The Joy of Sects

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In an effort to get smarter and diversify my knowledge, I’ve recently decided to try and read Wikipedia’s daily featured article.

By diversify I mean, de-Judaize. That is, force myself to read about intellectual areas unrelated to Judaism. So just my luck, then, that yesterday, when I decided to initiate this ritual, Wikipedia featured an article on an ancient Jewish-Christian sect, the Ebionites:

The Ebionites (from Hebrew; ×?ביוני×?, Evyonim, “the Poor Ones”) were an early Christian sect that lived in and around the land of Israel in the 1st to the 5th century AD. It is assumed that they took their name from several religious texts, including a verse in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. The Ebionites are believed to have been Jewish disciples of Jesus who dispossessed themselves of all worldly goods and lived in religious communes. (MORE)

While this article wasn’t the math, science, or Nigerian literature study-piece I was hoping for, it was particularly interesting in light of a talk I heard my cousin, Rabbi Yehuda Septimus, give this past weekend.

Yehuda spoke about the famous Talmudic text that suggests that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred (Sin’at hinam). Yehuda made the connection between this “hatred” and the extreme sectarianism that existed during the late years of the Temple.

But he asked an interesting question: The disputes between the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc, wasn’t baseless at all. These were profound theological/ideological disputes, important to the administration of the Temple and the future of Judaism.

So perhaps it’s no surprise then that an earlier version of the Talmudic text, the version found in the Tosefta, just says that the Temple was destroyed because of hatred not baseless hatred. So why was this text adjusted?

Yehuda suggested one possibility: The Talmudic tradition was likely composed several hundred years after the destruction of the Temple. With this many centuries passed, most debates that seem crucial at the time will seem somewhat petty. The practical teaching? Some debates are fundamental and critical, but we can always use a dose of long-term perspective. We should ask ourselves: Will these communal disagreements seem petty in the future? And if so, how can they be tempered today?

Posted on July 10, 2007

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