Rabbinic Judaism: A Missed Opportunity?

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).

The good…

Positive

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.

The bad…

Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:

  • NegativeWith 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…

Modern-Space-Living-Room-Window-DesignCaring 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).

Notes:

(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).

***

Advertisements

The Antwerp Bible

The Antwerp Bible (its official name is “Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece et Latine: Philippi II. reg. Cathol. pietate, et studio ad sacrosanctae ecclesiae vsum, Christoph Plantinus excud.“) was printed between 1568 and 1573 by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp (now Belgium.)

The Catholic king of Spain Philip II financed the project and sent Spanish theologian Benito Arias Montano to Antwerp to watch over its translation in five languages.  The Bible comprises eight volumes and was printed in 1100 copies.

  • The first four volumes contain the Old Testament. The left page has two columns with the Hebrew original and the Latin translation, the right page has same text in Greek with its own Latin translation. Underneath these columns there is an Aramaic version on the left-hand page and a Latin translation of this on the right-hand side.
  • Volume 5 contains the New Testament in Greek and Syriac, each with a Latin translation, and a translation of the Syriac into Hebrew.
  • Volume 6 has the complete Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, as well as an interlinear version that has the Latin translation printed between the lines.
  • The last two volumes contain dictionaries (Hebrew-Latin, Greek-Latin, Syriac-Aramaic, grammar rules, list of names, etc.) that were of value to scholars.

For printing the Hebrew text Plantin used among others Daniel Bomberg’s Hebrew type, which he had received from Bomberg’s nephews. Bomberg was a Christian printer and publisher of Hebrew works. He was born in Antwerp and died in Venice in 1549.  After having learned from his father, Cornelius, the art of printing and of type-founding, he went to Venice, where, from 1517 to 1549, he published many editions of Hebrew works.

A complete copy of the Antwerp Bible is on display at the Plantin-Moretus Museum (the site of the original printing press), including the typefaces which were designed for this project.

Photo: http://drc.usask.ca/projects/archbook/archbook_admin/images/FisherG-10_00137.jpg

The oldest synagogue in the United States

TouroSyn_credit

The story of the Touro Synagogue reveals the complexity and beauty of Jewish history, and the ability of the Jewish people to adapt in order to survive, a couple of themes that I have highlighted on several occasions in this blog.  The story of its community spans the Western Hemisphere, dating back to the Middle Ages, and played a significant role in the independence of the United States.

The Touro Synagogue

The Touro Synagogue is located in of Newport, Rhode Island on the East Coast of the U.S., a 2-hour drive from Boston, Massachusetts.  The synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and as such is considered to be the oldest synagogue in the United States.  The synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.The synagogue was designated a National Historic Site in 1946.  It still serves an active congregation and each year greets over 30,000 visitors who come to see the magnificent interior and hear its remarkable story. 1280px-Touro_Synagogue_National_Historic_Site_TOSY1087

Services at Touro Synagogue are orthodox and follow the Nusach Sefard liturgy.  At its dedication in December 1763, the Touro Synagogue was the center of Jewish life in Newport. It anchored the community during the height of
Newport’s prosperity and stood through the town’s near destruction in the Revolutionary War. As it approaches its 250th anniversary, the Synagogue remains a vital part of the Jewish community in Newport and serves as the home for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the spiritual descendants of the congregation that built it.

Origin of the Congregation

In 16touro-synagogue-national-historic-site-158, the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island received its first Jewish residents. Fifteen families came from Barbados, seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered.  These families were descendants of  ‘Marranos’ who fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal that had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica.   By 1677, the community realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco, purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose.

Marranos

Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Portuguese Jews (Sephardim) enjoyed unparalleled freedom, wealth and power. They occupied key positions in government, academia, and commerce, and especially the professions of medicine, science and law.  In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal tried to keep his most learned, creative and productive subjects, not to mention his personal physician, tailor, royal mathematician, royal astronomer, his government financiers, etc.  He encouraged “his” Jews to convert to Christianity. He tried to persuade and cajole them, even bringing converted rabbis from Spain to preach to them.  The New Christian secret Jews became known as Marranos, from the Portuguese “marrar”, i.e. forced, or from the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus, a forced one.  The philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Frances Sanches, Uriel Acosta, Montaigne, and David Ricardo were all Marrano descendants.  Indigenous Marranos did survive nearly 300 years following the Inquisition. In 1920, Samuel Schwarz, a Polish engineer working in Portugal, encountered a community of Marranos in the interior of Portugal (Belmonte) who had managed to preserve some of the secret rituals, including prayers, of their ancestors.

George Washington gets in the act…

Marranos who came to the American colonies were free to profess their Judaism.  Aaron Lopez, the wealthiest merchant of the thirteen colonies was born Duarte Lopez in Lisbon.  He provided money and ships to George Washington during the War of Independence.

The United States won and became independent and politically free, but would there also be religious freedom?  On 17 Aug 1790, Moses Seixas of the Touro Congregation wrote to George Washington, asking him for assurance in the new political climate.  President Washington replied, promising that the United States would never support religious bigotry or persecution:

…The Citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.  It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

And then he went further:

…while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Washington’s commitment has remained a cornerstone of American values.  His letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” written a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, is on display at the Touro synagogue.

The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 21 Aug 1790

The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 21 Aug 1790.

Inscription marking the entrance to the Touro Cemetery (Newport, Rhode Island) - photo credit: Peter Radunzel

 

About Charlie

I can’t help but contribute a few comments here on the whole Charlie Hebdo incident, although it is probably too soon to get a good perspective on this.  Many around the World see this as a black and white issue: Do not kill men who exercise their freedom of expression on one hand, and do not ridicule an entire creed in the name of that freedom on the other hand.  In a recent article (Charlie Hebdo: Why Islam, Again? on eskeptic.com), Kenneth Krause brings up some interesting facts:

  • The Jewish (Hebrew) and Christian faiths at one time killed thousands of “unbelievers” in the name of their religious principles.  The Bible stipulates that infidels must be killed (Leviticus 24:16 and Deuteronomy 13:7–11 for instance)  Even more explicit than Qur’an 9:73!
  • Moses himself  “organized a “death squad” to murder the 3,000 men and women (Exodus 32:27) who actually betrayed their strangely jealous god.”
  • Monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have a “tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god”, and are more prone to encourage sacred killings than polytheist religions that have  “a more open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice”.

Judaism evolved (a theme of this blog), following the destruction of the second temple and in part through contact with greek philosophy.  The rise of Rabbinic Judaism resulted in a system of interpretations and traditions (including the Mishnah, the Talmud and oral law) that moved away from literal texts.  Temple rituals were replaced by prayers.

In Christianity, crusaders pillaged and killed many in the name of the religion.  In 1252, Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture in Inquisitions and in 1478 Pope Sixtus IV established the Spanish Inquisition…  The reformation and the age of reason finally put an end to religiously-sanctioned violence towards more peaceful endeavors.

Islam may need a similar revolution to officially move from literal to more conceptual interpretation of texts.  The Taliban and Boko Haram know that separation of Church and State, and secular education are some of the biggest threats to their extremist theology.  In the meantime, those who profile an entire religion like Charlie Hebdo will likely help rally the faithful and are likely to suffer the consequences.

Follow Judaical on WordPress.com
(function(d){var f = d.getElementsByTagName(‘SCRIPT’)[0], p = d.createElement(‘SCRIPT’);p.type = ‘text/javascript’;p.async = true;p.src = ‘//widgets.wp.com/platform.js’;f.parentNode.insertBefore(p,f);}(document));