Just a thought: On the emergence of Judaism

Perhaps a greater understanding of our history of dissent from one another can foster a greater understanding of where we stand today.

A view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
This week, we marked the 1,945th anniversary of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of our sovereignty. What happened that day set into motion a chain of events that has led you to read this article in English instead of the glorious idiom of the Hebrew language.
In fact, almost everything you know and think about Judaism is related to the events of that day 1,945 years ago. Before the destruction of the Temple and our subsequent exile, we were just a small tribe with a peculiar religion, worshiping an invisible God in a small city in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. But our defeat at the hands of the cruel, merciless enemy forced the Hebrew faith to reinvent itself into what we now know as Judaism.
Josephus writes that there were 24 sects of “Judaism” before the Temple’s destruction, but the reality is that we only know of three: the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Pharisees. (It is likely that the 24 Josephus mentions were variations on these three archetypes, but it is also possible that there were others that became lost to history.) The Sadducees were the elite. They represented the wealthier classes. These Jews were mostly priests, and were therefore closely connected to the Temple and the power that the Temple and its treasury provided. As priests, they understood their religion as being Temple- centric, leaving little for the commoners to connect with outside of its rites and rituals.
They rejected the soul’s immortality and the resurrection of the dead, and denied any type of reward or punishment in an afterlife.
This might be okay for the rich, powerful and connected, but didn’t offer much hope to the simple farmer in the Galilee whose land was mortgaged for the next 20 years as he faced another crop failure.
After the Temple’s destruction, the Sadducees no longer had anything on which to base their religion, nor could they provide any real hope against the misery and brutality of life under Roman defeat and occupation. These Jews soon disappeared.
The second group was the Essenes. These were extremely pious and ascetic Jews who saw the corruption of Temple as a natural result of the corruption of all human society. Their life was one of prayer, meditation and multiple daily immersions in the mikve, the ritual bath. They shared communal meals and all of their personal property as part of a collective. They were celibate, and therefore represented the smallest of the three sects. Many believe it was the Essenes who were responsible for collecting the scrolls found in Qumran, known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Practicing a life of celibacy and abstinence from the pleasures of this world might be great for the short term, especially if you believe in the Messiah’s imminent arrival, but it was not a program for long-term survival. They, too, soon disappeared after the Temple’s destruction. There are many scholars who believe that the Essenes were eventually absorbed into Christianity, exporting a lot of the asceticism into the new religion.
The third group was the Pharisees. These were mostly middle- to lower-class Jews.
They believed in an oral law whose job was to serve as the correct interpretation of the often-terse biblical verse. It was the Pharisees who thrived after the Temple’s destruction by reinventing Judaism into the religion we recognize today. They did this by dissociating Judaism from the Temple, but keeping enough of its ritual practices so as not to cause a complete dissonance between the two.
One of the most important ideas of the Pharisees was that of the synagogue. While synagogues were definitely in existence before the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis established the synagogue as the outright alternative to the Temple. By boldly calling it a mikdash me’at, a “mini-Temple,” and declaring that it may be built virtually anywhere, the rabbis created a paradigm of bloodless worship that would become a prototype for the church and mosque. No longer was worship of the deity to be restricted to a set location or space; the infinite God was to be found everywhere.
They also democratized Judaism by removing almost every official priest and Levite role from the synagogue service, leaving just the barest skeleton of the exalted positions these groups held in the Temple. The rabbis allowed any Jew, regardless of pedigree, to lead services, and thus stripped away the roles the priests and Levites held in ancient times.
The Pharisees would morph into the group known today as “the rabbis” and develop Halacha – Jewish law – turning its palaces into a sort of portable homeland into which the Jew could retreat to find strength during the long and bitter exile. The Halacha of the rabbis later became the Mishna and Gemara, forming the Talmud and rabbinic responsa literature. Today we call this rabbinic Judaism.
Those who would use the word “Judaism” alone would be wise to pause and understand what they are really saying. As Jacob Neusner is fond of saying, there is no Judaism per se; what we have are Judaisms, of which “rabbinic Judaism” is the one that survived.
Today, all Jews, regardless of whether they are Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are descended from these Pharisees. What is Reform Judaism if not a reform of rabbinic Judaism? Conservative Judaism sought to conserve rabbinic Judaism from the reformers. Orthodox Judaism offered a more narrow-minded approach to the changes the former were making by offering a traditional approach to rabbinic Judaism. It seems that it is in our very nature as Jews to have different approaches to our faith, and that these arguments have their antecedents in the very birth of Judaism.
Perhaps a greater understanding of our history of dissent from one another can foster a greater understanding of where we stand today, and create dialogues among our fellow Jews that will eventually heal the rifts and bridge the chasms.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.