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).

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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.

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What’s in the Jewish DNA?

Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in  The Hague, 1777.

Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in The Hague, 1777.

Unlike many other ancient people and tribes, and despite intense persecution and tragedies, the Jewish people has managed to survive for over 5 millennia,   The destruction of the first and second temples,  the expulsion from Spain, pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust are but a few of the calamities that almost wiped out the Jews.  What is in the Jewish DNA that has enabled its People to survive to this day?  I don’t mean DNA in the biological sense (there are studies on this) but in the societal sense.  What is it about the Jewish value and belief system that has enabled us to survive?

One element is the ability and capacity to question and analyze ourselves (“Heshbon ha-nefesh” in Hebrew) and the world around us.  Why was the temple destroyed when God is supposed to be on our side?  This important question led the Jews to fundamentally question their religion and practices, resulting in many movements and sects, each with their own answers, leading to Rabbinic Judaism as we pretty much know it today.  This urge to analyze and re-calibrate is perhaps most evident in the Rabbinic tradition of debating and interpreting the written texts of the Bible.  In 1583, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi wrote in “Ma’asei Hashem”:

For in all that affects human faith…each one of us…is bound until the end of all generations to investigate the secrets within the words of the Torah and to conduct his faith in the straightest and most correct way…and to accept the truth from whatever source,once we know of it.  And let not the opinion of others, though they preceded us, hinder us from inquiry.

In the Judaic tradition, belief in renewal comes from respect for mature and intelligent interpretation of the texts, and even self-criticism. Heshbon ha-nefesh (self-examination) is a necessary condition for teshuva (repentance and renewal).   So what’s in the Jewish DNA?  One the one hand, a stark adherence to the concept of One God, and to an enlightened system of values, but on the other, an unrivaled capacity for interpretation of the application of this value system, which over the centuries has enabled the Jewish People to survive.