Leviticus Rabbah and Israels National Crisis

Israel remains Israel, the Jewish people, after the flesh, because Israel today continues the family begun by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the other tribal founders, and bears the heritage bequeathed by them. That conviction they were Israel never required articulation. The contrary possibility fell wholly outside of sages' (and all Jews') imagination. To state matters negatively, the people could no more conceive that they were not the daughters and sons of their fathers and mothers than that they were not one large family, that is, the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: Israel after the flesh. That is what "after the flesh" meant. The powerful stress on the enduring merit of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the social theory that treated Israel as one large extended family, the actual children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—these metaphors for the fleshly continuity surely met head-on the contrary position framed by Paul and restated by Christian theologians from his time onward. In this respect, while Aphrahat did not deny the Israel-ness of Israel, the Jewish people, he did underline the futility of enduring as Israel. Maintaining that Israel would see no future salvation amounted to declaring that Israel, the Jewish people, pursued no worthwhile purpose in continuing to endure. Still, the argument is direct and concrete: "Who is Israel? Who enjoys salvation? To sages, as we shall see, the nations of the world serve God's purpose in ruling Israel, just as the prophets had said, and Israel, for its part, looks forward to a certain salvation.

The position of the framers of Leviticus Rabbah emerges in both positive and negative formulations. On the positive side, Israel, the Jewish people, the people of whom Scriptures spoke and to whom, today, sages now speak, is God's first love. That position presents no surprises and could have been stated with equal relevance in any circumstances. We in no way can imagine that the authors of Leviticus Rabbah stress the points that they do because Christians have called them into question. When we survey the verses important to Aph-rahat's case and ask what, in the counterpart writings of sages in all of late antiquity, people say about those same verses, we find remarkably little attention to the florilegium of proof-texts adduced by Aphrahat (see Neusner 1971, 150-95). While the argument over who is Israel did not take shape on the foundation of a shared program of verses, on which each party entered its position, the issue was one and the same. And the occasion—the political crisis of the fourth century—faced both parties.

Sages delivered a message particular to their system. The political context imparted to that message urgency for Israel beyond their small circle. As to confronting the other side, no sage would concede what to us is self-evident. This was the urgency of the issue. For the definition of what was at issue derived from the common argument of the age: Who is the Messiah? Christ or someone else? Here too, while the argument between Christian theologians and Judaic sages on the present status of Israel, the Jewish people, went for ward on the same basic issues, it ran along parallel lines. Lines of argument never intersected at all, just as, in our review of sage's doctrine of the Messiah, we could not find a point of intersection with the Christian position on the Christhood of Jesus. The issue in both topics, however, is the same, even though the exposition of arguments on one side's proposition in no way intersected with the other side's.

When Aphrahat denied that God loves Israel any more, and contemporary sages affirmed that God yet loves Israel and always will, we come to a clear-cut exchange of views on a common topic. Parallel to Aphrahat's sustained demonstrations on a given theme, the framers of Leviticus Rabbah laid forth thematic exercises, each one serving in a cumulative way to make a given point on a single theme. To describe the sages' position, therefore, we do well to follow their ideas in their own chosen medium of expression. I can find no more suitable way of recapitulating their reply to the question, Who is Israel? than by a brief survey of one of the sustained essays they present on the subject in Leviticus Rabbah.3 We proceed to the unfolding, in Leviticus Rabbah Parashah Two, of the theme: Israel is precious. At Lev. R. II:III.2.B, we find an invocation of the genealogical justification for the election of Israel: "He said to him, 'Ephraim, head of the tribe, head of the session, one who is beautiful and exalted above all of my sons will be called by your name: [Samuel, the son of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham,] the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite' [1 Sam. 1:1]: 'Jerobaom son of Nabat, an Ephraimite' [1 Sam. 11:26], 'And David was an Ephraimite, of Bethlehem in Judah"' (1 Sam. 17:12). Since Ephraim, that is Israel, had been exiled, the deeper message cannot escape our attention. Whatever happens, God loves Ephrain. However Israel suffers, God's love endures, and God cares. In context, that message brings powerful reassurance. Facing a Rome gone Christian, sages had to state the obvious, which no longer seemed self-evident at all. What follows spells out this very point: God is especially concerned with Israel.

C. "So the Holy One, blessed be he, makes mention of the merit of the fathers and alongside he makes mention of the merit of the land: 'Then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, [and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham,] and I will remember the land" (Lev. 26:42).

Then has the merit of the patriarchs and matriarchs exhausted itself? That question demands a response, and, at XXXVI:VI.Iff., we find the one that people must have hoped to hear:

J. R. Yudan bar Hanan in the name of R. Berekiah said, "If you see that the merit of the patriarchs is slipping away, and the merit of the ma

3. The complete texts are in the Appendix to this chapter.

triarchs is trembling, then go and cleave to the performance of deeds of loving kindness.

K. "That is in line with the following verse of Scripture: 'For the mountains will melt (YMWSW), and the hills will tremble, [but my love will not depart from you]' [Is. 54:10]. L. " 'Mountains' refer to the patriarchs, and 'hills' to the matriarchs. M. "Henceforward: 'But my love will not (YMWS) depart from you'" (Is. 54:10).

N. Said R. Aha, "The merit of the patriarchs endures forever. Forever do people call it to mind, saying, 'For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant he made with your fathers'" (Deut. 4:31).

The theme of the patriarchs, occuring at Lev. 26:42, accounts for the inclusion of this elegant exercise.

Sages recognized in the world only one counterpart to Israel, and that was Rome. Rome's history formed the counterweight to Israel's. So Rome as a social entity weighed in the balance against Israel. That is why we return to the corollary question: who is Rome? For we can know who is Israel only if we can also explain who is Rome. And, I should maintain, explaining who is Rome takes on urgency at the moment when Rome presents to Israel problems of an unprecedented character. This matter belongs in any picture of who is Israel. Sages' doctrine of Rome forms the counterpart to Christian theologians' theory on who is Israel. Just as Aphrahat explains who are the Christians and also who is Israel today, so sages in Leviticus Rabbah develop an important theory on who is Rome. They too propose to account for the way things are, and that means they have to explain who is this counterpart to Israel. And sages' theory does respond directly to the question raised by the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire. For, as we shall see, the characterization of Rome in Leviticus Rabbah bears the burden of their judgment on the definition of the Christian people, as much as the sages' characterization of Rome in Genesis Rabbah expressed their judgment of the place of Rome in the history of Israel.

To understand that position on the character of Rome, we have first of all to see that it constitutes a radical shift in the characterization of Rome in the unfolding canon of the sages' Judaism. Rome in the prior writings, the Mishnah (ca. a.d. 200) and the Tosefta (ca. a.d. 300-400), stood for a particular place. We begin, once more, with the view of the Mishnah. Had matters remained much the same from the earlier writings, in the late second century, to the later ones, in the fourth and fifth centuries, we could not maintain that what is said in the fourth-century documents testifies in particular to intellectual events of the fourth century. We should have to hold that, overall, the doctrine was set and endured in its original version. What happened later on would then have no bearing upon the doctrine at hand, and my claim of a confrontation on a vivid issue would not find validation. But the doctrine of Rome does shift from the Mishnah to the fourth-century sages' writings, Leviticus Rabbah, Genesis Rabbah, and the Talmud of the Land of Israel. That fact proves the consequence, in the interpretation of ideas held in the fourth century, of the venue of documents in that time.

In chapter 2 we saw the adumbration of the position that, in Leviticus Rabbah, would come to remarkably rich expression. Rome now stood for much more than merely a place among other places. Rome took up a position in the unfolding of the empires—Babylonia, Media, Greece, then Rome. Still more important, Rome is the penultimate empire on earth. Israel will constitute the ultimate one. That message, which puts the shifts in world history in a pattern and places at the apex of the shift Israel itself, directly and precisely takes up the issue made urgent just now: the advent of the Christian emperors. Why do I maintain, as I do, that in the characterization of Rome as the fourth and penultimate empire/animal, sages address issues of their own day? Because Rome, among the successive empires, bears special traits, most of which derive from the distinctively Christian character of Rome. Let me spell this out.

We start with the symbolization of Rome in the books that reached closure before the conversion of Constantine—the Mishnah, Pirqd Avot, and the Tosefta, and only then we turn to Leviticus Rabbah (and, for yet another exercise in symbolization of Christian Rome, Genesis Rabbah). If we ask the Mishnah, ca. a.d. 200, its chief view of the world beyond, it answers with a simple principle: the framers of the document insist that the world beyond was essentially undifferentiated. The important fact is that Rome was in no way singled out; it formed part of an undifferentiated world, not a way-station on the road to Israel's redemption. Rome, to the authors of the Mishnah, proved no more, and no less, important than any other place in that undifferentiated world; so far as the epochs of human history were concerned, these emerged solely from within Israel, and, in particular, from the history of Israel's cult, as M. Zeb. 14:4-9 lays matters out in terms of the cult's location, and M. R.H. 4:1-4 in terms of the before and after of the destruction. The undifferentiation of the outside world may be conveyed in a simple fact. In the Mishnah's law the entire earth outside of the Land of Israel was held to suffer from contamination by corpses. Hence the earth was unclean with a severe mode of uncleanness, inaccessible to the holy and life-sustaining processes of the cult. If an Israelite artist were asked to paint a wall-portrait of the world beyond the Land, he would paint the entire wall white, the color of death. The outside world, in the imagination of the Mishnah's law, was the realm of death. Among corpses, how are we to make distinctions? We turn then to how the Mishnah and the tractate Abot treat Rome, both directly and in the symbolic form of Esau and Edom. Since the system treats all gentiles as essentially the same, Rome, for its part, will not present a theme of special interest. If my description of the Mishnah's basic mode of differentiation among outsiders proves sound, then Rome should not vastly differ from other outsiders.

As a matter of fact, if we turn to H. Y. Kasovsky (1956, vols. 1, 2, 4) and look for Edom, Esau, Ishmael, and Rome, we come away disappointed. "Edom" and "Esau" in the sense of Rome do not occur. "Edom," stands for the Edomites of biblical times (M. Yeb. 8:3) and the territory of Edom (M. Ket. 5:8). "Ishmael," who like Edom later stands for Rome, supplies the name of a sage, nothing more. As to Rome itself, the picture is not notably different. There is a "Roman hyssop," (M. Par. 11:7, M. Neg. 14:6), and Rome occurs as a place-name (M. A.Z. 4:7). Otherwise I do not see a single passage indicated by Kasovsky in which Rome serves as a topic of interest, and, it goes without saying, in no place does "Rome" stand for an age in human history, let alone the counterpart to and opposite of Israel. Rome is part of the undifferentiated other, the outside world of death beyond. That fact takes on considerable meaning when we turn to the later fourth- and fifth-century compilations of scriptural exegeses. But first, we turn to the Mish-nah's closest companion, the Tosefta.

In the Tosefta, a document containing systematic and extensive supplements to the sayings of the Mishnah, we find ourselves entirely within the Mishnah's circle of meanings and values. When, therefore, we ask how the Tosefta's authors incorporate and treat apocalyptic verses of Scripture, as they do, we find that they reduce to astonishingly trivial and local dimensions materials bearing for others world-historical meaning—including symbols later invoked by sages themselves to express the movement and meaning of history. No nation, including Rome, plays a role in the Tosefta's interpretation of biblical passages presenting historical apocalypse, as we now see in the Tosefta's treatment of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel. That fact matters, because in Leviticus Rabbah the resort to animals to symbolize empires and so express an apocalyptic view of history does center on the identification of the animals of Scripture with the great pagan empires, including Rome. But here we find that history happens in what takes place in the sages' debates—there alone!

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