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4. Rabbinic Judaism (2nd-18th century)

1) THE AGE OF THE TANNAIM (135-c. 200)

i) The role of the rabbis.

With the defeat of Bar Kokhba and the ensuing collapse of active Jewish resistance to Roman rule (135-136), politically moderate and quietist rabbinic elements remained the only cohesive group within Jewish society. With Jerusalem off limits to the Jews, rabbinic ideology and practice, which were not dependent on Temple, priesthood, or political independence for their vitality, provided a viable program for autonomous community life and thus filled the vacuum created by the suppression of all other Jewish leadership. The Romans, confident that the will for insurrection had been shattered, soon relaxed the Hadrianic prohibitions of Jewish ordination, public assembly, and regulation of the calendar and permitted rabbis who had fled the country to return and reestablish an academy in the town of Usha in Galilee. (see also Index: Rabbinic Judaism)

The strength of the rabbinate lay in its ability to represent simultaneously the interests of the Jews and the Romans, whose religious and political needs, respectively, now chanced to coincide. The rabbis were regarded favourably by the Romans, as a politically submissive class, which, with its wide influence over the Jewish masses, could translate the Pax Romana (the peace imposed by Roman rule) into Jewish religious precepts. To the Jews, on the other hand, the rabbinic ideology gave the appearance of continuity to Jewish self-rule and freedom from alien interference. The rabbinic program fashioned by Johanan ben Zakkai's circle (see above Hellenistic Judaism [4th century BCE-2nd century CE] ) had replaced sacrifice and pilgrimage to the Temple with study of Scripture, prayer, and works of piety, thus eliminating the need for a central sanctuary (in Jerusalem) and making of Judaism a religious association capable of fulfillment anywhere. Judaism was now, for all intents and purposes, a Diaspora religion even on its home soil. Any sense of real break with the past was mitigated by continued adherence to purity laws (dietary and bodily) and by assiduous study of Scripture, including those legal sections that historical developments had now made obsolete. The reward held out for scrupulous study and fulfillment was the promise of messianic deliverance; i.e., divine restoration of all those institutions that had become central in Jewish notions of national independence--the Davidic monarchy, Temple service, the ingathering of Diaspora Jewry--and, above all, the assurance of personal reward to the righteous through resurrection and participation in the national rebirth.

Apart from the right to teach Scripture publicly, the most pressing need felt by the surviving rabbis was for the reorganization of a recognized body that would reactivate the functions of the former Sanhedrin and pass on disputed questions of law and dogma. A high court was, accordingly, organized under the leadership of Simeon ben Gamaliel (reigned c. 135-c. 175), the son of the previous patriarch (the Roman term for the head of the Palestinian Jewish community) of the house of Hillel, in association with rabbis representing other schools and interests. In the ensuing struggle for power, the patriarch managed to concentrate all communal authority in his office. The dominating role of the patriarchate reached its zenith in the days of his son and successor, Judah the Prince, whose reign (c. 175-c. 220) marked the climax of this period of rabbinic activity, otherwise known as the "age of the tannaim" (teachers). Armed with wealth, Roman backing, and dynastic legitimacy (which the patriarch now traced to the house of David), Judah sought to standardize Jewish practice through a corpus of legal norms that would reflect recognized views of the rabbinate on every aspect of life. The Mishna (collection of rabbinic law) that soon emerged became the primary source of reference in all rabbinic schools and constituted the core around which the Talmud (commentary on Mishna, literally "teaching") was later compiled. It thus remains the best single introduction to the complex of rabbinic values and practices as they evolved in Roman Palestine.

ii) The making of the Mishna.

Although the promulgation of an official corpus represented a break with rabbinic precedent, Judah's Mishna did have antecedents. During the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, rabbinic schools had compiled for their own reference collections in which the results of their exegesis and application of Scripture to problematic situations (Midrash, "investigation" or "interpretation"; plural Midrashim) had been recorded in terse legal form. By 200 CE several such compilations were circulating in Jewish schools and were being utilized by judges. While adhering to the structural form of these earlier collections, Judah compiled a new one in which universally accepted views were recorded alongside those still in dispute, thereby largely reducing the margin for individual discretion in the interpretation of the law. Although his action aroused opposition, and some rabbis continued to invoke their own collections, the authority of his office and the obvious advantages of a unified system of law soon outweighed centrifugal tendencies, and his Mishna attained quasi-canonical status, becoming known as "The Mishna" or "Our Mishna." For all its clarity and comprehensiveness, its phraseology was often obscure or too terse to satisfy all needs, and a companion known as the Tosefta ("Additions") was compiled shortly thereafter in which omitted traditions and explanatory notes were recorded. Since, however, neither compilation elucidated the processes by which their decisions had been elicited, various authorities set about collecting the midrashic discussions of their schools and recording them in the order of the verses of Scripture. During the 3rd and 4th centuries the tannatic Midrashim on the Pentateuch were compiled and introduced as school texts.

Fundamentally legal in character, this literature was designed to regulate every aspect of life--the six divisions of the Mishna on agriculture, festivals, family life, civil law, sacrificial and dietary laws, and purity encompass virtually every area of Jewish experience--and, accordingly, also recorded the principal Pharisaic and rabbinic definitions and goals of the religious life. One tract of the Mishna, Avot("Sayings of the Fathers"), treated the meaning and posture of a life according to Torah, while other passages made reference to the mystical studies into which only the most advanced and religiously worthy were initiated; e.g., the activities of the Merkavaor divine "Chariot," and the doctrines of creation (see below, Jewish mysticism ). The rabbinic program of a life dedicated to study and fulfillment of the will of God was thus a graded structure in which the canons of morality and piety were attainable on various levels, from the popular and practical to the esoteric and metaphysical. Innumerable sermons and homilies preserved in the midrashic collections, liturgical compositions for daily and festival services, and mystical tracts circulated among initiates all testify to the deep spirituality that informed rabbinic Judaism.


i) Palestine (c. 220-c. 400).

The promulgation of the Mishna initiated the period of the amoraim(lecturers or interpreters), those teachers who made the Mishna the basic text of legal exegesis. The curriculum now centred on the elucidation of the text of the standard compilation, harmonization of its decisions with extra-Mishnaic traditions recorded in other collections, and the application of its principles to new situations. The records of these amoraic studies have been preserved in the form of two running commentaries on the Mishna known as the Palestinian (or Jerusalem) Talmud ("Teaching") and the Babylonian Talmud, reflecting the study and legislation of the academies of the two principal centres of Jewish concentration in the Roman and Persian empires of that time. (Talmud is also the comprehensive term for the whole collections, Palestinian and Babylonian, containing Mishna, commentaries, and other matter. See below, The literature of Judaism )

The principal agencies mediating the rabbinic way of life and literature to the masses were the schools, ranging from the primary school to the advanced "house of study" and more formal academy (yeshiva), the synagogue, and the Jewish courts, which not only adjudicated litigations but also decided on ritual problems. Primary schools had long been available in the villages and cities of Palestine, and tannaitic law made education of male children a religious duty. Introduced at the age of five or six to Scripture, the student advanced at the age of 10 to Mishna and finally in mid-adolescence to Talmud or the processes of legal reasoning. Regular reading of Scripture in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays, the Sabbaths, and festivals, coupled with concurrent translations into the Aramaic vernacular and frequent sermons, provided for lifelong instruction in the literature and the values elicited from it. The amoraic emphasis on the moral and spiritual aims of Scripture and its ritual is reflected in their midrashic collections, which are predominantly homiletical (sermonic) rather than legal in content.

An amoraic sermon conceded that of every thousand beginners in primary school only one would be expected to continue as far as Talmud. In the 4th century, however, there were enough advanced students to warrant academies in Lydda, Caesarea, Sepphoris, and Tiberias (in Palestine), where leading scholars trained disciples for communal service as teachers and judges. In Caesarea, the principal port and seat of the Roman administration of Palestine, where pagans, Christians, and Samaritans maintained renowned cultural institutions, the Jews, too, established an academy that was singularly free of patriarchal control. The outstanding rabbinic scholar there, Abbahu (c. 279-320), wielded great influence with the Roman authorities and, because he combined learning with personal wealth and political power, attracted some of the most gifted students of the day to the city. In c. 350 the studies and decisions of the authorities in Caesarea were compiled as a tract on the civil law of the Mishna. Half a century later, the academy of Tiberias issued a similar collection on other tracts of the Mishna, and this compilation, in conjunction with the Caesarean material, constituted the Palestinian Talmud.

Despite increasing tensions between some rabbinic circles and the patriarch, his office was the agency providing a basic unity to the Jews of the Roman Empire. Officially recognized as a Roman prefect, a government official, the patriarch at the same time delegated apostles to Jewish communities to inform them of the Jewish calendar and of other decisions of general concern and to collect an annual tax of a half shekel paid by male Jews for his treasury. As titular head of the Jewish community of the mother country and as a vestigial heir of the Davidic monarchy, the patriarch was a reminder of a glorious past and of a hope for a brighter future. How enduring these hopes were may be seen from the efforts to gain permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the emperor Julian (reigned 361-363) actually authorized the reconstruction, the project came to naught as a consequence of a disastrous fire on the sacred site and the subsequent death of the Emperor.

The adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire had no direct effect on the religious freedom of the Jews; i.e., on their freedom to worship and observe their life rules. The ever-mounting hostility between the two religions, however, resulted in severe curtailment of Jewish disciplinary rights over their coreligionists, interference in the collection of patriarchal taxes, restriction of the right to build synagogues, and, finally, upon the death of the patriarch Gamaliel VI in c. 425, the abolition of the patriarchate and the diversion of the Jewish tax to the imperial treasury. Though Mediterranean Jewry was now fragmented into disjointed communities and synagogues, the principles of the regulation of the Jewish calendar had been committed to writing c. 359 by the patriarch Hillel II, and this, coupled with the widespread presence of rabbis, ensured continuity of Jewish adherence. Even the emperor Justinian's (reigned 527-565) restrictions on synagogal worship and preaching apparently had no devastating effect. A new genre of liturgical poetry, combining ecstatic prayer with didactic motifs, developed in this period of political decline and won acceptance in synagogues in Asia Minor as well as beyond the Euphrates.

ii) Babylonia (200-650).

In the increasingly unfriendly climate of Christendom, Jews drew consolation in the knowledge that in nearby Babylonia (then under Persian rule) a vast population of Jews continued to live under a network of effective and autonomous Jewish institutions and officialdom. Steadily worsening conditions in Palestine had drawn many Jews to Persian domains, where economic opportunities and the Jewish communal structure enabled them to gain a better livelihood while living in accordance with their ancestral traditions. To regulate internal Jewish affairs and ensure the steady flow of taxes, the Parthian, or Arsacid, rulers (247 BCE-224 CE) had appointed c. 100 CE an exilarch, or "head of the [Jews in] exile"--who claimed more direct Davidic descent than the Palestinian patriarch--to rule over the Jews as a quasi-prince. In c. 220 two Babylonian disciples of Judah the Prince, Abba Arika and Samuel bar Abba, began to propagate the Mishna and related tannaitic literature as the yardsticks of normative practice. As heads of the academies at Sura and Nehardea, respectively, Abba and Samuel cultivated a native Babylonian rabbinate, which increasingly provided the manpower for local Jewish courts and other communal services. While the usual tensions between temporal and religious arms frequently erupted in Babylonia, too, the symbiosis of exilarchate and rabbinate endured uninterruptedly until the middle of the 11th century.

Paradoxically, Babylonian rabbinism derived its ideological strength from its fundamentally unoriginal character. As a transplant of Palestinian Judaism it claimed historic legitimacy to the Sasanid rulers (224-651), who protected Jewish practices against interference from fanatical Magian priests, and to native Jewish officials, who argued for the validity of indigenous Babylonian deviations from Palestinian norms. But ultimately the historic importance of this transplantation lay in Babylonia's serving as the proving ground for the adaptability of Palestinian Judaism to a Diaspora situation. Legal and theological adaptations generated by needs of the new locale and times inevitably effected changes in the religious tradition. The laws of agriculture, purity, and sacrifices all of necessity fell into disuse. The values embodied in these laws, however, and the core of the legal-theological system--ranging from doctrinal faith in the revelation and election of Israel, to the requirement that the individual live by the canons of Jewish civil and family law, and the establishment of a network of communal institutions modelled on those of the mother country--remained intact, thereby ensuring a basic continuity and uniformity to rabbinically oriented communities everywhere. The real contribution of the Babylonian rabbinate to Jewish religion lay, accordingly, in its demonstration of how Palestinian Judaism was to be implemented on Gentile soil. Since historic circumstances made Babylonia the mediator of this tradition to all Jewish communities in the High Middle Ages (9th-12th centuries), the Babylonian version of Jewish religion became synonymous with normative Judaism and the measure of Judaic authenticity everywhere.

"The law of the [Gentile] government is binding," the principle formulated by Samuel, head of the academy at Nehardea (died 254), summarizes the essential novelty in rabbinic reorientation to life on foreign soil. Whereas Palestinian rabbis had perforce to comply with imperial decrees of taxation de facto--and this was all that Samuel had in mind--Babylonian teachers now rationalized the legitimacy of governmental authority in this respect de jure and thus enjoined upon the Jews political quietism and submissiveness as part of their religious theory. In all other areas of civil law, the Jews were instructed by their rabbis to bring their litigations to Jewish courts and thus to conduct their businesses as well as their family lives by rabbinic law.

While the rabbis could obviously more effectively impose their discipline in matters of public law than in private religious practice, the density of the Jewish population in many areas of Parthia (northeastern Iran) and Babylonia facilitated the application of moral and disciplinary pressures. The most effective vehicle for the dissemination of their teachings was the academies, of which those of Sura and Pumbedita remained preeminent, where judges and communal teachers were trained. Frequent public lectures in the synagogues of the academies on Sabbaths and festivals were capped by public kalla (study-course) assemblies for alumni of the schools during the two months, Adar (February-March) and Elul (August-September), when the lull in agricultural work freed many to attend semiannual refresher instruction. These meetings were followed by regular popular lectures during the festival seasons that soon followed. Thus, while rabbis constituted a distinct class within the community, their efforts were oriented toward making as much of the community as possible members of an elite of learning and religious scrupulosity. The harmonious relations that obtained with but few interruptions over the centuries between the Sasanian rulers and their Jewish subjects gave the Jewish population the air of a quasi-state, which the Jewish leadership frequently extolled as superior to the Jewish community of Palestine.

The dissemination of the Palestinian Talmud probably stimulated the Babylonians to follow suit by collecting and arranging in similar fashion the records of study and decisions of their own academies and courts. The Babylonian Talmud, which apparently underwent several stages of redaction (c. 500-650) on the basis of the proto-Talmuds--the early collections of commentaries on the Mishna--used in the academies, accordingly became the standard of reference for judicial precedent and theological doctrine for all of Babylonian Jewry and all those communities under its influence. As had been the case with the Mishna, the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud was later designated by authorities as marking the end of a period in Jewish history, and the scholars who put the finishing stylistic touches, known as savora`im("explicators"), were classified as a transitional stage between the amoraim and geonim .

The enduring vigour of Jewish faith throughout these centuries is graphically demonstrated by the missionary activity of Jews throughout the ancient Middle East, especially in the Arabian Peninsula. Proud Jewish tribes living in close proximity to each other in the vicinity of Yathrib (later Medina, Muhammad's home city), engaged in agriculture and commerce and also in proclaiming the superiority of their monotheistic ethos and eschatology (doctrine of last things). In Yemen (southwestern Arabia) the last of the Himyarite rulers (reigned from c. 2nd century CE), Dhu Nuwas, proclaimed himself a Jew and finally suffered defeat (c. 525) as a consequence of Christian influence on the Abyssinian armies. Jewish missionaries, however, continued to compete with Christian missionaries and thus helped lay the groundwork for the birth of an indigenous Arabic monotheism-- Islam--that was to alter the course of world history.

3) THE AGE OF THE GEONIM (c. 640-1038)

i) Triumph of the Babylonian rabbinate.

The lightning conquests in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula by the armies of Islam (7th-8th centuries) provided the environmental framework for the basically uniform (i.e., Babylonian) character of medieval Judaism. As a "people of the Book" (i.e., of the Bible), the Jews were permitted by the Muslims to live under the same autonomous structure that had developed under Arsacid and Sasanian rule. The heads of the two principal academies were now formally recognized by the exilarch, and through him by the Muslim caliphate (religiopolitical rulers), as the official arbiters of all questions of religious law and as the religious heads of all Jewish communities that came under Muslim sway. Known as geonim (plural of gaon"excellency"), and conducting high courts manned by scholars assigned graded ranks, they drew their financial support from Jewish communities assigned to them by the exilarch. Religious questions and contributions were solicited from all Jewish communities, and these along with formal gaonic replies (responsa) were regularly publicized at the semiannual kalla convocations. Under the strong leadership of Yehudai, gaon of Sura (presided 760-763), the Babylonian rabbinate exerted vigorous efforts to replace Palestinian usage wherever it was still in vogue, including the study of Palestinian amoraic legal literature, by Babylonian practice and texts, thus making the Babylonia Talmud the unrivalled standard of Jewish norms everywhere. The success of this campaign is evidenced by the fact that the term Talmud, when unqualified, has ever since meant the Babylonian Talmud. Indeed, even in Palestine the Babylonian corpus displaced its older rival and caused the study of Palestinian Talmudic literature to be confined to circles of legal specialists.

ii) Antirabbinic reactions.

The firm, and on occasion oppressive, tactics of exilarchs and geonim generated antirabbinic reactions, especially in outlying areas where enforcement was difficult, in the form of sectarian and messianic revolts. Inspired in part by ancient Palestinian sectarian doctrines and in part by Muslim usage, the sects were by and large quickly and forcefully suppressed. In the 9th century, however, a moderate group under the leadership of Anan ben David, a disaffected member of the exilarchic family, successfully organized a dissident movement that soon developed into a formidable challenger of Rabbinite (a term first used for the Talmudic adherents by the dissidents) supremacy. Known as Karaites (Scripturalists), the new sect advocated a threefold program of (1) rejection of rabbinic law as a human fabrication and therefore an unwarranted, unauthoritative addition to Scripture, (2) a return to Palestine to hasten the messianic redemption, and (3) a re-examination of Scripture to retrieve authentic law and doctrine. Under the leadership of Daniel al-Qumisi (c. 850?), a Karaite settlement prospered in the Holy Land, from which it spread as far as northwestern Africa and Christian Spain. A barrage of Karaite treatises arguing new views of scriptural exegesis stimulated renewed study of the Bible and Hebrew language in Rabbinite circles as well. The most momentous consequence of these new studies was the invention of several systems of vocalization for the text of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) in Babylonia and Tiberias in the 9th and 10th centuries. The annotation of the Masoretic (traditional, or authorized) text of the Bible with vocalic, musical, and grammatical accents in the Tiberian schools of the 10th-century scholars Ben Naftali and Ben Asher fixed the Masoretic text permanently and through it the morphology (basic form and structure) of the Hebrew language for Karaites as well as Rabbinites.

In the face of sectarian challenges, the geonim intensified their efforts against any deviation from Rabbinite norms and began to issue handbooks of Jewish law that set forth in concise and unequivocal terms the standards for correct practice. A number of these codes, notably the Halakhot gedolot ("Great Laws"), Siddur Rav Amram Gaon (on liturgical practice), and She`eltot ("Disquisitions") by Aha of Shabha (c. 680-c. 752), attained authoritative status in local schools and further helped give a unitary stamp to medieval Judaism.

The geonim, however, were powerless to halt several social developments in the 9th century that progressively undermined their hold even over Rabbinite communities. A renascence of Greek philosophy and sciences in Arabic translation, coupled with the progressive urbanization of the upper classes of all religioethnic groups in the centres of political, commercial, and cultural activity, generated a new intelligentsia that cut across religioethnic lines. Widespread skepticism in basic doctrines of faith such as creation, revelation, and retribution was most poignantly represented by latitudinarianism (the tendency to be flexible and tolerant about deviations from orthodox beliefs and doctrines) and by antinomian (anti-Mosaic-law) Gnostic groups that negated divine providence and omniscience. Hiwi al-Balkhi, a 9th-century skeptical Jewish pamphleteer, scandalized the faithful by an open attack on the morality of Scripture and by an expurgated edition of the Bible for schools that omitted "offensive" materials (e.g., alleged stories of God acting dishonestly). A mystifying Hebrew tract entitled Sefer yetzira("Book of Creation") posited in terse and enigmatic epigrams a novel theory of creation that betrayed unmistakable Neoplatonic influence. Karaites joined philosophically oriented intellectuals in heaping scorn on popular Rabbinite customs that smacked of superstition and, above all, on Talmudic homilies that referred to God in anthropomorphic terms.

Gaonic difficulties were compounded by the rise in North Africa and Spain of populous and wealthy Jewish communities that, thanks to the development of their own local schools and native talent, ignored the Babylonian academies or favoured one over the other with religious queries and, in consequence, with financial contributions. To the delight of dissidents and the chagrin of the faithful, competition between the Babylonian academies turned to internecine hostility. Occasional revolts against exilarchic taxation and administration in outlying areas of Persia had to be quelled with armed force. The Palestinian Rabbinites had revived their own academies, and their presidents now not only appealed for support in other Diaspora lands but challenged the authority of the Babylonians to serve as final arbiters on such matters of public import as the regulation of the calendar. By 900 the Rabbinite community of Babylonia was in a state of chaos and dissolution.

iii) The gaonate of Sa'adia ben Joseph.

In a bold effort to restore discipline and respect for the gaonate, an able exilarch, David ben Zakkai (916/917-940), bypassed the families from whom the geonim had traditionally been selected and in 928 appointed Sa'adia ben Joseph al-Fayyumi to head the academy of Sura. Of Egyptian birth, Sa'adia had gained wide acclaim for his scholarly retorts to Karaites, heretics, and Palestinian Rabbinites. Politically, Sa'adia's brief presidency was a fiasco and aggravated the chaos by a communal civil war. His gaonate, however, gave an official stamp to his many works, which responded to the ideological challenges to Rabbinism by restating traditional Judaism in intellectually cogent terms. Sa'adia thus became the pioneer of a Judeo-Arabic culture that was to come to full flower in Andalusian Spain a century later (see below Sefardic developments). His translation of the Bible into Arabic and his Arabic commentaries on Scripture made the rabbinic understanding of the Bible accessible to masses of Jews. His poetic compositions for liturgical use provided the stimulus for the revival of Hebrew poetry. Above all, his rationalist commentary on the puzzling "Book of Creation" and his brilliant philosophic treatise on Jewish faith, Beliefs and Opinionssynthesized Torah (the divine law in the Five Books of Moses and the rabbinic understanding of this revelation) and "Greek wisdom" in accordance with the dominant Muslim philosophical school of Kalam and thus made Judaism philosophically respectable and the study of philosophy a religiously acceptable pursuit.

Far from tightening the gaonic hold over the Jewish communities of the Arabic world, Sa'adia's works actually provided the wherewithal for ever-greater intellectual and religious self-sufficiency. While economic, political, and military upheavals progressively weakened all institutional fabrics in the Middle East, concurrent prosperity and consolidation in the West stimulated the maturation of indigenous leadership in Egypt, al-Qayrawan (Kairouan; in present-day Tunisia), and Muslim Spain. To be sure, able geonim such as Sherira and his son Hai exercised enormous influence over the Judeo-Arabic world through hundreds of legal responsa issued in the course of their successive terms (968-1038) at Pumbedita. Circumstances beyond anyone's control, however, were bringing the curtain down on the effectiveness of exilarchate and gaonate. But by 1038, the year of Hai's death, the consequences of four centuries of gaonic activity had become indelible: the Babylonian Talmud had become the agent of basic Jewish uniformity; the synthesis of philosophy and tradition had become the hallmark of the Jewish intelligentsia; and the Hebrew classics of the past had become the texts of study in Jewish schools everywhere.


i) The two major branches.

Despite the fundamental uniformity of medieval Jewish culture, the cultural-political divisions within the Mediterranean basin, in which Arabic-Muslim and Latin-Christian civilizations coexisted as discrete and self-contained societies, shaped the character of the Jewish subculture of the area. Two major branches of rabbinic civilization developed in Europe, the Ashkenazic, or Franco-German, and the Sefardic, or Andalusian-Spanish. Distinguished most conspicuously by their varying pronunciation of Hebrew, the numerous differences between them in religious orientation and practice derived, in the first instance, from the geographical fountainheads of their culture--the Ashkenazim (plural of Ashkenazi) tracing their cultural filiation to Italy and Palestine and the Sefardim (plural of Sefardi) to Babylonia--and from the influences of their respective immediate milieus. While the Jews of Christian Europe wrote for internal use almost exclusively in Hebrew, those of Muslim areas regularly employed Arabic for prose works and Hebrew for poetic composition. Whereas the literature of Jews in Latin areas was overwhelmingly religious in content, that of the other branch was well endowed with secular poetry and scientific works inspired by the cultural tastes of the Arabic literati. Most significantly, the two forms of European Judaism differed in their approaches to the identical rabbinic base that both had inherited from the East and in their radically different attitudes to Gentile culture and politics.

ii) Sefardic developments.

In Muslim Spain, Jews frequently served the government in official capacities and, therefore, not only took an active interest in political affairs but also engaged in considerable social and intellectual intercourse with influential circles of the Muslim population. Since the support of letters and scholarship was part of state policy in Muslim Spain, and since Muslim savants traced the source of Muslim power to the vitality of the Arabic language, scripture, and poetry, Jews looked at Arabic culture with undisguised admiration and unabashedly attempted to adapt themselves to its canons of scholarship and good taste. The hallmark of the cultured Jew accordingly became a polished command of Arabic style and the ability to display the beauty of his own heritage through a philological mastery of the text of the Hebrew Bible and through the composition of new Hebrew verse, now set to an alien Arabic metre. Since Arabic philosophers and scientists promulgated syntheses of Greek philosophy with the revelation to Muhammad, rationalist study of the Jewish classics and defense of rabbinic faith in philosophic terms became dominant motifs in the Andalusian Jewish schools (in southern Spain).

The atmosphere generated a fever of literary creativity in classical Jewish disciplines as well as in the sciences cultivated by the Arabs that has gained for the period the title of "the Golden Age of Hebrew literature" (c. 1000-1148). What distinguished the Jewish culture of this age was not only the supreme literary merit of its Hebrew poetry, the new spirit of relatively free and rationalist examination of hallowed texts and doctrines, and the extension of Jewish cultural perspectives to totally new horizons--mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, political theory, aesthetics, belles-lettres--but also the frequent overlapping of the Sefardic religious leadership with the new Jewish courtier class. The unprecedented heights which the latter attained--Hisdai ibn Shaprut as counsellor to the caliphs of Córdoba, the Ibn Nagrelas as viziers of Granada, the Ibn Ezras, Ibn Megashs, and Ibn Albalias as high officials in Granada and Seville--and the distinctions of these men and of their protégés in Jewish and worldly letters restored the ancient integration of culture and practical life and generated a neoclassicism ("classicism" here meaning biblicism) that expressed the identification of the Jewish elite with the biblical age of Jewish power and artistic creativity. The effort to recapture the vitality and beauty of biblical poetry stimulated comparative philological and fresh exegetical research that yielded new insights into the morphology of the Hebrew language and into the historical soil of biblical prophecy. Judah ibn Hayyuj and Abu al-Walid Marwan ibn Janah produced manuals on biblical grammar that applied the results of Arabic philology to their own tongue and that have, accordingly, provided the principles of Hebrew grammatical study down to modern times. The anticipations of modern higher biblical criticism by Judah ibn Bala'am and Moses ibn Gikatilla (flourished 11th century) were popularized in Hebrew a few generations later by Abraham ibn Ezra. In the revival of Hebrew poetry, liturgical as well as secular, that translated the new preoccupation with language and beauty into art, Andalusian Jewry saw its greatest achievements. Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, and Judah ha-Levi were but the acknowledged supreme geniuses of a form of expression that became a passion with thousands the length and breadth of Spain. But by far the most enduring consequence of the new temper was their redefinition of religious faith in the light of Greco-Arabic philosophical theories. Solomon ibn Gabirol's exposition of faith in Neoplatonic terms, Abraham ibn Daud's defense of Rabbinism by Aristotelian categories, Judah ha-Levi's attack on philosophy as religiously bankrupt, and Moses Maimonides' epoch-making synthesis of Judaism and medieval Aristotelianism fixed philosophic inquiry as an enduring subject on the agenda of rabbinic concerns. A new class of philosophers that emerged in the 13th century and sponsored the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew and of Hebrew and Arabic literature into Latin brought Jews and their thought into the mainstream of Western philosophy and gained for them the position of middlemen of culture between East and West.

The salient trends of Sefardic Judaism did not imply relegation of the rabbinic class to a second place. Rather they shaped a fresh approach to rabbinic texts that paralleled in many respects those adopted in biblical exegesis. Strict adherence to consistency, systematization, and philological exactitude yielded new codes that often diverged from gaonic judgments. A digest of Talmudic law by Isaac Alfasi placed the Sefardic rabbinate on a self-reliant footing and epitomized its ideal of getting at the essentials of Talmudic law by sidestepping contingent discussions. In this area, too, it was Moses Maimonides who through his code of Jewish law, Mishne Torah, brought the Sefardic principles of comprehensiveness, lucidity, and logical arrangement to their apex. Written in Mishnaic Hebrew, the work remains to this day the only comprehensive treatment of all of Jewish law, including those fields that are not applicable in the Diaspora (agriculture, purity, sacrifices, Temple procedure).

With Maimonides, however, the pure Sefardic tradition came to an end, for the Almohad (Berber Muslim reformers) invasion of Spain in 1147-48 wiped out the Jewish communities of Andalusia and drove thousands either to northern Spain and Provence or, as in the case of Maimonides' family, to North Africa and Egypt. Sefardic Jewry suddenly encountered a discrete, mature, Jewish culture that for centuries had been developing independently and along quite different lines.

iii) Ashkenazic developments.

The spokesmen of Ashkenazic Jewry, into whose communities the Sefardim had been thrust by political events, regarded their own heritage and the Christian world in which they lived from a perspective shaped exclusively by rabbinic categories. From the world of the Talmud and Midrash they drew their school texts and the values that determined their judgments. Sensing no intellectual challenge in Christian faith, which they regarded with thinly concealed contempt, they constituted for the most part a merchant class that lived in urban centres under the protection of ecclesiastical and temporal rulers but under their own complex of laws and institutions. Except for mercantile relations, Christian society was closed to them, thanks largely to age-old ecclesiastical prohibitions forbidding all social intercourse with them. With the Arab conquest and the rise of the Carolingians (the 8th-10th-century dynasty that ruled France and Germany), the 12-decade interlude of suppression by the Visigoths (589-711) came to an end, and the Roman precedent of toleration and autonomy again became the rule. Merchants and rabbis moved from Italy to France and the Rhineland and infused new energies into the Jewish communities there. A native religious leadership began to emerge at the very time that Andalusian Jewry was entering its Golden Age. The bloody upheavals of the First Crusade (1096-99) in the communities of the Rhineland, although unleashing a tide of hatred, periodic violence, and progressive restrictions on Jewish activities, struck Jewish communities that had attained sufficient resilience to reestablish their communal institutions shortly afterward and continue the cultivation of their deeply ingrained traditions.

By 1150 Ashkenazic Jewry had generated a culture pattern of its own with an indigenous literature that ranged from the popular homily to the esoteric tract on the nature of the divine glory. Study of the Bible and Talmud was oriented toward a mystical pietism in which prayer and contemplation of the secrets embedded in the liturgy were to lead to religious experience. Significantly, the fathers of the Ashkenazic tradition were remembered as liturgical poets and initiates into divine mysteries, and the early codes of the Franco-German schools were heavily weighted with discussions of liturgical usage. After the Second Crusade (1147-49), the German Jewish mystics (also called Hasidim, or pietists) placed heavy emphasis on the merits of asceticism, martyrdom and lifelong disciplines of penitence, thus adapting to Jewish idiom the features of saintliness celebrated in the universe of discourse of which they were a part. For the masses of Jews the cultural fare consisted principally of biblical tales and instruction, as interpreted by rabbinic Midrash, the lives of scholars and saints, and liturgical poetry reaffirming the election of Israel and faith in messianic redemption. The chief vehicle of popular instruction consisted of anthologies from the Rabbinic writings and commentaries on Scripture, of which the most popular was that of Rabbi Solomon ben Issac of Troyes, known as Rashi, the acronym formed from the initials of his name in Hebrew. For the more advanced student, Rashi composed a succinct commentary on the Talmud that, unmatched for compact thoroughness and lucidity, achieved an authority approaching that of the text itself. (see also Index: Hasidism)

As living sources of law and values, the Bible and Talmud had an impact that was apparent in communal decision and in the bearing of the leadership at home, in the marketplace, and in the synagogue. Taking their cue from Talmudic precedent and from Christian ecclesiastical procedures of their own times, the Ashkenazic rabbis occasionally gathered in regional synods to enact legislation on problems of a general nature for which there was no adequate precedent in the literature. Among the most enduring of these measures were the prohibition of bigamy and arbitrary divorce and severe economic penalties for abandonment of wives. Of far more immediate concern to the average Jew were the circumvention of Talmudic prohibitions against usury, relaxation of prohibitions regarding traffic with Gentiles in wines, and adoption of severe disciplinary measures, such as excommunication, against informers or those appealing, in cases involving Jews, to the Gentile authorities.

A new religious trend began in Provence (a province of southeastern France) in the 13th century with the introduction into the Talmudic academies of a novel form of mystical study known as Kabbala (literally, "tradition"), which soon spread to northern Spain. Expressing Gnostic-type doctrines in rabbinic guise, the devotees of Kabbala devised an esoteric vocabulary that reinterpreted the Bible and rabbinic law as allegories of the various modes in which God is manifested in a spiritual universe, access to which was reserved for initiates. The most renowned literary product of this new circle was the Zohar("The Book of Splendour"), a vast mystical commentary on the Pentateuch by Moses de León (c. 1275), which with later additions became the Bible of Jewish mystics everywhere. Although some of the theological notions of the Kabbalists deviated from basic postulates of Jewish monotheism, the insistence of the mystics on unflagging ritual orthodoxy and on a nominal acceptance of the biblical text as divine revelation helped them avert the suspicions aroused by Jewish Aristotelians and Averroists (followers of the 12th-century Arabic Aristotelian philosopher Averroës) and, in time, even won for them the status of a rabbinic elite. Indeed, some of the mystics lent their support to the antiphilosophic campaign that began in Montpellier, in southern France, c. 1200 and condemned the study of philosophy as generating skepticism, latitudinarianism, and disrespect for traditional literature. (For a fuller discussion of Kabbala see below, Jewish mysticism .)

iv) Conflicts, disasters, and new movements.

Important historical sites of Hellenistic and medieval Judaism.

Basically, the conflict between "fundamentalist" and philosopher in Provence and northern Spain represented a clash between two mature Jewish subcultures of diverse geographic origins, the Sefardic and Ashkenazic, each of which had in the course of centuries developed different esoteric doctrines to transcend the legalistic formalism and confining dogmas of normative Judaism. Both forms of speculation sought salvation for exceptional individuals through knowledge and thus provided an immediate substitute for messianic deliverance from exile and servitude. Each group charged the other with distortion of tradition, and each issued apologias (defenses or justifications) and excommunications characteristic of medieval doctrinal controversy. While the rifts within communities attained bitter proportions, the common threat posed by ecclesiastical attacks on the Talmud in public disputations and by the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306 prevented open rupture or resolution of the conflict. Ever since that time, two strands of orthodoxy representing the two forms of medieval metaphysical speculation have lived side by side in an uneasy truce.

Most rabbinic circles of the 14th and 15th centuries displayed a progressive dogmatism and insistence on uniformity of practice. The great legal code of Jacob ben Asher of Toledo, Arba'a turim (c. 1335; "Four Rows"), which sought to level differences in usage between Ashkenazim and Sefardim, bespoke the dominant trend of the rabbinate. The increasing hardening of ideological lines, however, did not eliminate independent thinking. Gersonides (Levi ben Gershom) gave Jewish Aristotelianism a new and comprehensive formulation, while Isaac Albalag propounded an Averroist (rationalistic) interpretation of the Bible predicated on a theory of double truth (of reason and revelation). In Muslim areas, the Maimonidean regimen of philosophic contemplation was extended by Maimonides' son Abraham to a quest for pietist ecstasy that betrayed many features of Sufism (Islamic mysticism).

Anti-Jewish riots and massacres of 1391 and a wave of apostasy in the wake of the disputation of Tortosa (1411-14)--which ended with a papal bull forbidding Talmud study, compelling attendance at Christian sermons, and other onerous measures--struck catastrophic blows in the Spanish communities and fed the anti-intellectualism of the rabbinate. Hasdai Crescas, while conceding the philosophic untenability of traditional belief in freedom of the will, launched a scathing attack on Aristotelian approaches to religion, and his disciple Joseph Albo issued a compendium on dogma that reaffirmed the traditional postulates of divine creation, revelation, and retribution as axioms of Judaism. But these reassertions of traditional faith could not overcome the ideological and social fragmentation that had split the Spanish communities into congealed strata that were often in open conflict with each other. Widespread marranism (ostensible conversion to Christianity) polarized the community and left deposits of bitterness that extended to those returning to the fold. The expulsions from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497 and 1506) dealt the final blow and drove the escaping leadership into intensified pursuits of mystical escape from, and rationalization of, the endless calamities that befell their flocks. In Italy and the Ottoman Empire (Asia Minor, northeastern Africa, and southeastern Europe), the two principal centres of refuge for the exiles of the Iberian Peninsula, legalistic Kabbalism, which insisted on strict observance of the law as precondition of mystical practice and study, became the dominant spirit of a rabbinic leadership that in the face of terribly adverse circumstances continued to produce works of encyclopaedic proportions and staggering erudition in every field of Jewish learning. (see also Index: Kabbala)

Inspired by the Jewish tradition that the messianic era--when the messiah would come to bring in the rule of God--would be preceded by horrendous catastrophes, a group of single-minded rabbis established a community in Zefat (Safed), Palestine, where in anticipation of the new dawn all of life was to be conducted on principles of saintliness and mystical contemplation. Under the leadership of one Jacob Berab, the ancient practice of ordination was reinstituted in 1538 to form the nucleus of a revived Sanhedrin so as to administer ritual procedures requiring ordained authorities. While the effort failed because of rabbinic opposition, it reflected a widespread temper and further fanned messianic hopes sparked shortly before by the campaigns of tragic consequences by David Reubeni and Solomon Molkho in Italy, which ended in their being burned at the stake by the Christian authorities. In Zefat itself Kabbalism soon entered a new phase under the inspiration of Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital, who confided to their disciples that the calamities of Israel were but a mirror of the captivity into which many sparks of the Godhead itself had fallen. Liturgical innovations and a novel mystical theology were formulated to redeem the imprisoned elements of divinity and thus restore creation to the harmony intended for it (see also below, Jewish mysticism ).

That the Almighty himself was not quite omnipotent, at least with respect to the fate of his chosen people, was cautiously hinted in a Hebrew work of history (1550) by Solomon ibn Verga, who saw the Jewish problem as a sociopolitical one to which theological answers were futile. Such guarded rationalism was entertained by a number of courageous thinkers in 16th-century Italy, where, despite the policy of ghettoization (the segregation of the Jewish community in a restricted quarter) begun by Venice in 1516 and soon extended to all major Italian cities, the spirit of the Renaissance and the passion for historical criticism had captivated many Jews. Catholic scholars and prelates occasionally employed rabbis to instruct them in the Hebrew language and in the secrets of the Kabbala, which some Christians believed actually verified the postulates of their own faith. Contacts with Christian scholars in turn introduced Jews like Azariah dei Rossi, whose Meor 'enayim ("Enlightenment of the Eyes") inaugurated critical textual study of rabbinical texts, to new bodies of literature that had been lost to the Jewish community, such as the works of Philo and Josephus (see above Hellenistic Judaism [4th century BCE- 2nd century CE] ).

Such phenomena, however, were decidedly in the minority and contrary to the dominant trend. Dogmatic Kabbalism spread progressively and finally came to social expression in 1666 with the widespread acceptance of the views of the pseudo-messiah Shabbetai Tzevi (Sabbatai Zevi). Most of European and Ottoman Jewry was swept into a hysterical pitch in the belief that the end was now finally at hand. When the pseudo-messiah converted to Islam after being apprehended by the Ottoman government, mass despondency took the form of crypto-Shabbetaianism in which the apostasy of the messiah was explained as a form of voluntary crucifixion for the sake of the Jews. A witch-hunt on the part of traditionalists to uncover the cells of heresy unsettled Jewish communities everywhere by an emphasis on greater rigidity than before.

The following century (to c. 1750) was the darkest in the history of rabbinic Judaism. Scholarship reached an ebb of quality and popular religion a mechanical state such as Jews had never before experienced. The massacres and impoverishment of Polish Jewry after 1648 brought a pall over the growing eastern European centres of Jewish life. Antinomian eruptions of extreme Shabbetaians under the leadership of the self-proclaimed messiah and later Catholic convert Jacob Frank (1726-91) alarmed Gentile authorities almost as much as they did Jews. But the fossilization referred to above was only apparent. Beneath the surface many were restlessly searching for new avenues of faith, and the 18th century saw fresh responses that set the history of the Jews and of Judaism on new directions and spelled the beginnings of a new era. (G.D.C.)


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