The Early Rabbinic Era
What is God?
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The destruction of the second temple was one of the most cataclysmic events in Jewish history, possibly the most important since the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah. It effectively sealed the close of Biblical Judaism, being as the temple and the priesthood were really the last vestiges of the Biblical period. However, instead of collapsing and fading away into history, Judaism actually emerged from that cataclysm stronger than it was before. The temple, to some degree was holding Judaism back. It was a throwback to ancient religious practices that were rapidly losing their relevance and significance. Greek philosophy and the search for new pathways to wisdom had infected the Jewish spirit, and the Jews were thirsty for more than the wines and oils of the temple.
Nevertheless, the destruction of the temple forced whatever changes were happening slowly and gradually, to shift into high gear immediately. The temple was gone. There were attempts to rebuild it 50 and 70 years later, but they came to nothing and only further cemented the doom of the ancient system. The decades from the destruction of the temple (around the year 70) to the completion of the Mishna (around the year 200), were the period of rebuilding Judaism without its central shrine. Judaism could easily have caved inwards following the collapse of the old system. It could have faded away into history, like so many other ancient cults and religions. But it didn’t, and the reason for this is that it had new paths to pave.
We shall call this period from 70 to 200 the early rabbinic period. In fact, the early rabbinic period started several decades earlier. Hillel and Shammai, who were really the first of the long line of influential intellectual, spiritual, and political leaders and teachers known as Tana’im, or teachers, lived as early as 100 years before the destruction and exile. Several famous rabbis, including the largely anonymous but formative schools of Hillel and Shammai, thrived during that century. But like the students of those schools, the names and the teachings of that century are more like background scenery on the tapestry of Jewish history.
So what we are calling the early rabbinic period was a little over half of the period of the Tana’im. It’s not very long in the 3,000 year history of the Jews, but a tremendous amount happened during that time. Important as the Mishna was, it was just one particular avenue of Jewish development. There were others that may not have been as important for rabbinic law, but were equally significant in other ways.
What else was going on in the Jewish world? First of all, there was the Diaspora. This was the spread of Jews and Jewish culture around the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Jewish communities sprang up in many major cities from the borders of India to Morocco. Most were tiny and took centuries to grow to any significant size, while others, like Rome and Aleppo, were large almost immediately. However, in spite of the rapid growth of the Diaspora, almost all important intellectual and spiritual development took place in and around Israel. During this entire period Israel remained the center. The great rabbinic academies of Bavel would not really attain maturity until after the Mishna was completed. Nothing of significance emerged from Alexandria after Philo. The European communities were too small and undeveloped to produce anything lasting. The action was all in Israel.
In the rabbinic world much was happening. Beginning with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a student of the school of Hillel who made the fateful choice of abandoning Jerusalem to the Romans in order to facilitate the continuance of Torah study and teaching, we first encounter the long chain of rabbis who lived under the scrutiny of history. The final generation of this line included the schools that produced the summarizing rabbinic work of the entire period, the Mishna.
The Mishna is the capstone of the Oral Law, the result of civil and ritual legislation that went back to the time of Ezra. It was redacted under the guidance of the supreme rabbinic teacher of the final generation, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (the last word is his title, meaning ‘the president’ of the rabbinic court). The Mishna ends the first major period of rabbinic leadership which lasted about 200 years, from Hillel to Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi. It shall be the first of our sources for post-temple images of God.
Paralleling the growth of rabbinic Judaism was a smaller but much faster growing rival right within its midst. This was the daughter religion of Christianity. The origins of Christianity as a separate religion begin, of course, with Jesus in the middle of the final century of the temple. With his death around the year 30, the new religion was born. Prior to his death, his teaching may have spelled nothing more than a little moralistic revival within Judaism. The belief system that stemmed from the reported miracle of the Resurrection changed all that. This was no longer a young Jewish guy going around the Galilee preaching ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. This was a prophetically destined incarnation of God coming to bring a new beginning to the world.
Christianity developed right in the middle of the final decades of second temple Israel. But its formative documents were likely written outside of Israel. The letters of Paul, a former rabbinic student, deal with the fundamental theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. They were written during his missionary journeys around the eastern Mediterranean. Paul’s message and his mission was not only a break from Judaism. It was also a break from the Jerusalem Church under Peter and James. Paul, even more than Jesus himself, started Christianity.
But there were Christian developments that sprung from sources that were peripheral to mainstream Judaism in Israel. One of these was the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John. Nobody can really be positive who John was and where he lived, but we can be sure of the philosophical foundation of his book. His basic idea about the nature of God’s presence in the world – the key difference between Judaism and Christianity - comes straight out of Philo. This idea, a direct offspring of the Logos, will be our second image of this section.
There was another Logos offspring that entered the post-Temple Jewish world around the same time. This one, however, was thoroughly Jewish and remained a permanent fixture in Jewish theology. It was the translation of the Torah by Onkelos. We have run into Onkelos many times already. His translation has played a crucial role in defining many concepts and words in the Torah. Tradition has him as a student of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. There is no strong reason to doubt this tradition. The translation that we have of Onkelos, which is in the ancient language of Aramaic, may not have been the original. As we shall see, it is possible that the original was done in Greek. Whatever the case, Onkelos introduced many significant ideas into Jewish theology. One of the most important was his almost obsessive need to disassociate God from all notions of physicality. To accomplish this he translates many physical sounding descriptions of God into spiritual metaphors. In this regard, he is the direct successor to Philo and the cousin of John. But unlike John, who allowed the Logos to incarnate into a man, Onkelos vehemently insisted that it remain a ‘word’ or ‘statement’. This will be our third image.
While all this was happening, the Jews in Israel were mourning the destruction of the temple. The desire to rebuild the temple remained alive until the Bar Kochba rebellion around 135. After that failure the Jews underwent a gradual distancing from Jerusalem. At times this was due to banishment by the Romans or the Christians, and at others it was due to other places becoming more important in the Jewish world. Around 30 years after the destruction an obscure text was written that captured the feelings of the average Jew in regards to the spiritual loss that had transpired. It was a late Apocryphal work that is almost never quoted in Jewish circles. It is called the Apocalypse of Ezra because it was set in the time of Ezra. It zeroes in on the theological problems associated with the ruin of the Jewish spiritual center and the specter of long exile under foreign rule. It also gives us a unique snapshot into the image of God in the immediate post-destruction world. This image will portray God through the eyes of catastrophe.
Finally, we have the continuing growth of the institution of Jewish prayer. The second temple period saw prayer grow from its very personal and spontaneous Biblical origins to a standardized communal system. The blessings of the Amidah and of various Biblical rituals were composed during second temple times. The rabbis picked up where Ezra and the Pharisees left off. Dozens of blessings were added, for every imaginable event and activity. From birth to marriage to death, from eating and drinking to sleeping and waking, every possible angle of praising and thanking God was included. Songs, such as the Biblical Psalms and possibly the post-Biblical Thanksgiving Hymns found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were added to the daily prayers. Other Biblical passages such as the Ten Commandments or the verses from Nehemiah found their way into Jewish prayer. It was a growing system that could expand in any of several directions.
One of these directions was the composing of original prayers that were not found in the Bible and didn’t fit into the standard format of blessings and Psalms. Among the more famous of these is a prayer known as Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King), that is traditionally attributed to Rabbi Akiva. This puts it in the early years of the 2nd century, right around the same time as Onkelos, the Apocalypse of Ezra and the Gospel of John. This prayer, it turns out, is typical of personal prayer of the period. These prayers addressed God directly but respectfully. They spoke to God as if God were right there in the room with them. This prayer, and a few other examples that fit into the same genre, will be the subject of the final image from this period.
This period is defined by the emergence of the rabbis as the true architects of the post-temple Jewish path. Onkelos made an important contribution, but it wasn’t the law that Jews would take with them into the Diaspora. John laid the foundations for the theology of a rival religion that was completely unacceptable for Jews. The Apocalypse of Ezra and its ideas faded into obscurity. The prayers and the Mishna remained as the bedrock of post-temple Judaism. The stage was set for a profound change in Jewish leadership. The movers and shakers were no longer the prophets, the priests, or the kings. The age of the rabbis had arrived.
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