Join Rabbi Mitch and your CBI friends on three consecutive Tuesdays at noon for a ‘lunch & learn’. Please bring your own vegetarian or kosher lunch, your listening ears and your opinions (don’t be shy!).
The Invention of Judaism
Contending hosts were seen meeting in the skies, arms flashed, and suddenly the temple was illumined with fire from the clouds. Of a sudden the doors of the shrine opened and a superhuman voice cried: “The gods are departing”: at the same moment the mighty stir of their going was heard. Few interpreted these omens as fearful; the majority firmly believed that their ancient priestly writings contained the prophecy that this was the very time when the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judea should possess the world. This mysterious prophecy had in reality pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, as is the way of human ambition, interpreted these great destinies in their own favour, and could not be turned to the truth even by adversity.
-The Histories of Tacitus, c. 105 CE (Loeb Classical Library edition, Vol. III)
About 30 years before our story begins, the world’s most powerful government, the Roman Empire, brutally suppressed a Jewish rebellion which culminated in the greatest trauma ever to have affected the Jewish people, the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash (the Temple) and Jerusalem. The Mediterranean had long been a Roman lake, with Rome the undisputed ruler of all the real estate surrounding it. To the north, Agrippa II has just died. The death of Agrippa, a distant descendant of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers of over a century ago, marks the loss of the last vestige of Roman appointed Jewish rule, placing all of the inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean between Syria and Egypt under the direct control of the Emperor and the Senate. This diverse population comprises rural and city dwellers and many of the cities are dominated by Greeks who regard Jews with distaste and enmity. A rapidly growing heretical sect called “Christianity,” originating in Jerusalem within a small circle of eschatological Jews but overtaken by an astonishing number of non-Jews, has just been recognized as a religion separate and distinct from Judaism through having won an exemption from the fiscus judaicus (special Jew tax) for its adherents. Jews live all over the Roman Empire, including the city of Rome, where we periodically enjoy sympathetic contacts in the upper echelons of power. A small band of Jewish intellectuals, refugees from the destruction of Jerusalem, have established a community dedicated to the study of Jewish law in the backwater town of Yavneh, near Lod (no airport yet). Despite all odds, they managed to reimagine and reconstruct the religion of biblical Israel so that it could survive, even flourish, in the new and radically changed era of Roman antiquity. They were the inventors of Judaism. In this course we will be introduced to the 3 rabbinic sages who proved to be the most important founders of this enterprise.