The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV
From Adam’s exile from paradise (exile), Noah’s redemption of the world (redemption), the exodus from Egypt (redemption), the first revelation at Sinai (redemption), the smashing of the tablets as Moses saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf (exile), the second revelation at Sinai (tentative redemption), the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (exile), the return of the remnant of exiles from Babylon and the building of the Second Temple (redemption), the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (exile), Jewish historiography has been a constant story of exile and redemption. After the last exile, that of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the final crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE, Jewish practice fell into the hands of a small sect of sages who authored the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the two Talmuds. The interesting thing about these documents according to Jacob Neusner, is that in response to the Roman exile, the Rabbis chose to remake the whole of the Jewish experience into one in which they created a world of extant redemption existing outside of the time and vagaries of the temporal world. The sages created an ideal world, a world that mirrored that which they expected a final redemption to look like, not a world in which the Jewish people were marginalized, persecuted and ridiculed by the gentiles surrounding them. In short, the rabbis created a utopian vision of redemption that could only be achieved by communal action.
For the rabbis of the fundamental texts of Rabbinic Judaism redemption was not an individual, personal act. One cannot be saved from exile as an individual, rather, the whole Jewish community, wherever they might be, could only be redeemed from exile through the group effort of each and every individual following the law to the letter. The more people following the laws of Moses and the rabbinical deciders the closer one comes to redemption; the sooner the messiah arrives to return things to the state of paradise from which Adam was initially exiled. Redemption, then, comes at a cost, the cost of blindly following a set of arcane rules and regulations, many of which cannot be understood at a rational level and, to complicate things even more, better than half cannot even be carried out because they refer to Temple practices, animal sacrifices, priestly cleanliness (or suitability to carry out priestly duties), and other laws regarding the unique practices of the Temple sacrificial cult. This model served the Jewish people quite well until the middle of the 17th century CE when Jewish mysticism began to emerge.
According to Gershom Scholem, Jewish mysticism sprang from a religious revival among Jews so that by the mid 1600’s a shift in the idea of redemption moved ever closer to the idea that once the messiah arrived, individual salvation was indeed possible and would precede any kind of group redemption that was the ultimate goal of the arrival of the messiah. This idea was vigorously opposed by those rabbis representing the status quo but that didn’t stop messianic cults from popping up. The most successful of these cults followed the life of Sabbitai Zevi, a Sephardic rabbi who preached some unique interpretations of the law and, through his disciples, notably one Nathan of Gaza, claimed to be the messiah. Even after Zevi was forced into apostasy by Sultan Mehmed IV when he was offered the choice between death and conversion to Islam in which Zevi chose conversion, the movement remained strong until the mid 19th century CE. Scholem contends that the Sabbatean movement was the precursor of the modern movement of Reform Judaism.
Through the last two thousand years, Judaism flourished in an atmosphere of utopian expectations. The historiography of Judaism stresses the communal responsibility to obey commandments and if that is done then all will go well. It tells a story of perfection spoiled, of exile, of redemption, of exile, of redemption and exile over and over again. Living in exile today, Jews around the world just celebrated two nights of a holiday of redemption from exile yet even within the story of the Exodus are buried smaller stories of exile and redemption, of failure to follow the laws and commandments and being forgiven as a group. The Passover Seder ends with the utopian words, Next Year in Jerusalem; not the Jerusalem that exists today, rather the Jerusalem that will exist once the Temple is rebuilt and Jews can once again offer burnt offerings to the God of Israel. I am not sure that is a world I would choose to inhabit.
- Context Matters or Does It? Thinking in Jewish X (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Teleological Martyrdom and Messianic Drama: Thinking In Jewish XXIII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)