III. THE MAKING OF MODERN JUDAISM
As the existence of the two Talmuds indicates, there were two centers of Jewish thought, one in Palestine and the other in Babylonia. Because of the hostility of the Roman emperors, the school which had been established at Jamnia in 69 C.E., and which closed the canon of the scriptures, was forced to move to Sepphoris, Tiberias, and other Palestinian cities. By the beginning of the fifth century there had ceased to be a center of learning in Palestine. The situation in Babylonia was different. There were several schools, with much intellectual activity, and the Talmud developed there is comprehensive and complete. It must be remembered that most of the Jews lived in neither Palestine nor Babylonia. They were scattered throughout the Near Eastern and Western world. But the communities were not isolated; there was constant communication among them, so that Judaism was to retain its unity.
INTERPRETATIONALISM AND LITERALISM
The spirit of interpretationalism - and with it the importance of obeying the Oral, as well as the Written, Law - dominated the intellectual thought. In fact, so much emphasis was given to the Mishna and Gemara that it was hardly necessary to go directly to the Bible itself. Such emphasis was not to go unchallenged. In the eighth century Anan ben David led an intellectual revolt against Talmudism. His watchword was diligently search the Written Law. Like the Sadducees of an earlier date, he employed a Biblical literalism which led to greater severity in punishment. He also revived the Levitical laws pertaining to defilement from a dead body, and other laws which had been so interpreted by the Talmudists that they had lost their original meaning. Anan gathered many disciples and founded a sect called the Karaites, or Bible Jews. The sect developed so rapidly that it became a menace to what had become traditional Judaism.
The tide of the Karaites was finally stopped through the influence of a single man, Saadia. Born in 892, Saadia became the head of the academy in Sura, in Babylonia. He was well acquainted with Greek philosophic thought and also with the writings of the Muslim and Christian theologians, and was himself a distinguished philosopher and philologist. Saadia declared that although the Bible contains the whole truth, nevertheless reason should be employed to prove the truths given through revelation. Faith, he said, is the souls absorption of the essence of a truth, the latter becoming a part of the former in such a way as to constitute the motivation of conduct. Normally we would classify Saadia as a rationalist, because he stoutly defended the importance of reason and denied that philosophy leads to skepticism. But in his conflict with the Biblical literalists he was something considerably more, because he saved the day for the interpretationalists, the Talmudists.
The Muslims invaded Spain in the eighth century, and through their stimulation and the freedom they permitted, Judaism prepared for a renaissance which reached its fruition from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. One of the leaders of the renaissance was Ibn Gabirol, better known as Avicebron. Born in Spain around 1021, he was a champion of Neoplatonism. The book in which he expressed his philosophic ideas most clearly is called The Well of Life. It was translated into Latin and was highly valued by Christian theologians, some of whom were quite willing to make him a Christian on the basis of the book alone. He used Arabic meters in writing Hebrew poetry and was hailed as the nightingale of piety.
Ibn Gabirol was only one of many poets who sang of God and of love and of wine. Some scholars have asserted that the Troubadour movement had its source in Spain and moved from there into France and to Germany, with its Minnesingers, embracing those like Francis of Assisi in its stream.
The influence of Ibn Gabirol on Jewish thought is insignificant, however, when compared to that of Moses Maimonides, who was born in Spain in 1135. Maimonides wrote The Guide to the Perplexed for persons who, adhering to the Torah but having studied philosophy, were embarrassed by what seemed to be contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah. Using an Aristotelean framework, he taught the harmony of reason and revealed truths, declaring that revelation is necessary to supplement reason, but cannot be contrary to it. He explained the miracles rationally, interpreted much of the material in Genesis allegorically, and spoke of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God as figures of speech.
From the Talmud Maimonides extracted Thirteen Cardinal Principles, which became almost a theological creed to later Judaism. He also prepared a Code based on the Talmud, but with a different classification of the content and with the omission of the countless names of the authorities cited in the Talmud. Writing concisely, he simplified and condensed the laws. In addition, he wrote minor books on medicine, science, philosophy, and logic. He was truly a giant among men. His listing of the types of charity is frequently repeated in Christian circles, although their source may be forgotten. He taught that salvation is not confined to the Jews - the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. He was loyal to the faith of his fathers, but believed in tolerance and breadth of mind. It is not surprising that when he died in Cairo, Egypt, in 1204, the people should have lamented, From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses.
Maimonides was a rationalist, and rationalism can reduce a religion to a mere system of logic unless it is challenged. Just as the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, was balanced by the mysticism of Francis of Assisi, so the logic of Maimonides was balanced by a mystical movement in Judaism called Cabalism.
Cabala is a system of interpreting the scriptures on the assumption that every word, number, and accent has a secret meaning. It denies that the ultimate concerns of religion are accessible to reason. In the thirteenth century, Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, often called the Cabalist Bible. It is a mystical commentary on the Pentateuch, with a blending of Neoplatonic elements. It insists on the importance of surrender and submission to God, with contemplation of his great love and care for his people, and on the importance of faith and the feeling that God is All in all. It contains some of the most beautiful prayers in literature. From the positive side, Cabalism and the Zohar preserved a mystical element that was to reappear in force with the Hasidic movement of a later generation, and it influenced Christian mystics like Mirandola, Reuchlin, and Jacob Bohme. It inspired many saints and won many ardent disciples.
Although Cabalism could produce devotion and ecstasy for the scholar or recluse, its number system was also conducive to superstition for ignorant minds. Letters were juggled and symbolism was distorted to provide a basis for the most imaginative kinds of magic. In exasperation, its critics have been inclined to dismiss the Zohar as brilliant nonsense. Nonetheless, Cabalism saved Judaism from degenerating into a mere philosophical system. By the same token, the defense of reason supplied by Maimonides and others like him prevented Cabalism from capturing Judaism.
PERSECUTIONS IN FOREIGN LANDS
The Golden Age produced great scientists, craftsmen, poets, philosophers, and theologians before it was brought to an end by growing persecutions, culminating in the final expulsion of the Jews by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492. Some of the refugees went to Portugal, and from there to the New World. Others went to Holland and the borders of western Europe. Most of them were scattered along the countries bordering the Mediterranean, particularly the lands to the south and east. They carried with them a common language called Ladino or Dzhudezma (a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew) and certain cultural patterns that were to differentiate them from the Jews of eastern Europe. Descendants of these migrants are called Spanish-Portuguese, or Sephardic, Jews.
We must return now to the days of the Roman Emperors. Jews followed the roads that led from Rome, to settle in England, France, and along the Rhine. They also moved in a stream into the area now comprising East Germany, Poland, and the part of Russia along the Baltic sea. For centuries the Jews in the East were unmolested; the situation was not so satisfactory in the West. The restrictions against Jews were increased with the centuries, and the Jews were more and more isolated from general society. The crusades, which began in the eleventh century, made their life even more difficult. The passions aroused against the infidels in the Holy
Land were frequently turned against those nearer home, and Jews in many areas were massacred. Those who survived the massacres were often expelled. They were declared unwanted by England in 1290, and by France a little later. In many of the states of Germany and Italy they were barely tolerated. Those who were forced to migrate had virtually nowhere to go except to eastern Europe.
When the Jews were settling in Germany, they adopted the language that was currently spoken, but used Hebrew letters in writing it. In this way Yiddish was born, Yiddish meaning no more than Jewish in the language itself. To this language were added a few words in old French, brought by those who crossed the Rhine. As the center of Judaism moved increasingly to eastern-central Europe, Yiddish became the dominant language. However, less than seventy per cent of the Yiddish words go back to the tenth-century German dialect; the rest are words of Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic, and English derivation, with a few words from other languages as well.
The Jews in Poland were sufficiently numerous to develop a rather full cultural life, with farming as the backbone of the economy. In Austria, Germany, and Italy, they were not permitted to own land after the crusades, and could not farm. Their right to act as merchants was gradually restricted. They were excluded from the professions. For a long time they were permitted, or rather forced, to become bankers, and were the first to operate on international lines; finally even this privilege was denied them. They were forced to live in segregated quarters and to wear Jew badges when they ventured out of the walls. Subjected to every indignity and forced to live in penury, the Jew suffered a sad plight indeed.
It might seem that the adversities befalling Judaism would finally succeed in destroying the people, but they were well prepared for survival. First, there was the long tradition of the synagogue, which served as the center of all community activities and within which laymen were trained for responsibility. Secondly, there was the Talmud, which provided a pattern for all of life. There is a Jewish aphorism, The Torah is our life and our salvation - and by Torah is meant not just the written word but the whole tradition of Jewish life incorporated in the Talmud and the Codes based upon it. Thirdly, there was the common language in northern Europe, Yiddish, which helped to unite the communities isolated in nations of many languages. The common culture was so well preserved that a man was equally at home in the ghetto of one nation and in that of another.
The spirit of interpretationalism had remained dominant as Responsa, or commentaries, were developed, followed by Codes, which were followed by further Responsa and then by further Codes, until finally there was developed a code called the Shulhan Aruk, which was accorded so much authority that it was instrumental in retarding interpretation altogether.
The Shulhan Aruk is based on the Talmud, and in four large volumes it sets forth in systematic fashion what is proper and improper, permissible and forbidden, for a pious Jew in daily life. It was received enthusiastically, although the Ashkenazim, or Yiddish-speaking Jews, found it necessary to modify or clarify some of the Sephardic elements. The authoritative commentary for the Ashkenazim was written by Moses Isserles of Poland, and because the Shulhan Aruk was called the Prepared Table, his commentary was called The Tablecloth. The Table and Tablecloth are invariably printed together for Ashkenazic Jews.
The other major factor that retarded interpretation was the same kind of pressure now being experienced by the Jewish communities, especially in Poland. For example, from 1648 to 1655 a series of battles occurred in the Ukraine between the Roman Catholic forces of Poland and the Eastern Orthodox Christian Cossacks, with the Jews the major victims, at least 200,000 perishing. Later on, the Polish forces conducted pogroms. Refugees fled to the West and joined communities in Germany and elsewhere. The bulk of those who survived remained in their decimated communities. In such a situation there was little opportunity for creativity.
The terrible atrocities deepened devotion to the written word among those who fled into exile and those who remained at home. Everything else seemed comparatively unimportant. Certainly the outside world was not to be trusted. The result was that the Jews erected or heightened an intellectual wall that was as stifling as the physical wall of the ghetto. Every other study was abandoned. No one dared attempt interpretation. In fact, little interpretation was necessary - time had stopped, so to speak. In the Shulhan Aruk there were detailed regulations in regard to charity, labor, family relations, community institutions, and the obligations of worship. For the masses in the ghettos, that was enough, until the Messiah came. Unfortunately, they were soon to hope-and then to lose their hope-that the Day of the Lord was at hand.
In Jerusalem in 1664, Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed himself the Messiah and predicted his approaching rule over the universe, with Jerusalem made glorious once again. His announcement aroused profound excitement, especially because it came so soon after the Ukrainian massacres. But Sabbatai was imprisoned and ultimately became a Muslim. The best that can be said of him is that he was a dreamer. For his people, desperate and longing for redemption, the dream became a nightmare of disappointment; but they still had the Torah, their ever-dependable consolation, and the dream of redemption would continue.
The confinement of the ghetto, the rigid conformity imposed by the Shulhan Aruk, and the emphasis upon orthopraxy, or right doing, could lead to a sterility in which the personal relationship with God was neglected. Israel ben Eliezer, called by his followers the Baal Shem Tov, which means The Good Master of Gods Name, called men back to a love of God. Receiving much of his inspiration from the Zohar of the Cabalists, he proclaimed that God is everywhere and that every occupation can and should be an act of worship, and that all worship should be cheerful, all service to God marked by enthusiasm. It is said that he performed numerous miracles, curing many who were seriously ill. Although he did not attempt to modify cardinal doctrines or do away with even the smallest details of accepted observance, the emphasis upon personal union with God and the spiritual powers attributed to the pious rabbi and his followers aroused suspicion among the Talmudists. The result was that the former were forced to become a sect within Judaism.
The followers of the Baal Shem Tov are called Hasidim, or Pious Ones. A visitor to New York sees them often. The men continue to wear the eastern European dress of their forebears with full beards and with plaited sidecurls. They wear black, knee-length, silk coats and broad-brimmed black hats. They are united in small groups, each under a rabbi who is called zaddik but known more affectionately as admor, a contraction of the Hebrew words which mean, Our Master, Our Teacher, Our Rabbi. The title is hereditary. Most of the followers believe that an admor has a divine power that is transmitted to a Talmudic scholar who is dedicated to the ways of the Baal Shem Tov. The Hasidic rabbis of the United States have protested frequently against unorthodox religious practices tolerated by the Israeli government; nevertheless, some have taken their congregations there to form colonies.
THE REFORM MOVEMENT
Beginning with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the development of democracy, and the revival of humanism, there was a reappraisal of many attitudes and customs that had long been taken for granted. Among the results was a new attitude which began to develop toward the Jews. They had been forced into an intellectual and social ghetto through bigotry, but now-particularly in Germany -the walls began to crumble, and Jews could look beyond. One of the first great figures to do so was Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786), the grandfather of Felix, the composer.
Mendelsohn tried to awaken his coreligionists to the new world about them, to free them from their restrictive customs and attitudes. He became a friend of many of the leading literary and political figures of the day, inspiring his friend, Lessing, to write Nathan the Wise, with Mendelsohn as the model for the main character. Mendelsohn translated the Psalms and Pentateuch into excellent modern German, using Hebrew characters to enable the Jews to read them more easily. He placed high emphasis upon reason, and on this basis pleaded for the discard of forms of worship that were now obsolete and served no useful purpose in his opinion.
Like Rip Van Winkle awaking from his long sleep, other laymen, in accord with Mendelsohn, were moving out into the business and professional world about them and were acutely aware of the differences between their outmoded customs and outlook and those of contemporary society. They wished Judaism brought up to date. A businessman in Westphalia founded a modern religious school, with a curriculum that went far beyond biblical and talmudic studies. He built a temple with an organ and arranged a ritual in which hymns and prayers in German were added to those in Hebrew. He also started the first confirmation class. About the same time, another layman was writing textbooks for children in Berlin and building a modern school; soon schools were arising in other cities. The Reform movement had begun, but it was not to be without opposition.
The rabbis, immersed in the vast maze of Hebrew learning, were not aware at first of the tensions experienced in the outside world, and when this awareness broke upon them, their answer was simple - reject the outside world. They had received some recognition from the government, and they protested against the new synagogues, with the result that some were forced to close. But in 1818 the leaders of the new synagogue in Hamburg successfully defended their case before the city fathers, and from that time on, Reform Judaism had status.
Because the rabbi is simply a layman versed in the Law, the Reform movement could begin without the assistance of rabbis. However, after a generation when there were young men who had been nurtured beyond the ghetto walls, there were those who entered the rabbinate eager to serve with the Reform groups. The rabbis were concerned with keeping Reform practice within the Jewish tradition; with all the modern tools of scholarship, they began a study of Judaisms past, to see how many changes were compatible with Judaisms heritage. Reform Judaism caught on immediately in America, which can claim some of the oldest Reform congregations in the world. In fact, the United States is now the center of Reform Judaism in the world.
Reform Judaism perpetuates the ancient tradition of rationalism. Philo, the contemporary of Jesus, was concerned with understanding Judaism from a philosophic point of view and, in developing his theology, did not hesitate to use the best of the philosophy then prevalent in non-Jewish circles. Saadia, who protested against the literalism of the Karaites, and Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides were in the same tradition. However, the rationalists of the earlier periods had never questioned the necessity of observing all of the laws that were presented in the Torah and within the hedge to protect it. They did not think of history in terms of development, nor did they possess the tools of historical criticism. Reform Judaism, in contrast, challenged the concept of Revealed Law and discarded many of the hallowed customs and observances as unessential. Here we must add a warning. Some rabbis have preferred calling Reform Judaism Progressive Judaism, to suggest that it is not reformed in the sense of having established patterns which must be loyally followed, but rather is committed to the principle of reform. The only criteria are whether the reforms express the true spirit of Judaism and help adjust Jewish life to the needs of modern times.
Let us summarize briefly some of the characteristics of Reform Judaism:
1. There is stress upon the ethical mission and teachings of Judaism, particularly as propounded by the biblical prophets. Religious life is built upon the spirit of the Law, rather than the observance of the letter. In worship, the language of the people supplants much of the Hebrew; there is instrumental music; the services are shortened and arranged at convenient hours; and the holiday observances are focused upon the ethical teachings that may be reaffirmed and lived. Observance of the dietary laws is optional, with the result that they are generally disregarded.
2. The traditional prayer for the restoration of the dynasty of David has been modified, and belief in a personal Messiah of royal descent is omitted. There is substituted a belief in the role of the Jewish people to set such an example in faith and action that they may usher in the Messianic age for all people, a time when the eyes of the blind may be opened, the enslaved may be made free, and all men may live together in peace and brotherhood.
3. Belief in a resurrection of the body has been replaced by belief in a personal and collective immortality which is seldom specifically defined.
4. It is optional whether one believes in Zionism and the restoration of the state of Israel. At one time Zionism was considered completely incompatible with Reform Judaism, but today many of the staunchest supporters of the state of Israel come from Reform ranks.
THE ORTHODOX JEWS
As we have seen, there was some opposition to Reform Judaism within Germany. There was also opposition in England and in other countries to the west; but the greatest opposition came from eastern Europe. There the Jewish population was largest, and many of the restrictions remained. The Jews there had known the latest, and the most severe, of persecutions and were most distrustful of the outside world. Though living in poverty and abject misery, they carried a proud contempt for the world of pomp and power.
Most of the Orthodox Jews of America are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from eastern Europe. They take an active part in the arts, professions, and business and are in the main stream of American life, but they still adhere to their ancient beliefs and practices. Let us summarize some of these briefly:
1. They accept the Written and Oral Torah as divinely revealed truth and follow the Shulhan Aruk as their handbook or guide. The Halakah, or laws, are considered completely binding; but the spirit of interpretationalism affects their understanding of Haggadah. Furthermore, the Responsa have returned to give guidance as new developments emerge. For example, there is a prohibition against putting a blade of steel to the face, with the result that a man may not shave with a razor. Scissors, operating on a different principle, are permitted as a means of trimming a beard. The electric shaver operates not on the principle of a razor, but on the principle of scissors. Therefore the electric shaver is permitted, and there is no longer any necessity to remove whiskers with pumice or dipilatory. By such decisions, the Responsa continue to adapt traditional Judaism to modern life without a compromise of the Law.
2. They believe firmly in the coming of the Messiah, who will redeem his people and cause the nations to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
3. They are firmly committed to belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, as were the Pharisees of old. They believe that since this world is one of trial and testing, the life beyond the grave must bear a relation to it, with rewards and punishments according to merit.
4. By tradition they believe that when God sends his Messiah, he will lead them back to the Holy Land, restore Jerusalem as a nation, and restore the Temple on Mount Zion, with its sacrificial cult and its officiating priests. The development of modern Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel have invoked the enthusiasm of many, and some have expressed the belief that a return to the Holy Land is one way to prepare for the Messiah. But there are others who are content to await the Messiah, confident that in good time he will restore all.
Conservative Judaism is the third major denomination within Judaism. It was founded in Europe in the nineteenth century by those who could not adhere rigidly to the tenets of Orthodoxy, but believed that Reform Judaism had gone too far in discarding the heritage of the past. Its leaders declared that although the Law may not be divinely revealed, this does not undermine its significance. Rabbinic teachings have been honored for centuries, and traditional practices have hallowed Israel; therefore, in the name of catholic Israel, they should be maintained as a cohesive force in Judaism. Modifications in worship and in practice should be made only after a serious consideration of their necessity in terms of modern life and their justification in the light of Judaisms past. Conservative Judaism epitomizes the spirit of interpretationalism.
Because of their dedication to the idea of a Jewish culture - in which Hebrew would be spoken, Jewish history and literature would be studied, and all aspects of life would have a reference to the traditions of the people - the Conservative Jews were identified early with the Zionist movement and have continued to support the state of Israel. This emphasis must not be thought of as exclusivism. Conservative Jews have been active in creating understanding among diverse religious groups and have given public endorsement and leadership in support of social action for the benefit of all, in this country and wherever they have been.
Some rabbis associated with Conservative Judaism formed a group called Reconstructionism, which is concerned with Judaism as a religious civilization. Unlike their colleagues, who contend that modification lies only within the province of the rabbinate, they place responsibility in the hands of all the people and reconstruction occurs on the broadest democratic basis. Contrary to Reform Judaism - which is inclined to emphasize the idea of God and the ethical conduct that such a belief implies, to the neglect of the cultural aspects - Reconstructionism rejects the supernatural and the miraculous for the sake of the cultural. Its rabbis have many of the same concerns as those within Conservative Judaism: social, cultural, and political problems, such as the state of Israel; and the development of the Hebrew language and literature, and of Jewish music and art. And both groups place the same emphasis upon universal values and world brotherhood. Reconstructionism has provided a haven for those who represent the rationalistic approach to such an extreme that there is no longer room for God, conceived as a supernatural being.
We have made several references to Zionism, a movement which began in the latter part of the nineteenth century for the establishment of a Jewish state. It arose both as a secular answer to anti-Semitism and as an expression of the age-old dream of the return to the Holy Land that it might once again be the cultural and spiritual center of Judaism. The Balfour Declaration, during the First World War, indicated that the British government viewed with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. For the next two decades thousands of Jews emigrated there, establishing the foundation for a government which became possible when the United Nations Assembly, in 1947, voted to partition Palestine. Ever since the state of Israel became a reality in May, 1948, her doors have been open for the homeless Jews of the world.
Zionism bears a similarity to the ideology of the Zealots of two thousand years ago. The aim of the Zealots was primarily political, but when they acted they received the support of most of the Pharisees. After the horrible persecutions of Nazi Germany, Zionism received the endorsement and the full support of most of world Jewry. Today, Israel has become the scene of a brilliant revival of Hebrew culture, upon which the eyes of all of Judaism are focused.
In summary, all the movements of contemporary Judaism have antecedents, at least in spirit, in the first century of our era, as we have seen. We have omitted references to mysticism or occultism, but the spirit that motivated the Essenes and Therapeutai, the Cabalists and the Hasidim, is not dead. It expresses itself through poets and philosophers and in simple men and women - some Orthodox, some Conservative, some Reform - who still proclaim, that God may be approached through meditation and contemplation, and may be known through direct communion.