rabbinic Judaism has been narrow, focusing as I said above on conduct and obedience (Halakha). Rabbis have spent millions (perhaps billions!) of hours on minute and obscure details of little or no importance to the Jewish as a whole. One could argue that Rabbinic practices contributed to the isolation of the Jewish people.
- I mentioned intellectual honesty as a plus, but Rabbis often use(d) convoluted, illogical and obscure arguments such as numerology or “miracles” in order to make a point.
- The Rabbis created a closed system of Yeshivoth where deep religious knowledge was shared and discussed within the system and rarely outside of it. Those who attended yeshivoth often came from wealthy families who could support the students (Note 2). successful rabbis were often connected in the community and politically astute. They competed for lucrative positions in wealthy Jewish communities.
- The Rabbis’ focus on halakhic minutiae has, in turn, hindered or precluded them from addressing important religious issues that could benefit all nations in the areas of morality, equality, oppression of minorities, compassion, interfaith unions, personal choices, etc.
- To complement this thought, it is my observation that the most impactful rabbis and sages are the ones who were able to bring into their closed loop environments non-Jewish sources of knowledge, and integrate this knowledge into their own work. For instance, Sa’adia Gaon integrated components of Greek philosophy, Maimonides was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and David Hartman used modern philosophy which he integrated with his Talmudic knowledge (Note 3).
A modern creed…
Caring for strangers is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment. Yet morality is a topic seldom addressed in Rabbinic Judaism, except in the context of the law. Early Christianity, on the other hand, was able to address some of the social and moral issues of the time while leveraging Judaism’s overall framework (Note 4.)
The Rabbinic “us versus them” model likely contributed to Jewish isolation in the World and missed an opportunity to share the strength and true meaning of the original biblical message. Today, Judaism needs a new framework in tune with our science and fact-oriented world, a framework that focuses more on values and morality than halakhic details. Morality has the power of truth, said Maimonides. Judaism needs to become an open and moral religion, a modern room with windows. “Judaism beyond the (kosher) kitchen” as David Hartman said (Note 3).
(1) One idea, attributable in part to Rabbi Leon Askenazi is that Ever (the original Hebrew), grandson of Noah, is really the founder of Judaism. I will post on this. later.
(2) Just an example: “At age fifteen, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study.” Rabbi Akiva married the daughter of the Ben Kalba Sabu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, etc.
(2) It is no coincidence that I mention Rabbi David Hartman who created the Shalom Hartman Institute. Rabbi Hartman was a philosopher and leader of the Modern Orthodox Movement . Some of the ideas in this post originate with his teachings and vision. The first post on this blog was devoted to a short but critical essay by Rabbi Hartman called “Auschwitz or Sinai“.
(3) Early churches met almost exclusively in homes. These gatherings became close, supportive communities that shared resources, including money, when someone was needy. They became surrogate families. Not only that but they were radically egalitarian—something novel in the Roman world of that day. Paul made his ringing announcement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).