History is Written by the Victorious…Perhaps Not: Thinking in Jewish 40
It is often stated, mostly by the victors, that history is written by the victorious not the vanquished. Perhaps normative history, whatever that may conger up as an image, but not all history. Vanquished people often cling to their own stories and their own versions of the past that are freely told among their particular group. There is, however, no general sharing of those stories or those narratives often because they remain in an oral tradition. There is one clear example of history being written by the vanquished, a written tradition that is millennia old, beginning with the first Babylonian exile so deftly explored by Isaiah and Jeremiah. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Temple constructed when a remnant returned to Jerusalem from Babylon about 500 years earlier, and the subsequent defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE when the People of Israel were firmly ensconced in the Diaspora did the rabbis collectively decide to write their version of the record of the Jewish people in multiple texts as a way to preserve their legacy for the world.
In addition to the Torah and the other writings of the Tanakh, writing which preceded the post 135 CE exilic writings, texts which became the foundational texts of the Jewish people, and, to a large extent because of their inclusion in the Christian holy texts, served as a building block for Christians, the texts following the Bar Kochba revolt took on a completely different character; one determined to preserve and protect the Temple cult while living in the world without a Temple.
The Mishnah completed in 200 CE is the fundamental work that was written in an attempt to codify Jewish practice and law while creating a utopian world that no longer existed. The Mishnah is attributed to Judah H’Nasi (Judah the Prince) is a complex document written in Hebrew (although not Biblical Hebrew, rather in a form that was more like the Hebrew of the 3rd Century CE, which attempted to explore all aspects of Jewish life and practice including ritual Temple practice, when and how to recite blessings, as well as civil law and the laws of the Sabbath among other things. Some have argued that Judah the Prince wrote the Mishnah at the request of the Roman governors in order for the governors to understand and administer Jewish Law to the Jews remaining in Palestine under their rule. Whether this is true or not is of little consequence, although it makes for an interesting conjecture. What is important is that Judah the Prince created a massive document outlining Jewish practice in the days of the Temple, a world that no longer existed, thereby stopping time and preserving a world which otherwise would be lost.
The Mishnah was, it seems, incomplete in the sense that there were many instances where the text did not address problems that might arise. Someone, for example, might come to his rabbi with a loaf of bread found in the street asking, “Rabbi, may I keep this loaf of bread to feed my family or must I seek out its true owner?” The answer to this question is unclear in the Mishnah so groups of rabbis separately in Jerusalem and Baghdad began to address these kinds of problems. Their arguments and decisions are codified in both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud was finished around 400 CE while the Babylonian Talmud was not completed until somewhere between 600 to 700 CE. The Babylonian Talmud contains longer, more detailed arguments and generally carries more weight than the Jerusalem Talmud but both are an attempt to clarify the Mishnah where clarification is necessary. If no clarification is required the Mishnah is still primary.
Not to be outdone, later rabbis saw the necessity for additional commentary to the Talmuds. In the 13th Century CE, commentaries by Rashi and others made their way onto the pages of the written Talmud. It was Rashi’s goal to clarify the decisions of the Sages of the Talmud in plain language. Others, such as Maimonides (Shimon ben Maimon) who was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, attempted to put the whole of Jewish sacred texts into philosophical terms. Other rabbis followed until this very day creating commentary on the spiritual and legal foundations of Jewish texts.
What is clear is that the Jewish connection to the written word is both ancient and modern. It is a tradition that goes back four to five millennia and over time is a story of victory and defeat and victory again. It is a story of preservation, of timelessness. It is understood at a deep level the Jewish experience is one that is experienced by every Jew at the moment of its occurrence. When asked at the Passover Seder, “What does all this mean to you?” the response is as follows: “It is for me when I was a slave in the Land of Egypt that the Lord brought me forth from Egypt and delivered me to freedom.” That I was a slave, that I was brought forth a free person, that I was there; not that someone told me about someone who was there but that I was there to experience the Exodus from Egypt; not just to witness but to participate. I was at Sinai when the Ten Commandments were heard by all the people; not that I read about it or was told about it, no, I was there in the flesh and I will experience that once again this Wednesday when the Ten Commandments are read aloud in the synagogue.
The very nature of the cycle nature of the Jewish calendar is to be present, to experience that which was always already experienced. Time standing still for the past 2000 years yet repeating itself like clockwork year in and year out all connected by words on parchment, words that survive Diaspora and connect me to the very first anonymous person who decided to call himself a child of Israel and later a Jew in an unbroken lineage from that moment to this very moment.
- Responsibility as a Construct of Mercy: Thinking in Jewish 39 (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Reading Texts while Reading into Text: Thinking in Jewish 35 (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34 (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38 (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- The Illusion of Time made Cyclical: Thinking In Jewish 37 (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- The Bar Kochba Debate (algemeiner.com)
- Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)