Judaism in the Land of Israel

The documents that record the Judaism we consider, that is, the system of views held at the end of the fourth century, report the opinions of a single, small sector of Israel, the Jewish people, in the Land of Israel. That sector bears the honorific title "rabbi," and falls into the category of sage or clerk: it was the learning of men (no women among them) that qualified them for positions of authority within the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. What sort of government did sages staff? It was an ethnic regime, with some rather limited, on the whole trivial, authority over the Jewish populations in diverse communities. Jews did not live in territorial units, ethnically uniform and distinct from areas inhabited by other, equally distinct groups. Every page of the Talmud of the Land of Israel bespeaks a polyglot and multiform society. Even towns such as Sepphoris and Tiberias, with mainly Jewish populations, are described as sheltering non-Jewish populations, each one with its particular status and rights. What must follow is that the rabbinical courts ruled an ethnic, not a territorial, domain. Cases involving Jews alone would have come to these courts, with other courts doing an equivalent labor for other groups, and provision being made (the Talmud hardly hints at its character) for litigation and determination of other juridical questions between members of different ethnic or other political units. The rabbis' courts formed only one detail within a political system encompassing a great world beyond, and supporting the small world within, the frame of rabbinical authority. But of that larger structure of politics and government the Talmud tells us virtually nothing. We have therefore to conclude that the Talmud's perspective (its "Judaism") is that of a very low level of bureaucracy. In the larger political system, the rabbis' courts constituted a trivial detail. The courts in their hands, powerful though they were in affecting the lives of ordinary Israelites, took up minor matters with which the great powers of government and state—out there, way up and beyond—did not care to deal. Before us, then, is the world of power portrayed by ethnarchic clerks, minor players in the larger scheme of things.

Sages or rabbis are portrayed by the Talmud of the Land of Israel as exercising authority not only over their own circles, people who agreed with them, but over the Jewish community at large. This authority was practical and involved very specific powers. The first and most important of these was the power of a rabbi to sort out and adjudicate rights to property and personal status affecting property. The rabbi is described as able to take chattels or real estate from one party and to give them into the rightful ownership of another party. The second sort of power rabbis are supposed to have wielded was to tell people what to do, or not to do, in matters not involving property rights. A rabbi is presented as able to coerce someone to do what that ordinary Jew might otherwise not wish to do, or to prevent him from doing what he wanted. The first kind of authority may be called judicial, the second moral. But the distinction is ours, not theirs.

We must be struck by the difference in social role and function between the sages of Judaism and the theologians of Christianity. Eusebius was a monk and a scholar; Chrysostom was a preacher and a deacon; Aphrahat was a bishop, in some ways analogous to a rabbi in the higher ranks of the Judaic bureaucracy in that he carried out practical responsibilities of administration. But the sages who speak through our documents—so far as we know about them—both mastered the received tradition and also administered it in the community's government.3 I cannot find instances, in the lives of Eusebius, Chrysostom, and Aphrahat, as these come to us, in which the theologians told people how to sort out practical issues, e.g., of marriage and of property. The Talmud takes for granted that rabbis could define the status of persons in such ways as to affect property and marital rights and standing. It is difficult to imagine a more effective form of social authority—and, in due course,

3. A labor of differentiation among the types of sages portrayed in the literature has yet to tell us how to distinguish one sage from another. All presently come to us within a single uniform paradigm, which requires more nuanced analysis than it has yet received.

Church courts would attain that same authority. But in his time, Chrysostom could only envy the prestige of the rabbinical (or, at least, the Jewish) courts among the common population.

The Talmud of the Land of Israel treats as settled fact a range of precedents, out of which the character of the law is defined. In those precedents, rabbis declare a woman married or free to marry; permit a priest's wife to eat food given as a leave-offering or prohibit her from doing so; give a woman the support of her husband's estate or deprive her of it; give a woman the right to collect a previously contracted marriage settlement or declare she lacks that right. In such ways, as much as in their control of real estate, commercial, and other material and property transactions, the rabbis governed the Jewish community as effective political authorities. Whatever beliefs or values they proposed to instill in the people, or realize in the collective life of the community, they effected not through moral suasion or pretense of magic, but through political power. They could tell people what to do and force them to do it. That is the type of social authority implicit in the Talmud; that is the system of politics attested and assumed in our documents.

When we ask about the ideological validation for the authority at hand, we turn from political questions to religious ones. But the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah are remarkably reticent about the basis for rabbis' power over the Jews' political institutions: who bestowed this legitimacy and supplied the force? To be sure, the systematic provision of biblical proof-texts for Mishnaic laws presents an ample myth for the law. Given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, the Torah, including the Mishnah, is viewed as law and represents the will of Heaven. But with all the faith in the world, on the basis of such an assertion about God's will, the losing party to a litigation over a piece of real estate would surely have surrendered his property to the other side only with the gravest reservations—if at all. He more than likely would have complained to some other authority, if he could. Short of direct divine coercion, upon which a legal system cannot be expected to rely, there had to be more reliable means of making the system work. What these means were, however, the Talmud hardly tells us. So, for the present purpose, we cannot pretend to know. We only know rabbis held that they could run courts and make decisions for Jews who were not rabbis or disciples."

4. What is striking, among other matters on which our document maintains a puzzling silence, is not only the relationship of the rabbinical courts to the larger political structure upon which the actions of those courts had to depend. Equally striking is the relationship of the rabbis as judges and administrators to other Jewish community judges and administrators who may have carried out the same tasks and exercised the same responsibilities in regard to the Jewish nation of the Land of Israel. While, to be sure, unlike the case of Babylonian rabbinism, we hear no complaints about unqualified judges, people executing decisions not based upon sound knowledge of the law, hence, nonrabbinic Jewish judges at work in the Jewish nation, we hardly may take for granted that the Talmud tells us all of the facts about the Jewish political structure of the Land of Israel. So on what basis was the Mishnah adopted as the sole legitimate law of the Jewish nation

We cannot differentiate the rabbi as judge, local authority, and administrator from the rabbi as moral authority and supernatural figure. True, in the world in which the rabbi encompassed all of these roles, we find a measure of specialization and differentiation within other religious-social groups. The same Christian saint who sat on a pillar was not apt, in general, to be the one who wrote theological books, though the scholars aspired to the life of the sty lite and asceticism was a generally held ideal. Jerome worked in a library, not in a cave, though, to be sure, he had once had the ambition to live as a solitary. The bishop who ran affairs of his Christian diocese was unlikely also to write theological works (though some did). True, Augustine was a bishop—but most bishops were not Augustines. Only after death were the persons—bodies and bones—of the great theologians treated as supernatural. In their lives, hermits and stylites tended to monopolize people's hope for holiness incarnate. Accordingly, we should imagine, points of specialization and expert knowledge or ability, also, were differentiated within the rabbinic estate. But our Talmud (all the more so the scriptural-exegetical compilations) does not allow us to recognize this, giving us lawyer-magicians, philosopher-politicians. We meet teachers worried bout controlling the weather and administering healing to the sick, while also telling Mrs. Cohen she may eat her husband's holy rations for breakfast, and Mr. Levi to support his stepmother, Mr. Isaac to hand over his back lot to his neighbor, the rightful owner, and Mr. Jacob to fulfill his contract. The same names appear in every context in which the exercise of authority is at issue. But to make sense of that authority, as I said, we have to sort out its types, attempt to classify each story in which one party told another party what to do and made his instructions stick.

So, in all, the rabbi as clerk and bureaucrat dealt with matters of surpassing triviality, a fair portion of them of no interest to anyone but a rabbi, I should imagine. He might declare which dog a flea might bite. But would the fleas listen to him? Accordingly, as we review the principal expressions, the sages' writings, in which we find voluminous evidence of rabbis' quest for authority over the Jewish nation, turn out to present ambiguities about inconsequen-tialities. On the one side, the rabbi could make some practical decisions. On the other, he competed for authority over Israel with the patriarch and with local village heads. And, in general, no Jew decided much. From the viewpoint of the Roman Empire, moreover, the rabbi was apt to have been one among many sorts of invisible men, self-important nonentities, treating as consequential those things that concerned no one but themselves, doing little, changing nothing. After all, in the very period in which the tales before us were coming to closure and beginning to constitute the documents as we have in its Land (if indeed all law derived from the Mishnah)? And at what time did the Jewish political agency (the court, administration, school), established by the imperial government to take charge of the Jewish nation, hand over authority to a bureaucracy of clerks made up solely of people trained in the Mishnah? These are pressing questions to which we have no answers at all.

them, the power of the Jewish nation to govern itself grew ever less. Even the authority of the patriarch supposedly ended within the very period at hand, leaving only rabbis and their Talmud, legal theory in abundance but legal standing that was slight indeed. So we discern a certain disproportion between the insistence of the Talmud that rabbis really decided things and established important precedents, and the Talmud's context—both the actual condition of Israel, whom rabbis ruled, and the waning authority of the government of Israel, by whom rabbis were employed.

One of the Talmud's principal points of emphasis therefore turns out, upon closer inspection, to address head-on, but in a perverse way, the reality of Israel within the now-Christian Roman Empire. In the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah, we find not the slightest hint that anything noteworthy has happened in the Christian world. The Talmud's puzzling indifference to the stunning, world-historical events of the age, which it never mentions at all, should not deceive us. For silence is also a response. It is not possible to suppose that the Talmud's framers, by the end of the fourth century, in the aftermath of nearly a century of Christian rule and pagan disaster, of Jewish messianic fervor followed by a heart-breaking debacle, had nothing to say. The people who made the Talmud of the Land of Israel and the great compilations of scriptural exegesis could not have failed to realize that things had changed for the worse.

They knew. They cared. They judged. But if so, we can suppose only one of two alternatives. Either the rabbis of the Talmud framed their document in total disregard of the issues of the day, or they composed their principal literary monument in complete encounter with those issues and in serene certainty of their mastery. By putting emphasis on how they decided things, by inserting into the processes of legal theory precedents established in their courts, and by representing the life of Israel in such a way that the government of the nation was shown to be entirely within the hands of the nation's learned, legitimate authorities, the Talmud's sages stated quite clearly what they thought was going on. Israel remained Israel, wholly subject to its own law, entirely in control of its own destiny, fully possessed of its own land. Testimony to and vindication of the eternity of Israel lay in the continuing authority of Israel's sages, fully in control of God's light and law for Israel.

The Talmud of the Land of Israel turns out to lay its principal emphases precisely upon those things that the traits of the age and social setting should have led us to expect. The Talmud's message speaks of how to attain certainty and authority in a time of profound change. The means lie in the person of the Talmudic sage. Salvation consists in becoming like him. The power to change the world, not merely judge or describe it, was the rabbi's. The power of the rabbi extended backward to Moses' Scripture, forward to the Messiah. He was the link, his word the guarantee. The most important fact in the Talmud is its anonymous, monotonous, uniform voice, its "rabbi." The critical actor is the rabbi as authority on earth and intermediary of supernatural power. The rabbi, mediating divine power, yet highly individual, became the center and the focus of the supernatural life of Israel. The rabbi would become Israel's model of sanctification, the Jews' promise of ultimate salvation. That is why from then to nearly now, whatever Judaism there would ever be properly came to be called rabbinic. So in dealing with the viewpoint—the Judaism—of the sages' writings alone, we retrospectively focus upon positions that, for many centuries to come, would define the position of Judaism—whole and complete.

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