On the Notion of the Rabbinate

A topic arose in a meeting I attended for my local congregation which reminded me how much certain Jewish institutions are misunderstood. We were discussing how best to go about filling the position of rabbi for our congregation and because of our financial situation, we are forced to consider things like part-time rabbis. One of the participants said that we had to have a rabbi because of performing conversions and participating in a Bet Din (a Jewish court convened these days most often to approve conversion, but also used, for example, for the Halitzah ceremony which will await another time for explication).
I spoke up at this point and pointed out that no rabbi is necessary for any of these things. I should add since I’m writing at greater length here that in most congregations rabbis are usually performing such chores because, after all, they are educated in the necessities.
But there is no requirement for this.
One reason there is no such requirement is that, in fact, there are no rabbis today who can fulfill the traditional demands for ordination as a rabbi. The last person who had some claim on the title was Rabbi Chaim Vital, who died in 1620. It’s by no means historically certain that he had authentic smikhah, the Hebrew term for ordination, but his contemporaries largely accepted him so we can leave it at that. Since his passing, not a rabbi in the world has been able to claim authentic ordination.
This seems to have led to title inflation in some parts of the Orthodox Jewish world. One of the briefer ones is “HaRav HaGaon” (something like the The Genius Rabbi), which of course is quickly eclipsed by “Maran Harav Hagaon” (“Our master the Genius Rabbi”). And of course, we see that many find it necessary to add the trailing honorific, Shlit”a (short for Sheyikhye Le’orech Yamim Tovim Amen, “May he live a good long life, Amen”).
All for folks who do not, in fact, have authentic smikhah.
Now, before some of you get riled up, I’m not dissing the modern institution of the rabbinate. There are wonderful schools in every modern Jewish movement who produce well-trained scholars of Judaism who are fit to lead congregations. I’m simply explaining that conferring the title of “rabbi” on them does not, by Jewish tradition or law, provide them with the authority discussed in the Mishnah, Talmud, or Halakhic codes.

How to Define the Word Jew?

On the Definition of the Word “Jew”

The most difficult problem I had to navigate in constructing a PhD thesis was overcoming the problem most people, including scholars, have with understanding the definition of the word “Jew” and its ideological corrolary, “Judaism.” People use the word “Jew” in ways that suggest they imagine they know the definition of the word. It calls to mind a common aphorism, “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” For me, as a scholar of the very period when Judaism in its modern formulation began to take shape, the realization hit home that the greatest scholars of my generation and the generations preceding me were just as guilty as ordinary people of misunderstanding and misusing the word “Jew.”

How are we going to approach the question of defining this word? Of course, one way would be to look words up in the dictionary. We could check “religion” and then “Jew” or “Judaism.” But dictionaries are ill suited to answer complex issues. How might an anthropologist or a philosopher or a historian go about defining these terms? To grasp the problem, I think it works best to conduct a bit of a thought experiment. Consider Jewish communities and Jews in our own day and in our own environment. How do we know the people we are thinking about are Jews? How would we define the religion that they observe in their places of worship?

Most people who know anything about Jews and Judaism know that in the modern world there are different types of Jews. A person might know, for example, that a Jew is supposed to cover their head while worshiping, and perhaps even know the term kippah or yarmulke for that head covering. But where is the evidence in the Torah (Pentateuch) or the Bible that people needed to cover their heads during worship? And on the other hand, many modern Jews, especially in synagogues of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, gather and pray bare-headed. Who decides these things and upon what do they make these decisions?

Realizing that while a unanimous standard is probably impossible, nevertheless how would we try to describe the religion which defines Judaism? Things that you will almost certainly hear as soon as the question is asked, 1) A belief in the importance of the Torah, defined as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible; 2) observing certain dietary restrictions such as avoiding pork, shellfish, and mixtures of milk and meat;[1] 3) a common liturgy with elements familiar to any Jew who attends synagogue such as the Amidah (a standard set of benedictions),[2] the Qaddish (also spelled, Kaddish) recited several times in every service);[3] 4) the notion that a quorum of 10 adults is required for communal worship;[4] 5) a common set of holidays including the Sabbath,[5] Rosh haShanah (the Jewish New Year),[6] Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement),[7] Passover;[8] 6) investing the authority to make religious decisions in the person of a rabbi.[9] Note that many indisputably Jewish groups nevertheless do not accept all of even these basic standards.

Modern Jews have recently (in the last half-century or so) been confronted by groups which assert their own special entitlement to classification as the “true” Jews or the “true” Israel. Strangely enough, this is a modern form of one of the oldest challenges to Jewish identity, namely the Christian Church. It was (and doctrinally still is) the claim of the Church that through the agency of Jesus and his apostles, biblical authority has moved to those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The newest challenges have come from some African Americans claiming that they are the true Israel, and the most recent, the claim of some Jews or people claiming to be Jews, that true Judaism must include recognition of Jesus—the so-called Jews for Jesus Movement, and now often termed, “Messianic Jews” or “Messianic Judaism”.

What all these versions of Judaism share is that none of them resemble the religious beliefs, liturgies and behaviors of people living in the time when there was a Temple to the LORD in Jerusalem—with brief interludes according to biblical history, from the era of David until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Many of the points I mentioned above could be the subjects of entire books, so to keep the narrative brief, I’ll have to make some simplifications. Starting with point number 1) above, many of my friends would howl in protest if I tried to claim that ancient versions of Judaism did not revere the Torah. But the plain, simple truth is that the Torah did not even exist as a book until the era of Ezra/Nehemiah (ca 450 BCE, roughtly a thousand years after the time of Moses). The Bible itself recounts the story of how a book of the Torah was “discovered” during the reign of King Josiah.[10] If that book was the larger part of Deuteronomy, as most modern scholars hold, we can say that no one until the time of Josiah was aware of a rule that Jerusalem, and the Temple of Jerusalem alone, was suitable for Israelite sacrifice and worship.

But there is something even more important about the notion that the Torah is the ultimate source of law and custom. No one today, not even the most Orthodox of the ultra-Orthodox, believes that we should follow large parts of its rules. Of course, you’ll want examples.

1)      The Torah demands the death penalty for anyone who violates the Sabbath. Jews throughout the ages have found ways to ignore this clear pronouncement.[11]

2)      The death penalty is also required for all sorts of infractions: adultery, incest, cursing or hitting a parent, idol worship, encouraging heathen belief, the daughter of a priest found liable for prostitution, a woman accused of adultery who cannot pass the required ritual. Deutronomy 13 demands the execution of an entire city if the inhabitants went along with some sort of idolatry. Numbers 1 demands the execution of an Israelite who tries to do the work of a Levite.[12]

3)      The Torah demands polygamous marriage when a married man’s brother dies childless leaving his widow. Rabbinic Judaism has made it all but impossible to honor the Torah’s requirement here.[13]

4)      If a woman is suspected of adultery, the Torah imposes a form of trial by fire.[14]

I could go on like this for a long time. People who devote their lives to religious principles have an uncanny ability to live in an intellectual form of denial. I assure you that if I raised these issues in the context of a get-together of Jews practicing the Orthodox version of Judaism, they would propose numerous explanations for why we are all honoring even these provisions in the Torah. And that, perhaps strangely enough, is the message here. From the perspective of people outside looking in, they are simply in denial, not much different from Mormons hearing that Jesus could not possibly have come to America or Muslims being told that Mohammed never set foot in Jerusalem. But every religious group has a set of principles by which to claim that their views are enshrined (so to speak) in historical fact.

Let’s return to the main point. If you were to describe a modern Jew and the form of worship they invoke when gathered, what would you say? You would notice some physically prominent aspects of dress (again somewhat dependent on the movement within Judaism) such as various forms of head-coverings, scarves with fringes, sacred dressings called “phylacteries” (t’fillin) which would be seen as cubes mounted by leather straps on the head and left arm.[15] Jews from every branch of Judaism gather in places called “synagogues”—interestingly a word which originated in Greek rather than Hebrew. If you ventured into the synagogue, you would see that the service was led by either one of the congregants or perhaps the congregational rabbi or a singer called a hazzan or cantor. The congregation in general would be governed by a rabbi who decides the rituals of the congregation.

You would also see a prayer book called a siddur which provides guides for the various daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rituals. While there are different versions of the siddur for the various movements, much of the content is standardized based on ancient models.[16] I’ve already touched on this above, but to provide just a bit more detail, the service requires a quorum of ten individuals (men for Orthodox congregations, adult men and women for most other movements) without which the communal prayers cannot be recited. The service is built on units which include modules designed to reflect ancient practices. For example, the morning service is called shaharit which means “morning” or “dawn” and was the name given to the morning sacrifice when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. On the Sabbath, there is a service unit called musaf which means “additional” and is designed to reflect the additional Sabbath sacrifice that was offered on that day in Temple times. The afternoon service is labeled minhah which was the grain offering offered in the Temple in the afternoon when it stood. Many modern Jews also meet for a nighttime service called ma’ariv which means “evening” and corresponds to nothing from the Temple era.

The core of each of these modern services is a prayer called the Amidah which means “standing” or Shmoneh Esrei, which means, “the eighteen benedictions.” As you are beginning to sense, the complexities grow and grow because while there are various versions of this prayer for various occasions, in none of them do Jews recite 18 benedictions. The most frequently recited version has 19, the Sabbath service version, just 7.

I think this is sufficient data for me to try to make my point. You now have an idea of how Jews dress, gather, and worship in our own time. Now let’s set the time machine back to the period when the Temple still stood. How recognizable would the people and their religion be to you?

First, while there were synagogues very late in that Temple era, they were not used for prayer. They were essentially schoolhouses. Almost no one in those days could afford to own the sacred texts, so synagogues arose to house sacred texts for communal study. People who wished to approach God understood that there was only one way to do it: a pilgrimmage to God’s home on Earth, the Temple of Jerusalem. A book of the Torah demanded no less.

Who were the authority figures for the Judeans? There was a king—and if you didn’t think the king had power, you might find yourself mounted on a cross.[17] If you needed an explanation of what to offer in the Temple on your pilgrimmage, that was the job of the priests and levites. I suspect some of the merchants who lined the entrances to the Temple would have been happy to oblige as well.

Here is what you would not have seen: rabbis. Now, I know that if you read traditional Jewish texts like the Mishnah (composed about 250 CE) you will find entire generations of rabbis who lived according to the Mishnah while the Temple stood, and for about 200 to 300 years before. But you won’t find any references to those rabbis in texts written before 70CE.

Now, here I must add a complication. Perhaps oddly enough from a Jewish religious perspective, someone could complain that one very famous “rabbi” (so idenitified in the Mishnah) was mentioned in the Christian Bible, namely one Gamliel. There are several aspects to that identification. First, Gamliel is not called a rabbi in the two places he is mentioned, Acts and Acts of the Apostles.[18] He is identified as a Pharisee, sometimes called a “doctor of the law” in modern translations. Second, we must note that both of those sources date from the period after the destruction of the Temple, so once again we lack evidence for a “rabbi” which predates the loss of the Temple. By the way, while Josephus certainly lived while the Temple was in existence, everything Josephus wrote was written after the destruction of the Temple.

Rabbis are not mentioned in any of our major sources which predate the Temple destruction. There are no rabbis in Josephus, Philo, or any of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What this means is that the religion we know as Judaism is entirely the construct of a theocratic class which did not exist prior to about 200 CE, and which is granted absolutely no authority by any source prior to that date. All the sources, and among them are the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”), Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Christian Bible, the writings of Philo and Josephus, all these sources recognize many types of religious authority: kings, prophets, seers, elders, priests and levites. Nowhere do we find the notion that mere study without the sanctity of these other qualifications grants religious authority.

What these rabbis accomplished in the decades and centuries following 200 CE was nothing short of a revolution. Their rulings abrogated huge portions of the Torah and replaced them with a theology that could only be described as alien to biblical ideology. If a person can’t get to the Temple in Jerusalem, that prayer called the Amidah can serve as a replacement. Can’t offer a sacrifice? Just burn a small amount of the bread dough and that will suffice. Accuse a woman of adultery? Sorry, no one knows how to perform the ritual of the suspected adultress (sotah), so you’ll have to find another way to solve your marital issues. Think someone deserves the death penalty? Well, you’ll have to show that the sin was viewed by two reliable witnesses who warned the person of his liability before he committed the act.

It is probably impossible to convince anyone these days that people who lived in the era of Jesus and Hillel (if indeed he is not a figure of legend) should not be called “Jews.” But it is vital to a proper appreciation of history that we understand that no modern Jew lives their life in anything remotely resembling the ways of life of Jesus and Hillel. Jesus, Hillel, Josephus, Philo, Herod—all these people believed that there was only place where God can be worshipped, the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed that the only proper way to worship God was by presenting offerings in that Temple. They believed that all religious authority was invested in priests and levites, but that the Torah had also granted authority to kings, prophets, and elders. They sought out the opinions of seers and soothsayers. Even a half-century after the the Temple was destroyed, the people who followed a charismatic leader named Simon ben Kosba did so because they believed him to be invested with sacred authority—the notion of a “messiah” which Christians were actively arguing was a unique source of authority. Ben Kosba’s followers nicknamed him “bar Kokhba”, the son of a star which was an allusion to a verse in the book of Numbers.[19] His detractors, by the way, nicknamed him “ben Kozba”, the son of a lie.

And yes, there were the beginnings of communities where a teacher was also granted religious status—the Dead Scrolls mention someone they called the “Teacher of Righteousness.” Perhaps it was from such seeds that rabbinic Judaism emerged a century or two after the Temple was brought down. But we must fully grasp that such teachers could only gain authority once it was no longer possible for all those other authorities to perform their Torah obligated duties. Even priests (“cohanim”) could do nothing without the Temple.

Ultimately, the single most important issue for almost any religious group is the issue of authority. Who gets to make the important decisions? What is the most important differentiation between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant religious groups? Of course, it was the rejection of Papal authority that the Protestants were protesting. Mormons consider themselves Christians, and many scholars of religion agree that they are. But how many religious leaders of other Christian groups say that if you believe in a book outside the canon of Christianity and accept a prophet not recognized by other Christians, you can’t be considered Christian. In the third century CE, some Jews decided that they would cast their lot with the rabbis, scholars of tradition who seemed to them to have a valid case for wielding authority. Those who did not became Christians or dropped out of historical observation. Many centuries later, a group of Jews frustrated at rabbinic authority created a splinter group called the Karaites. Their name was emblamatic of their theology: only the written the word, the Miqrah, the Hebrew Bible, could be relied upon for religious authority. The books of the rabbis, the Talmud, were declared to be worthless.  Karaites became one of the largest groups of people who placed their authority in the Hebrew Bible. Of course, it turned out that it is impossible to allow everyone to make their own interpretation of the Bible, so the Karaites created their own Code of Practice, Kitāb al-Anwār wal-Marāqib, administered by their own hierarchy of teachers. It remains a matter of some controversy in the modern state of Israel as to whether Karaites should be considered Jews.

So, at long last, let’s return to the original point. In what way can we describe a person from the days of Hillel and Jesus a “Jew”? If those people were Jews, then how can we describe modern people who worship in completely different ways using the same word? My own personal solution to this dilemma is that I try to describe people like Hillel and Jesus as “Judeans.” People who lived in the era of the hegemony of Judah and worshipped in the ways of other Judeans. After the fall of the Temple, those people who followed Jesus became known as Christians. And those people who gave authority to the author of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, I call “rabbinic Jews.”

I am completely cognizant of the impossibility of convincing most modern people that the Judaism that Jesus and Hillel followed cannot possibly be identified with the religion of Maimonides. In the words of the Mishnah itself, quoting one Rabbi Tarfon, הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. “We may not be able to complete the task, but neither are we free to abstain from it.”[20]

Brief Bibliography

A good bibliography for this topic could easily include hundreds of books and articles. For this brief essay, I will limit my recommendations to a few relatively recent publications which I think are particularly germane and worthwhile.

Adler, Yonatan. The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-historical Reappraisal. United Kingdom: Yale University Press, 2022.

Boyarin, Daniel. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. United States: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. United Kingdom: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006.

Collins, John J. The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul. United States: University of California Press, 2017.

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 2016.

Goodman, Micah. Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed. United States: Jewish Publication Society, 2015.

Halivni, David Weiss. The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud. United States: Oxford University Press, 2013.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. United States: HarperCollins, 2009.

Lieberman, Saul. Greek in Jewish Palestine: Hellenism in Jewish Palestine. Israel: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1994.

Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique. United States: SBL Press, 2017.

Saldarini, Anthony J. When Judaism and Christianity Began: Essays in Memory of Anthony J. Saldarini. Belgium: Brill, 2004.

Satlow, Michael L. Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice. United Kingdom: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Schiffman, Lawrence H. From text to tradition: a history of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. United States: Ktav Publishing House, 1991.




[1] Avoidance of pork: Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8. Shellfish: Lev 11:12; milk and meat: Ex 23:19 and Deut 14:21. Both verses prohibit cooking a young goat in the milk of its mother, but neither verse contains any reason to avoid other combinations of milk and meat.

[2] The Amidah, the central prayer of Judaism, is a complex structure which varies depending on time of day, day of the week, and the specific Jewish movement reciting it. While claims are often made that the Amidah in some form was recited by Jews while the Temple was standing, there is no evidence to support the claim. It is clear that it was recited in various forms by the time of the Mishnah, ca 250 CE. For a good general introduction, My People’s Prayer Book Vol 2: The Amidah. United States: LongHill Partners, Incorporated, 1998.

[3] Also spelled, kaddish. For a scholarly appreciation of this prayer, see Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Israel: Jewish Publication Society, 1993, esp pp. 73-90.

[4] The notion of minyan or quorum has no basis in the Torah nor elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The earliest reference to the requirement is Mishnah Megillah 4:3. There is some quibbling over the antiquity of Mishnah Megillah, but in the best case, this puts the earliest date of the text at circa 250 CE.

[5] Included in many verses of the Torah, and both recitations of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. But notice that the rabbis of the Talmud significantly altered the understanding and observance of the Sabbath beginning with one of the lengthiest treatises in the Mishnah.

[6] Many Jews are surprised to learn that the Torah contains no specific reference to this holiday, one of the most important in rabbinic Judaism. Leviticus 23:24 calls upon the Israelites to observe day of Sabbath-like rest on the first day of the seventh (not the first) month as a זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה (memorial of trumpet-blasts). Numbers 29 repeats the call for a day of rest on the first day of the seventh month, and calls it similarly  י֥וֹם תְּרוּעָ֖ה  a day of trumpet-blasts. The term “Rosh haShanah” does appear in Ezekiel 40:1, but doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this holiday. The rabbis greatly expanded the importance of the holiday, for example, requiring that it be observed for two days.

[7] Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is well-attested in the Torah: Leviticus 16:29, Lev 23:29 adds the penalty of karet, perhaps the strongest penalty imposed in the Bible, to anyone who violates the rules of the day. It is also mentioned in detail in Numbers 29. There, interestingly, the various sacrifices and offerings are specified and they include things that would normally have been consumed at least in part by the priests. It was the rabbis who defined the idea of “self-affliction” as fasting, that is nowhere specified in Scripture.

[8] Passover is one of three “pilgrimage” festivals specified by the Torah. The primary commandment, as the term “pilgrimage” denotes, is the personal appearance of the worshipper in the one place allowed for it, the Temple of Jerusalem, and in that place alone could the Passover offering be made. The rabbis, centuries after the destruction of that Temple, declared that a person’s home could substitute for that Temple, and the meal consumed at that table substitute for the pascal lamb.

[9] Infra for a discussion of the origin and function of the rabbinate.

[10] 2 Kings 22; cf. 2 Chronicles 34.

[11] Ex 31:15; Ex 35:2, a story of the implementation of the penalty is found in Numbers 15. Jewish Orthodoxy skirts the issue by noting that Jews usually do not have the power to execute anyone, but that is not true in many places, and certainly not in Israel where the State has executed Adolf Eichmann.

[12] For a comprehensive list and sources: Cohn, Haim Hermann, Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, and Menachem Elon. “Capital Punishment.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 445-451. Vol. 4. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

[13] Referred to as “Levirate marriage” the rules are defined in Deuteronomy 5:5-10.

[14] The ritual originates in Numbers 5 and there is an entire tractate (treatise) in the Talmud devoted to it.

[15] Phylacteries, or t’fillin, are an excellent example of a tradition kept by some modern Jews which reflect biblical texts and traditions. Many modern Jews include both the biblical sources of the requirement and an actual physical instrument in their daily worship. For example, Deuteronomy 6:8 says, וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃ “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be symbols between your eyes.” Notice that neither here nor in other prooftexts (Deut 11:18; Ex 13:9,16) does the Hebrew contain the word t’fillin (תְּפִלִּין). Nor is there any source within the Bible for how anyone should attempt to comply with the requirement. It would have been economically impossible for any Israelite to assemble the texts and materials prior to the Roman era. And indeed it is in the archaeology of such sites that we have found (for example, at Masada) exemplars of phylacteries in use in the era of the Temple. It is therefore fair to claim that phylacteries were an attempt by Judeans living in that era to comply with biblical commandments and that tradition was retained and extended by Rabbinic Jews after the destruction of the Temple.

[16] The term “ancient” here refers to models attested in the Mishnah, ca 250 CE.

[17] Josephus reports that the Judean king, Alexander Janaeus, had 800 Judeans who were among those who had rebelled against him crucified. A.J. 13.14.2

[18] Acts 5:34-42, Φαρισαῖος ὀνόματι Γαμαλιήλ, a Pharisee named Gamliel. Also in Acts, 22:3 Paul is quoted as saying he was educated in the tradition by Gamliel: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἀνὴρ Ἰουδαῖος, γεγεννημένος ἐν Ταρσῷ τῆς Κιλικίας, ἀνατεθραμμένος δὲ ἐν τῇ πόλει ταύτῃ παρὰ τοὺς πόδας Γαμαλιήλ, πεπαιδευμένος κατὰ ἀκρίβειαν τοῦ πατρῴου νόμου, ζηλωτὴς ὑπάρχων τοῦ θεοῦ καθὼς πάντες ὑμεῖς ἐστὲ σήμερον. Also relevent to this discussion is the identification of Paul as a “Jew” which is common to every major translation. But note that the Greek is Ἰουδαῖος which can just as easily be translated as “Judean.” And again, Γαμαλιήλ is not identified with any honorific which would imply “rabbi” or “master.”

[19]   ארְאֶ֙נּוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א עַתָּ֔ה אֲשׁוּרֶ֖נּוּ וְלֹ֣א קָר֑וֹב דָּרַ֙ךְ כּוֹכָ֜ב מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֗ב וְקָ֥ם שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמָחַץ֙ פַּאֲתֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב וְקַרְקַ֖ר כָּל־בְּנֵי־שֵֽׁת׃

What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel; It smashes the brow of Moab, The foundation of all children of Seth. (Num. 24:17 NJPS)

[20] Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, 2:16

O Hanukkah Bush, O Hanukkah Bush!

Time to remind ourselves about this chestnut (roasting on an open fire).

One of my dear friends on social media after peering at a photo I posted while at my daughter’s family exclaimed, “Is that a Hanukkah bush?!” Indeed it is, I replied, and why not?

A few facts. It can’t be denied that Jews of my parents’ generation saw “Christmas trees” as Christian and discouraged their use within their communities. While that can’t be denied, in fact, there is nothing I can think of that makes a Christmas tree Christian other than the sorts of ornaments one might hang on one–such a cross, or placing a Nativity scene somewhere in the display. The tree itself is just a tree, and almost certainly represented some form of Winter worship or expectations of Spring among the Pagan communities of northern Europe long before they were Christianized.

We can’t be exactly sure about when Jesus was born, but we can say that according Christian Scripture, it was not on Christmas. The correct date cannot be known without additional evidence appearing, but almost all of those who have written on the topic place the event either in the Fall or Spring. From a Jewish perspective, that would suggest either at the time of the Fall or Spring festivals. December 25 was not chosen until centuries after the lifetime of Jesus. A historian and religious skeptic such as myself would argue that this was important to take people’s minds off of a very popular Pagan celebration, namely Saturnalia.

Now, many of my Jewish friends are convinced that the date of Hanukkah is reliably the 25th of Kislev, roughly December. As always, it’s much more complicated than that. First of all, those Jews who would become the basis for modern Judaism despised the Hasmoneans. Far from “liberators” they saw this dynasty as the very embodiment of “Greek” civilization–the very culture against whom Judas Maccabeas supposedly fought! It appears that they invented the story of the oil which lasted for 8 days to replace a festival honoring the Maccabean kings which they had decreed to usurp the authority of Solomon who Scripture says celebrated the dedication of the first Temple with a week-long celebration. 1 Kings 8:66 describes this event and says that the people were dismissed on the eighth day. And so we get eight:

 בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי֙ שִׁלַּ֣ח אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְבָרֲכ֖וּ אֶת־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיֵּלְכ֣וּ לְאָהֳלֵיהֶ֗ם שְׂמֵחִים֙ וְט֣וֹבֵי לֵ֔ב עַ֣ל כָּל־הַטּוֹבָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֙ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ לְדָוִ֣ד עַבְדּ֔וֹ וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּֽוֹ׃

And on the 8th day, (Solomon) released the people and they praised the king and returned to their God glad and rejoicing in the all the good that the LORD had done for David his servant and for Israel his people.

I would suggest that the placement of this holiday in December was, just like their Christian contemporaries, a way to usurp the Pagan festivals common at the time of the year when the Sun mysteriously signals it’s triumph over Winter by lengthening it’s days. December 25th, by the way, is probably the date when most people could notice a change after the Winter Solstice.

Personally, I don’t see much danger of a return by either Jewish or Christian religious communities to Paganism, and therefore I don’t have much of a problem with either or both groups celebrating the return of the Sun by decorating a tree.

Now, in my family, we have to add another, important fact. Clara and Alexander’s dad is a renowned expert on trees. So much so that as I write this he has the position of Assistant Director of the National Forest Service for the region of the USA from Maine to the Mississippi river, north of the Ohio. So of course there is going to be a decorated Winter tree in their home!

Having said that, take a look at the ornament that tops this tree. Hint: it’s not a cross. But if you choose to have a cross on yours, good for you!

I hope all my Christian friends will have the most joyous of holidays, and if my Jewish friends want to steal the idea of a tree, nothing wrong with it! Merry Hanumas!

Hanumas Tree

Love Malcolm Tree of Life

Hanukkah Message 2019

It’s time for a personal long-standing tradition, a Hanukkah message. I wrote the first one in 1972 for the University of Wisconsin Jewish student newspaper. In it I explained that in reality, Hanukkah celebrates not a victory of a small band of Jewish partisans over the hated Syrian government, but rather commemorates a civil war in which various Jewish factions were pitted against one another.That Hanukkah, I entered the Hillel Foundation intending to celebrate with my fellow students only to find a “guest” had been invited to light the Hanukkah candelabra: Rabbi Schmudken who had recently assumed the job of creating a Chabad House in Madison. R. Schmudken saw me (we had previously met), arched his eyebrows and intoned, “Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we celebrate the Hasmoneans.” I just chuckled as I knew he was just kibbitzing (kidding), but it does suggest a bit of tension between religious sensibility and historical reality.

The greatest irony, however, is that the rabbinate represents in essence the very opposite of Hasmonean culture. Notice that I used the word “Jewish” to describe the partisans who were striking against the Syrian overlords and their “Jewish” allies. But what does that word “Jewish” mean in the context of these times? These were people struggling for territory they regarded as theirs by Divine right, and above all a place where they believed God is somehow manifest. They believed in sacrificing animals and offering grain for the sustenance of God. For them, all authority was vested in the Priesthood. When they did assume power, for many years they took the role of High Priest and only later that of King.

Contrast that with the religion that both I and R. Schmudken participate in. For us, the priests (cohanim) have a greatly diminished role–and virtually no authority whatsoever. Instead we place authority in the hands of educated people we call rabbis who have not the slightest necessity to be related to the kings, prophets or priests of old. We seek our religious center not in the Temple of Jerusalem, but in synagogues which we can build anywhere we live. We honor the requirements of sacrifice by a system of virtual replacements–for example, when we slaughter animals for meat, we use the symbolism of the priesthood and the Temple in pouring out the blood and then drawing out even more with salt. When we bake bread we tear off a bit of dough and burn it as a symbolic acknowledgment of the grain offerings.

The institution of the rabbinate did not exist in the days of Judah the Maccabee, and Josephus reports that members of the Hasmonean dynasty persecuted the Pharisees who are often imagined to be the ancestors of the rabbis. Once the Temple was gone, the landscape was cleared for people other than the priests to claim authority. By the time two centuries had passed without a Temple, the rabbis were growing in number and authority–simply because people were persuaded that the rabbis knew the right way to do things. Eventually these rabbis set their principles down in a series of books: their interpretations of Scripture and most importantly the various building blocks of the vast library called the Talmud. All of this became the rabbinic claim to supersede the priesthood. And it is the religious practice first established in the Talmud, adjudicated by rabbis, that remains the dominant form of Judaism today. In a very substantial sense, rabbinic Judaism is Judaism, and there really was something else before the rabbis assumed their authoritative roles.

The institution of the holiday of Hanukkah perfectly illustrates what happened. When the Maccabees had their victory and retook the Temple of Jerusalem, they instituted a coronation ceremony for their priest-kings. These Hasmoneans, as the family dynasty became known, felt a need to justify their claim to power. The dedication holiday they held for the Temple lasted for eight days most likely to emulate the Temple dedication festival of Solomon described in 2 Chronicles 7:8ff.

When the rabbis fixed the celebration of Hanukkah, they did so with a tale of a miracle: a candelabra which had enough oil for one day but which lasted for the eight necessary for re-dedicating the Temple. They said not a word about Hasmoneans, this holiday had nothing to with them but everything to do asserting their own authority over the religion. The rabbis also fixed the time for Hanukkah very close to the Winter Solstice, perhaps to divert attention away from Pagan and later Christian adoptions of celebrations of that event.

Today, of course, every Jewish child learns about the heroic Hasmoneans. If the rabbis buried the history of the Hasmoneans, how did this come to be? Therein lies a great irony. While the rabbis made no effort to preserve the historical works of Josephus, and likewise had no use for the books of the Maccabees, Christians did. Christians even regarded the Maccabees 1 and 2 as Scripture. About a thousand years after the time of the Maccabees, Jews living as minorities both in Christian and Muslim lands felt great pressure to justify their historical glories. The victories of the Hasmoneans which they learned about through Christian copyists became a useful tool for asserting the great military prowess of ancient Jews. One Jewish author, probably living in Italy in the 10th century, created a mash-up of Josephus with various legendary materials and called his book Sefer Yossipon. Yossipon was a different general than Josephus, one who could not be tarred with the label of traitor to the Jews. But of course, essentially all the historical material in the book is plagiarized from Josephus.

And so we came full circle. The rabbis who initially suppressed the Hasmoneans recreated them and the modern holiday of Hanukkah emerged: a solstice festival which combines both the original myth of the eight days of oil with the military gallantry of the Hasmoneans.

But you see, by the 10th century, the rabbis knew they had won. No priests or royals existed to threaten their authority. So let the good times roll!

Mr. Jake Brannum wrote:

Perhaps the most obvious growing difference between the East and the West was the use of language. Although when the Empire had initially been split into two governances, Latin had remained the official language of administration for both halves, the language of the secular elite and of church liturgy was divided: Greek in the East and Latin in the West. Already by the 5th century and Emperor Leo I, the Eastern emperors themselves had begun to legislate in Greek (90), demonstrating that the divide between the two halves was already well under way before the so-called Fall of the West in 476. With the different languages came different texts, different liturgies, different Bibles, resulting in early irreconcilable cultures between the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire that would only continue to increase as time went on.

I would like to agree, disagree and expand on the notion of the language basis of differentiation in the Empire (whether we are speaking of Rome or the period after the end of unified government in the west). It is absolutely true that language can be a barrier. The Greeks famously coined the term “barbarian” as some sort onomatopoeic reflection of the sounds of non-Greek languages and there isn’t much question that the intent was disparagement.

In addition, even the division into Latin versus Greek is a vast oversimplification. While Latin does seem to have pervaded most of the Roman West giving rise to what we call Romance languages today, Greek was by no means the only competing language. In Egypt, always among the most populous parts of the Mediterranean, large numbers of people retained descendants of the language of the ancient Pharaohs. In mid-East, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as a lingua franca, but Hebrew was retained as a literary language–and more on that in a moment. And further east, while Greek can be found as far as Bactria, most populations spoke variations of Persian and other languages native to the region. To the south-east, Arabic was widespread.

Despite all that variation, many within the educated elite could deal with both Latin and Greek, and therefore the cultural divide was not quite so high. I’d like to focus on one important moment in the history of linguistic issues to illustrate how sometimes things worked in unexpected ways.

Once Rome accepted Christianity, one of the ramifications of that decision was a necessity to publish the Scripture on which the religion was based. While many people today would imagine that the original language of Scripture was Hebrew (at least what we now call “the Old Testament”), the situation was a bit more complicated than that. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews (using the term loosely) had long claimed that a translation of Scripture into Greek was nothing less than divinely inspired (Letter of Aristeas). To make a long story short, despite centuries of research and the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is quite impossible to determine whether the current Hebrew text (more on that in a moment) or Greek text (the “Septuagint”) is more reliable, and the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that in specific instances there is evidence on both sides.

At the time the first texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were being copied and transmitted around the Mediterranean, first by Jewish and later by Christian copyists and communities, there was also a translation of the texts into Latin. This version is known as the Vetus Latina.

In the very late fourth century (CE) Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin. It is difficult to know exactly how he went about establishing the Hebrew text, most scholars presume that he was able to use a mss of Origen’s Hexapla despite Origen having by then been declared a heretic. Jerome mentions on a few occasions consulting Jews, and several studies have demonstrated that whatever text he used was closely related to the text that would become the basis of later Hebrew Bibles (the Masoretic Text). In doing this, he privileged that text over the Greek of the Septuagint.

Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) was acclaimed and widely distributed. This had an odd consequence: the original Latin text (the Vetus Latina) was so thoroughly supplanted that today we are unable to reproduce it. It survives in more than 27 different versions and there is little question that large portions of these variants were not from whatever the original might have been but rather copied from patristics or even the Vulgate itself. And the reason this is important is that the Vetus Latina is in itself a witness to the Septuagint (which also has a very complex manuscript history) which has to be regarded as a core text of the original Bible. In essence, when we compare the Vulgate to the Hebrew Bible of today, we are comparing two sides of the same coin!

Jews are found in lesser or greater numbers throughout the territories of the Roman Empire including all those places in the Roman West that waned and waxed after the mid-fifth century. They carried their sacred texts and their Hebrew and Aramaic languages wherever they went. In some places, the walls between Hebrew study and Latin or Greek were very high. But here and there we find breaches in those walls. A Jerome who, despite many seemingly antisemitic viewpoints, nevertheless is happy to make use of Jewish education in his efforts. Christians and Jews connected and learned from each other, if only sporadically and often because a Jew had converted to Christianity.

But Jews also borrowed from Christian sources when they deemed it necessary. Lacking a copy of Josephus’s works in any Jewish language because the books were preserved by Christians and ignored by Jews for almost a milennium, a tenth century Jew, probably in Italy, created a pastiche of Josephus adding in various legends from rabbinic sources and called his work “Yossipon” (a variant on the name Josephus).

Itinerant Jews learned the language of the communities among which they sojourned. Abraham ibn Ezra was born in Muslim Spain (most of his children would convert to Islam) and acquired a deep knowledge of Arabic culture, language and science. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, he traveled and taught in North Africa, Italy and France and even England. Many of his works survive: treatises on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, astronomy, astrology, and above all commentaries on the Bible. He was a great defender of Sa’adia Ga’on, who lived in the far eastern part of the Jewish world (Sura, Babylonia, now Iraq).

And so we see that despite the vast distances and language barriers, a Jew born in eleventh century Spain could know the works of an Iraqi and teach them in England.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Or Not)

In his monumental work The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham lays claim to righting several major errors in twentieth century historiography. But the mile-high view, it seemed to me, didn’t depart very much from the picture long familiar to me. In the East, Rome continued to be represented by Byzantium with Roman values gradually subsumed into Christian ones. In the West, Rome itself became increasingly isolated as the once unified western half changed into a variety of states ruled by successions of invaders (infiltrators?) from the North. Goths, Visigoths, Angles, Jutes and Saxons.

I did learn a great deal from those parts of the book which relented from the recitation of endless succession lines of a dozen or more “barbarian” polities. In the area of language, while we know that Romance languages are all descended from Latin, Wickam explains that most of the invaders actually spoke and even read Latin. Writing was more of a professional skill, so the elites who need something memorialized would dictate to a professional scribe. What was new to me is understanding that many of these may have done their dictation in Latin rather than relying on the scribe to both translate and write.

Nevertheless, these revelations raised more questions for me. Why did some groups adopt Latin and speak its variants, while others did not? Most of the invaders as early as the 5th century were variants of Germanic (Teutonic) speaking people, yet German, Norse, Dansk, and the languages of the Celts remained largely untouched by Latin. Modern English is the great melting pot between Teutonic and Latin… Still, I wanted to hear more about Greek in the East. After all, Greek does seem to have lasted in Asia Minor until the Turkish conquest. And what of Aramaic there and Coptic in Egypt?

Wickham is undoubtedly correct in asserting that there was no sudden “Fall” of Rome, but rather a gradual transformation which differed from locale to locale across the West, and something entirely different in the East.

I am running out of time for these comments today, but if I can find a few more minutes before the seminar, I would like to discuss a (very) few comments Wickham made about Jews in the (no longer) Dark Ages.

In particular, it would have been good to have heard something about how Jews fit into the economic and legal environment. Jews had a particular, one might even say peculiar, place in Roman legal texts. A status that somehow survived three or more severe revolts against Roman authority. Wickham notes [p. 133-4] that the Visigothic rulers of Iberia passed harsh legislation de-legitimizing Judaism and enslaving the Jews. He then notes that as harsh as the legislation might seem, it was not out of line with “Roman” law regarding heretics. But pre-Christian Roman law excluded Jewish persecution (other than taxation after 70 CE). I also wondered whether we have evidence that any of these laws were actually enforced–indeed, were there actually any Jews who would be affected by them?

A quote that intrigued me: “The political fragmentation of the western church and the absence of heresy were, as has been implied, linked: people simply did not have regular information about what was going on outside their own local and regional circuits.” [p. 171] Although I can’t be sure that communication was speedy during Roman imperial times, the implication to me seems to be that we are dealing with a “dark age” comparatively speaking!

One aspect I followed with interest was the discussion of the promulgation and collection of laws. I haven’t read the chapters on Byzantium yet, but I know that the Eastern Roman Empire was a focal point for the collection and systematization of law. Nothing like this seems to have occurred to Jews that early, despite the ancient interest of Jews in the law–indeed the most sacred text of the Jews was called “The Law” (Torah). The earliest attempt at systematizing the law in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, was that of Rabbeinu Hannael. He lived in Islamic Africa in the first decades after the turn of the millennium. And nothing resembling a true code of laws existed until the Mishne Torah of Maimonides, more than a century later. Maimonides too lived and worked under Islam.

Wickham does devote a number of sections to understanding class and gender issues. I was intrigued by several cases where Wickham discussed documents that seemed to contradict long established legal norms. Was this common or rare?

While Rome, especially in Byzantium, was long occupied with creating “digests” or collections of legal principles,