The expression ‘Beyond the Pale’ comes from the old English use of the word ‘pale’ for a fence post to mark a border. Anything lying outside of that fence was literally ‘beyond the pale’. Historically, there have been regions referred to as a ‘pale’, which indicates an enclosed area either within or outside of some kingdom or country. As a figure of speech, of course, it refers to an idea or a body of ideas, or an individual or a group, which lies beyond the acceptable limits that have been set. A person, for instance, can be so far removed from certain social boundaries as to be ‘beyond the pale’. Alternatively, a suggestion or theory might be so whacked out as to be labeled ‘beyond the pale’, meaning that it’s not up for discussion.
What is ‘beyond the pale’ for our topic? Obviously, this survey is limited to Jewish sources. There are plenty of non-Jewish answers to the question(s) we are examining, but they lay so clearly outside of our limits as to be beyond ‘beyond the pale’. They simply cannot be brought up even to be rejected. This idiom, for our purposes has to be limited to sources that somehow lie within the overall picture of Judaism, but are no longer acceptable by common convention. What should be included in this highly exclusive category?
Judaism has a long history of schismatic movements. A few rebellions are recorded in the Chumash itself, including one that challenged the direct authority of Moshe as a leader (Korach and his followers). The Tanakh has a few more rebellions, the most famous being the split off of the ten northern tribes from the southern tribes located in the Judean region. Within the same area of those northern tribes, and possibly the remnant of those very tribes, lie the people commonly known as the Samaritans. Depending on which tradition one believes, they are either the direct descendants of some of those northern tribes (the Samaritan tradition) or the descendants of eastern (non-Israelite) tribes who were brought in to populate the region vacated by the exile of the northern tribes. Although the Samaritans fit squarely into the ‘beyond the pale’ category, since we were unable to find any ancient Samaritan answers to our question(s), we cannot include them in this section.
But there are others. We could include the Sadducees of second temple times. They followed only the Written Law and rejected the Oral Law of the Pharisees/Rabbis. They very likely had their own religious doctrines and may have dealt with the meaning/purpose of life question. They were around for at least 200 years and may have survived for centuries after the cataclysm of destruction and exile following the defeat in the Jewish War around 70 CE. They are a classic example of ‘beyond the pale’ in that Judaism took the path of the Pharisees to the exclusion of all others, leaving those others in this hazy netherworld of Jewish but non-Jewish. Like the Samaritans, we have no definitive Sadducee sources to work with.
The Sadducees had contemporaries who have since joined them in the beyond. One group of relatively recent fame is the Essenes, the supposed authors of the Dead Sea scrolls. While attributing the famous scrolls to this one group is highly debatable (it is probably the biggest controversy surrounding the extremely controversial scrolls), the existence of the Essenes is accepted beyond almost all doubt. They were a group that rejected the temple hierarchy and its legitimacy as the central authority of Judaism, but not necessarily the Oral Law. Their doctrines may have been enshrined in the so-called sectarian texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are scrolls that depict a group of late-second temple Jews who clearly practiced a form of Judaism that differed radically from what became normative Judaism during the period predating the Mishna. They are known for their monastic communities, extremely strict interpretation of the law, and a high degree of messianic prophesying.
We may not know exactly who the Essenes were and whether or not they were the authors of those sectarian texts, but we do have the texts themselves. They represent the single window we have into actual practice of Jewish sects during second temple times. They were written about the same time as the Apocrypha texts. The Apocrypha, although also long considered outside the standard rabbinic framework, were always known in Jewish circles and thus always hovered on the edge of respectability. Not so with these sectarian texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For the most part they came out of nowhere. Consequently, despite their firm roots in second temple society, nobody in the Jewish world is prepared to let them into the mainstream. Whatever we find in there may be fascinating, but it will remain ‘beyond the pale’. They are the first entry in this category of dubious honor.
Who’s next? The next group produced a entire religion that is so famous that it makes whatever isn’t ‘beyond the pale’ seem insignificant in comparison. This was a group that began towards the end of the Dead Sea Scrolls period and may have sprung from Essene soil. They were another late-second temple sect which challenged the authority of the powers that be. In its time it was a small movement, probably not numbering more than a few thousand. It had a single leader, who died at a young age after a career of only a few years. By all rights the movement should have died with him. But it didn’t. This man, of course, was Jesus, and the group was the Jewish Christians.
Some might object to the Christians being considered beyond the pale of Judaism. These are two separate religions that have little or nothing to do with each other. They are no longer closely related enough for either to be beyond the others pale. Such an objection, while possibly valid now, was not valid when Jesus was alive. He was a practicing Jew, and the religion that he preached was firmly within the domain of Judaism. The Christian elements (actual son of God, trinity, salvation through his death) did not become part of Christianity until a version of it was preached to Gentiles. Some of those very non-Jewish notions may have had their origins in Judaism. However, when Judaism defines the acceptable limits, Jewish Christianity is the epitome of ‘beyond the pale’. We have plenty to examine in early Jewish Christianity, so it is the second entry.
Our third entry is hardly known in Jewish circles, even among those who are quite knowledgeable in Torah. He was a contemporary of Jesus and may have had a significant influence in the theological development of Christianity. His name was Philo, and he lived in the large and prosperous Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. He is never quoted in the Mishna, Talmud, or Midrash. Consequently, he is not really a part of Jewish tradition, though his influence may have been considerably greater than Jewish history has credited him. But fate has decreed Philo to be outside of Judaism as it has come down to us, so he forever remains ‘beyond the pale’. His numerous works, however, have survived the ravages of history and can be found complete in translation (he wrote in Greek). They deal primarily with allegorical interpretation of the Bible, but branch off into philosophical issues of every color and flavor. So we have a wealth of material to select from in searching for answers.
There is another group that must be mentioned in this discussion. These are the Karaites – the ancient group of Talmud-rejecting, Bible-revering Jews who never quite managed to die out. They first emerged in the Islamic empire in what is now Iraq around the year 700. It is possible that they were really around long before that. They may even be a remnant of the Sadducees, who possibly went underground and were resurrected or reincarnated as Karaites. Though the Karaites differed in many ways from the Sadducees, their core doctrine of rejection of the Oral Law may reveal a direct lineage.
They were big at one time, possibly comprising up to one quarter of the Jewish population. But the rabbinates, as they call their rabbinic rivals, ran them off the Jewish court and drove them into obscurity. Since medieval times they have been dwindling in size. Today they number about 30,000, almost all of whom live in cities in modern Israel. Perhaps it is ironic that a group whose core belief rests on rejection of the liberalizing trend of rabbinic Judaism should find a home in a state founded by the non-religious heirs of those rabbinic Jews. But such is the fate of those who live ‘beyond the pale’.
Modern times have seen so many splinter groups that there no longer exists a pale that everything else is beyond. Judaism expanded in so many directions, each considering the others to be unacceptable, that they all have to make accommodations for the others. Atheists, pantheists, Hasidim, Reformists, Zionists, Haredi, and many others, make up the melange of modern Judaism. Where is the mainstream? Each of the above, and a few others, has a legitimate claim to be holding down the fort while the others are outlanders who are rocking the boat. Perhaps there is an ironic advantage to the current situation. Perhaps when things were more fixed and the limits more strongly defined, Judaism froze a little in its tracks and ossified. That may have helped for a time but it also limited growth and creativity. Judaism, for better or worse, has always been a religion that thrives on its ability to remain faithful to core beliefs while always looking for new ways to express those beliefs. In spite of a huge demand for conformity, it has nevertheless maintained an undercurrent of searching. Without that undercurrent, how would we have so many answers to the big questions?
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