“Been There… Done That”
From History to Concept:
Choice Creates Continuity
By Professor Stephen Katz
Professor Stephen Katz shows how essential paradigm shifts in Jewish history have evolved from conscious choices in response to historical events.
Why the 6th?
Why begin with the 6th century? As Professor Katz noted, most of the norms in self definition and practice that define Judaism today emerge in this late biblical period, brought about, for the most part, by the Babylonian exile.
Most of our “master story” or narrative that defines us as a people is “pre-history” in the conventional sense. There is no corroborating evidence for Biblical characters before David, but we do know that David was an actual historical figure. After Solomon was “punished” for allowing idolatry in his court, the short-lived united kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital was split into two. In 721 B.C.E. Assyria, a kingdom existing on the land of present day Iraq, overcame the northern kingdom, dispersing the ten tribes living there into exile and historical obscurity. This was the expected fate of a people conquered. They were sent out among others and lost their cultural identity which had been essentially integrated with the land and its local gods.
Two hundred years later, Babylonia (now the dominant entity in the area of the fertile crescent) conquered the southern kingdom of Judea. This time things were different. The people from the southern kingdom chose to keep an identity throughout their exile and history, becoming known as Jews, or people from the kingdom of Judea. This unique move set the tone for the adaptability or capacity to reframe their theology which has made Jewish survival possible.
The key questions, of course, are what happened differently in the sixth century? What were the strategies that were developed for survival? And what can we learn from those who developed them?
A Country in the Middle Acts Unpredictably
Key Concepts Reframed
Katz painted a picture of the Jewish kingdoms surrounded on all sides by potential enemies– Assyria/Babylonia to the east, Egypt to the west.. Both Assyria and Babylonia utilized a conquering strategy of dispersing the population, particularly the leadership. Normally, as it had in the eighth century, the strategy worked when the disbursed populations assimilated. Yet the leadership of 6th century Judea, in particular the prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah (Jeremiah had originally counseled the Judean king to make a deal with Babylonia, but was not heeded), made a conscious decision to remain as an identifiable community in exile.
In order to do this, they reframed key segments of the Israelite identity. No longer could they remain a people who had based their religious and national existence on a life centered around the temple and sacrificial ritual. They had to substitute new institutions and norms of behavior that would enable an exiled community to hold on to its identity. In addition to new customs, they needed to conceive of their world in different ways.
The first concept they reframed was that of God, now emphasizing the notion of a universal God of all nations. This was essential as it allowed the Jewish people to create a “portable” religion that could be practiced anywhere and turned what could be a symbol of weakness (one god conquered by another) into a symbol of strength (a God who transcends locality and is available anywhere).
They also reframed the cause and effect question of why the kingdom was conquered. Traditionally, in the Bible, Israel is punished due to various transgressions of God’s commandments. The ultimate gift is the Land; the ultimate failure would come with behavior so bad it would lead to the Land being taken away.
In the emerging model, however, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the leadership portion of the population did not indicate the end of the Story, but became only one aspect of a larger history which would continue to evolve.
The Covenant continued: God and the people of Israel were still together. Now instead of the explanation being that the God of Israel failed to protect the people Israel — leading to both the people and the knowledge of their God being wiped out– the story became that the people failed in their contract with God. They had to face punishment in their relationship with God, but Jewish existence could continue in a new circumstance. The sustaining concept that developed was to see our defeat by others in the context of our own theological categories.
One significant effect of seeing the exile in the context of the Story was the need to transform leadership. There were no longer kings and priests who could function as hereditary established heads of the community. Ezekiel and Jeremiah were prophets, not traditional religious or political leaders such as a priest or even a king. The period of the exile and later the second temple period became a time of struggle to find a model of leadership that would fit with the new circumstances. The “contenders” included prophets, priests, scribes, even the Hasmonean kings. Eventually, the idea of the rabbi would be developed. This meant that the dual leadership of the priests and the political kings would continue as a rabbinic/lay leader sharing of authority. Since the early 19th century C.E. and into our own time, lay leadership has become dominant.
Another key question was how the people would relate to God. In the land of Israel, the main way to relate to God was through sacrifice and the priestly rituals. Now, suddenly, this was no longer possible. The Day of Atonement, as it was known, could not continue without the Temple for it as here that the high priest entered the holy of holies and here that he offered the scapegoat that was taken off into the wilderness. We do, of course, recall this process today on Yom Kippur during the Torah reading and in the Avodah service in the afternoon.
It is in this period that we begin to see, for the first, time, a more fluid approach to prayer, liturgy and other relational elements based on substitution and replacement for the Temple service.
The concepts of communal prayer and synagogue activity were radical notions that were able to emerge from this flexibility. In the Bible, we have individual prayers, such as Hannah’s prayer for a child. This prayer is read every year as the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Complementarily, organized, communal prayer almost certainly began in Babylonia. Although, Katz noted, there is no historical evidence for a synagogue in Babylonia, he suggested that the origin of the synagogue concept was there. After all — the community needed to gather and, remarkably, people began to develop a service and communal prayer without priests, the sacrificial cult, or other previously necessary support systems.
This communal prayer reflected both changes in the story and in the way people related to it. For example, in the Keddusha prayer, which comes from prophetic writing of this time, the phrase “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts” is a graphic representation of God. The larger message of this was that now, even outside the land, even in a degraded state in galut — exile, we could actually imagine ourselves close to God.
Katz also noted that a custom developed over time of jumping while saying “Kodosh”. This comes from an attempt to imitate the imagined motions of the angels, jumping up and down because angels weren’t supposed to have joints. It became a powerful way of restoring dignity at a time when the central symbol of dignity, the Temple, had been destroyed.
Noting Aitz Hayim’s recently evolved tzitzit ritual in which we hold the fringes of each others tallitot which symbolically links the people of Israel together with gathering the fringes, Katz pointed out that wrestling with liturgical forms is not new. In fact, he speculated, if people from the Temple days would look, even at the Judaism of the middle ages, let alone modern Judaism, they’d say this isn’t Judaism — real Judaism is blood sacrifice. Our tzitzit ritual, and even looking for new forms such as “Rising in Remembrance” is, therefore, part of a long tradition.
Another reframe involved the calendar. The Jewish calendar was originally tied to agriculture in the land. Most of the celebrations were events of agricultural significance. How do you continue to celebrate these events in a land whose soil is not believed to have the same sanctity as the land of Israel’s?
The answer is that you take the biblical events and give them additional meanings or emphasize certain aspects of earlier meanings and deemphasize other aspects of the earlier meaning. This occurs to some degree with all the biblical festivals.
Most crucially, the most important day in the calendar became the Sabbath. The days of the week were named in Hebrew by number in their relation to Shabbat.
Here is a holiday that is not tied to geography but that is, instead, tied to history — the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt. In the Shabbat kiddush to this day, these two themes are recalled. With the Sabbath, you are not only freed from geography, you celebrate a universal event and you do it every week.
Eventually, keeping the Sabbath became the minimum standard of Judaic practice. You could not trust a witness, for example, who was not Shomer Shabbas.
Another key change became the emphasis on the family as the primary provider of stability and as a frame of reference. When religion and politics are one, as they were in the time of the Temple on the Land, the family isn’t as important. Now it would be. This led to a special emphasis on laws of sexual purity and family life.
So now we have an entity — Judaism — that is not tied to the land, the temple, the sacrifices or the cult and is, instead, to a considerable degree a portable and non-geographic religious formula. And, in the biblical books of the time, we see a new emphasis on ways of being Jewish outside the cultish activity.
Prophets Emphasize New Formula
We see the emphasis on this new formula in the prophets who continually emphasize the centrality of keeping the Sabbath. We read the 5th century Book of Daniel, who offended the Persian court by not eating the food; the first emphasis on keeping kosher. Keeping kosher became more important as customs were emphasized that foster the ability to keep a separate identity while living among people with different customs.
Outside the land, intermarriage also became an issue. And, as Katz pointed out, we have had a complex relationship with the idea of intermarriage for thousands of years. In fact, two books of the bible, Song of Songs and the Book of Ruth actually celebrate intermarriage. Song of Songs, traditionally ascribed to Solomon, is written from a non-Israelite woman’s perspective. It was only later that the rabbis de-eroticized it, and made it a mystical poem between man and God. In the Book of Ruth, a foreign woman, from a group Israelites weren’t supposed to mix with was able to succeed with Boaz and from their union came David and the house of the Messiah.
A major issue with which people continue to wrestle is the idea of God’s justice — the concept of theodicy . The old formula was: if you don’t keep the laws, you go into exile. Once in exile, the formula had to be adjusted; otherwise there was no future. And so we have Jeremiah, who in chapter 31 talked of redemption, tsheuvah, and how the people will be redeemed and come back to the land.
Previously, the idea of punishment had extended down the generations. Now there was the idea that people are individuals, not just links in the genealogical chain. Thus freed of the consequences brought about by the actions of ancestors, there is the possibility of forgiveness and hope. There is the possibility of a future.
We see another shift in Ezekiel. Ezekiel ‘s extraordinary visions also emphasize community, repentance and redemption, ways of dealing with theodicy that previously were unexpected.
Another example comes from the later chapters of Isaiah. thought to be written by a second prophet sometimes known as Deutero-Isaiah. Here we see the idea of Israel being a light unto the nations. This shows that exile is not a negative thing but a positive; that exile is not punishment but a mission.
In Deutero-Isaiah, the exile parallels the view that leaving the Garden of Eden is the beginning of the human story of human choice, human responsibility, human development.
In the book of Job, set later, there is a shift in perception of how the world exists — how God and man interact. Job is in a situation that, at first, appears to follow the model of classic theology described in Deuteronomy: You get punished because you must have been wicked.
Then, in chapter 38, something extraordinary happens: God enters the conversation and responds directly. The word used for God in the telling of this story is the four letter tetragrammaton, which has been associated by Biblical scholars with God’s mercy, rather than Elohim, which tends to indicate God as judge.
Yet even in communication, Job receives a complex message. After several chapters of God lashing out at Job, telling Job, in effect, “you can’t know anything”; Job’s and God’s relationship shifts. Job has a religious experience of God, not just propositional knowledge about God; out of which Job comes to know that God is the creator of nature and history. After this experience, Job’s attitude changes so that, even if he can’t explain what he sought to explain, he can take comfort in the fact that there is someone in, as Katz says, the cockpit of spaceship earth.
As Katz notes, the essence of a religious experience, of an encounter with God, is a confirmation of the meaningfulness of life even as that meaningfulness is beyond our individual capacities to understand or create. It is also an experience of connection to something outside yourself, of dialogue.
Job learns that individuals can’t speak for God; but that God governs, and even if we cannot fully fathom His ways, religious experience permits us a different sort of explanation. And in that experience we can see not only a god of judgment but a God of mercy.
The key shift in Jewish history is that now the individual’s religious experience is an important part of the dominant paradigm.