Judaism after the Temple

Coping with destruction and building for the future.

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Passively Awaiting the Redemption

Though we can't pinpoint a specific moment of change, rabbinic thought came to accept the reality of subjugation. The Talmud describes a contract of sorts in which the Jews swear not to return to Israel by force, not to rebel against the nations, and not to extend or prematurely shorten the length of their exile; God then promises to prevent the subjugating nations from overly oppressing the Jews while they live under foreign rule. (Ketubot 110b-111a).

Does the rabbinic acceptance of exile mean that the rabbis of the Talmud abandoned the idea of Israel as the singular spiritual capital? There is no simple answer. Following Bar Kochba's rebellion, yeshivot continued to flourish in both Israel and Babylonia. In fact many talmudic texts describe rabbis traveling back and forth, fueling a friendly rivalry between these two centers of Judaism. While some rabbis in the Talmud extol the value of learning in Israel, and make decrees against those who would leave, Babylonian rabbis place such a premium on their yeshivot that they too forbid their students to leave Babylonia (Ketubot 110b).

An Abiding Love for Israel

Talmudic descriptions of the exceptional nature of the Land of Israel are split as well. The Talmud’s statement that "It is better to live in Israel even when it is overrun by non-Jews" seemingly encourages Jews to remain in Israel even as the Jewish population there began to dwindle (Ketubot 112). On the other hand, the Talmud describes the Land of Israel as a magical place, where cake and silk clothing grow straight from the ground (Ketubot 111b). This type of description propels the Land of Israel into a myth, a place of perfection and fantasy, reserved for a far-off redemption.

Perhaps it is possible to discern two streams of rabbinic thought--one holding on to a realistic dream of strengthening Jewish settlement in the land; the other content to live in the Diaspora and relegate Israel to a distant reverie, symbolizing an eschatological end of days.

Even as he established his yeshiva in Yavneh, Johanan Ben Zakkai's facile acceptance of Roman rule perhaps belies his true feelings. He flatters the Roman general with a verse: "Jerusalem will be captured by a 'mighty one'." While Johanan's meekness towards Rome wins the Jews a modicum of protection, the subtext of his flattery is quite subversive. In its original biblical context, "the mighty one" refers to the Jewish messiah, not to a foreign conqueror! It is as if Ben Zakkai is actually teasing the Roman general--who is unfamiliar with the Bible -- saying: We will accept your temporary rule, study our Torah, and bide our time.

 

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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.