Rabbinic Spiritual Capital: A Review of ‘Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity’

Oppenheimer volumeBenjamin Isaac and Yuval Shahar (eds.), Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012).

This volume is a collection of seventeen articles presented at a 2009 conference held at Tel Aviv University in honor of Aharon Oppenheimer on the occasion of his retirement. Oppenheimer is known to scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity thanks to his work on a vast range of topics, many of which are represented by the articles in this book. From a personal point of view, the book that inspired me most remains Oppenheimer’s first – The ‘Am ha-Aretz published in 1977. In that work, Oppenheimer analyzed the references to amei ha-aretz (“people of the land”) in rabbinic literature, and through this illuminated some interesting aspects of the evolution of rabbinic Judaism. Although the domain of talmudic studies has enjoyed many methodological developments in the thirty-six years that followed the publication of the book, and some of Oppenheimer’s conclusions with regard to the amei ha-aretz were refined or even criticized since, this work still constitutes an inspiring investigation of the beginning of the rabbinic movement on the historical, social and ideological levels. The image of the early rabbis (or of the proto-rabbinic associations) that emerges from the book is that of a group situated in the ideological and religious space that lies between the radical Essenes on the one hand, and the rest of the people on the other. What is at stake, according to Oppenheimer’s analysis, is mainly the strict observation of purity laws. The proto-rabbinic associations (ḥavurot) observed these laws vigorously, and it is precisely this observation that put them in a perpetual state of conflict with the Jewish laymen – the people of the land.

The analysis proposed by Oppenheimer in his important book sheds light on an important fact that can explain the subsequent success of the rabbinic movement in the religious and national spheres. Namely, it is a movement that insists on the possibility to live a life of holiness inside the ordinary social world. The many references to amei ha-aretz prove that there were early (or proto-) rabbinic figures who shared a will to lead a life of purity inside the world. To speak in “monastic” terms, they thought that they could practice holiness inside the city and did not feel the same obligation – as at least some Essenes and later Christian monks did – to retire to the desert where conflict with laymen could be avoided or at least reduced. I do not wish to offer here a summery of Oppenheimer’s first book, but rather to emphasize this important point since I feel that it was not dealt with directly in the years following the work’s publication. Interestingly enough, even though this point is not addressed specifically by any of the articles in the festschrift, many of them deal with subjects and questions related to it.

This is clear already in the first article by Albert Baumgarten entitled “The ‘Outreach’ Campaign of the Ancient Pharisees: There is no such thing as Free Lunch”. In it, Baumgarten cross-reads references to Pharisees from both rabbinic sources and the New Testament (mainly Luke). The article contains some insightful methodological remarks about the way to read these sources – heavily charged with theological significance – without engaging in the theological debates in which they are usually read. Thus, Luke’s passages about the encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees are used by Baumgarten as a testimony of the expectations that people (mainly Jews and early Christians) had from the Pharisees. This helps him to claim that the Pharisees “outreached” to other Jews, for example by inviting them over as guests. This is how they strove to achieve public support and power, a complicated task since they had no official credentials as did, for example, the priests. But how exactly did this method of “outreach” convince the other Jews (might we call them “the people of the land”?) to become supporters of the Pharisees? Was it simply the “free lunch” they offered fellow Jews that convinced the latter to join their ranks? Baumgarten does not seem to offer a satisfying answer to this question but I think that if we take into consideration the point raised above we can see why some Jews would be attracted to the Pharisee way of life.  It provided ordinary Jews who did not belong to the priestly aristocracy with the possibility to live a meaningful and holy life.

In the article “Dancing, Clapping, Mediating: Jewish and Christian Observance of the Sabbath in Pseudo-Ignatius,” Shaye Cohen deals with Christian attitudes to the Jewish Shabbat. He shows that at least in the late third and fourth century, the spiritual/carnal dichotomy developed by Paul to distinguish between Jews and Christians was applied in some important Christian texts to the Shabbat. The argument went as follows: whereas Jews celebrate the holy day in a carnal way – by dancing, clapping and eating – the Christians celebrate it spiritually, as a preparation to the day of the Lord, by meditating on the natural law (that is the law with which the world was created). Cohen’s points out an interesting parallel between this Christian critique and some rabbinic teachings that are severe with regard to the carnal way non-rabbinic Jews celebrate the holy day. Indeed, if we take the early rabbis to be a spiritual and intellectual elite (and not necessarily a political one), we can understand why they criticized this kind of “barbaric” behavior. More generally, I think this helps us detect a certain similarity between the project of some rabbis and that of some Christians. To some extent both groups saw a contradiction between holiness and carnal practices. And both used rhetoric to manage and contain the Dionysian inclinations of their groups.

Vered Noam’s article, “Another Look at the Rabbinic Conception of Gentiles from the Perspective of Impurity Law,” which is a revised version of a Hebrew article from 2010, shows the modalities in which rabbinic law sought to establish the separation between Jews and Gentiles with regard to questions of purity. Two main issues were at stake – the possibility of gentiles transmiting impurity, and the question of whether the corpse of a gentile is impure like the one of a Jew. Noam employs the nature/culture distinction when she claims that one of the reasons that a gentile cannot transmit impurity is that as a gentile, the rabbis locate him on the side of nature. Hence in Tosefta Parah 12:11 the gentile is put in the same category as an animal and a stone basin. Although Noam seems to focus more on the ethnical dimension of the rabbinic will to distinguish between Jews and gentiles, it is hard to ignore that the content given by (some) rabbis to the Jew/gentile distinction is spiritual – the Jew is considered more remote from nature, more advanced culturally than the gentile. To this we should add the known fact that the rabbis almost never use the Hebrew term “יהודי” (Jew) to refer to what Noam translated here by this term, but rather “Israel” or “member of the covenant”. The last two terms are more spiritually marked than the more ethnic term “Jew” (or Judean). We therefore find here another expression of the spiritual aspect of rabbinic activity and discourse.

No book dealing with antique and late-antique Judaism published today can ignore the question of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity, and this book is no exception. What I found interesting is that some of the articles, as those of Noam and Cohen mentioned above, suggest that even after the establishment of the social, theological and political frontier between the two “religions” many elements continued to be shared by both Jews and Christian authors. Thus, Tessa Rajak’s convincing article, “Reflections on Jewish Resistance and the Discourse of Martyrdom” studies the ways in which this particular form of resistance traveled from Jewish to Christian literatures (and societies) and back, while keeping the same basic feature as the ultimate proof of one’s allegiance to the Divine Law. Another fascinating article is “Captives and Redeeming Captives: the Law and the Community”, by Youval Rotman. Through a study of laws and stories concerning the problem of redeeming captives in Jewish and Christian sources, Rotman shows how Christians and Jews developed their notions of solidarity in response to transformations in their political status (e.g. the Christianization of the Empire for the Christians and the loss of a political center Jews). In both cases we see the evolution of a special kind of solidarity – a religious one – which plays an important role in the formation and cohesion of the religious community. Both religions replace the function of the state – a process which of course gives radically different results in the case of Christianity on the one hand and rabbinic Judaism on the other.

When read in light of Oppenheimer’s first book, the articles mentioned here support the idea that rabbinic activity was not only ritual, legal or political but also spiritual, and has to be understood in these terms. The rabbis promoted their own version of spiritualty, and that was one of their sources of empowerment. Theirs was certainly different than the spirituality promoted by many Christian authors. The main difference was probably related to the rabbinic affirmation of life inside the world. Nevertheless, the rabbinic “worldly” way of life was still spiritual. In fact, it is precisely this dimension of the rabbinic movement that allowed it to survive and occupy a place in the social world of the Jews of its time. Moreover, it is this dimension that charged rabbinic literature with the power to define and to organize the Jewish world in the centuries following the talmudic period. Many scholars of ancient Judaism (among which most of those who participated in this volume), who focus mainly on the political and social dimension of the rabbinic movement, seem to miss this point and to forget that at least in the late antique context, spiritual capital was easily translated into political and social capital. The fact that the rabbis offered some Jews the possibility to lead a spiritual existence was probably one of the elements that allowed them to obtain at least some sort of political power (as limited as it was) inside the Jewish society of their time.

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One response to “Rabbinic Spiritual Capital: A Review of ‘Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity’

  1. A great title and excellent review. Thanks, too, for the
    introduction to Oppenheimer and his book on the am ha’aretz. I’ve
    been looking for something like that.

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