Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky serves as Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has been featured on Bill Moyers’ Genesis and Christiane Amanpour’s “Back to the Beginning.” The author of ten other books, including Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud, he has been named to “The Forward 50” and repeatedly to the Newsweek/Daily Beast list of “The 50 Most Influential Jews in America.” His latest book is Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture as We Know It. We highly recommend this book, and after reading the except below about the origin of Rabbinic Judaism, you will understand why. Underlines have been added for highlights.
There is a great deal of debate about what Judaism looked like in that post-Temple period of the first centuries of the Common Era, and I vacillate on whether I should even call it Judaism or, perhaps better: Judaisms.
It took quite a few more centuries for Judaism to find a singular expression as “rabbinic Judaism.” In what follows, I speak of Judaism and the Jewish practices of those fellows we call “the rabbis” as though they were one and the same thing. When I refer to Judaism, I am referring to ‘rabbinic Judaism.” This form of Judaism, so overwhelmingly prevalent today, did not become the normative flavor of Judaism until a mere eight hundred or so years ago. I will refer to other forms of Judaism; but the literature of the rabbis and their practices have stuck with us, and that very stickiness, along with the fact that I am a rabbi, leads me to speak of Rabbinic Judaism as “Judaism” in the pages that follow, without further qualification.
Who were those rabbis, and what was their Judaism? When the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood came tumbling to the ground, it could not be put together again. What I have called the Israelite religion of pre-70 CE, when those Temple and cultic institutions still existed, was replaced after 70 by other religious phenomena: what is called today Judaism. It has long been a given that Christianity arose from the Roman Empire, assimilated its culture, and became Western Civilization. In this book I will show that Judaism had a similar arc. When the Israelite Temple cult ended, it was replaced by Judaism — ultimately a religion that was shaped and defined by rabbis, who themselves were comfortable denizens of the Roman world.
Those ancient rabbis are the forebears of the modern rabbis of all varieties and denominations who still lead Jewish institutions to this very day. At the outset, the rabbis confronted the loss of the Jerusalem Temple with determination, originality, courage, and panache. In the face of the loss of the sacrificial cult and exile from Jerusalem, this small group of sages and their disciples in each generation built Judaism — a Roman religion that fit comfortably in the broader culture and so was able to survive for the ages.
The earliest leaders of the “rabbinic” Jewish community are portrayed in later texts as having come to leadership roles while the Second Temple still stood, around the turn of the millennium. Hillel the Elder, his colleague Shammai, and Gamaliel are names we associate with the beginnings of Judaism. Hillel and Shammai are not called rabbis, but each is given the title “elder.” When we refer to Hillel the Elder, it is not because there was some younger guy also named Hillel running around at the same time. “Elder” was Hillel’s title, as it was the title for Shammai and Gamaliel. In the religious community, the title “elder” persists in the church in its Greek usage: presbyter.
When the rabbis look back at Hillel, they note that he was originally a Babylonian. Yet the earliest generations of rabbis lived and taught in Roman Palestine. The rabbinic movement expanded eastward into Iraq, or Jewish Babylonia, only from around 220 CE. I emphasize that the Judaism of the rabbis was a product of the Land of Israel in its beginnings and was only later exported to the Diaspora. When the rabbis themselves narrate their origins, they always recall that Hillel — one of their founding fathers — was Babylonian, as though it were foreordained that rabbinic Judaism would flourish there, too. It didn’t have to be that way, especially since what became a major center of Judaism, Babylonia, flourished under a different political empire and different culture than either the Jerusalem Temple or the earliest rabbis.
I tell you again and again in this book that the rabbis were Greco-Roman Hellenists, I should also disclose that the rabbis of Babylonia certainly inherited aspects of Hellenism from their rabbinic forebears but lived in the Sasanian Empire, where the dominant culture was Zoroastrian. Jews are nothing if not complicated folks.
Yet for all that, from 70 CE to approximately 200 CE, the rabbis remained a fairly small group of men with no more than a dozen or so leaders in any given generation. I like to remind my own rabbinical students that on any given day there are more rabbis in-house at the Jewish Theological Seminary than there were in any given generation of the early centuries of rabbinic Judaism. Each rabbi back then had a circle of disciples, and some of these students traveled from rabbi to rabbi in order to master the oral traditions they transmitted.
Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture as We Know It, by Burton L. Visotzky © 2016; St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY; pp. 8-10.
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