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Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

In 70 CE the Romans, during the First Jewish-Roman War, destroyed the Temple, the center of the sacrificial cult that, over time, became the rabbinical Judaism (as well as the Christianity) we know in today’s post-modern world. Because I am at least nominally Jewish, I don’t much care about the schism that separated Jews and Christians from one another other than as an historical fact. My concern is to understand just how Temple Judaism morphed into rabbinical Judaism and why.

Jacob Neusner makes an interesting case for that development in his exploration of the corpus of rabbinic texts that comprise the heart of rabbinic Judaism. He offers the context of historical events and the response of the redactors of the Mishnah, a code of religious obligations attributed to Judah ha Nasi (Judah the Prince) completed in 200 CE. Without going into too much detail about the form, structure or rhetorical tools used by the rabbis of the Mishnah, the core of Neusner’s argument is simply this: the rabbis, responding to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE) where an independent Jewish state successfully expelled the Romans only to fall to Rome once again in 135 CE, organized the emerging rabbinic cult by creating a corpus of textual material that was designed to mirror the Temple Cult while creating an ahistorical context by which one became holy. The Mishnah itself paints a picture of sanctification that is set in a context of timelessness, a universal mirror of this very moment, the only moment that counts, by setting down permanent obligations for every aspect of life from farming to business transactions with the underlying intent to provide Jews with a framework for living a life deemed sanctified and holy without regard to the ebb and flow of historical events. The rules, the obligations, applied in good times and in times of tyrants, across all seasons of the year by providing an absolute framework for living come what may.

In the 130-year period dating from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and including the expulsion of and banishing from Jerusalem, the Bar Kokhba Revolt and the re-colonization of Israel by the Romans, the Mishnah took its final form. No longer able to find spiritual comfort in Jerusalem, the rabbis of the Mishnah responded by making Jerusalem live in the hearts and souls of Jews through the eschatology of the messiah to come, the anointed one who will restore everything to the way it is supposed to be including the restoration of the Temple cult in Jerusalem where burnt offerings to the creator God could, once again, serve to purify and cleanse the world of sin.

The logic of the Mishnah, therefore, is not to concentrate on events that occur and influence the way one defines the world one lives in. To the contrary, the logic of the Mishnah is to eschew existential time, to divorce obligations from the context of place and time by making the obligations of human conduct so routine as to become internalized and thereby transformed into an ethical, moral and holy life; a life guided by creating a holy place for the messiah, the anointed one, to appear.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, in short, created a world that spiritually was a simulacrum of the Temple cult, substituting behavioral obligations for animal sacrifice. Regular prayer and rabbis substituted for sacrifice and priests. Rules of conduct posited along with alternative possibilities demonstrated that the Law of the Mishnah was universal and timeless; that following the law was essential to the very existence of the world as well as the world to come, no matter what the externals of life might look like. It mattered not what governing authority was in power, what wars were being fought, what diseases were extant; Jewish life was lived both temporally and, even more importantly, spiritually by living the law.

Neusner’s argument sheds a great deal of light on how one reads Jewish textual material. By the simple act of considering the context in which the texts were written, what externals they were responding to, helps place their zeal into the proper perspective. I want to suggest that a similar crisis is facing rabbinic Judaism today, in the era post-Shoah (post-Holocaust). The genocide of six-million Jews at the hands of the Nazis coupled with the independence of the State of Israel places great strains on the very understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Time will tell just how this internal argument plays out. I’ll just keep on studying and reading and writing and, just perhaps, some clarity will emerge.

 

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7 thoughts on “Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X

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