Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Could Rabbis Kill Judaism?

A couple of weeks ago I read a Slate article on a new book, The Chosen Few. According to the review, the book's authors argue that after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis/Pharisees came to dominate the Jewish scene, and their emphasis on education set an economic bar that few Jewish families could match. As a result, many Jewish families simply opted out, and so the Jewish population underwent a major reduction over the ensuing several centuries.

It's an interesting thesis, although I'd need to read the book to evaluate it; I certainly have questions about it. But my point tonight isn't this particular case; rather, it's the idea that a rabbi, or a group of rabbis, could make a demand which would cause people to leave Judaism en masse.

Jewish history seems to indicate otherwise; long before the modern "create your own Judaism" age, groups which were uncomfortable with a particular definition of the religion simply went their own way, taking the name of Judaism with them: Chasidim, Sabbateans, Kabbalists, Rationalists, Karaites, and so on... No one has ever successfully trademarked the word Judaism.

Look at the push for education today. For the past 10-15 years, those in the Orthodox would who have felt that the institutional insistence upon Jewish day school education is too much have not filed for visas to flee Orthodoxy, much less Judaism. Rather, they have created their own models - charter schools, half-day schools modeled on the Talmud Torah system, on-line schools, and so on. [I expect that this will only grow with the toll from Hurricane Sandy; I can't imagine how Long Island schools will respond to the many, many families who had once been full-pay, who will not be able to afford it for next year.]

The same is true in kashrut, where rabbis and kashrut organizations insist on a standard [bug-checking, quinoa, cholov yisroel, pas yisroel] which many Orthodox families resent, and even oppose outright. None of them are ceding ownership of Judaism, though; far from it, they accuse the rabbis of inventing a new religion.

Ditto for the many other elements which are often characterized as a "shift to the right" -  black hats, no mixed dancing, and so on. Are any of the condemned practitioners (much less a majority) saying, "You can keep your Judaism, I'm leaving?"

And as I said before - this obstinacy is not new. We have many historical examples of Jews defining Judaism as they chose, and ignoring those who defined it differently.

So I have a hard time believing that rabbis have been able to define Judaism against the opposition of the population - certainly if that opposing population was as large a percentage as the authors of The Chosen Few contend.

What do you think?


  1. the jews certainly have been submitted to unprecedented outside persecution, climaxing with the holocaust. yet, it's mathematically hard to grasp how a group thousands of years old, only has 13.5 million members today. i can certainly believe that over the centuries many people must have left the faith, for one reason or another.

  2. Rabbis don't have any military or political means to require people to follow them. Leadership comes from public acclimation. If people were so discontent that they would pick up and leave, why were those rabbis in charge?

    Michael: Yes, people did leave the faith, but that doesn't mean it's because some set of rabbis added content to the faith or its lifestyle to chase them away. It could be a desire to just get out of the oppressed class and into the ruling community.

    There are also the medical and nutritional effects of centuries of ghetto / mella life. It's not an environment that encourages fertility, living to adulthood, etc... The evolutionary explanation for Tay Sachs appears to be that carriers are immune to tuberculosis (See here). That gave me a frightening mental image about how common disease was in the ghetto.

    There is also something metaphysical going on. Which is a different plane of explanation than looking for physical causes; IOW, it does not replace looking for physical causes, rather it indicates there is a definite why. There was a population explosion in Jewish population from in the early part of the 20th century. There were 13mm Jews in 1910, the number grew to 17mm before the Holocaust, so that we were down to 11mm in 1950 and we're back to 13mm now. I can't say why 10-15mm best serves G-d's plan, but the evidence that He is quite definitely tuning us to that level is pretty compelling.

  3. micha, i have to reject your metaphysical explanation, because it would suggest that the holocaust was part of a divine plan. on the other hand, i can certainly believe that at some point in the time frame referenced by the authors, that the jewish population did experience a significant dip. it also seems plausible that oppression alone may not have been the reason. look only at the catholic church today to see the exodus from dogma, when it is in conflict with lifestyle.

    1. To be technical, I didn't give a metaphysical explanation. There is no answer to theodicy that can be encompassed by the human mind. What I pointed to was indication that such an explanation exists. And yes, I do believe the holocaust was part of the Divine Plan. After all, G-d stood aside and let the Nazis do it. If you truly believe that G-d is Omnipotent, than there is little moral difference between judging Him for doing the Holocaust and judging Him for not preventing it. Both were equally trivial for G-d to pull off. This business of saying "Hashem didn't do it, people did" doesn't answer anything.

      To get back to our example, population drop during the Holocaust... Even if that plan is to let free will reign; still He did so while also insuring a certain community size of Jews.

      There is really no need to hunt for reasons for population drop during the time in question.

      1- The authors assume the former Sadducees stayed Jewish rather than assimilate simply because Sadducism doesn't work without hope of having a Temple in their lifetimes. But we know from the history of the Hasmonean Kings (who were Sadducee after the first generation or two) that the Sadducees were firmly Latinized. Few would choose to stay Jewish if they were already living like Romans of the Mosaic Faith and their faith fails.

      And the Sadducees were the majority in 70 CE. Problem of where the other half of the lossed went, solved.

      2- We were repeatedly slaughtered en masse during that millennium -- the Jewish Rebellion that led to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Hadrianic Persecutions, the consequent failed Bar Kochva rebellion, the Hajj... I don't know how they could know those deaths only accounts for half the losses. But not wanting to wear a target when the next massacre comes is also reason to leave. The history of repeated killing itself pushes people out.

      3- We know their assumption that agrarianism means high illiteracy rates is untrue. We were famous for being literate farmers even back toward the end of the First Temple period, just as Greece was on the rise. Remain as the unlettered masses" is a fiction.

      4- For that matter, the movement that emphasized the notion of Oral Torah demands LESS literacy than the one that insists that each person be capable of interpreting the texts for themselves. The Pharasees and Rabbinates gave more room for popular custom, not less.

      5- We stopped being agrarian when they stopped letting us buy land. Nothing to do with books.

      6- And for that matter, look at Chareidim today. A strong emphasis on religious knowledge crowds out time for studying for a profession. If it really were about rabbis pushing people out by making Judaism overly tied to education, it wouldn't have *helped* a rise of professionalism.

    2. I don't know if this is what Michael Molovinsky had in mind, but what made me feel uncomfortable in your statement was the sense of certainty that "the evidence that He is quite definitely tuning us to that level is pretty compelling", as if no other explanation for the Holocaust were likely or even possible.

      I'm not sure if you meant it to sound like that, but it did make me feel a little uncomfortable, as I don't see why there might not be a completely different explanation for why G-d let the Holocaust happen, with the population figures just being coincidental.

    3. Except that I didn't give any specific metaphysical explanation. In fact, I said there was no such explanation that a person could understand. "I can't say why 10-15mm best serves G-d's plan, but the evidence that He is quite definitely tuning us to that level is pretty compelling."

      I didn't even say that the Holocaust was part of His Plan, although as I said in the subsequent post, I am compelled to conclude He gets equal blame whether you think He did it or He stood by while the Nazis did. And thus, giving the Nazis free hand must, to my mind, fit that plan. But that wasn't my original point.

      What I said was that the population of Jews is fine tuned, which suggests a Divine Plan that is served by that population level. Regardless of what one posits about the Holocaust, G-d did insure that our population revolve
      around a particular average despite it.

  4. It partly depends on if you define 'Judaism' as an ethnic/national group (as per halakha) or a religious group. If the latter, it does not surprise me that there is a discrepancy between 'official' (i.e. rabbinical) Judaism and popular religion. I have encountered such a discrepancy in studying Christianity in early modern Europe; it would not surprise me if it existed in Judaism too. If anything, we should count ourselves lucky that while Christian popular religion often included strongly pagan remnants which the Church could not remove, popular Judaism 'merely' contains innovative leniencies (or strictures...), although I suppose some would class the fashion for segulot as crypto-pagan.

    (Also, regarding the linked article: who says agriculture is incompatible with literacy? Just because mass literacy has tended to go with urbanization, doesn't mean it must to do so. It would also be interesting to compare the school situation in the US with that in the UK, where there are state-funded religious schools.)

  5. It's best to do the right thing without regard to how many others will reject that.

  6. >> But my point tonight isn't this particular case; rather, it's the idea that a rabbi, or a group of rabbis, could make a demand which would cause people to leave Judaism en masse.

    Certainly not after ma'amad Har Sinai; however, there are commentaries that suggest that this is the precise reason why membership dwindled when Yitzchok Avinu took over after Avraham.

    FWIW, I checked out the Amazon link, and didn't get past the first line of the description. The premise that the Jewish nation at 70 CE was an nation of illiterates is more than a stretch.

  7. Thinking about this further, I think there's a difference now to previous generations (assuming for a minute that the book's thesis is correct). Whereas before the division would have between literate rabbis and the illiterate masses (according to the book's interpretation), now everyone is literate and even has relatively easy access to Jewish texts in the original or in translation. The difference is in having training to use them properly instead of just skimming them (or doing a quick internet search) to find an opinion that suits you. That alone might lead to things playing out differently in our time.

    It would also be worth considering the role of the internet in allowing people to encounter others with similar 'unacceptable' opinions as well as in facilitating arguments between the opposing groups, arguments which, because of the relative anonymity of the internet, can become more aggresive and unpleasant than arguments elsewhere.

  8. Michael-
    Many certainly did leave, and some of it may well have been the result of ignorance. But to suggest that a rabbinic emphasis on literacy actually pushed people out is a stretch, to me.

    R' Micha, Daniel -
    Indeed, I was perplexed by the assumption they made based on the agrarian content of the Talmud. I do want to see whether they have more evidence to support their claim for an early transition to non-agrarian lifestyles.

    Daniel -
    1. I just learned Abarbanel on Malachi 2; he contends that we were designed to be both ethnicity and religion, so that we would share two powerful bonds as a nation. I find that fascinating.

    2. Are you contending that we did not have an educated laity before?

    Anonymous 8:56 AM -
    True sometimes, in my experience.

    Shmuel -
    Interesting idea re: Yitzchak; which commentaries suggest that?

  9. If you look at the list of sects that R. Torczyner listed as taking Judaism in directions opposed by the rabbinic leadership of their times, many did eventually split off and either assimilate into other cultures or become separate religions. And R. Torczyner didn't even go back so far in history as to count the early Proto-Christians. So while the authors are overstating their case, and may be wrong in emphasizing literacy as the point of departure, it is undoubtedly true that many left the faith because they did not like the direction the leadership was taking it.

    1. Mike - Are you suggesting that the assimilation of these groups into other cultures and/or their disappearance from Judaism was a conscious decision?

    2. Not at all. I think many of those groups thought they were, or would become, the mainstream of the Jewish people. But I do think that it is a natural consequence of separating from the religious leadership of the community and its Torah. Even in the case of the Karaites who may have been a majority had had significant support from the political leaders at one time, they survived alongside rabbanites for centuries but eventually left the Jewish people. And, to our great sorrow, we are seeing the same with the high intermarriage rates among the Conservative and Reform Jews of the U.S.

  10. Are you contending that we did not have an educated laity before?

    I'm not entirely sure what I was trying to say! I think I was trying to say that there may be more people now who are literate without being trained in serious textual analysis and who can skim the gemarah (particularly the Artscroll translation) or do a google search for quotes that (apparently) support their heterodox views without knowing anything of the context. That may have existed in the past, but I don't think it existed on this scale.

    Although as I type this, the more critical I'm becoming of what I'm saying...

  11. I wonder whether the idea בני נבאים הם is part of the picture when Jews don't quite follow Rabbinic direction but stay within Judaism.

  12. Interesting thoughts. I think that a number of other factors are at play in the modern day. For example, Jews might have been less likely to leave Judaism in the past, when cultural identity was likely stronger and when Jews were less likely to be accepted by outside cultures. Today, it's more likely that someone might consider leaving, I would think.

    Additionally, many more Jews are moved by a type of secular humanist spirit that might cause them to consciously and specifically reject Jewish particularity in a way they might not have before.

    Lastly, I suspect that growing reports of or occurrences of corruption (for example covering up sexual abuse, etc.) combined with increased legal stringency will cause more people to consciously leave then simply do their own thing.

  13. Shira G-
    Very tough; who makes the rules defining who is in/out?

    R' Barry-
    I agree with your first and third points, but I'm not as sure about the middle one. Humanism was found in Tanach already; witness the second perek of Malachi.