What Rabbinic Judaism Really Means

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The statement made by Yochanan ben Zakai, suggesting that acts of loving kindness could replace sacrifices, may resonate with Christian circles, as does the whole process of spiritualization of ritual. This is true because both Christianity in its early Judaic setting, as well as Rabbinic Judaism, survived the destruction precisely because neither group was temple-oriented.

There was a major difference between these two groups, and it was critical. For the early Church, the destruction of the temple was vindication or proof of Christianity’s earliest message. Jesus himself was quoted as prophetizing “no stone will be left unturned in Jerusalem”.

The Church preserved the writings of Josephus Flavius. If we read the Church fathers, it is obvious why. One Church father living in the city of Caesarea would quote Jesus as saying “no stone will be left unturned in Jerusalem”, and then he says “now let us see this came to be in the writings of Josephus”. The destruction was indeed considered vindication or proof of the veracity of the teachings of the early Church.

For the rabbis, that was not the case. On the one hand, they created an alternative Judaism. On the other hand, the destruction continued to pose a major theological as well as practical problem. The problem manifested itself in many ways, one of them being related to the question “do we want to build another temple?”.

A New Religion?

Was this Rabbinic Judaism presented as a system that superseded the Bible? In early Christianity, that will certainly be the case, were the Old Testament was superseded by the New Testament. Rabbis realized that this would be a very dangerous approach to take. On the one hand, they did create an alternative style of religious expression, but on the other hand, they never outwardly negated the earlier one. They never claimed that one ultimately takes the place of the other.

I said before that I would love to have a time machine and go back and ask Yochanan ben Zakai some very important questions. The one question I would probably ask him is: “Yochanan, please tell me, did you really intend to reform Judaism the way you did? To create an alternative system based on a spiritual decentralized mobile type of leadership? Prayer instead of sacrifice?”.

I wonder if I would get an answer out of him. The message we get in Rabbinic literature is: “yes, we have created an alternative lifestyle (but hopefully that temple will be rebuilt)”. There was never an outright negation of the earlier vestiges of Judaism by the rabbis who created an alternative system. There is a tremendous tension between continuity and innovation in the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

The success of Rabbinic Judaism was precisely in this balancing between obvious innovation and the stress on continuity with the written Bible.

Rabbinic Judaism establishes a new legal system, but it places an enormous importance on relations between human beings. One could almost claim that this was enhanced in the Rabbinic period even more than in earlier periods.

Earlier periods imagined that the whole world was a structure held up by three pillars. One of the three pillars is the Torah, meaning the teaching of the Bible. The second one was aboda, which in Hebrew means sacrificial worship. The third pillar is acts of loving kindness. If this is a structure that has three pillars underneath, what happens to that structure if I remove one of the pillars form underneath? The structure begins to tip over and ultimately falls.

When Yochanan ben Zakai says to his disciples Joshua weeping over the cessation of sacrificial worship “there is another atonement that takes its place, acts of loving kindness”, what is he doing? He is reinterpreting that ancient statement. We thought that all three are required to maintain Judaism. Legal texts, sacrificial worship and the human aspect of behavior among mortals. Yochanan comes and says that they are ideally the underpinning of Judaism, but when one is removed, the other picks up the slack.

The structures that were set up at Yavneh not only saved Judaism, they would be used in subsequent generations. Yochanan ben Zakai is probably up there in the pantheon of Jewish heroes. The right person at the right place at the very right time.