Rabbinic Judaism and the Synagogue

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The revitalized Judaism of the post-temple period, known to us as Rabbinic Judaism, would set the pattern of Jewish behavior for all subsequent generations. Here a few words are in order regarding the word “rabbi”.

The word itself means “master”. In the context of our discussion, it is really the designation of a sage, a teacher of Torah. The restructuring of Jewish religious expression after the destruction, in many ways can be defined as a sort of spiritualizing process, in which the rabbis were the main motivators.

Jewish religious expression was decentralized. It no longer required geography. It no longer required one temple on one mountain in one city. You can do it anywhere. The exclusivity of a temple was replaced by the synagogues, that could now function as minor sanctuaries. It is interesting because, ultimately, Jews would talk about synagogues as assuming status of sacred space. In many ways, the synagogue does become a new expression of what was once a temple.

Daily Public Prayer

The Rabbinic period introduced a new system of daily public prayer. We know that synagogues existed even before the destruction of the temple. There, the Torah was read and a sermon was delivered. We have many sources that talk about this kind of activities, but not prayer. One of the main questions is when the prayer begins as a systematic daily Jewish expression of worship. Most probably, only in this post-temple period.

The priests lost their major power base, the temple. The rabbis were slowly assuming a more central position within the community. We must remember that priests claimed to authority by virtue of lineage. They were born into the priesthood. The rabbis’ authority was earned through learning and individual charisma.

This charismatic or merit-oriented leadership, however, ultimately evolved into a standardized type of leadership, like those of the rabbis. This would happen much later in Jewish history. The rabbis still realized that they had something new to offer, and were very careful not to fall to the riff of priesthood and this idea of hereditary access to leadership.

A New Decentralized Religion

What is more important about rabbis is that they are mobile. They can attract disciples anywhere. They can establish local centers of learning throughout Judea proper, but ultimately, throughout the Jewish diaspora. Where there was a high concentration of Jews was in the land of Babylonia. We must remember that the Jews remained in Babylonia from the destruction of the first temple in the year 586 B.C.E. As long as the second temple stood, Jews in Babylonia, liking it or not, remained there, on the fringes of the Jewish community. Once Judaism was refashioned on a spiritually mobile context, Jews in Babylonia could now thrive.

Rabbis would make their way to Babylonia, and the study of Torah becomes a major phenomenon, not only within the land of Judea, but in Babylonia as well. Rabbinic Judaism stresses that the study of Torah is done not merely to know what God wants. You don’t read the Bible only to know how to behave. You read and study the Bible as a form of devotion.

I can almost venture to say that it was at this stage where education, through this tremendous Jewish stress on learning, really takes off. This idea of people devoting themselves to a learning of the texts for some people would become a career, for others it is a way of expressing some sort of religious devotion.

The new centers of Rabbinic activity embarked on an enhanced interpretation of all earlier religious traditions. By the third century there was a new compilation of legal works of the rabbis, the Mishnah. The Midrash, on the other hand, was the exegetical interpretation of the Bible. These were the fruits of this new Rabbinic phenomenon. These, the Mishnah and the Midrash, would in turn be examined for hundred of years and serve as the basis for centuries of further learning, leading to the development of the Talmud.

The total sum of all Rabbinic teaching came to be known as the “Oral Tradition”. This designation suggests a mass of material that complements the written tradition, which of course is the Bible. The two, the Bible on the one hand, and the oral tradition of the rabbis on the other; were destined to be inseparable. They became the base for almost all subsequent intellectual and legal activity.