Sages' Success in the Initial Encounter
Judaism endured in the West for two reasons. First, Christianity permitted it to endure, and, second, Israel, the Jewish people, wanted it to. The fate of paganism in the fourth century shows the importance of the first of the two factors (Geffcken 1978, 115-222). We see, in particular, that it was not the intellectual power of sages alone that secured the long-term triumph of Judaism. It also was the character of the Christian emperors' policy toward Judaism that afforded to Jews and their religion such toleration as they would enjoy then and thereafter. The religious worship of Judaism never was prohibited. Pagan sacrifice, by contrast, came under interdict in 341. Festivals went on into the fifth century, but the die was cast. When, after 350, Con-stantius won the throne over a contender who had enjoyed pagan support, he closed all the pagan temples in the empire, prohibited access under penalty of death, and tolerated the storming and destruction of the temples. Churches took the place of the pagan temples. That is not to suggest that paganism was extirpated overnight, or that all the laws against it were kept. It is an indication of an ongoing policy. The Christian emperors never instituted a parallel policy toward Judaism and the synagogue. The reason for the limited toleration accorded to Judaism need not detain us, even though, as a political fact, it is the single most important reason for the continued survival of the Jews, therefore also of Judaism, in Western civilization.1
Pagan intellectuals, counterparts to the Judaic sages, responded with profound and systematic answers to Christian doctrine. No one familiar with
1. It suffices to note, following Dr. Rosemary Ruether (letter, June 25, 1986), the following: "This protection of the Jews and Judaism, even if under hostile and punitive laws, flowed from one aspect of that same Christian theology that saw itself as God's elect vis-à-vis a superseded Judaism. Just as the Jews saw Christian Rome as a 'brother' but a discarded brother, so Christianity saw Judaism as brother, but as unbelieving brother. To reconcile the conflict it constructed an eschatology that mandated eventual Jewish conversion and reconciliation to Christianity (on their writings can suppose paganism lacked the power of ideas that was afforded to Israel by the Judaic sages. The contrary was the case. Iamblichus, a principal figure in the first half of the century, accomplished what Geffcken calls "the inner strengthening of paganism." This he did not by a negative statement on Christianity but a positive reassertion of pagan doctrine, in a profoundly philosophical idiom bearing deep overtones of religious feeling. Geffcken cites the following statement, "It is the fulfillment of ineffable rites the fitting accomplishment of which surpasses an intellectual understanding and the power of unspeakable signs which are intelligible to the gods alone that effect theurgic union." Iamblichus inspired Julian, and, for a brief moment, it appeared that paganism would enjoy a renaissance. On intellectual grounds, it might have. But afterward a severe repression set in, and the Christian emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius undertook a systematic counterattack.
The laws came one after the other. In 381 pagans were denied the right to bequeath property; sacrifice was again prohibited; Gratian deprived the temples and cults of their property and subsidies. So the institutions of paganism lost their foundations. And that was a fact of state policy and politics, to which doctrine, on the pagan side, hardly pertained. The upshot, as Geffcken says, was the end of pagan cult: "For without the substructure of religious observance within the framework of the state, there could be no pagan cult, on ancestral worship." True enough, Christian people, led by monks, implemented the laws' spirit through their own actions, destroying temples (as well as synagogues). For their part, pagan intellectuals at the end of the century, typified by Libanius, responded with a program of argument and rhetoric. But the issue was not to be resolved through rhetoric nor was the fate of the temples settled by mobs. It was a political attack that paganism confronted, and, with the throne in Christian hands, the policy of the Church settled matters. Antipagan legislation won the day, to be sure not everywhere and all at once, but ultimately and completely. That fact proves what might have happened to Judaism. But it did not happen, as I said, in part because the Church-state did not choose to extirpate Judaism. The other reason is the intellectual achievements of the Judaic sages.
These require only a rapid reprise. With the triumph of Christianity through Constantine and his successors in the West, Christianity's explicit claims, now validated in world-shaking events of the age, demanded a reply. The sages of the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah provided it. At those very specific points at which the Christian challenge met
Christian terms, of course). This notion that the Jews had a future destiny in God's design for history required the survival of the Jews as a religious community. In Christian eschatology the Jews as a religious group had finally to accept Jesus as the Christ and be included in redemption. In this backhanded way Christianity acknowledged that the Jews were still God's chosen people and could not be simply discarded by God."
head-on Israel's world view, sages' doctrines responded. What did Israel's sages have to present as the Torah's answer to the cross? It was the Torah, with its doctrine of history, Messiah, and Israel. History in the beginning, in Genesis, accounted for the events of the day. The Messiah will be a sage of the Torah. Israel today comprises the family, after the flesh, of the founders of Israel. The Torah therefore served as the encompassing symbol of Israel's salvation. The Torah would be embodied in the person of the Messiah who, of course, would be a rabbi. The Torah confronted the cross, with its doctrine of the triumphant Christ, Messiah and king, ruler now of earth as of heaven. In the formulation of the sages who wrote the fourth- and early fifth-century documents, the Talmud of the Land of Israel and Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah, the Torah thus confronted the challenge of the cross of Christianity as, later on, the Torah, with its ample doctrines of history, Messiah, and Israel, would meet and in Israel in particular overcome the sword and crescent of Islam. Within Israel, the Jewish people, the Torah everywhere triumphed. That is why, when Christianity came to power and commenced to define the civilization of the West, Judaism met and overcame its greatest crisis before modern times. And it held. As a result, Jews remained within the Judaic system of the dual Torah. That is why they continued for the entire history of the West to see the world through the worldview of the dual Torah and to conduct life in accord with the way of life of the Torah as the rabbis explained it. The Judaism of the dual Torah took shape in response to the crisis of Constantine's conversion and came to its systematic literary expression in the writings of the following century, from the Talmud of the Land of Israel, ca. 400, through Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, Pesiqta deRav Kahana, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, and beyond. The Judaism of that time took up the ineluctable and urgent question of salvation as Christianity framed that question. And, for believing Israel, the answer proved self-evidently true, then, and for long centuries afterward.
The consequence was stunning success for that society for which, to begin with, sages, and, in sages' view, God, cared so deeply: eternal Israel after the flesh. For Judaism in the rabbis' statement did endure in the Christian West, imparting to Israel the secure conviction of constituting that Israel after the flesh to which the Torah continued to speak. How do we know sages' Judaism won? Because when, in turn, Islam gained its victory, Christianity throughout the Middle East and North Africa gave way. Christianity endured, to be sure, but not as the religion of the majorities of the Roman Middle East and North Africa, areas that for many centuries prior to Islam had formed the heartland of Christianity. Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christian churches continued under Islamic rule and endure even today. But the Islamic character of the Near and Middle East and North Africa tells the story of what really happened, which was a debacle for Christianity. But sages' Judaism in those same vast territories retained the loyalty and conviction of the people of the Torah. The cross would rule only where the crescent and its sword did not. But the
Torah of Sinai everywhere and always sanctified Israel in time and promised secure salvation for eternity. So Israel believed, and so does faithful Israel, those Jews who also are Judaists, believe today. The entire history of Judaism is contained within these simple propositions.
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