The Origins of Rabbinic Judaism

Saturday, April 18, 2009

We find that the Judaism practiced today is radically different from everything known to us in the Bible. For instance, how do Jews worship? The standard system for religious expression was through sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem. Today, there is a total decentralization. The very same decentralization that was frown upon in the Bible today is the standard. Jews worship in synagogues. These are located wherever a sufficient number of Jews warrant their establishments. This decentralization would seem to go on the face of what the Bible was interested in.

The Israelites of the Bible were required to serve God through an elaborate system of sacrificial worship. They slaughtered animals on an altar at a temple. This was primarily carried on by a priestly family. Today, we encounter a totally different mode of worship in Judaism: prayer. In that model, there is absolutely no necessity for priests. Anyone can do it.

The most visible form of religious leadership today is the Rabbinic model. We all know these are the leaders of the Jewish community. But whereas the Bible talks about kings, about priests and about prophets, there is absolutely no mention of rabbis anywhere. Where does this model come from?

The Destruction of the Temple

The changes I mentioned are just a few of the major adjustments that resulted from what was arguably the most dramatic event in Judaism’s long history, maybe only the holocaust is equal in drama: the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in the year 70 C.E. by the Romans.

The Second Temple stood in Jerusalem for almost 600 years, from 560 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. Viewed in historical perspective, the sudden lose of the center of Jewish life for practitioners of Judaism throughout the world must had been devastating. We must remember that not only Jews from the land of Judea worshiped there, but Jews throughout the diaspora supported that temple. It was really the focal point of a worldwide brotherhood.

If we add to that that the first temple stood for almost 400 years, we find that for a thousand year period, save for a 70 year interval, Judaism understood its religious existence around the Temple. The sudden absence of the Temple demanded a theological explanation, as well as a practical adjustment to the new reality.

If God’s temple was destroyed by Roman armies, does that must mean that the Roman gods defeated the Jewish God? That was the mentality of the ancient Roman world. One of the books of the Midrash describes how the Roman conquered Jerusalem. The Roman general actually entered the temple of Jerusalem, banged on the altar and attacked the Jewish God by saying “you’re a god and I’m a god, come and do battle with me”.

We have a book that was written in Arameic on Assyria by a fellow who called himself Baruc. He understands the destruction of the temple as being the cessation of life. There is nothing to live for without a temple.

Other sources describe groups of Jews entering a state of perpetual mourning. They assumed the life of ascetic abstinence. They would not eat meat, they would not drink wine. The would derive no joy from this world.

The Solutions

Rabbinic stories would describe how one sage living at the time, literally in the immediate aftermath of the destruction, his name is Rabbi Joshua, approaches these ascetics and argues with them. He claims that such extreme reactions to the destruction can only lead to an ultimate negation of life itself.

We’re told that the ascetics stopped eating meat and stopped drinking wine. Joshua asks why. They say “how can we eat meat when meat is no longer offered on the temple, as it used to be when there were sacrifices”. “How can we drink wine when there are no longer wine libations.” Joshua responds by saying “if we are going to follow your logic, let’s stop eating bread, because they used to offer it on the temple. Let’s stop drinking water, because they used to pour water on the altar.” What Joshua was basically saying is that if I use your logic and I take it to its logical extreme, we cannot live anymore.

His solution, as opposed to theirs, was to establish formal symbols of mourning. You paint your house and you leave one portion unpainted to remind people of the destruction. Then, get on with life.

When you read these stories, you realize that it must have taken quite a bit of guts to stand up and say “we have to get on with life”. That is really the essence of the Rabbinic solution and the Rabbinic period. We cannot go into this constant state of negation of life.

Rabbinic literature describes the efforts to create alternative systems of Jewish religious expression. From one sage in particular. He is a fantastic fellow. I often dream that I could create a time machine so that I could go back in history and interview this Rabbi, whose name is Yochanan ben Zakai.

Not surprisingly, it was Yochanan ben Zakai who was Joshua’s mentor. It was he that really developed much of this process of rejuvenation and redefinition of Judaism.

A New Atonement Without the Temple

A popular Rabbinic story describes how during the siege of Jerusalem Yochanan ben Zakai realized the city was doomed. Something had to be done before the city fell. He faints death and smuggles out of the city in a coffin. That was the only way you could leave town. He appears before the Roman general conducting the battle and prophetizes that this general would be the next Caesar. Sure enough, a messenger comes running, telling the general exactly that. This general turns Caesar and is so overwhelmed that he tells Yochanan ben Zakai “what can I do for you?”. Yochanan says “give me a little town of the southern coast of Judea known as Yavneh and its wise men”. This little town would set up a center of learning that ultimately would become the new focal point of Jewish Rabbinic life.

The story is clearly anachronistic for one obvious reason. That city of Yavneh and its wise men did not exist yet. But people who told the story generations later knew that something happened that assured continuity. All stories really intended to answer the riddle how could Judaism had survived.

These wise men would become the foundation for a new type of leadership and a new type of ritual Jewish behavior.

A more symbolic legend describes Yochanan and his disciple Joshua visiting Jerusalem after it had been destroyed. Joshua sees the sanctuary devastated. He says to his mentor Yochanan, “the place where the sins of Israel are atoned for is devastated”.

The mentality here is clear. Joshua imagines a Jewish nation accruing sins throughout the calendar year, but he knows that the Bible has already presented the people of Israel with a solution. A day in the calendar year is known as the day of atonement, where sins are atoned for as the result of a particular process of sacrificial worship and changing of behavior patterns. People obviously tried to atone for sins that were committed not only towards God, but towards fellow men. The point is that Joshua imagined that there is only through Temple worship that sins would be atoned for. Without the Temple, these sins would pile up and they would ultimately crush us.

Yochanan replies with a fascinating statement. “My son, be not grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this: acts of loving kindness.” He is quoting the prophet Hosea for a desire of mercy, not sacrifices.

Yochanan was brilliant. He knew that when the prophet made that statement, he did not claim that we don’t need a temple. What the prophet was suggesting was that sacrifice without mercy is not only meaningless, but it might achieve the opposite that it intends. It is an abomination to God to you think that by burning an animal in an altar you’re achieving something if that is not accompanied by proper behavior.

Yochanan is reinterpreting that prophetic statement to say that the prophets already suggested that acts of loving kindness can take the place of sacrifices. It is a reinterpretation of a biblical statement. The Mishnah, that code of law produced by the Rabbis, attributes to Yochanan ben Zakai a number of ordinances. These all intended not so much to get over the grieving and the theological implications of the destruction, but the practical implications. To establish alternative practices. To establish an alternative leadership.

Yochanan would move certain behaviors and practices that once were only allowed in the temple to towns throughout the country. A decentralizing process.

These legends and traditions were probably put to literary form years and generations after the death of Yochanan ben Zakai. They testify to an awareness of a totally new system and context for the maintenance of Judaism as a vital religion, not withstanding the destruction of all previous historical frameworks.