Three Surveys


Three Noble Surveys: A Post-Modern Reading of
Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Philadelphia,1987
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of SecondTemple and Rabbinic Judaism, Hoboken, N.J., 1991
Alan F. Segal, Rebecca's Children, Cambridge, Mass., 1986

Books like these first, may make a contribution to research in a discipline if they are more than mere summaries and show some innovative conceptualization. Second, they may have value for teachers if they serve as particularly complete, creative and accurate statements of the data and scholarship that they represent. Third, they may serve theological purposes if they provide some justification of a contemporary form of Judaism [or Christianity] in a prior formative age, or support some implicit claim of greater authenticity for a current world view or way of life.

Let us expand on this last point. An Orthodox Jewish analysis will search for “Torah-true” ideals, emphasize ritual [e.g., prayer], focus on a textual canon, on elite rabbinic leadership, highlight internal sectarian debate and differentiation, downplay interfaith relations, ignore populist involvements in religious decision, deny the prominence of changes and adaptations based on social and historical circumstance, consider acculturation an evil, and emphasize particularism.

A Conservative Jewish investigation will emphasize the analysis of family structures, democratic ideals, evolutionary change, institutional development [e.g., synagogues], communal leadership patterns, the interface of scholarship and rabbinic learning, rites of passage as opposed to other rituals, and treat acculturation as a struggle fraught with contradiction and ambivalence.

A Reform Jewish approach will seek to differentiate Jews from Christians and highlight the opportunities for interfaith understanding and cooperation. It will emphasize theology in a Protestant model, acculturation as a positive force and universalism.

Just how much do these three introductory surveys of the Second Temple and Early Rabbinic Judaism by three well-known Jewish scholars reflect their respective religious affiliations? Let us stipulate that all to some degree do come not only out of the minds, but also from the souls of their authors. There is no such animal as a “neutral academic account.” Of course it is obvious that a heavily slanted account will be of less value to the average reader.

The “average reader” always wants to know the personal background of the teacher or author. He or she assumes that the writer's point-of-view permeates the book, that detachment inevitably gives way to passionate self-expression in any enterprise of creative expression.

Now, are these three works in any way self-conscious about the biases that they maintain? No. Do the authors tell their readers where they “are coming from”? Should they? In these three cases we conclude that the religious and theological tendenz of each work is gentle rather than heavy handed. Further we argue that there is a positive way to describe the process of reading in modern theological perspectives in constructing a historical survey. The nature of the projection in each case leads to a substantial contribution to the theological tasks of three varieties of modern Judaism. We can say that each author subconsciously seeks the antecedents of his own system in the data of the past. Each book serves as a subtle means of reinforcing the authority of one or another form of Judaism.

These books are academic works by ethnically and religiously identified scholars of the first rank. We submit two hypotheses about our books for investigation. The theological instincts of these three historians prompt them first to emphasize in their respective frameworks of analysis some derivative conceptions of their contemporary system, and, second, to interpret some of the ambiguous data according to their predisposed religious beliefs. Let us submit these to analysis.

Each of the books shares with the others concerns with institutions and cultural issues (Hellenization, the Maccabees, the Temple, Synagogue, Sanhedrin), with sects (Sadducees, Pharisees, Samaritans, Essenes, revolutionaries) with ideas (resurrection, the messiah, apocalypticism, Philo, Qumran) with Christianity (Jesus, Paul, conversion), and with ritual (rabbinism, purity).

The titles of the books provide the first evidence of the frame of reference of the author. Shaye J.D. Cohen's choice of title, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, suggests first that he is out to redo the classic treatment of some of the issues of the period summarized in Neusner's From Politics to Piety. Cohen's title makes reference to two themes: the Maccabees — an intracommunal struggle against acculturation, and the mishnah — new expressions of rabbinic laws and norms. If it is to be inferred from the title that from social and historical struggle comes authoritative scripture, then we have a statement encapsulating a dominant motif of the modern Conservative Jewish theological agendum.

Lawrence H. Schiffman in his title, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, rejects the social body of Israel as a source of authority. An Orthodox Jewish position would insist that the society and its prescribed practice are derivative of and subservient to the authoritative law as revealed on Sinai.

Alan F. Segal in his title, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World, invokes Israelite myth as a metaphor for historical description. If you permit us a bit of leeway here, he implies that prior to the formal emergence of distinctive tribal religion there was a universal struggle. Jews and Christians are archetypical and distinct but united in a common ancestry that draws nurture from a third, independent, pagan cultural context. From the subtitle one is tempted to expect a treatment that may set forth a thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Some Reform Jewish theologians have pursued similar themes. But Segal's more imaginative treatment does not fall quite as comfortably as the other two into a contemporary Judaic theological mold.

We need to further test how productively these works identify the antecedents of their respective denominations in accounting for the history of the period in question. The overall agenda of issues treated in the books are fairly consistent with the range of prevailing academic interests. As Green shows in his paper, one could argue from the general outline of each work to some specific claim about its nature. We prefer to assess what the scholars say about several specific prominent and representative issues of the period and draw general conclusions from those instances.

First, how do the works deal with the synagogue? Is it treated as a means of advancing or stopping acculturation? Second, who were the Pharisees? Were they models or archetypes of a particular form of Jewish leadership? Third, what was the nature of Jewish apocalypticism in the era? In what ways was it a clear and present danger to normative life. And finally, what were the causes and lessons of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.?

In Cohen's treatment of the synagogue he emphasizes that there were many kinds with varying functions. He says revealingly, “There was no United Synagogue of Antiquity that enforced standards on all the member congregations.” He also avers that, “No single group or office controlled all the synagogues in antiquity” (114-115). He takes a social-issue-locus of analysis. The synagogue in essence served a variety of functions and regional constituents. It was an authentic expression of the collective voice of the community. One could say that Cohen assumes an ancient Jew went to synagogue to commune with the community as many Conservative Jews happily would emphasize today.

Schiffman underlines that the synagogue was a locus of ritual. He speaks in terms of “communing with God” there. One value of the synagogue was its replacement of another institution. He reminds us that some rabbis said it served as a “Temple in miniature.” His central concern is the process of the direct transference of sanctity to the synagogue and its role as an authentic place of sanctioned ritual (166-166).

Segal briefly dwells on the synagogue as a place to fulfill the function of reading the Torah and studying and interpreting it. Roughly, this conforms to the function of the contemporary sermon. With reference to the synagogue at Dura, he further discusses the Hellenistic influences in “the extent to which Hellenistic art and culture had influenced Jewish sensibilities” (42). In essence then the institution served as a place for homiletical activity and a stylistic acculturating force in the community.

As to the Pharisees, let us see what rules these analyses. Cohen ceremoniously rejects notions of the “normative and orthodox.” He states, “In this book I am a historian” (135). The Pharisees are described conventionally. Following Josephus they are a political group with ancestral traditions, supported by the masses, and accepting of the ideas of fate and free will. From the New Testament we deduce that Pharisees affirm resurrection of the dead. Cohen cites as proof the infamous polemical passage in Matthew 23. They wore broad phylacteries, long fringes and sought places of honor and titles in public. They possess the traditions of the elders, and express a zeal for the law, especially the Sabbath, purity, tithing, marriage and divorce.

From the Hebrew sources we may infer that they were proto-rabbis, dealt with legal issues and constituted an expression of the authentic power of Judaism. The Houses, as we see from M. Yeb. 1:4, did not factionalize but are “shadowy groups.” Cohen points out that, “Virtually all modern scholars agree that much of rabbinic Judaism derives from Second Temple times, but the rabbis are not interested in documenting this fact” (158).

The name Pharisee means one who is separated (159), an obvious and inescapable social emphasis. Cohen constructs his own version of the unbroken chain of tradition leading from Sinai to the Pharisees, an updated scheme of historical theology, similar to Mishnah's tractate Avot. Moses defined the nature of Jewish society at Sinai and gave it to the Temple and the Temple passed it to the “sectlike groups” such as the “congregation of the exile” and the covenanters of Nehemiah 10 and the prophetic school of Third Isaiah. They passed it on to the scribes who established new social organizations and social elites to replace the Temple and priests. They passed it to the Maccabees who through the Hasidim passed it to the three sects (160-164).

But the Pharisees were not a sect. They were a “distinctive group that abstained from normal social intercourse with other Jews” (162). And yet, not finding this reversal at all discrepant or paradoxical, Cohen concludes that, “Sectarianism is the culmination of the democratization of Judaism” (172). Such claims may be understood as subconscious rhetoric of a Conservative Judaic theologian.

Continuing in this vein he says that the essential goal of sectarianism was, “To bridge the gap between humanity and God through constant practice of the commandments of the Torah and the total immersion in the contemplation of God and his works” (172). And yet, “Most Jews were not members of any sect.” Following Cohen we may deduce that the pronounced theological and ritual ambivalence characteristic of American Conservative Judaism derives from the utter indefinability of Pharisaic social realities.

Schiffman characteristically casts the debate among sectarians in ideological rather than social terms. It revolved “around two axes.” The debate was over the correct means for the interpretation of Torah and the virtues of acculturation or separatism.

The name Pharisee implies separation from ritually impure food and from the tables of the common people. In his version of the chain of historical theological authority Schiffman also constructs a kind of tractate Avot (103-107). The Pharisees said three things. We are not aristocrats. We are not Hellenized. We know the “traditions of the fathers.” They also said, we believe in the soul, in angels, and in providence. Some were “accommodationist toward the government.” Some rejected any form of compromise. They came from the Hasidim, or perhaps not. The soferim are their predecessors. They appear in “Hasmonean times as part of the Gerousia in coalition with the Sadducees and other elements of society.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., in 4QMMT) show that Pharisaic views prevailed in the Temple. Further, “The Oral law concept which grew from the Pharisaic `tradition of the fathers' provided Judaism with the ability to adapt to the new and varied circumstances it would face in talmudic times and later. As such Pharisaism would become Rabbinic Judaism, the basis for all subsequent Jewish life and civilization.” And so we have it — one Torah-true normative way growing out of one central theological idea — Torah from Sinai.

Of the three authors, Segal glosses over the Pharisees most lightly. They were popular and respected ancestors of the rabbinic movement, vilified by the New Testament. They had rules of exegesis. The Sadducees were the strict constructionists. The Pharisees were the loose constructionists of exegesis (53-4). They originated in Avot the idea of oral Torah. He cites that text directly without trying to rewrite it. The Pharisees were middle class and socially mobile. They migrated after 70. All told, they do not loom crucial in Segal's treatment. Reform Judaism after all is a non-rabbinic system of Judaism.

An examination of how our authors treat apocalypticism provides us with another vantage of their projections and also affords us an opportunity to see whether current social scientific methods influence their thinking. Schiffman groups apocalyptics with ascetics as “part of the texture of Palestinian Judaism” (112-19). These groups, “Had a profound role against which Christianity arose...[and] encouraged messianic visions that twice led the Jews into revolt against Rome... [and] served as the locus for the development of mystical ideas that would eventually penetrate mystical Judaism (112-13),” Schiffman describes how members of what he calls the Essene Sect practiced communism, moderation, mysticism, prayer and purity. They believed in destiny and immortality of the soul, strictly observed the Sabbath and interpreted the Bible allegorically. The Essenes “disappeared from the stage of history” after 73.

Schiffman distinguishes the Dead Sea Sect of Qumran from the Essenes (116). This sect was an “apocalyptic movement” that believed in an imminent messianic era following the “final victorious battle against the forces of evil.” Schiffman characterizes the composition of the sect, its derivation from Zadokite priests, its initiation processes, annual covenant renewal ceremonies, preparation for an eschatological battle, belief in two messiahs and its messianic banquet. He argues that they not be identified with the Essenes mainly because the sources, Philo and Josephus “omit apocalypticism” in their descriptions of the Essenes.

Schiffman concludes that after 70, “extreme apocalypticism had been discredited” (119). He conveys the overall impression that some measure of asceticism and apocalypticism are acceptable ordinary ingredients of sectarian religious life. He implies that too much of this may be dangerous. But it may be reading into his treatment even to see this much disapproval for these explicit tendencies.

Schiffman ignores the social analysis of apocalyptic represented by the work of Paul Hanson and Richard Horsely. He also avoids raising issues deriving from the methodologies of Mary Douglas and Peter Brown regarding the social matrix of asceticism and purity.

Cohen deals with apocalyptic as a literary-theological issue. He reviews the classic contrast of apocalyptic with prophecy which he says, “Did not cease so much as it was transformed” (195). As Cohen reminds us those who hold this view say that a prophet has direct revelation, speaks clearly and calls for repentance. An apocalypse uses an intermediary, speaks through an image or symbol and may be “fantastic or extraterrestrial” (196). Cohen declares that “the social setting of the apocalyptic seers is unknown.” The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness is a non-apocalyptic work, he claims.

Finally, the pseudepigraphy of the genre, “Shows that the true identity of the apocalyptic seer was not important. A prophet had authority as an intermediary between humanity and God, but an apocalyptic seer did not” (199). Cohen frequently shifts into the passive voice here. Apocalyptic happens by itself. We do not know why it develops or who supported it. He stops short of labeling apocalyptic a degenerate form of prophecy. But he leaves us with the impression that the phenomenon was just out there, never integral, something we might want to ignore if not hide. We may contrast Schiffman's tacit acceptance of the phenomenon with Cohen's implicit denial.

Segal's treatment differs because he takes for granted that apocalyptic is both a literary and social concern. The Dead Sea community, he says, is an “actual ancient apocalyptic community” (69). Segal seizes on the social scientific study of millennial cults as a fulcrum for analysis of these ancient types. Following V. Lantenari, [Religions of the Oppressed: A Study of Modern Messianic Cults, NewYork, 1963; and see his notes on 188-189.] Segal says that apocalyptic appeals to the alienated classes of a society (71). Economic and political deprivation contribute to the relevance of apocalyptic expression.

Segal summarizes neatly the visions of Daniel as apocalyptic expressions of the political and religious realities of the second century B.C.E.. In this presentation he excels in using the social theory to explain both theology and historical circumstance.

Segal is comfortable discussing angels, astral journeys and other aspects of apocalyptic visions. He makes no apology for the rise of apocalyptic and gives it emphasis appropriate to its importance in the cultural development of this era. Indeed, Segal moves smoothly from interpreting Jewish apocalyptic to a discussion of Christianity as an “apocalyptic Judaism” and to the role of Jesus in political revolution. So for Segal apocalyptic serves as a valuable link between one religion and the other. These sections of the study constitute core element's of the book's thesis that common sources of ancestry bring Judaism and Christianity closer together.

We find one of Segal's conclusions an especially stark contrast to Cohen's view. After a lengthy analysis of apocalyptic in Christianity he states that, “Christianity did not so much abandon apocalyptic fervor as channel it into non-apocalyptic areas... Instead of quickening apocalyptic belief itself, the Church transformed that belief into a means to form stable communities” (95). So while Cohen implies that prophecy declined (devolved) into apocalyptic, Segal suggests that apocalyptic progressed (evolved) to a new form of theology.

Apocalyptic turns out then to be an example of a datum that one (Orthodox) spokesman glosses over, one (Conservative) writer dismisses and one (Reform) thinker analyzes and extends.

All three writers presume that the singular event of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans is a turning point for Jewish history, symbolism and theology. Schiffman emphasizes several themes. First he notes the “resilience of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel” (161). He refers to their pragmatism and adaptation after the catastrophe. He finds few direct references in Tannaitic literature to the destruction. But in his characteristic focus on ritual he notes many halakhic modifications of Temple practice for the home and synagogue and the introduction of new taboos or rituals of mourning (163-4). After the event the Romans accept the, “Pharisee rabbis as representative of the Jewish nation” (168).

Cohen observes that, “The war of 66-74 is similar in many ways to the rebellion of the Maccabees, but also very different” (31). The latter, “Removed the institutional foundations of Judaism, brought tremendous destruction upon the land of Israel and its inhabitants, and endangered the status of the Jews throughout the empire; it threatened the very survival of Judaism” (32).

Cohen discusses the impact of the destruction on the relations between Jews and Gentiles. He speaks of the, “Rabbinic disparagement of paganism and the effort to erect social barriers between Jews and Gentiles” (217). He contrasts this with more “ecumenical” attitudes also expressed by the “rabbis of the second century.” He further distinguishes the severe theological reaction of some Jews as expressed in Fourth Ezra and the Apocalypse of Baruch with the more moderate and restrained attitude of the rabbis. The latter reflects the impact of the process that Cohen frequently calls “the democratization of Judaism” (218).

Accordingly, in Cohen's theologically oriented view, in Jewish leadership, the scribes had already replaced the priests in the preceding centuries. In practices — prayer, Torah study and commandments stood in easily for the Temple cult. Cohen seems to say that Mishnah's laws are too complex to interpret as data of a religious response to the condition of the Jews after the destruction (219). Then he makes one of his most revealing comments: “Not a single tractate of the Mishnah is devoted to a theological topic... No rabbinic work sets forth the dogmas or essential beliefs of Judaism” (220). Some of us might disagree based on a massive amount of serious and systematic scholarship that has been published since 1974.

Needless to say, Cohen's conclusion must stem from his presupposition of what he deems may be properly called theology and essential beliefs. He wants to tell us that Conservative Judaism does not find rabbinic literature as it stands to be a valid and needed analogue to systematic Protestant theology. He tacitly implies that contemporary Conservative Jewish theologians need to properly restate some of the ideas of the rabbis to make them into theology and essential beliefs.

Cohen continues: the destruction of the “evil reality” of the Temple “removed the focal point of sectarianism” (226). He declares, “Thus the war prepared the way for a society without sects.” Next Cohen says, “The Pharisees disappeared too, but transformed themselves into the rabbis.” This process of mystical metamorphosis resides at the core of the dogma or basic beliefs of historical-positivist theology.

Segal helps us clarify the mystery. “The Pharisees did not become the rabbis on the day after the Temple was destroyed,” he assures us (132). Both writers here employ peculiar simplistic theories of social and religious change. It might be refreshing to consider that in such a frame of analysis modern day historical change serves as an apt analogue to that of antiquity. We know for example exactly when in 1961 the Washington Senators baseball team became the Minnesota Twins. One could ask, are the authors implying that in 70 C.E., when they moved their team from Jerusalem to Yavneh, at the same time this group changed its name from the Pharisees to the rabbis? We do expect from our scholars on this issue greater depth of insight.

Segal lists these factors as the results of the destruction of the Temple:

              1. The machinery of state had to be reconstructed by the Pharisees (128).

              2. The Pharisees transformed Judaism into a universal religion. So did the Christians for their sect (129).

              3. “Both Christians and rabbis changed the locus of purity from the Temple itself to the community of believers” (130).

              4. Following ARN6, the Temple was replaced by good deeds, rules of purity, the mikveh and the synagogue (131).

The essence of these suppositions combines the historical views derivative of the wissenschaft des Judentums with the basic theology of the Reform movement. This treatment of the historical significance of the event is especially disappointing in light of the sophisticated treatment Segal applies to the phenomenon of apocalyptic elsewhere in his study.

It is tempting to veer into a more general criticism of some of the strengths and shortcomings of the three treatments. But as that is beyond the scope of this essay, let us sum up our central point. It is legitimate to project a contemporary framework on the evidence of Jewish antiquity in the process of advancing the predominantly theological quest for the fundamental antecedents of contemporary religious belief and practice. Let us be honest enough finally to admit that whether one considers the product of this process of analysis “history” or “theology” depends once and for all, in an eternal regression, on the framework of reference of the critic.