By Chaim Kline, January 6, 2024
When I was recently on an academic study tour to Florence, Italy I had the privilege of spending a number of hours in the Uffizi gallery and library.
Later that night when thinking back on the 100’s of Madonna and child I had seen I imagined the life of a Jew living in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries surrounded by the images of the dominate cultures beliefs and besought by some of its adherents to follow their practice and adopt their belief.
Since the 10th century Jews in Christian Europe predominately lived in mercantile towns and dwelt in small clusters usually near the town center or near the main cathedral…. They variously materially and intellectually flourished and suffered death and expulsion.
Reflecting on this historical backdrop I began to think about community, memory, practice, and belief.
What was it like to be a Jew in a hostile environment… how does one retain their identity …
And how much more so when the Judaism of the Mishna, Talmud and codes were non-existent.
(I read a number of articles after which I saw that I was no match for the question and so turned to a different tack.)
Most of us will find the phrase that the generation of the Exodus had fallen to the 49th level of Tumah, familiar. The specific source is quite late found – in the Zohar Yitro 31:1
Tumah is usually translated as impurity or contamination – it may here also be understood to be degradation and assimilation.
The people lived in exile for some 210 years in Egypt under the reigns of various Pharaonic dynasties, with a tradition of a singular patriarchal family history Abraham – Isaac and Jacob – passed down orally through the structure and memory of the clans.
Orality is a powerful and effective mechanism to transmit knowledge over the generations as long as there is a structure in place – a locus-or a generative group of teachers, priests and elders, male and female who exist in an unbroken chain transmitting the inherited heritage, knowledge and understanding from one generation to the next.
Once disrupted through war, famine, disease and assimilation, the oral knowledge is lost or at the very least diluted.
In the Mekhilta – the rabbinic midrash to Exodus along with the Exodus Rabbah, there are a numerous passages referring to the unworthiness of the people for redemption … complaining that they were idolators, or that they simple lacked “merit”.
16th century commentator says Eliyahu Levita, concludes that the people retained their Names, dress, and language.
But the earlier rabbinic texts most often reference the book of Ezekial, 20:8
“They rebelled against Me and did not want to obey Me. None of them threw away the detestable things they saw, and they did not abandon the idols of Egypt.
And other commentators note that the people were no longer living separately in Goshen but amidst the Egyptians
(I recommend reading the whole chapter of Ezekial 20 for a different picture of the people than we get from the Exodus story.)
We have no information as to what the children of Israel
(sic Jacob) believed and practiced throughout the period of the exile.
When the angel calls out to Moses at the burning bush he says…
I am the God (elohai) of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 3:6,
and then when Moshe asks …. What is your name? what shall I say unto them?” 3:
I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. 3:14
The LORD (yhvh) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt: 3:15
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty’—but I did not reveal my name, Yahweh, to them. (6:2-3)
I am the LORD (yhvh) and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 6: 7 I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.
Hearing this one might ask to whom the people might have directed their prayers during these two hundred and ten years of exile….
Did they offer sacrifices in Egypt and to whom?
What did it mean to be told you were from the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
We know the ultimate purpose of the ten plagues and witnessing the death of the Egyptian army at the red sea was to convince the people that there is a God of Israel who would protect them and wanted them to be his people.
With the public empirical revelation on mount Sinai – the people perceived God’s presence – and received an oral teaching –
(This event distinguishes us from the other two major Western religions in that the text recounts that “we, all the people” experienced a public empirical revelation, whereas Jesus revealed himself to his disciples, and Mohammed had his revelation alone in the desert.)
At the beginning of Pirke Avot and then expanded on by the Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishna Torah …after the revelation … Moses came down the mountain and dictated the text to Joshua who transmitted it to the elders and that they went into the camp and every individual was instructed in the laws and even wrote their own text … that being the text of the ten statements …
We remember from the yearly cycle of Haftaroth – that after Joshua leads the people across the Jordan – they eventually settle in the land –
(I recommend that you read Joshua chapter 24 for a recapitulation of the Exodus and the nature of the people as they cross the Jordan river.)
The tent of meeting, (the mishkan) was set up first in Gilgal and then moved to Shiloh where it remained for centuries – the story that will most bring this to mind is when Hannah comes to the tent and prayed for a child and Eli the priest thought she was drunk .. only to then bless her and she gives birth to Samuel.
Even though the tent and the priestly line of Aaron were in Shiloh the land was filled with local alters on high places (mountain tops) … and the people did not necessarily pray to “the one god” nor do we have any record of their daily practice.
At Solomon’s dedication of the Temple the cloud descended so that no one could stay inside – demonstrating God’s existence and approval of the sanctuary, it is also noted in the book of Kings that, “There was nothing in the ark except the two stone tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites after they came out of Egypt. 1 Kings 8-9
How did the people express their relationship to God through actions?
We might like to assume that they participated in thrice yearly pilgrimages, but this would be a misnomer…
Within one generation after the lands conquered by David -greater Israel- and presided over by Solomon, the kingdom was divided, the north comprised of (10 tribes) built cultic centers at Beth El and Dan, and worshiped the golden calf in the sanctuaries, and in the South (2 tribes, Judah and Benjamin) the people were not necessarily dedicated to the worship of the Yahweh – the most high.
The Northern life is illustrated in the Elijah story we read each year of his pouring water on his wooden pyre and after the priests of Baal fail to start their fire, God ignites Elijah’s and impassioned, he kills all of the other “false” priests of Baal.
Within100 years the Assyrian’s conquered the northern kingdom and resettle the tribes into the eastern portions of their empire, where they were lost to history, (a pseudonym for assimilation.)
In Judea after the destruction of Northern kingdom the Solomonic temple in Jerusalem had Asherah, holy trees growing inside its courts, along with other foreign cultic objects – temple prostitutes (whatever this may mean) and under Manasseh even Moloch worship.
Some 300 years after Solomon, during a renovation of the Temple the high priest brings a scroll to the king, Josiah. This is the first mention we have of an extended text of the law.
(It is worth reading the account in Kings 22-23 of just how comprehensive the Josiane reforms were.)
But for my narrative the following is the most important part
The King issued a command to all the people: “Observe the Passover of the Lord, your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant…No Passover such as this had been observed during the period when the judges, judged Israel, or during the entire period of the kings of Israel or the kings of Judah.”
It is also not without some profound reflection that we recognize that Josiah’s sons immediately reverted to the practices of their forefathers and did not maintain the reforms institutionalized by their father …
(Shortly after this Jeremiah tells us of the complete fall from grace and we learn of the destruction of the temple and the beginning of the Babylonian exile— he went to Egypt and not with the others to Babylon)
(60 years after the destruction of the first temple and exile, Cyrus granted a portion of the community the right to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple re- establish their hegemony and worship.)
Ezra returned from Babylon 100 years after the destruction with a scroll – a written text that present day scholars argue — contained no less than the book of Deuteronomy with the historical accounts found in Judges, Kings, and Chronicles ….
We read in Ezra & Nehemiah that upon their arrival they moved to dissolved mixed marriages, effectively separating the priestly and royal families who first returned from Babylon, 40 years before them, from the people who had remained in the land including the Samaritans, among others and from their cultic practices.
Ezra did a revolutionary thing — he read aloud from the scroll the law … from dawn until midday.
Nehemiah tells us that when the people heard about Sukkot they had no memory of it … and that when celebrated it was the first time since the time of Joshua.
So from the beginning of the settlement of the land with Joshua, until the 5th century some 800+/- years, no Passover or Succoth celebrations …. let alone mention of Shavout or the High holidays. The prophets do speak about Shabbat and its lack of observance.
From this brief if not overly long recitation, we can conclude that the people of Israel – the Hebrews, the Jewish people – existed for more than 1000 years on the basis of clan structures, oral traditions, sacrificial acts, personal prayer and later with a priestly class and a monarchy that received tithes i.e. collected taxes from the people.
Our religion would face two more catastrophic events during the second temple period. The first being Persian control where the temple is desecrated, the Torah burned, the religion outlawed -kashrut, shabbat- leading to the Maccabean revolt, and then 200 years later the Roman destruction of the 2nd temple which revolutionized Judaism.
In retrospect it is clear that both of these larger events would have led to the end of our story had not there developed “practice” – communal actions that sustained the people on a daily, weekly and yearly basis, affectively building a community that could survive in the face of loss, destruction and exile.
The legalistic Judaism that we know today, or what we might have been taught as a historical constant, is of course all post- destruction, post Mishnaic and primarily evolved in the world of the diaspora where Jews strove to co-exist within their host countries and religious groups.
The evolution of the oral law – Mishna, Talmud, Halacha, anchored in the Torah, transmitted orally, written in manuscript and then with the advent of printing disseminated Rabbinic teachings and authority has allowed us to live for some 2000 years in the diaspora without disappearing.
We who are living as Jews today in America with all the pressures of modernity, with devolving practice, assimilation, and intermarriage –and now with even the existence of the State of Israel questioned– on large feel threatened, and often at wits end on how to help perpetuate our faith, our people and our ideals.
That our forebearers did not disappear in antiquity like so many other nations is something miraculous. That our religion has continued to evolve, and even with the internal struggles over the meaning of Torah M’Sinai, who is a Jew, egalitarianism, and inclusiveness, I believe that the prophetic beliefs that we should strive to be an Or l’goyim “a light unto the nations”, and Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, together with the combination of the Mitzvah Bein Adam l’Chavero, and Bein Adam l’Makom, has continued to animate and distinguish us from the other Western faiths. (You may feel free to argue this with me.)
May we be blessed that the future generations will find solace, community and strength in the continued practice of our faith and teachings.
In closing I would like to recite the Shema.
Shema Yisroel Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad