The Real Story of Passover

A Passover Manual

Passover and the Exodus go together.

Tradition tells us that Pesakh is the commemoration of the departure of two million Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. Led by Moses, an adopted prince of the Egyptian royal household, the Hebrews left Egypt with the help of Yahveh, their ancestral god, and began their 40-year trek back to their ancestral home in Canaan. On the way they stopped at a mountain called Sinai where Yahveh gave them the laws of the Torah, including the regulations for Passover. In these regulations Pesakh becomes the annual official reminder of what Yahveh did for the Jews when he rescued them from Egyptian slavery.

The embellished story of the Exodus really has eight parts.

1. The patriarch Jacob, the ancestor of the Jews, comes down to Egypt with his family to avoid the famine in Canaan.

2. For a period of time the Hebrews prosper and one of Jacob’s sons becomes the prime minister to Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

3. A new king comes to power, turns against the Jews and enslaves them. The slavery lasts for 400 years.

4. Moses, who is a Hebrew and also a prince of Egypt, is commissioned by Yahveh to rescue his people. Assisted by supernatural intervention, Moses intimidates Pharaoh into releasing the Jews from bondage.

5. At the full moon of the month of Nissan, the Hebrews, two million strong, leave Egypt for Canaan by way of the Red Sea and the Sinai Desert.

6. Within 50 days, they arrive at Sinai, the mountain of Yahveh, where they receive the laws of the Torah.

7. After one year, the Jews depart Sinai and wander for 40 years in the wilderness before arriving on the east bank of the river Jordan across from Canaan.

8. Moses dies and is succeeded by Joshua. Joshua leads the Hebrews across the Jordan, invades Canaan and conquers it.

For most of Jewish history this saga was assumed to be absolutely true. Confirmed by faith and tradition, it remained unchallenged. The miraculous rescue of the Jews from their Egyptian oppressors became part of Jewish piety and Jewish patriotism.

But, in modern times, the story became less credible. Historical research, the scientific critique of the Bible, archeology, anthropology and the declining belief in the supernatural — all of these together offered a serious challenge to the tale of the Haggadah.

Many problems emerged:

• There is no corroborating testimony from any historical document or inscription contemporary to this momentous event. Certainly, the extraordinary nature of this Exodus would have aroused the notice of neighboring nations.

• Even if we discount supernatural intervention, the possibility of two million densely packed nomads surviving in the wilderness for 40 years defies imagination.

• The idea that all the Hebrew slaves were descended from a single man called Jacob (Israel) seems as probable as the assertion that all Americans are descended from Uncle Sam.

• Passover has two names in the Torah, each name referring to a distinct holiday. Pesakh seems to be a shepherd holiday, with the sacrifice of lambs. Matsot seems to be a farmers’ holiday, with the eating of unleavened bread. It appears that one holiday was made out of two.

• The exodus of the Jews from Egypt most likely occurred during the reign of Raamses II around 1200 B.C. but the Hebrew invasion of Canaan (dated from the fall of Jericho) occurred 300 years earlier. Joshua seems to have preceded Moses.

In the face of these problems, scientifically-minded experts have revised the traditional story to make it conform to the facts as we now see them. Each of the eight parts of the saga has been radically changed.

Patriarchs

Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob were real people. Each of them is a personification, a symbol of a group of Semitic tribes who lived in the Palestine area and who became the ancestors of the Jewish people. The Abraham group is associated with Hebron, the Isaac group with Beersheba, the Jacob group with Bethel. Each of these groups went down into Egypt as conquerors, as part of a continuous Semitic invasion of that country (2000 – 1700 B.C.). The Egyptians called the invaders the Hyksos and viewed them with fear and detestation. For several centuries the rulers of Egypt were Semites (witness the Joseph story).

The Semitic invaders belonged to the Western or Amorite branch of the Semitic people. The Amorite language became the source of both Canaanite and Hebrew.

Egypt

The Semitic shepherd rulers of Egypt were a small minority in a sea of conquered Egyptians. Most of them remained in northern Egypt while Egyptian patriots fled south to organize rebellion. The Semitic life style was very different from that of the Egyptians. Hairy, meat-eating and wool-wearing, the Semites rubbed against the sensibilities of the conquered nation. A Semitic Pharaoh seemed an affront to the traditionalists among the masses.

Enslavement

Around 1500 B.C. Egyptian rebels from the south invaded the north and decisively defeated their Semitic overlords. The military leaders of this rebellion established the famous Eighteenth Dynasty, under whose guidance Egypt reached the height of its power and glory. Four Amenhoteps and a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut added luster to the dynastic saga. During this time most of the Semites were driven from Egypt. Some were enslaved. Many of the expelled Semites returned to Palestine and the east bank of the river Jordan, where they were reunited with their brother tribes who had never gone down to Egypt. Their Canaanite neighbors called them Hebrews (people who live across the river).

In time the new overcrowding of the east bank, combined with drought and famine, forced the Hebrews to take drastic action. Combining the tribes into a single nation for military purposes, they prepared to invade the more fertile west bank of the Jordan. Having called this new federation Israel (champions of the god El) they crossed the river under the leadership of Joshua, the chosen commander-in-chief of the operation. The conquest of the west bank was slow and often ineffective.

Hebrews and Canaanites lived side by side.

The Amorites (Hebrews) who remained in Egypt as slaves remained in the northern areas, where they worked on the construction of border fortifications. One of their tribes, the tribe of Levi, worshipped a snake god called Nahash and became famous for their supernatural powers.

Exodus

The Nineteenth Dynasty (which obviously followed the Eighteenth) continued the enslavement of the Amorites. Its most famous king, Raamses II, used them to construct fortified cities in northern Egypt as protection from eastern invaders.

At the end of his reign a slave revolt (of which there were many) enabled many of these Amorites to flee into the nearby Sinai wilderness beyond the frontier. The leader of this rebellion was Moses, a member of the tribe of Levi, who, like many of the Semitic slaves, bore an Egyptianized name. (Given the abhorrence of the Egyptians for the Semites it is highly unlikely that he was raised as an Egyptian prince. Nor was he, as Freud speculated, an Egyptian monotheist. He was most likely a Levitical priest — a devotee of the tribal snake god, whose symbol he carried around with him.)

The number of future Hebrews who departed Egypt at this time could not have exceeded ten thousand. The very nature of the Sinai wilderness would preclude the horde of slaves the Torah describes. In an almost waterless desert, survival for such a mass of people would have been impossible.

The escape from Egypt of a few thousand Semitic slaves required no miraculous intervention. It was a common occurrence.

Flight

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is equally mythical. Only a priestly scribe interested in propagandizing the power of the Jewish god Yahveh, would have imagined such a tale. Given all the alternative routes available to the fleeing slaves, heading for the Red Sea would have been an act of insanity.

Sinai

The Semitic refugees headed for a volcanic mountain in the territory of the Kenites, among whom Moses had once stayed and with whom he had contracted a marriage alliance. In the Torah, the mountain bears two names: Horeb and Sinai. At this mountain a federation of tribes was established under the leadership of Moses. The new nation was called Judah, after its largest tribe. Yahveh, the god of the mountain, was chosen to be the protector god of the new confederation.

Given the illiteracy of the Jews, it is highly unlikely that written laws were given to them at Sinai. Most of the legislation of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, comes from later centuries.

Wilderness

For many decades the Jews lingered on the edges of the southern borders of Canaan. Population pressures from other Semitic groups coming from the south — Amalekites, Midranites and Edomites — made a comfortable stay around the oasis of Kadeshbarnea impossible. They had to move. And the only direction in which they could move was north into Canaan.

Invasion

Under the leadership of the Levites, the tribe of Moses, the Jews invaded southern Canaan around 1150 B.C. (some 350 years after the northern Hebrew invasion under Joshua). They conquered Hebron and Beersheba, the old shrine centers of the Abraham and Isaac groups, and gave their name (Judah) to the land which they had taken.

For many years Israelis and Jews remained distinct peoples — with different dialects of the same Amorite language — until they were united into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul a century later.

The Egyptian memories of both peoples were also distinct. The Israelis remembered conquest of Egypt. The Jews remembered slavery in Egypt.

In the long run, the Jews alone survived as an independent self-aware nation. Around the year 620 B.C. one of their kings named Josiah, having completed the conquest of northern Israel, commissioned a “constitution” for his new “empire.” This document was the original Torah.

Seeking to unite Jews and Israelis with a common epic, Josiah’s priests attached the Exodus story to the great spring farmers’ festival of Matsot, a seven-day celebration of the harvest characterized by the eating of unleavened bread made from unfermented new grain. Seeking to affirm the patriotic roots of the Hebrew people in the nostalgia of shepherd simplicity, the priests also attached the spring fertility festival of Pesakh to Matsot. Pesakh was a shepherd holiday which celebrated the fertility of the flocks and the arrival of new lambs and kids. It featured the killing and eating of young lambs and the marking of tentposts with blood to ward off the dangerous intrusion of evil spirits.

In time the Exodus, Pesakh , and Matsot were molded into a unity. Stories evolved to explain the connection and to provide a rationale for the combined celebration. The real saga found no comfortable place in this political development.

When we, as Humanistic Jews, celebrate Passover, the traditional myths that developed over the centuries provide us with ideological problems. The real story enables the festival to become an understandable part of our life. The traditional story may be more dramatic, with its miracles and divine pizzazz. But the real adventure, being a human struggle, offers greater dignity.

Evolution is Our Story

Evolution: summer 2000

Charles Darwin is not a traditional Jew­ish hero. But he is one of the great sages of Humanistic Judaism. The principles of bio­logical evolution and natural selection lie at the heart of our belief system.

Twenty-five hundred years ago some anonymous priests edited two stories about the invention of life. These stories constitute the first two chapters of the Torah. In the first story God manufactures life in three days – plants first, then animals, and then people. In the second chapter he starts with man. Adam is bored. So God creates plants and animals to amuse him. Adam is still bored. So God conjures up a woman from Adam’s rib. Adam is impressed.

These two stories provide the informa­tional and ideological foundation for tradi­tional Jewish biology. All life is simulta­neously created. All life forms have remained the same since their creation. The age of both the universe and life is somewhere around six thousand years.

In most Jewish schools today these stories are still being taught. For liberal Jews they present an enormous problem. They are in obvious contradiction to what modern sci­ence teaches. They do not bear the faintest connection with the realities of natural evo­lution. Only a tortured poetic interpretation can rescue them. They are simply embarrass­ingly inappropriate. But, since even liberal Jews, whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist, are stuck with the Torah, they feel compelled to present the stories.

The net result is that liberal Judaism has no strong message on cosmology or biology. No one really believes the traditional stories. But no one is prepared to draft a compelling alternative. One of the cornerstones of an ef­fective philosophy of life, a credible view of where we came from, is neglected. The fun­damental questions of the nature of life are relegated to the public school. The synagogue prefers mythology.

This deplorable situation is aggravated by the rise of fundamentalism in Jewish and Christian life. One of the “banners” of this new fanaticism is the defense of the Genesis sto­ries as basically true. Creationism has now reared its absurd head to challenge the prin­ciple of evolution. Creationists demote evo­lution to a mere “theory” despite the over­whelming evidence to support it. And they present their mythology as a theory of equal validity. While Orthodox Jews applaud this development, liberal Jews condemn it. But there is nothing in their prayer books or in their school programs that would give any substance to their resistance. Their approach is negative: “Do not take the stories literally.” “Do not put religion into the public schools.” But there is no positive and enthusiastic de­fense of evolution. In the end, the temples read the creation story on the Sabbath and teach the creation story in their Sunday schools. The Darwinian story they claim to believe in is never dramatically told.

Humanistic Jews are liberated from the “yoke” of liberal Jewish religion. They do not place the Torah and its stories at the center of their Judaism. They do not need to pay hom­age to ancient myths and to demonstrate their worth even when that worth is questionable. They are free to create an alternative story that is responsible to evidence and is flexible enough to face constant revision. If they want to, they can write it down in Hebrew and place its words on a parchment scroll, even though the truth of the story is not a function of an­tiquity. Nor are they afraid to admit that knowledge and wisdom can come from people other than Jews.

If Humanistic Judaism is to function as a complete philosophy of life, then it must pro­vide a dramatic answer to the questions about the origin and nature of life. It must articu­late that answer clearly and forcefully so that both children and adults can incorporate it into the foundations of their Judaism. The story of evolution must be a dramatic part of public celebrations, school programs, and textbooks. It must have a prominent place in the presentation of the basic ideas of the move­ment. There is no need to find a way to con­nect it to Genesis; all attempts to make that connection distort the meaning of the origi­nal myths and only sow confusion.

As a foundational story of Humanistic Judaism, evolution is a powerful saga. The drama of life continually transforming itself in a tough setting of competition and struggle is compelling. The development of life is no serene emergence, with divine decrees con­juring up living forms effortlessly and instan­taneously. It is a dangerous ascent, and only a small fraction of the organisms that attempt the climb make it to the top. The hurdle of natural selection is tough to surmount. The fit between organisms and their environment is not an easy one.

Just as the history of the Jews needs to be rescued from the absurd doctrine of the Cho­sen People, so must the story of life be saved from the destructive embrace of creationism. We need to be continually reminded of the realities of life so that we can cope with it. The message of evolution is not only infor­mational, providing the order in which liv­ing things emerged. It also is philosophic, describing a setting for life that rational people can accept and adjust to.

What is the philosophic message of evolution?

  1.  The forces of nature that control our uni­verse and the development of life are natural and impersonal. They have no conscious pur­pose and no moral agenda. They operate re­lentlessly, ultimately sweeping most organ­isms into the garbage can of history. Natural selection may appear to be a cruel judge. It cannot be negotiated with. And it cannot change its mind.
  2.  All life is connected. We are not special creations of God, earthly angels with souls who have no fundamental relationship to the rest of nature. We are made of the same stuff as all other living things. We share the same origins. We share many of the same needs and desires. All the parts of our body and our mind have their roots in the bodies and minds of fish and reptiles and other mammals. Fear, anger, love, and sadness are not uniquely human. They have their counterparts in our animal cousins. We did not begin as fallen gods. We began as walking apes. Feeling our basic connection to all of nature restores balance to our lives and makes us see who we really are. It also makes us more compassionate with the suffering of living beings that are not human.
  3.  There is no fundamental harmony in na­ture. The living world is filled with many competing agendas. What is survival for the hunter is death for the hunted. What is vic­tory for the invader is destruction for the in­vaded. Humans and the microbes that afflict their bodies are not in harmony. They are at war with each other. In this world of strug­gling organisms we have both friends and enemies. There is no way to make every or­ganism our friend. When we can be generous, we ought to be. When the enemy is fierce, we need human allies in the battle.
  4.  Love and ethics emerged in our struggle for survival. Some animals are loners. Oth­ers, like us, need community. Each of us is too vulnerable alone. Our evolution has turned us into social beings dependent on the kindness and help of other people. Morality did not fall from heaven. It evolved over mil­lions of years as the price we have to pay for group existence. Over time, natural selection reinforced the tendency within us to work with others and to care for them. All cultures bear the imprint of this conscience.
  5. Victory is never final. Our survival lasts only so long as we fit our environment. If we destroy the foundation of the environment in which we evolved, we also shall be destroyed. Protecting and improving the natural setting in which we live is as important as any new power we acquire. Power is useless if it blows up the foundation of our existence.

Evolution is our story. It has an impor­tant message. It needs to be proclaimed in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. It needs to be celebrated through holidays and tributes. It needs to be taught clearly and boldly to our adults and our children in the schools we cre­ate. As Humanistic Jews we have a powerful answer to the question, what is life? And our answer is not mythology. It is confirmed ev­ery day by the testimony of our experience.

The Torah: Its Place in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

For most Jews, the Torah is more than a book, more than a scroll. It is the sacred symbol of the Jewish religion. They can no more imagine a Judaism without the Torah than they can imagine a Judaism without God.

While most Jews do not study the Torah, they believe that they ought to. Even if they do not understand it, they believe that it contains eternal wisdom. And even if they are not interested in eter­nal wisdom, they believe that everything valuable in Jewish identity can be traced back to the Torah.

No form of liberal Judaism has dared to dispense with it. Reform Jews praise it and provide the biggest arks for it. Recon­structionist Jews declare it to be one of the three fundamentals of their faith. Ambiva­lent Jews arrange to do Bar Mitzvahs with it. Even many secular Jews regard it as the source of their history.

The Torah is a problem for Humanistic Jews.

The Torah is a theological document. Yahveh (Elohim) is the central figure of the book. He — and not people — determines the course of human history. Without his consent, nothing happens. And without his intervention, salvation is impossible. Even Pharaoh does not “harden his heart” without Yahveh arranging for it. Jewish suffering in Egypt is no more than part of his plan to advertise his power through a dramatic rescue.

The Torah is an authoritarian docu­ment. Laws derive their ethical clout from God’s command. If Yahveh permits, the behavior is right. If Yahveh forbids, the behavior is wrong. Supernatural rewards and punishments do not give authority to the laws. They simply motivate people to do what is obviously the right thing to do. “I am Yahveh, your God,” the endless refrain of the Torah, is a dramatic version of parental intimidation. “I am your father — and I deserve your obedience.” With that kind of moral approach, reason and dignity go out the window.

The Torah is a confusing document. Scientific criticism has revealed that it is a composite of at least four separate docu­ments. Many of its stories contradict each other (Genesis 1 and 2). Many of its laws are mutually incompatible (individual and collective guilt). Many of the events it describes either never happened or never happened in the way they are described. And most of the stories were written cen­turies after the so-called events occurred.

The Torah is a reactionary document. It promotes a lifestyle that is morally offen­sive to most contemporary Jews: a world of family tyranny, female inequality, tribal exclusiveness, theocratic government, and sacrificial ritual.

The Torah is a chauvinistic document. It views the Jewish people as a “chosen” people. The descendants of Abraham are selected out for special protection and special privilege — not because of their own intrinsic merits — but because they are the children of Yahveh’s favorite. Very little attention is devoted to the role of non-Jews and to what Yahveh expects of them and will do for them. The world God behaves like a tribal God.

We should use the Torah as an important historical document, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people.

The Torah is a “sacred” document. It has become a book to be worshiped and defended — not a book to be enjoyed and studied critically. It is an “idol,” set aside for public reverence and held up to public adoration. The contents of the book becomes less important than the ceremon­ial marching and kissing and raising and praising. Sacred scriptures are dangerous, because so long as they are regarded as sacred, they cannot be treated as litera­ture, as the creation of fallible human beings. Because the Torah is an “idol,” many Jews feel a compulsive need to rescue it for contemporary use. The result is a fixation with a short period in Jewish history that may be insignificant to the formation of the modern Jewish personality.

Given these difficulties, what is the place of Torah in the educational and ceremonial life of the Humanistic Jew?

Our answer must be consistent with the basic affirmations of a humanistic ap­proach to Judaism — the irrelevance of God, a rational ethic that derives its authority from human need, a lifestyle consonant with reason and personal dignity, a naturalistic view of Jewish history, the refusal of all idols. It is not our job to fit these beliefs into the Torah. It is our job to fit the Torah into these commitments.

First, let us describe how not to deal with the Torah.

We do not need to rescue the Torah. We do not need to make the Torah do for us more than it can. The Torah is the supreme document of priestly Judaism. It is a skillful expression of a theocratic view of the world and society. No matter what interpretive genius we bring to the text, the Torah cannot be turned into a humanistic constitution — or even a shab­by version of one. A document, two-thirds of whose contents are humanistically em­barrassing, cannot — without dishonesty — be made to serve as the foundation code of a secular approach to Jewish identity.

We must not mock the Torah. It deserves its own dignity. It belongs to the traditional Jews who live by its prescrip­tions. Texts mean what their authors in­tended them to mean. They do not mean what desperate liberals want to make them mean. The writer of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He did not believe in galaxies and evolu­tion. If he had endorsed those convictions, he would have said so. The writer of Ex­odus 19 believed in supernatural intrusion and divine voice. He did not believe in Moses engaging in philosophic introspec­tion on top of a mountain. The author of Leviticus 19 believed in divine dictator­ship and priestly government. He did not embrace personal freedom and democracy. The rabbis chose to distort some of the priestly intent. The Reformers chose to distort most of it. And certain humanists would have to use every ounce of their guile to turn the texts of the Torah into a plea for an agnostic egalitarian morality.

We must not avoid the Torah. It is so easy to use the Torah as a symbol without ever paying attention to its content. Liberal rabbis love to point out that the Torah is only a sign of God’s continuous revelation, that divine wisdom is present in the best thinking of every Jewish age. But they fail to point out that the editors of the Torah deny future revelations. And the liberal rabbis never fill their arks with the other books they praise. In the end, the Torah becomes a symbol of itself. The weekly readings become perfunctory. The alternatives never get read. An empty parchment scroll with a pretty gown would do just as well.

We must not misrepresent ourselves. We must not imitate Reform Judaism and pretend that Zadokite priests were the precursors of the Enlightenment. Human­istic Judaism is not the child of the official documents of priestly and rabbinic Judaism. It is the child of Jewish ex­perience, 25 centuries of human ingenuity in the face of cruel and unkind fates. Building an ark with a Torah to represent Humanistic Judaism is false representa­tion. It obscures our real history, deceives the public, and prevents us from using the Torah the way we should.

How then should we use the Torah?

Humanistic Judaism should use the Torah as an important historical docu­ment, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people. Although it seems to focus on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, it really describes the power struggles and ambi­tions of priests and Jews who lived many centuries after the death of Moses. The Torah is less a description of the life of the Hebrews in the nomadic period and more a revelation of the beliefs and anxieties of the Jews before and after the Chaldean conquest. The editors of the Torah put their sixth century laws and convictions into the mouths of the patriarchs and Moses.

The Torah is a book of clues. If it is studied scientifically (not piously), it will lead us to real events that lie behind the mythology. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may turn out to be symbols of three Amorite invasions of Palestine. Joseph may be transformed into a Semitic inva­sion of Egypt. And Joshua may end up liv­ing 300 years before Moses. The authors of the Torah saw the past through their own political and theological convictions. Jewish history is not what the priestly writers say it was. It is a collection of events that lie behind the descriptions. And the Torah is a collection of clues that lead us to the events.

The Torah is a book about past and pre­sent beliefs. Even if many of the historical statements of the Torah are false, even if many of the laws of the Torah are ethical­ly invalid, they are still assertions that many of our ancestors fervently believed in and that guided their behavior. It may be true that the earth is not flat. But it is true that believing in a flat earth deter­mines your travel arrangements and the way you see your place in the universe. It may be true that Yahveh did not write the Torah. But it is true that believing that Yahveh did write the Torah would in­fluence the way you approached new ideas and justified new laws. Much of establishment Jewish behavior comes from ideas that are to be found in the Torah and its commentaries. The study of these ideas is part of the study of Jewish history, just as is a study of the conditions that undermined these ideas.

The Torah is a book of shared conclu­sions. The priestly writers often reached ethical conclusions that we as Humanistic Jews also have reached. They came to these moral precepts with the sanction of an authoritarian God. We come to these rules with an empirical testing of their consequences. They (the priestly writers) came to these precepts with the belief that the Torah gave them validity. We come to them with the awareness that common sense makes them worthwhile — even if the Torah did not exist. Millions of people in dozens of cultures have discovered that honoring parents and telling the truth were morally important, even though they never saw a Torah. Ethics do not come from a book. They come from human needs and human experience.

The Ten Commandments — like any historic religious code — do not complete­ly pass the test of a humanistic appeal to human dignity. Insisting that Jews remem­ber their dependence on supernatural in­tervention is hardly an invitation to self- reliance and self-esteem. Prohibiting the sculpture of the human form does not ele­vate the independence and creativity of the artist. And arbitrarily choosing one day for everybody to abstain from all sur­vival and pleasure activity has more to do with fear than with rest and recreation. Indeed, children should know about the Ten Commandments. But they should not be intimidated by their antiquity and by their authoritarian history. Rational guidelines are never inscribed in stone. They need to be continually adjusted and amended.

In a Humanistic Jewish congregation, the Torah does not belong in an ark. An ark implies that the Torah is a sacred scripture. And Humanistic Jews do not ac­cept the idea of sacred scriptures. All literature is of human creation, designed to appeal to human audiences and filled with human imperfection. Books are never holy. They may be useful and inspi­rational. But they are never all true and all perfect. And they bear no guarantee of eternal validity.

The Torah belongs in the library. As a scroll, it deserves a place of special honor in the museum of famous Jewish books. Let students study it and evaluate it. Let teachers talk about it and explain its historic power. But let no one worship it or imagine that Jewish identity and ethical living depend on it.

Jewish history — as it really happened — is the source of Jewish identity for Humanistic Jews. No single Jewish book can be an adequate symbol of the ex­perience. A new view of Jewish history cannot be seriously pursued so long as we give too much place to the symbol of the old view.

The Rabbi Writes: Sukkot

The Jewish Humanist, October 1976, Vol. 14, Number 2

Sukkot begins Friday, October 8. 

Sukkot is a harvest festival, a farmers’ holiday.  It celebrates an experience which our ancestors tasted annually when they lived as a nation in ancient Palestine.   

Today Sukkot is a vicarious experience for the vast majority of Jews.  It celebrates what urban Jews no longer taste.  The harvest is something we understand and value.  But it is not a primary event in our life cycle. 

For the contemporary Jew Sukkot is an expression of our attachment to our roots.  It is an expression of our nostalgic attachment to the land where we began.  The fruit harvest of Israel is important to us because Israel is important to us. 

Modern Israel, however, is radically different from ancient Israel.  The secular founders of the Jewish state not only ignored Yahveh.  They also ignored all other gods.  Although they succeeded in bringing large numbers of Jews back to the land, they also created an industrial state where the overwhelming majority of Israelis are urban and capitalist consumers. 

In one respect modern Israel is like ancient Palestine.  The Hebrews who invaded the land found a nation already living there.  That nation was the people of Canaan.  The Canaanites were West Semitic brothers of the Hebrews who had lived in Palestine long before the Hebrew federation had come into being. 

Even though the pious and fanatic editors of the Bible resisted the truth, the fact is that the Hebrews were unable to subdue and destroy all the Canaanites.  They lived side by side with them for many centuries and shared the land.  The prophets found this association offensive because they thought it was subversive of the purity of the Yahvistic religion.  Many political leaders found this connection disgusting because they preferred the military strength of a homogeneous population.  But they were forced to accept reality.  Extermination of the natives was both unmoral (sic) and dangerous.  The danger lay in the fact that the Canaanites had relatives living outside of Israel who would have been provoked by such action.  These relatives were called Phoenicians by the Greeks. 

Modern Israel also shares the land with another nation, which has powerful relatives outside its borders.  The Arabs are the modern Canaanites.  Although Jews and Arabs hate each other they are forced to live together on the same piece of real estate. 

In Greater Israel (post 1967 Israel) almost 40% of the population is Arab.  Most of these Arabs are without political and civil rights.  Four hundred thousand Arabs are Israeli citizens, residents of the old Israel.  One million Arabs are without citizenship, residents of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. 

These Arabs will not go away.  They can no longer be expelled.  Even if all Palestinian refugees are forbidden to return, they will remain a large minority of the Israeli population.  If their birth rate persists, they will eventually become the majority. 

Only two situations can reverse this reality.  (1) Israel returns Judea, Samaria and Gaza to their former Arab owners.  (2) Thousands of European and American Jews immigrate to Israel. 

Neither situation is likely. 

The Israeli government cannot return the occupied territories to Jordan or Egypt.  To do so would be to re-create (sic) the old indefensible boundaries of….    (pages 3-4 missing from journal) 

Judaism the Old and the New

Humanistic Judaism, Spring/Summer, 1975

How can you call it Judaism if you don’t believe in God?

The eternal question.

A tiresome question.

But valid. If religion is identified with a set of theological beliefs, it is the ultimate logical challenge.

If Judaism is identified with the implicit creed of the Biblical and Talmudic authors, is the most rational of responses. The humanist cannot ignore the question. Not only because of the badgering of people in his environment. But also because he cannot, in good conscious, my call his religion Judaism if it is unrelated to the essentials of the Jewish religious experience.

Non-traditional Judaism, including Reform, justifies its label by establishing its adherence to the Torah. The Torah is on the peg on which all “real” Judaism supposedly hangs. The holidays and other ceremonies derive their “kosher” character from their presence in the Bible.

Traditional Judaism depends on an acceptance of the stories and the Torah. The Jewish religion begin with God who transmitted his commands to Abraham and Moses. Abraham’s son Israel had 12 sons each of who became the ancestor of a tribe. Ultimately all 12 tribes want to live in Egypt where they were enslaved by the pharaohs. After their liberation from bondage, the new leader Moses led them to Mount Sinai. At this mountain they receive the full doctrine of the Torah and pledged themselves and their children to fulfill the commitment.

By the official story the Bible came first. The religious regimen of Jewish life came second.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, denies the truth of the story. It denies that the holiday and life-cycle ceremonies which express the rhythm of Judaism are the result of the Torah. It denies that the origin of Judaism is in the Bible and in the historic events described in the Bible.

Using the result of a scientific survey of the Jewish past, a humanistic Judaism presents the counter-story to the story of the Torah. In the discoveries of archaeology and of the higher Bible criticism lie its scriptures.

Humanistic Judaism affirms 10 historical observations which are in conflict with traditional claims.

Here they are.

  1. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed; they are mythical figures. In ancient Palestine there were three somatic peoples who spoke the same language. There were the Canaanites (also called Phoenicians), the Amorites, and the Hebrews. Their difference was not racial, but occupational. The Canaanites were city-dwellers, the Amorites hill-country farmers, and the Hebrews wandering herdsman and shepherds. The Hebrews conquered the Amorite Hill-country in successive small invasions lasting over 1000 years. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are personifications of three important invasions. Although the authors of the Torah try hard to deny the ethnic and cultural connection between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, objective research proves them wrong.
  2. Most Hebrews never went down into Egypt. The exit is a story is a myth. There is no historical evidence the subs tonight a massive Hebrew departure from the land of the pharaohs. As far as we can surmise, the Hebrew occupation of the hill-country on both sides of the Jordan was continuous. The 12 tribes Joseph considered us to never left their ancestral land, never under 400 years of slavery, and never wonder the Sinai desert. The origin of their custom ceremonies had nothing to do with an Egyptian experience.
  3. Moses was never the leader of the Hebrews. One Semitic tribe called Levi did spend time in Egypt. They may have even been slaves. However by 1200 B.C., long after the Hebrews had been settled in Palestine, this tribe was wondering the Sinai desert. Their leader and shaman was a man called Moses (an Egyptian name) and their chief god was either a snake god called Nehushtan or a wind god called Yahveh. Under the leadership of Moses they infiltrated the Hebrew land of Judah (the south of the Hebrew territory was called Judah and the north is called Israel). Famous for their magical powers they were invited by the people of Judah (the Jews) to become their priests. After Moses died, his descendants, in particular, were in demand as priests. In time, the Levites, like the Magi in Persia, specialized in soothsaying and in the conducting of religious ceremonies. All the Levites remembered their leader Moses, the Jews had, for obvious reasons, no historic memory of his leadership.
  4. The Jewish religion was old before the Bible was written. Long before the Levites ever set foot in Palestine, long before the story of the Torah was written, the Hebrews had an ancient religion and an ancient set of religious ceremonies. The Torah was not even written by Moses (who is most likely illiterate). It’s written by a group of Levitical priests 700 years after Moses had died and centuries after the basic religious calendar of Judaism had evolved.
  5. Sukkoth, Hanukkah, and Passover were established holidays long for the Torah was dreamed of. In ancient Palestine there were three moments of the seasonal year which were suspenseful. The first was at the fall equinox when the rainy season was scheduled to begin. The second was at the winter solstice when the dying light of the sun was scheduled to renew itself. And the third was in the spring when the herds and the flocks regularly conceived. The failure of either the rain or, or the sun, or animal fertility to fulfill its promise spelled disaster. Therefore our Hebrew ancestors set aside a week of celebration at each of these annual crises to ensure success. They danced and they sang and sought to urge the natural forces on through imitation. They poured water on Sukkot, light candles on Hanukkah, and ate eggs on Passover to urge the rhythm of nature to assert herself. The Levitical authors of the Torah sought to deny the natural origins of these festivals and to attach them (with the exception of Hanukkah) to historic desert experience of the Hebrews never knew. But modern research gives the lie to the tampering.
  6. Judaism began as a series of nature experiences. Judaism is as old as the Jewish people. It began with the natural experiences of the Hebrew people in their own land. It began with a Jewish response to the season crises of autumn, winter, and spring as well as to the individual crises of birth, puberty, marriage, death. What the Bible denies, the evidence of history affirms. Although the orthodox leadership, both historical and rabbinical, sought to turn the attention of the Jews from nature to their god Yahveh, it could not erase the nature experience. Even when officially demoted to insignificance, it persisted as the major motivation for celebration.
  7. The Torah is an attempt to explain the already established Jewish calendar. After the destruction of the northern Hebrew (Israel) by the Assyrians and the defeat of the northern Hebrew (the Jews) by the Chaldeans, a power vacuum existed. Since the Chaldeans and their successors the Persians did not wish to restore the military leadership of Judah out of fear that revolt would be encouraged, they removed the royal house of David and replaced them with a group of harmless collaborators. This collaborators were the Levitical priests who were hungry for power. (We forgive their modern descendants, the Levines and the Cohens).
  8. The Levites had a problem. In the eyes of the people they were usurpers, opportunistic replacements of the legitimate house of David. They therefore had to prove the right to rule.
  1. The Torah is a deliberate attempt by the Levites to prove that Moses and his relatives (as contrasted to David and his descendants) are the rightful rulers of the Jews. A fictional Moses was created to become the leader of all the Hebrews and the start of a supernatural spectacular at Sinai.
  1. In order to re-enforce the authority of Moses the Levites deliberately associated all holidays with Moses and with Yahveh, the god of Moses. Passover emerges as the anniversary of the mythical Exodus. Sukkoth emerges as a commemoration of the never-never 40 years wandering in the desert. And the rest day, sacred to Saturn, the God of Jerusalem, is justified as the Sabbath through a childish story of creation. When the Levites get through with their book, but the history of Judaism is totally distorted. A non-hero called Modes arises as the savior of Israel, and the ancient Jewish calendar with all its pagan gaiety is reduced to a solemn desert travesty.
  2. The Biblical point of view is the Levitical point of view. The Bible is a series of 24 bucks either written by or edited by the Levites. It is an attempt to explain ancient Judaism through the vested interest of the priestly clan. If read uncritically, it distorts the truth and makes the origins of Judaism to appear as they weren’t. The Torah is not the source of Judaism. It is a clever and successful attempt to rationalize Judaism for the benefit of a small power elite.
  3. The Jewish religious experience precedes the articulated belief about the gods or God.The religious experience in all cultures is the attempt to celebrate the unchanging rhythm of life, whether seasonal or personal. Before there was a Moses or Levites, before there was any formal theology, there existed an ancient Hebrew calendar of life. The dramatic experience of this calendar, with all their sense of identity with the events of nature, were independent of any theological explanation. Only later when the caretakers of religion tried to articulate the significance of these experiences that they conjure up fantasies about the gods. Judaism preceded the gods and will survive them.
  4. Historic Judaism is not the Bible. It is the celebration of life through the seasonal and personal calendars of Jewish experience. An authentic Judaism seeks to go behind the official theological rationalizations. It seeks to articulate the human experience which makes Sukkot, Hanukkah, Passover, and the other celebrations significant. It finds the ethical values of these holidays and no mythical story but in the human response to this season. Reflection is natural to the autumn, hope is essential to the winter, and freedom is the imitation of spring.

And so, there they are. 10 historical assertions. 10 humanistic interpretations of Jewish history. Just as the modern Jew is utterly distinct from the man official theology described, so was the ancient Jew vastly different from the pious image the Bible prefers.

The Origins of Jewish Monotheism

The Origins of Jewish Monotheism” from A Provocative People, (2012) 

With the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Jews came into their own. The demise of the northern Hebrew kingdom left its southern counterpart as the only independent Hebrew state. Although the people of Israel had survived, it was not the same. Its leaders were deported. Its cities were devastated. A foreign army remained in occupation. A foreign population was transported from other Assyrian conquests and took up residence in the land, diluting the Hebrew and Canaanite character of the Israelite kingdom. Having lost its native rulers, Israel was reduced to a province of the Assyrian empire. An Assyrian governor, responsible to the Assyrian king, dominated public life.

Judah had survived because it had refused to join the rebellion against the Assyrians. The Jews had, in fact, endured an Israelite invasion because of their loyalty to the Assyrian king. As long as they paid their tribute, they were temporarily safe from direct control by an Assyrian governor.

The Assyrian conquest of Israel had been brutal and traumatic. While some Israelites remained where they lived, many were forcibly exiled and many more fled. The nearest refuge for those in flight was Judah. Hundreds of them crossed the border into Jewish territory. Among the refugees were the Levites of Shiloh and the leaders of the Protest Movement. They settled near Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state.

The cult of Yahweh was important to the Jews. Yahweh was the chief god of the Jewish pantheon. As in Israel, his worship had been deeply influenced by Canaanite ritual. But its chief priests were Zadokites, rivals of the Mushites (House of Moses), who were now refugees in Judah.

The tragedy of Israel pushed the Mushites into the camp of the Protest Movement. The suffering of the Israelites seemed to confirm the dire predictions of the movement leaders. Continuous pronouncements of doom were part of their Yahwistic propaganda. When doom arrived, it seemed to testify to the anger and power of Yahweh. Only a return to the shepherd traditions of their Hebrew ancestors could avert further catastrophe. Out of this conversion would come the first tracts of the Bible. It was in Judah that the ideology of the Protest Movement was refined into a coherent and powerful doctrine. If attachment to the ideals of the nomadic past was merged with passion for Yahweh, then Yahweh had to be powerful enough to control the Assyrians. Being a national god was not enough. Only a world god would have the might to use the Assyrians to punish the Israelites and the Jews. Out of this necessity was born what today is called monotheism.

The elevation of Yahweh to world domination was ironic. It was not the victory of the Israelites that proved the power of Yahweh. It was their defeat. The prophets of the Protest Movement denied what the Assyrians affirmed—that the victory of the Assyrians demonstrated the superiority of the Assyrian gods. They claimed that Assyria was only the instrument of Yahweh’s desire to punish the Israelites for their abandonment of Yahweh and the ways of their ancestors.

Thus the god of a small nation was rescued from humiliation and elevated to world supremacy. Defeat enhanced the reputation of Yahweh. The genius of the Protest Movement was its ability to extract victory from the jaws of disaster.

Israelite and Jewish monotheism emerged from political and religious despair, not from philosophic speculation. It always retained a parochial edge. The one god of the world had the name Yahweh, the national god of the Jews. Yahweh responded only to that name. He was chiefly obsessed with the behavior of the Jews, who became his chosen people. All world events derived their significance from their connection to the events of Jewish history. The cult of Yahweh was still the cult of Yahweh, with Yahweh promoted to greater power. Although he was now presumed to be the chief manager of the universe, he found time to provide legislation for only two small nations.

Certain events in the history of every nation are turning points. They produce changes out of proportion to the size of their stimulus. Just as in organic evolution, long periods of no change are followed by short explosions of major transformation, so, in human history, quantum leaps of change succeed quiet times of stability. The trigger of transformation is usually catastrophe. In the one case, meteors strike the earth. In the other, powerful invaders overwhelm the nation. The Assyrian conquest was the meteor of Jewish history.

You Shall Love the Lord Your God

“You Shall Love the Lord Your God”  from A Provocative People, (1992)

Loving deities is not easy. After all, an emotion that began with the intimate relations of parents and children, men and women is not easily transferred to intimidating gods. But “love” movements have arisen in many religions. Their cause is the need of many devotees to establish relationships with the gods that mirror the intense personal relationships of family. What we call mysticism flows from this need; the Baal Shem Tov, Jesus and the Bhakhti gurus of Hinduism manifest this development. The assumption is that the god returns the love which the devotee offers. Certainly, the fear that most gods have inspired is reduced if we can imagine them behaving as loving parents.

What is most puzzling is commanding a feeling. Love certainly includes behavior, but it starts with feeling. Commanding feeling is impossible. We feel what we feel. Our behavior we can control, but not our feelings. Ordering somebody to love you borders on absurdity. “You shall obey your god” is more reasonable. Early religion focused more on behavior than on feeling.

Creation of the Bible and Mishnah

“Creation of Bible and Mishnah” from A Provocative People, (2012)

By the end of the second century CE the Jewish population of the Roman Empire and the Western Diaspora, despite all the setbacks, stood at seven million.* In the eyes of the Romans, the Jews were still annoying troublemakers; but they were still too numerous to destroy. Hadrian’s successors would have to find a new way to control them.

In the second century, the Empire was at the peak of its power, with the best system of imperial management that had yet been devised. The Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, yielded to a stronger alternative—succession by merit. Three emperors in a row chose successors who were not members of their family, but military men who commanded the respect of the army and the administration. Trajan chose Hadrian, Hadrian chose Antoninus Pius; and Antoninus Pius chose Marcus Aurelius (98-161 CE). All three emperors wanted to solve the Jewish problem.

After their second defeat by the Romans, the Jews (for all practical purposes) had ceased to be a territorial nation. They were still a nation, both in their own view and in the eyes of their neighbors—but a dispersed nation. This nation lived in two empires which were hostile to each other. Most lived in the Western Diaspora, under Roman control. Many lived in the Eastern Empire, which was under Parthian control. Western Jews lived with the challenge of the Greek world and the attractiveness of the Hellenistic option. Eastern Jews experienced a world where the old authoritarianism of the Semitic and Persian worlds prevailed. In the Jewish mind the Jews, wherever they lived, were one and the same people. But time and distance would aggravate the differences between East and West.

The Romans were confronted with the problem of taming the Jews. Forced Hellenization was no longer a feasible alternative. The only credible leadership group that survived the two messianic wars was the rabbis. There was nobody else left, not even a few Alexandria Jewish philosophers. And the leader of the rabbis was a presumed descendant of Hillel, a famous Pharisaic scholar whofounded a dynasty of rabbis, many of whom became the chiefs of the Sanhedrin. His name was Judah (170-220 CE).

In the middle of the second century, the presidency of the rabbinic Sanhedrin was permanently assumed by the House of Hillel. What David was to the monarchy, what Zadok was to the High Priesthood, so was Hillel to the “chief rabbinate.” Until 429 CE every “chief rabbi” was a descendant of Hillel.

Judah was the great-grandson of Gamaliel II. He had grown up in the turmoil of the Second Jewish War. He had witnessed the failure of the Akiba administration. He saw the devastation and demoralization of the Jews. He knew that the stability of Jewish life was only possible through an effective central control and through a long-run accommodation with the Romans.

The Romans wanted law and order from the Jews. They wanted centralized control with effective management. What was needed was a Jewish “emperor” who would tame Jews in the West and who would be directly responsible to Roman authority. A new job gradually emerged called the Nasi (Prince). The Nasi might have a Sanhedrin to whom he would defer. But from the Roman perspective, the ultimate authority would not be the council; it would be the Nasi.

The Nasi became the effective king of all the Western Jews. He became responsible for their good behavior. He became responsible for their payment of the special “Jew tax.” The Jew tax was the price that Jews paid to receive exemption from the impossible requirement of emperor worship. A king and pope wrapped into one, the Nasi was a royal personage, belonging to the “royal” family of Hillel, which now joined the house of David and the house of Zadok as an ultimate Jewish pedigree. It was rumored that Hillel himself was descended from David.

From the Roman perspective, the role of the Nasi was to check messianism. The rabbis were to return to their former Pharisee carefulness—a Messiah yes, but not for a long time. The Jews must remain a well-behaved minority nation under the control of their clergy. The Persians had authorized the Zadokite theocracy. The Romans now authorized the rabbinic theocracy, or government by the rabbis. The Nasi established rabbinic courts and ordained rabbis to serve in them. The certification of rabbis was now formalized (semikha). All legitimacy now depended on the Nasi.

The residence of the Nasi was in Galilee, the surviving center of Jewish life in Roman Palestine. The Nasi first resided in the Western Galilee in Beth Shearim, not toofar from the big city of Sepphoris. Later on the court of the Nasi moved to Tiberias in the Eastern Galilee. For two centuries Tiberias was the capital of the Jewish world. There the Nasi held court. There he lived in splendor. There he revived the politically obedient posture of the former Zadokite High Priests. But his jurisdiction was no longer little Judea. It was the boundaries of the Roman world.

The power and prestige of the Nasi did not emerge immediately. It took over two centuries to perfect them. First, the Romans had to recover from their anger. Then the rabbis had to reorganize themselves in Galilee. And then the Nasi had to create the institutions that would give reality to this power. The most important institution would be the yeshiva (Torah academy). At the heart of the yeshiva would be a new document, a Second Torah, which the Nasi himself would create.

The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple had rendered useless the old Zadokite clergy. They had been the masters of the Temple. They had been hoisted on their own petard. The Torah which they had championed did not allow them to build a Yahweh temple in any place but the sacred hill of Jerusalem. They had foolishly arranged for their own demise. The new clergy, the rabbis, cleverly attached themselves to a portable symbol of God’s presence, the Torah book itself. They were the masters of the book. This book, which their Zadokite competitors had created, was tied to no single place. It praised and exalted Jerusalem, but it did not need it. The rabbis sincerely mourned the loss of Jerusalem. Yet, ironically, the loss of Jerusalem eliminated their competition and gave them undisputed power. The book was the very voice of God, and the rabbis were now the only people who understood what this voice was saying.

If the challenge of a temple religion is to determine which temples are “kosher,” then the challenge of a book religion is to determine which books are “kosher.” A kosher book is a book which is clearly the work of God. Human books have human authors. Divine books have divine authors. In Zadokite times, nine books had already been acknowledged as sacred— Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve. By dividing the Torah intofive books, the Greek Jews had already made it thirteen. But the Hellenistic centuries had produced a whole series of new books that their devotees also claimed were divine, each of them attributed to a prophet who served as the secretary of Yahweh. There were the songs used by the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple (Psalms). There were Hellenistic books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sira. There were anti-Hellenistic books like Daniel and Jubilees. There were Zadokite histories like Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. There were anti-Zadokite books like Ruth and Job. There were pro-Maccabee books like Maccabees I, II and III. There were anti-Maccabee books like Esther. There were even leftover Asherah books like the Song of Songs.

The Zadokite priests had been reluctant to add books to the Torah. But the rabbis, with their messianic and Davidic agenda, had been eager to do so. The collapse of the temple regime gave them the freedom to do what-ever they wanted. What they wanted was to impose their own ideology on Jewish life in the same way that the Zadokites had done in their time. The rabbis were still eager to add books if they fit the Pharisee belief system. But they were also now eager to ban books which they saw as doctrinally dangerous. Books were instruments not only of devotion but also of instruction.

The selection process for the Bible took place at one of the most catastrophic times for the Jews. The Temple had just been destroyed and the rabbinate was rallying to assert its control over Jewish life in Yavneh. The symbol of their new power was a council of rabbis in Yavneh (90 CE), which fixed for all time the “word of God.” There were dozens of competing books to choose from. A set of stated and unstated criteria guided their decision making. The first was that all prophecy had ended. Malachi (c. 515 BCE) was the last prophet. Any legitimate book needed an author who lived before Malachi. The rabbis, like the Zadokite priests, wanted no new prophets to challenge their authority, especially at a time when hundreds of men were running around claiming to be prophets and claiming to be better messianists that the rabbis were. Of course, at one time there had been prophets. But now there were only rabbis to interpret their words. In other words, anybody claiming to be a new prophet was a false prophet. And whatever Yahweh had wanted to say to the Jews he had already said. The rabbis were now, as the official interpreters of the Divine Book of the Divine Word, the sole spokesmen for God.

The second criterion was that every book must have a legitimate prophet as its “secretary.” Since most of the books had been written long after Malachi, finding suitable transmitters provided an ideological strain. Two ancient warrior kings (who were certainly illiterate)—David and Solomon—were now turned intofamous authors, composing everything from songs to sex poetry to Hellenistic proverbs and philosophy. The age of illiteracy was transformed by the rabbis into the age of literary giants. But, of course, that made no difference. The only author was God himself.

The third criterion was that texts must be Messiah friendly. But that was not enough. They must also never suggest that a Messiah other than the one from the house of David was legitimate. Messianic texts that celebrated a Zadokite or priestly Messiah were not kosher.

The fourth criterion was that nothing positive about the Maccabees must be included. The less said about the Maccabees the better. The rabbis detested the Hellenizing Maccabees with great passion. The two great holidays celebrating Maccabee victories, Hanukka (Kislev 25) and Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13), were anathema to them. The story of Hanukka in the Books of the Maccabees was excluded. And the more important Nicanor’s Day, the celebration of the victory of Judah Maccabee over a mighty Greek army, was cleverly replaced by the Fast of Esther and Purim. The story of Purim in the Book of Esther was declared divine, even though the book was very problematic, with no mention of Yahweh and with two chief characters who have the names of Babylonian gods: Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther). On its own it would never have been included in the rabbinic Bible. But the rabbis hated the Maccabees. The chief holiday of the Maccabees was Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13). Purim was Adar 14. The rabbis adopted Purim and the Book of Esther and turned Nicanor’s Day, the day before Purim, into a preparatory fast day called the Fast of Esther. Purim and the Book of Esther were the gifts of the Maccabee-hating rabbis. Of course, the rabbis were already covered by their principle that all prophecy had ended with Malachi, 350 years before the Maccabees appeared. No story about the Maccabees could, therefore, be divine.

By the time the selection process was over, only eleven new books passed muster—Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The rest were consigned to destruction. What emerged was a collection of twenty-four books which we call the Hebrew Bible. For the rabbis they were the revelation of Yahweh to the Jews and the world. Nothing might be subtracted. Nothing might be added. Whatever Yahweh had wanted to say he had said in these books. And their true meaning and their true implications were in the hands of the rabbis. The books without the rabbis—and the rabbis without the books—were incomplete.

The Bible began with the Protest Movement and was refined by the Zadokites. But in its final form, it was a rabbinic document. We know it to be a human document with serious problems—historical inaccuracies, contradictions, anachronisms and a parochial ethics and world view. But for the rabbis, it was perfection, superior to all other literature, the presence of God on earth and the message of God to the Jews and the world. Although the Temple had been destroyed, the rabbis had fashioned a document that would replace the Temple. The study of Torah and its nineteen supplementary books would be, like the Sabbath, an alternative sacrifice to meat and incense, a sacrifice of time and devotion.

Yet the completion of the Bible did not provide the rabbis with the constitution that they needed. There was no clear and explicit articulation of rabbinic ideology. The Torah was overwhelmingly a Zadokite document. And while the prophets of the supplementary books were often deliciously anti-priestly, they never spoke about rabbis and synagogues and yeshivas. The heart of rabbinic Yahvism did not comfortably lie there. The Bible as a codebook was an inadequate foundation for a new rabbinic theocracy.

An alternative to the Bible already existed. It was the 250 years of legal decisions which the rabbis had issued both as teachers and as judges. Sometimes these decisions cited support from the Bible; sometimes they did not. There was a defiant rabbinic strain that was trans-biblical. It was the doctrine of the “Second Torah,” the bold claim that most of the decisions of the rabbis did not derive their authority from the Bible. They came directly from God, Moses and Mount Sinai. The rabbis needed their own Torah, especially now when their supremacy had been achieved.

The rabbis enhanced the mystery of this Torah by keeping it “oral.” It existed only in the memory of the rabbis who transmitted it from teacher to disciple. No lay person had access to it unless he/she consulted the rabbis. The advantage of the system was that it conveyed an ancient pre-writing authenticity to the statements. The disadvantage of the system was the bur-den of memorizing.

There is no doubt that some of the teachings of this “Second Torah” had their origins in ancient stories and practices that the Zadokites priests and even the Protest Movement prophets had excluded in their zeal. There was a folk anti-elitist edge to some of it. But most of it was comparatively recent, a vast collection of teachings derived from the schools of many rabbinic masters. The language of this transmission was Hebrew, even though the common language of the Jews was Aramaic—but not the Hebrew of the Bible; a more elegant and flexible Hebrew that had evolved in the rabbinic academies. Pharisaic ideology forbade these teachers from calling themselves prophets. But they were inventors of a new lifestyle, a pious lifestyle that was trying to adapt the severe message of a shepherd Protest Movement to the demands of an urban Hellenistic world.

Out of this struggle came the foundations of the traditional Judaism with which we are familiar. The Torah lifestyle was modified tofit the world of craftsmen and merchants, as well as farmers and herdsmen—the world of bourgeois families as well as peasants in huts and shepherds in tents—the world of literacy as well as the world of trances and ecstasies. Sabbath lights and synagogue prayers, Passover seders and commercial transactions—all take their place on the Jewish stage as though they were perfectly traditional. And the rabbis make it all kosher with their wonderful oral transmissions.

The great rabbinic masters, the founders of important schools, were called tannaim (repeaters), and their teachings or repetitions were called mishnayot (mishnah in the singular form). By the time of Judah the Prince, there were thousands of these transmissions floating around the rabbinic world. If they could only be collected, if they could only be written down, they would become an effective “second constitution” for the new rabbinic establishment.

Attempts had been made to relieve the burden of memorization by writing down the teachings to facilitate study and judicial decision making. But there was strong resistance from conservatives who feared innovation and who also feared that it would undermine rabbinic authority. In the second century, before the Bar Kochba rebellion (and even after), famous rabbis like Akiba and Meir encouraged the recording out of fear that the destruction of the rabbis through Roman persecution would lead to the loss of the transmitted teachings.

Judah the Prince bit the bullet. As the first Nasi of a new Jewish regime, as a new High Priest without the Temple, he saw the necessity of the “Second Torah,” a visible constitution for the new Jewish government. The Bible held a primary place of honor but was too disconnected from the behavior and lifestyle of the evolving rabbinic world to be useful. Having just been finalized, it was already obsolete, even for the pious. Something in the language and style of the rabbis was required.

The monumental task of collecting and editing the mishnayot began. It was fed by the energy of the Jewish government, by the victory of propagandists who warned that the legacy would otherwise be lost and by the excitement of finally transcending the disasters of the recent past. By 200 CE it was complete. Once completed, it would become the major document of Jewish life until modern times. The Bible, like the Aaronide priests, would always be granted first honors. But the stuff out of which government and scholarship emerged was to be found in the new constitution.

The name conferred on the document was Mishnah. It turned out to be an anthology of sixty-three books organized into six sections. Each section dealt with a different area of Jewish concern—farming, holidays, family, crime, worship and purity. The organization of the Mishnah was different from that of the Bible. At the heart of the Bible was a rambling narrative with laws inserted. The Mishnah was a law book with stories inserted. The Mishnah, although its spirit was anti-Hellenistic, reflected the Hellenistic penchant for order and classification. It was sometimes more Greek that it wanted to be.*

In many cases, where rabbinic masters disagreed, the Mishnah cited both the majority and dissenting opinions, but, in general, the prevailing law was stated simply and clearly without the frills of biblical Hebrew. The anthology was all-encompassing. It recognized no boundary between state and religion. Religion was not a department of state as it was in the Greek and Roman world. The state was a department of religion, as it was in the mentality of salvation religion. Since the Jews at this time were a dispersed minority, a nation without territory, the Mishnah focused more on family, work and worship than on political administration. The Temple had its own section, a powerful reminder of its continuing hold on Jewish imagination and patriotism. But it remained the most neglected part of the Mishnah.

Of course, there were defects. Many teachings of many masters were excluded either deliberately or because they were not available. Hasty collecting was bound to leave out many candidates. Where there was no controversy, laws were frequently not included. Underlying the document was the existence of a world of shared culture and general consensus where everything did not need to be spelled out for the reader. The order was often less than Greeks would demand. It would require future code breakers to make the information in the Mishnah consumer accessible. But it was, in many respects, a workable compromise between Hellenistic reason and Semitic problem solving.

The Mishnah had one book devoted to ideology. It was called Avot (rabbinic Fathers) and clearly articulated the philosophy of salvation so dear to the hearts of the Messianists and Pharisees. This world was but an antechamber to the next. Every deed was observed and recorded. The final Judgment Day hovered over all reality. Justice would prevail. The ultimate reward was the presence of God. The taste of that presence on earth was the study of Torah (read Mishnah). The opening of the Book of Avot is the most important ideological statement in the entire Mishnah—that God di-vided the Torah into a written and oral one; the first he gave to the Zadokite priests. The second he gave to Moses and Joshua, who ultimately transmitted it to the rabbis.* Loud and clear!

The Mishnah became the foundation of the new Jewish government. It transformed the Jewish culture of the Western Diaspora, and ultimately that of the Eastern Diaspora as well. It became the foundation of the new rabbinic academies in the Galilee. Mastering the Mishnah was the avenue to ordination to the rabbinate. The rabbinate became the most prestigious Jewish profession. Rabbinic appointees and missionaries were placed all over the Roman world, enhancing the prestige and power of the Nasi. As the Hellenistic Jewish world retreated, it was embraced by this new Jewish authority. Government by the clergy returned to Jewish life.

In the third century, the Roman government dramatically underwent an ethnic transformation. Greek shared with Latin an equal authority. The merit system for the emperors broke down. Ambitious soldiers, chiefly of non-Roman origin, seized power. One of them was the child of a Syrian Baal priestess. Ultimately all the inhabitants of the Empire, including the Jews, received citizenship (212 CE). In a less Roman and more oriental empire, the Jews felt perfectly comfortable, even though Greek antisemitism would not go away. Citizenship arrived just as the economy began to decline from too much taxation and too much disorder. Salvation cults from the East poured in, catering to imperial citizens who were withdrawing from public life and turning to personal salvation. The messianic idea of impending catastrophe and rescue grew in popularity. The Jews found themselves in an ideological world where the Mishnah message was not so strange. The trauma of the last century faded away. The power and prestige of the Nasi increased. Like multicultural America with a problematic economy of self-absorbed consumers, Jews in the Roman world achieved the security of becoming a multicultural option.

In the rabbinic academies of Galilee, the Mishnah became the focal point of discussion and judicial debate. A new set of Mishnah masters appeared. They were the Amoraim. In typical religious and ancestral worship fashion, they viewed themselves as inferior to the Tannaim who preceded them. They were simply scholars, not transmitters. Questions from the Diaspora were referred to their academies. Disputes over the meaning of the texts then ensued. Disciples recorded the discussions of their masters. Succeeding generations referred to them and added their own commentary.

From time to time, challengers wanted to know whether the laws of the Second Torah could be found in the first one. There was a continuous insecurity in the Mishnah world over the equality of the Mishnah with the Bible. Much time was spent pursuing this search for “appropriate” Bible quotations. Along the way, much of the dialogue was recorded. After one hundred years, most mishnayot in the Mishnah had footnotes ten times as long as the original text. In the world of the rabbinic academies, nothing could stop this endless digression. What began as a pragmatic search for practical answers was now turned into a stream-of-consciousness doctoral dissertation.

At the beginning of the third century, an important event occurred. A Galilean master by the name of Rav (c. 220 CE) crossed over the eastern border of the Roman Empire to Parthian Chaldea and brought the Mishnah yeshiva with him. Rav was one of the most important teachers in the rabbinic world of his day, which was centered in Galilee. But the Jews of the Eastern Diaspora in Chaldea, who were numerous and populous, lacked the institutions and scholarship of Galilee. Rav’s decision to move to Chaldea was not the result of persecution or the anticipated collapse of the Roman Empire. It was an opportunity to incorporate the Eastern world (Jews of the Parthian Empire) more tightly into the rabbinic system.

 

Zadokite Priests

“Zadokite Priests”  from A Provocative People, (2012)

Judea was an economically difficult place. The Yahweh cult provided the basis for its economic survival, if not prosperity. At the heart of the Yahweh cult was the ancient world’s version of tourism—religious pilgrimage. Judea was so small that it functioned pretty much as suburban Jerusalem. And the basis of the Jerusalem economy under the Zadokites was religious pilgrimage. Jerusalem became a shrine city, very much what it is today.

This shrine city featured a famous sanctuary, an impressive clergy, elaborate ritual, rites of purification and the aura of holiness. The city of warrior monarchs was transformed into a city of priests. Jerusalem took on the persona of a minor Vatican City. At its head ruled the High Priest in all his splendor. Below him were the administrative clergy. And below them were clergy who dealt with the public.

Some of the state revenue came from taxation and the profits of Zadokite-owned land that grew in size over time. Most of it came from the Diaspora, from prosperous Jews who made substantial gifts to the Temple treasury and from the thousands of Diaspora pilgrims who lived outside Judea but spent their money on what was now more than the homeland. It was the Holy Land. The emergence of the Diaspora and the beginnings of the Jewish middle class enabled Judea and Jerusalem to survive in a manner that its local economy would never have allowed. The cult of Yahweh helped to preserve Jewish national identity outside of Judea.

The Zadokite administration confronted several serious problems. The first problem was the presence of competing scriptures. Over the years, the Protest Movement and the schools of Yahweh prophets had produced many books about Yahweh and his connection with the Jewish people for which their devotees claimed divine origin. The most prominent troublesome books had been part of the “D” narrative and had been excluded from the Torah because they anticipated or exalted the house of David. Today we call these books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. In these books the story of the Protest Movement is told.

Because of the residual affection for both the royal house of David and the Protest Movement in Judea, the Zadokites reluctantly accepted these books as the word of Yahweh. But they consigned them to a status inferior to the Torah, claiming that the revelation at Sinai was far more important than the teachings of “later” prophets. In fact, these prophets were only repeating what had already been revealed in the Torah. The Zadokites reversed the order of reality. They asserted that the Torah was the inspiration for the “protest prophets,” when indeed the truth was the opposite. The protest prophets were the distant parents of the Torah.

The “book” problem was only a symptom of a larger problem of public dissatisfaction with Zadokite rule. The Zadokites had become an entrenched aristocracy who, together with their supporters, reaped most of the benefits from the wealth of a shrine city. They were pedigree snobs who excluded ambitious families rather than embraced them. The pedigree system was too narrow a foundation for an expanding shrine city.

The pedigree issue was the trigger for the second problem of racism. As the Yahweh cult expanded in the Diaspora, non-Jews were attracted to the religion of the Jews. But racial criteria excluded them from joining. These non-Jews were willing to accept the fact that becoming Yahwists meant that they would have to become Jews and to repudiate their birth nationality. But the Ezra restrictions provided them with no possible way to become Jews. In time, the Ezra system broke down in the Diaspora. Non-Jews were admitted to the Jewish nation. But Jewish public opinion was ambiguous. It still is. Converts still have difficulty being fully accepted as Jews. What is most interesting about this development was the rising non-Jewish interest in the cult of Yahweh. Was it the monotheism of the cult? Was it the iconoclastic severity? Was it the discipline of its devotees? The Jews as a nation had found a way to increase their numbers independent of reproduction and territorial conquest.

The third problem of the Zadokites was their ideology. Yahweh had no devil to accept responsibility for evil—and no other gods to blame for dis-aster. In a world filled with evil and injustice the only defense of Yahweh became the notion that all suffering is a function of sin, and that the blame falls on human beings. The reward system in the Torah is clearly this-worldly: long life, prosperity and many children. If you view punishment as collective, there is always somebody’s sin floating around for which you can be justifiably punished. But in an age when individual self-awareness was growing, it was only just that every individual should suffer for his own sin. The suffering of the innocent was intolerable. That is the lament of Job, the protagonist in one of those trouble-making new books which challenged the Zadokites. Clearly, in a world where the good suffer and the wicked prosper, a “this-worldly” reward system is not enough. It needed overhauling.

The overhauling would lead to trouble for the Zadokites. Their staid little system of unavailable rewards, especially for the common people, inspired religious resistance. This resistance featured visions of spectacular rewards in a life after death. Unjustified suffering was the result of evil forces in the universe which Yahweh had not yet subdued. But a time was coming very soon when a final battle between Good and Evil would take place. At this time Evil would be crushed, God would triumph, the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished. Even the dead would rise from their graves to face judgment. The Kingdom of God would be established. By implication the government of the Zadokites would cease to exist.

Some of the teachers who embraced this “unorthodox” Final Judgment were, most likely, former leaders who bore personal grievances against the Zadokites. One of these groups may have come from the Levites, the relatives of the family of Moses, who had been deprived of their historic priesthood by the triumphant Zadokites. They now functioned as assistants to the Zadokites, pushed away from the altar to the choir. Closer to the spirit of the Protest Movement and its warnings of doom—and op-pressed by the loss of their jobs and status—the disgruntled Levites were natural candidates to be leaders of this ideological opposition. As religious propaganda, this vision of a dramatic “end of days” was more powerful than a pedestrian system of little rewards and punishments that did not work.

The last problem of the Zadokites was the plague of interpreters. The Torah, like the Constitution of the United States of America, was a collection of words. The words would mean what the prevailing authority and public opinion would allow them to mean. The idea that a final written document would dispense with disagreement was naïve. Believing in the Bible as an ultimate authority solved no problem, especially if there were three thousand different interpretations of the Bible. Once you had dispensed with prophets, what replaced them were interpreters. The scholar-interpreters, like any supreme court, proceed to tell you “what the text really means.”

The Zadokites could not avoid interpreters. They needed judges to ad-minister the law. Since no human authority could pass any more laws, every new regulation to deal with new circumstances had to be derived from the text of the Torah. Zadokite judges inevitably had to become scholar-interpreters or find scholar-interpreters as consultants. The system became an absurd exercise where most energy was devoted tofinding textual justification for a conclusion that had already been reached—instead of simply seeking the best way to solve the problem.

Most of the judge/interpreters, the soferim (Masters of the Book),* were part of the priestly establishment. With increasing frequency, however, tolerated outsiders were most likely included, simply because hereditary systems decline with time. Thus a new non-hereditary clergy emerged. In time, the judges disagreed on major issues. They formed factions. Some factions were liberal, some conservative—some universalistic, some parochial—some open to the vision of the Final Judgment and some unalterably opposed. The Zadokite government was vulnerable if a compelling issue would assault the establishment.

That issue was created by a new conqueror and a powerful new culture that challenged the culture of the Torah and its Zadokite defenders—the Greeks.

The House of Omri

“The House of Omri”  from A Provocative People, (2012)

The first significant archeological signs of urbanization and power appear in the reign of Omri (884-873 BCE) and his son Ahab (873-852 BCE). Omri transformed Israel into a credible military power. Under Omri, the backward northern highlands became a center of military and political intimidation. But the Jewish writers and editors of the Bible viewed him with scorn. They detested his political policies, especially his alliance with the Phoenicians. They also abhorred his toleration of the religious practices of the Canaanites, who were almost one-half of Israel’s inhabitants. That Omri and Ahab vastly expanded the nation’s borders, that they enhanced the economy with their two-way trade between Israel and Phoenicia, that they repelled both the Arameans and the Assyrians—all of that was irrelevant to the Yahweh-worshiping Jews. Ahab had dared to marry the Phoenician princess Jezebel and to subsidize the Phoenician Baal cult. His impiety cancelled out all political and economic achievements. The Biblical lens distorted the importance of the secular work of the House of Omri. The marriage of a foreign princess was of great concern to later editors of the Bible (see Solomon). It was of no concern to most of the people of Israel, who were used to mixed societies and religious toleration.

The Phoenicians were coastal Canaanites who chose manufacturing trade and commerce as their specialty. Shrewd and competent businessmen, they turned the Mediterranean Sea into a Phoenician lake. Israel became their agricultural hinterland, providing olives, wheat and wine. If you can recover from your antipathy to Baal, the alliance between Israel and the Canaanite Phoenicians was made in heaven.