Lack of 2nd Temple period rabbinic control may have caused assimilation

Linguistic gap prevented rabbis from asserting authority.

second temple model 88 (photo credit: )
second temple model 88
(photo credit: )
A deep linguistic and cultural chasm between the Jewish communities of the West and their brethren in the East led to the almost total assimilation of Western Greek- and Latin-speaking Jews during the last centuries of the Roman Empire, according to a study by Prof. Doron Mendels of the Hebrew University and Dr. Arye Edrei of Tel Aviv University published in the January issue of The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. "We have quite decisively shown that the view that the rabbis [of the Talmud] had authority over the whole Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic period and later is not true," Mendels, an expert on the Hellenistic world and its Jews, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "As of 70 [CE, the year of the destruction of the Second Temple,] onwards, when the rabbis become prominent as the leaders of the Jewish people, we claim that though they were leaders in the East, from Palestine to Babylonia, in the West, they never had any authority," Mendels said. This West comprised "Greek-speaking Egypt, Turkey of today, Greece and the Greek isles, today's Libya, Cyprus, and westward toward Provence and Spain," he said. The article, which was based on collaborative work done by Mendels and Edrei at Hebrew University's Institute for Advanced Studies, cites the language barrier as the chief cause for the divide between the two parts of the Jewish world. According to Mendels, "In the East, they spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, whereas in the West they spoke Greek and Latin. This gap was never bridged by the rabbis. They never translated all the rabbinic [material], which for a long time [remained] oral." The idea that the Mishna remained an oral text for centuries after its codification in the second century is today accepted by researchers, though it is still relatively unknown among the public. According to Prof. Aharon Oppenheimer of Tel Aviv University, there are still some who think that when Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi codified the Mishna, it was also written down. This probably is not true; it was still oral. In the yeshivot in Israel and Babylonia there were people who memorized all or parts of the Mishna, and would declaim it before the Rabbis. It was a profession. Oppenheimer believes that the thesis put forward by Mendels and Edrei makes sense. Given the oral nature of the rabbinic texts, there's a great likelihood that for Jews in Rome, only pieces or fragments arrived, not whole tractates or chapters. "Because of this language gap," continued Mendels, "the two parts of the Jewish Diaspora had different corpora of literary works. The eastern side had the Bible, the midrashim, the Mishna and the Talmud, whereas the western part had the Bible in Greek, and also part of the Apocrypha, the external texts." These Apocrypha, such as the second Book of Maccabees, were excluded from the Jewish canon in the East by the rabbis. Thus, "the Jewish bookshelf was different in the West and the East as a consequence of the language gap," Mendels said. "Even the Haggada of Passover, developed in the second century, wasn't translated into Greek." The consequences for the Jews of the West were enormous. They remained "Biblical Jews," according to Mendels, "adhering only to the halacha [law] of the Torah." Into the vacuum left by the lack of rabbinic oral tradition stepped the Christians. "Paul and other apostles went from place to place and preached to the Jews," Mendels said. For a simple Jew approached in Greek by someone who believed in the Old Testament, "it was quite easy to adhere to a new kind of authority," he said. How many Jews were lost to the Jewish people as a result of the assimilation of the Jews of the Hellenistic and Roman West? "I think we will do injustice to the matter if we give numbers, since, as you know, numbers are difficult," Mendels said. Pressed on the issue, he stated his belief that "a significant part of the Jewish people - I would guess half, or even more - was lost in the West to Christianity or remained Biblical Jews who only surfaced in the ninth century." He theorized that "this is the reason Paul and other apostles went west. They wanted a [Jewish] constituency that spoke Greek." Can an parallels be drawn between the situation of Hellenistic Mediterranean Jewry and the situation in the Jewish world today? All the experts interviewed by the Post thought the situations were too different to compare seriously. "Analogies are dangerous in history," began Oppenheimer, noting, "Already, there are Jews in America claiming they are Babylon, that they're the real Judaism and Israel is the [backwater], as was the position of Babylon during Talmudic times. Everything must be seen according to the circumstances of the period. American Judaism is a solid, diverse Judaism. Anyone who wants can learn the languages" needed to study Jewish texts, he said. According to Mendels, "It's a radically different situation. There is, in a way, a gap at present [between Israeli and American Jews], but many texts are translated." More importantly, "Rabbinic Judaism has authority over all the Jews in the world [today]. I'm not talking about a specific chief rabbi, but Rabbinic Judaism, with its texts and habits and usages and so on, is central to the whole of Judaism. If you talk to religious Jews in America, they all know Hebrew in one way or another. "The gap at that time was dramatic and catastrophic," Mendels continued. "We lost a great deal of the Jewish people because of that. Now it's not a danger. Basically, Rabbinic Judaism, in its various forms, whether Orthodox or Reform, was lacking in the Greek- and Latin-speaking Diaspora." According to Dr. Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee's Contemporary Jewish Life department and an expert on American Jewry and assimilation, the parallel is weak at best. "There's no question we lost the Jewry, but I'm not sure how we lost them," he told the Post. "One of the reasons Christianity was so attractive [in Hellenistic times] was that it seemed to be on the rise, unassociated with Judaism's legacy of historical defeat. One could make the case that it didn't have to do with the absence of written materials." "The primary reasons for assimilation in North America, and I tend to think in other liberal democracies, is less about the availability of materials than it is about the attraction of [the surrounding] society, the paucity of Jewish education and the collapse of the authority of Jewish tradition. Assimilation wasn't a problem in the medieval period, because the power of tradition spoke authoritatively to Jews everywhere, Bayme said.