Judaism and Islam

Jews, Judaism and the Emergence of Islam

by Tzvee Zahavy

Judaism on the eve of Islam

By the sixth century rabbinism had penetrated deeply into Jewish communal life. One thus needs to know about that form of Judaism before coming to terms with the relationship between the religion of the Jews and that new faith of Islam. Note well though that rabbinism was not the exclusive pattern of Judaism of the time. Nor may we rightly say it was normative. Those ideas have largely been rejected in modern scholarship.

In the past decade we have made dramatic methodological progress in the field of the history of religions. We do claim to be able to reconstruct more complete systems of Judaism. A systemic analysis is the study of the representations of a religion based on the premise that religions, like culture in general develop not along a simple linear progression, but as a series of separate, sometimes overlapping, systems. The theory of the applied systemic analysis of a religion was recently articulated and developed by Jacob Neusner in his studies of the history of Judaism.

According to the view of Neusner, to engage in the construction of the broader history of Judaism, one must consider independently each Judaic system and its data in light of its metaphoric social personification, its "Israel."[1] "Given the diversity of Judaisms past and present," Neusner says,

we cannot find it astonishing that the name for the social entity constituted by Jews, the name "Israel," has carried a variety of meanings, and . . . each of these served not as concrete description of real people living in the here and now, a merely factual statement of how things are, but as a metaphor. The metaphor might take genealogical or political or supernatural or taxonomical and hierarchical or ontological or epistemological character, as systems varied (p. 39).

The vitality of Neusner's analysis is its insistence on placing primacy for description on the social group. "A Judaic system derives from and focuses upon a social entity, a group of Jews who (in their minds at least) constitute not an Israel but Israel (p. 13)." A strength of the approach is the clarity of the definition of a system: a "Judaism" articulates a distinct world-view and a well-defined way of life for its society. "I understand by a religious system three things that are one," Neusner says:

[1] a world-view, which by reference to the intersection of the supernatural and the natural worlds accounts for how things are and puts them together into a cogent and harmonious picture;

[2] a way of life, which expresses in concrete actions the world-view and which is explained by that world-view;

[3] and a social group, for which the world-view accounts, which is defined in concrete terms by the way of life, and therefore which gives expression in the everyday world to the world-view and is defined as an entity by that way of life.

In further initially defining his concepts, he adds:

A religious system is one that appeals to God as the principal power, and a Judaic system is a religious system that identifies the Hebrew Scriptures or "Old Testament" as a principal component of its canon. A Judaism, then, comprises not merely a theory -- a book -- distinct from social reality but and explanation for the group (again:Israel) that gives social form to the system and an account of the distinctive way of life of that group. A Judaism is not a book, and no social group took shape because people read a book and agreed that God had revealed what the book said they should do.

The recovery of the details of systemopoesis, the making of Judaic systems, constitutes one important element of the task of the historian of Judaism of tracing the development of the religion.

Systemic analysis studies religions as ecological systems, ordered and closed cultural entities. Neusner's systemic view originates in large part in Geertz's definition of religion as a cultural system,[2] and derives in the main without question from the classical Weberian vision of social structures.

Systemic analysis rests on two premises:

[1] No religious system recapitulates any other.

[2] All religious systems within a given social and political setting recapitulate the same resentments.[3]

Neusner aims to compare systems one to another. This enterprise requires, he says, study of the setting, the literary and material evidence of the system and, "the consequent system and its definition of urgent questions and self-evidently true answers." Because each system stands ecologically distinct from another we can ask about the particular "resentment" confronting the vision of a certain group and how it, through the representations of its system, "responded to that inescapable question."[4]

Historians of Judaism following the prevailing systemic paradigm of analysis work with a multiplicity of Judaisms. The classical Judaism of the dual Torah, rabbinic Judaism, took shape after a catastrophe of 70 C.E. (the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and loss of independence to the Roman Empire) and persists in one or another configuration through the middle ages to the present day where spokesmen claim it is approximated as one or another form of contemporary Orthodoxy or Conservative Judaism.

By the end of late antiquity and the beginning of the middle ages we detect several variations in Judaic systems. Some types of the cultural system place mysticism at the center of their discourse. Most Judaisms of the time revolve around Torah-study and involvement in the intellectualism of Talmudic discourse, forcing mystical ideas to the periphery. We also detect by the eighth or ninth century the stirrings of a more philosophical quest within the Judaic framework.

All the Judaisms of the era share some common and even definitive, characteristics. Debate over the relation to Torah defines the Judaic metaphysics. For rabbinism crucial is the acceptance of the precept of the authority of the dual Torah. For the Karaites, rejection of the rabbinic Torah concept defines their faith.

Jewish messianism and apocalyptic speculation figure prominently in the various mythic world views of Judaisms of the epoch. Crone and Cook imply in their work that there may be more of a link than we had previously acknowledged between this kind of reflection and early Islamic ideology. They find in the "Secrets of R. Simon B. Yohai," an apocalypse of the mid-eighth century, a messianic interpretation of the Arab conquest.[5]

They go on to spin a complex story of the emergence of Islam, or should I say Hagarism on the way to Islam? They portray not the evolution of a system of culture, but rather the drama of a theological tennis game. The Hagarenes at first leaned on Jewish messianism. To counterbalance that they soon opted for the Christian variety of messianism. Not to get lost in that thicket, they sought out a religion of Abrahm, i.e. a monotheistic faith with a pagan backing. They then bounced back to include mosaic tradition and opted for the Samaritan solutions. Developing an Aaronide high-priesthood served them well.[6]

Jewish Messianism is no simple entity. It represents a set of doctrines in systemic statements, often defining central components of Judaisms. An example from Yerushalmi Berakhot, late fourth century, provides a tantalizing illustration for our present discussion.[7]

[VI.A]  [The reference to David in the preceding leads to this digression regarding the Messiah.]  The rabbis said, "If this Messiah-king comes from among the living, David will be his name; if he comes from among the dead, it will be David himself."

[B]  Said R. Tanhuma, "I say that the Scriptural basis for this teaching is, `And he shows steadfast love to his Messiah, to David' [Ps. 18:50]."

[C]  R. Joshua b. Levi said, "Semah is his name."

[D]  R. Yudan son of R. Aybo said, "Menahem is his name."

[E]  Said Hananiah son of R. Abahu, "They do not disagree. The numerical value of the letters of one name equals the numerical value of the other.  Semah [=138] is equal to Menahem [=138]."

[F]  And this [following story] supports the view of R. Yudan son of R. Aybo.

[G]  Once a Jew was plowing and his ox snorted once before him.  An Arab who was passing and heard the sound said to him, "Jew, Jew.  Loosen your ox, and loosen your plow [and stop plowing].  For today your Temple was destroyed." 

[H]  The ox snorted again.  He [the Arab] said to him, "Jew, Jew.  Bind your ox, and bind your plow.  For today the Messiah-king was born." 

     He said to him, "What is his name?" 

     [The Arab replied,] "Menahem."

     He said to him, "And what is his father's name?"

     He [the Arab] said to him, "Hezekiah."

     He said to him, "Where is he from?"

     He said to him, "From the royal capital of Bethlehem in Judea."

[I]  He [the Jew] went and sold his ox and sold his plow.  And he became a peddler of infants' clothes [diapers].  And he went from place to place until he came to that very city.  All of the women bought from him.  But Menahem's mother did not buy from him. 

     He heard the women saying, "Menahem's mother, Menahem's mother, come buy for your child." 

     She said, "I want to choke this enemy of Israel.  For on the day he was born the Temple was destroyed." 

     He [this Jew] said to her, "We are sure that on this day it was destroyed, and on this day [of the year] it will be rebuilt.  [Do not abandon the child.  Provide for him.]"

     She said to him [the peddler], "I have no money." 

     He said to her, "It is of no matter to me.  Come and buy for him and if you have no money, pay me when I return."

[J]  After a while he returned.  He went up to that place.

     He said to her, "What happened to the infant?" 

     She said to him, "Since the time you saw him a spirit came and carried him up and took him away from me."

[K]  Said R. Bun, "Why must we learn this [that the Messiah was born on the day that the Temple was destroyed] from [a story about] an Arab?  Do we not have explicit Scriptural evidence for it?  `Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall' [Isa. 10:34].  And what follows this?  `There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse' [Isa. 11:1].  [Right after an allusion to the destruction of the Temple the prophet speaks of the Messiah.]"

We have here several interesting components mixed in along with the characteristic speculation on the identity and coming of the messianic savior. Speculation on the name of the messiah at C-D shows views of either a comforting or a procreating redeemer. The numerology or gematria at E is simple, but it makes the point that both views the redemption as positive and productive rather than a time of apocalyptic upheaval. The story at G-K possibly generates the preceding matter.

The folk-tale has an encounter between a Jew plowing and an Arab with historical news that he links with a prophecy, and with secret information, the name and birthplace of the messiah. The Jew undertakes an itinerant quest for the savior. He finds his mother, embittered with her own child. Perhaps there is a symbolic reference to Christian myth here. The Jew reassures the mother. But by his second visit the child-messiah has been mysteriously carried off. K rabbinizes the folk-tale and the passage as a whole.

This is not a central text of Jewish messianic speculations. Nevertheless it underlines the constant fascination with the messiah-theme in the systems of rabbinic and folk Judaisms. But the extent of speculation in this text of third or fourth century Israel contrasts sharply with the messianic ideology of the Mishnah or of various strata of the Babylonian Talmud. We are ever more insistent that complex texts and ideas need to be dealt with systematically and systemicly.

Religious discourse and historical fact

In contemporary scholarship the debate rages over the connection between religious speculation in the scholasticism of the rabbis and historical circumstance. In interpreting the midrash collection of Genesis Rabbah, Jacob Neusner see definite reflections of the rabbinic struggle to make sense of the emergence of Christianity in the time of Constantine. The rabbis expand upon Genesis with a larger program at hand. Why has Christianity become licit in the empire? What is to become of the Jews and their Judaisms?

The earlier rabbah midrash compilations are thought to have been completed in the fourth and fifth centuries. Genesis Rabbah makes a coherent claim that the origins of the world and of the tribes of Israel reveal God's plan and portend for the future of Israel's salvation. Neusner argues that this midrash-book was issued as a response to historical trends, most likely to the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Accordingly narratives like that of Jacob's struggle with Esau are turned into accounts of the strife between Israel and Rome. Rabbinic commentators in this work use verses from the Torah to write about the history and destiny of Israel.

The later rabbah midrash compilations are said to derive from the sixth and seventh centuries. Ruth Rabbah makes clear through its comments that opposite entities may be united under God's will. The editors of this book dealt with the issues of Gentiles becoming Jews and the distinction between men and women. The proposition that from a Moabite woman comes the Israelite messiah is repeatedly conveyed by means of a symbolic vocabulary of verbal images embedded in the midrash-materials. Neusner stops short of relating this compilation to turmoil among the Arab tribes and the rise of Islam.

Not all the rabbinic midrash compilations looked outward. The powerful midrash book, Song of Songs Rabbah understands the biblical text as a metaphor for the love of God for Israel. The compilation furnishes us with list-like comments that systematically connect the poetry of the Song with the symbols of rabbinism. Thus this work forms for us a discourse not of narrative or of polemics or propositions, but rather of the symbolism that defines the religion. It makes crucial theological claims in the distinct rhetoric of the rabbis.

We can say with confidence that varying uses of Scripture continue to appear in early Islam and Medieval Judaism.

I see little value discussing which rituals transferred to the new system; what became of the pork taboo; how rules for the slaughter of meat in Judaism reappear in Islam. Bernard Lewis observed that Muslims could eat Jewish meat.[8] Indeed. The diffusionist view confuses origins with essences. Goitein says, "In the Holy Book of Islam there are found unmistakably Jewish midrashim which so far have not been traced to Jewish Literature."[9]

Lewis observes that the problem of Jewish or Christian influences on Islam is not a problem for Muslims. "Does God Borrow? Is God influenced?"[10] Looking for diffusions alone is seeking down a dead end. No matter whether it is the search for the spread of individual philosophical ideas, rituals or texts.

Critical Use of Data from Religions for Historical Purposes

Perhaps heretical is a better word than critical. Crone at the beginning of Hagarism writes that the book is by infidels for infidels. Any misappropriation of the religious data for other purposes should confess to its heretical intentions. Hence Talmud study in search of historical reconstructions of Jewish history is an endeavor of infidels. Some time ago John Wansbrough wrote of my book The Traditions of Eleazar Ben Azariah, "Neither his life not his actual function in those activities which led to the formation of Mishnah can be reconstructed. That is a refreshingly honest admission, of which I should like to see rather more in the closely related field of Islamic tradition." Concerning the ascription of certain legal dicta to Eleazar, Wansbrough speculates at the close of his review that, "It might well have been important after 70 C.E. so see such dicta distributed amongst a group of authorities. In Islam that was achieved by the multiplication of isnads."[11]

With Wansbrough, Crone and others we find the weakening of uncritical Koran study, the reexamination of the historicity of early Islamic sources, and the rise of heretical theses and hypotheses about the emergence of the Islamic movement.

In examining the evidence of composite historical religious traditions questions of a critical nature need to be paramount. Is the text reliable? Are the attributions accurate? Cui bono, etc.....

Judaism's Debt to Islamic Culture

In the longer view of the parallel and intersecting developments of Judaism and Christianity the contributions of Maimonides in the twelfth century (d. 1204) illustrate how deeply Judaism absorbed the impact of Islamic culture, even while rejecting its religion.

The Islamic cultural context of the Jews in the Middle Ages influenced the style and thought of Judaism. In the thought of Judah Halevi we see, for instance, how a rabbi used the style of philosophical discourse. Still, Halevi rejected the content of the philosopher's message. Reason and rationality, he said, were subservient to revelation, philosophy, and tradition. Some trace a relationship between Halevi and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111, author of the Incoherence of the Philosophers).

Maimonides presents a sharply contrasting approach. He was born in Cordova, Spain in 1135 C.E. In his early education and training he was the beneficiary of many generations of developed Jewish culture in Spain. Later, he was driven from his home by invading fanatical Almohades (Berber Muslims). When he settled in Egypt outside Cairo, he was already thoroughly versed in rabbinic and philosophical thought. In addition, he was a scientist and physician by profession and a widely respected person­ality in his own time.

Maimonides wrote several major intellectual works. His Book of Commandments enumerates the 613 commandments of Jewish law according to a well-conceived set of principle­s­. In his great work, the Mishneh Torah, he reorganized all major aspects of talmudic law (halakhah) into 14 short and well-organized books.

This was a daring move. Maimonides took the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud and extracted from them the main legal rulings. But in his books he gave only the decisions of the law, not the longstanding discussions and disputes of the talmudic rabbis. Maimonides began this work with a discussion of philosophical and ethical principles. He then turned to the remainder of the laws, such as those regarding holidays, civil laws, and sacrifices. But he did not present them according to the principles of arrangement used in the Mishnah. Instead, he reordered them in a new and more logical fashion.

His contemporaries were astonished that he dared to take such liberties. Furthermore, his own avowed explana­tion was outrageous to some of his colleagues. He said that his work was an attempt to replace the standard texts: with his books, students would not have to master the Talmud. Of course, such an undertaking caused much controversy during the decades that followed. Still, the clarity and utility of the Mishneh Torah overcame much of the opposition. Its language was in clear mishnaic Hebrew. Its approach to the content of Jewish tradition was systematic and rational. Yet in the end, his books did not replace the Mishnah and the rest of the authorita­tive literature of rabbinic Judaism. To this day they still serve as valuable supplements to and restatements of the major statements of the talmudic traditions.

Maimonides is also famous for his main philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed. The primary trait of the treatise is its difficult literary character, which helps to obscure the meaning of the writing. In contrast to the clarity and directness of the Mishneh Torah, The Guide is almost a secret writing. In content, the central themes of the book are based on the rationalist principles Maimonides learned from his philosophical predecessors within the Arabic culture. His Aristotelian approach builds on the legacy he encountered in the work of Avicenna (d. 1037) and Averroes (d. 1198) and especially al-Farabi.

The Guide uses some of the nonlegal sections of rabbinic interpretations to construct a view of man and of God based on rationalist principles. It addresses many topics on the philosophical agenda of the time, including the clash between reason and revelation; questions about the existence, unity, and incorporeality (lack of physical body) of God; God's actions, especially his creation of the world; the meanings and authority of law and prophecy: the distinction between good and evil; and the basis for the commandments of the Torah.

Although The Guide addresses these subjects, this book cannot be "read" by the average student. Maimonides wrote it to be a semi-secret work of speculation: he wanted only those initiated in the philosophy and the rabbinic thought of his time to be able to study it. Therefore, he wrote it in a kind of code by consciously making the organization of the book puzzling and by placing in it some outright contradictions. As a result, scholars down to the present have disagreed on many specific passages in the book and on the book as a whole.

What remains clear to the reader of The Guide is that Maimonides sought to harmonize the highest goals of philosophy with those of Judaism. Just as philosophers insisted that reason alone was sufficient to bring man into a direct encounter with God, so too did Maimonides argue that the well-trained mind within Judaism could also apprehend God through philosophical reason. Based on this understanding of the religion, Maimonides explained that the commandments of the Torah were most necessary for the average person, not for the philosopher. For ordinary Jews the commandments served as an alternate route to bring them closer to God.


I am permitted one unsystematic postscript. The more I pondered the profound nature of larger religious issues, like those bandied about by Crone and Cook, the more I wondered how germane the messianic idea is to the modern incarnations of the Judaic, Islamic and Christian cultural systems. Recent events may be a window to cultural understanding of the past. Many of the Jews and Arabs of the Middle East still harbor messianic expectations of one sort or another. So it seems they must rely on the Christians of the West, who perhaps long ago solved their messianic predicament, to find for them a path to mutual understanding and ultimate peace.

    [1]Jacob Neusner, First Principles of Systemic Analysis: The Case of Judaism Within the History of Religion, Lanham, MD, 1987, pp. 35-36.

    [2]See Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Michael Banton, ed., Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, London, 1966, pp. 1-46 and the references assembled there on pp. 44-46.

    [3]P. 19.

    [4]P. 20.

    [5]Hagarism: the making of the Islamic world, Cambridge, 1977, pp. 4-5.

    [6]Op. cit., p. 26 and in general the argument advanced in chapter two.

    [7]Taken from my translation, The Talmud of the Land of Israel. Volume I. Berakhot. Chicago, 1989, pp. 87-89.

    [8]The Jews of Islam, Princeton, 1984, p. 85.

    [9]Jews and Arabs, New York, 1955, p. 51.

    [10]Op. cit., p. 69.

    [11]Review in The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 41, pt. 2, 1978.