Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part IV

Still more history...this part will bring us up through the destruction of the Second Temple, so we'll be into the Common Era (also known as AD).  This, of course, means that Jesus comes along during this section.  He's going to get his own post, because it's a special topic.

When we left off, the Jews didn't have a king, and they were just entering the age of the Prophets.  The Prophets' basic message was to stop sinning, because God was going to rain down some punishment.
In 586 BCE, he did, in the form of a Babylonian invasion.  The Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were exiled.  See, the Babylonians were smart people, and they knew that if they divided the people, they would be more easily assimilated.  The best and the brightest Jews were recruited to join the best and the brightest of the Babylonians, giving them freedom if they'd only renounce their religion.  Some of them refused, and a fierce nationalism was born.
Without a Temple, the Jews could no longer make sacrifices, and they didn't have a special place of worship.  Being insightful people, they remembered that if God's light fills the whole world, a special building wasn't completely necessary.  Thus, the first synagogues were created as the Jews congregated.  
As a result of the Temple's destruction, the religion became more democratic.   Since Cohens (priests) weren't needed to perform sacrifices, Rabbis became the more prominent leaders.  You see, priesthood was determined by lineage, while becoming a Rabbi was strictly through study and teaching.  

While all of this is evolving, the Prophet Ezekiel comes along.  He has a vision of the dry bones coming to life, and this vision has sustained the Jewish people through many difficult times.  Having the hope of coming back from the dead to revitalize is a powerful image.  It applied to the Jews during this exile, and after the Roman conquest, and after the Holocaust.  It's an image for all time, an ongoing prophesy, if you will.  

After 70 years of exile, the Jews were permitted to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, by order of Cyrus the Great, of Persia.

Of course, things couldn't stay happy.  Along came the Greeks.  They didn't attack the Jews, not in a physical sense.  What they did do was bring in their seductive culture which worshiped the holiness of beauty.  Judaism respected the beauty of holiness, and things started to get difficult.  The Bible was translated for the first time, into Greek, and many Rabbis saw this as an affront, because Jews didn't even know their own language.  There were two factions of Jews, the Hellenists (who were Greek-living Jews) and the Hasidim (who weren't todays Hasidic Jews, but were traditional) Eventually, things started to get forceful, and the Maccabee rebellion was born.  The Hasidim took up arms against the Greeks.
The Second Temple was built, and it was during this time that Hanukkah was first celebrated.  During the dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE, they ran low on oil for the menorah, with only 1 day's supply left.  It would take 8 days to make a new batch.  Miraculously, the oil lasted all 8 days, and that's why we celebrate.  It's meant to be a recognition of the victory of monotheism over paganism, and its celebration predates that of Christmas by over 100 years.

With the Greeks defeated, there could only be so long before the next battle.  Enter the Romans.  They were nothing like the Greeks.  Instead of being seductive, they were Sadistic.  Many Jews turned to their religion for hope.  Some started a new sect, the Essenes.  They believed that the Messiah was coming very soon, and that their Kingdom was not of this world.  Since there wasn't long to wait, there was no need to have children to continue the people, and they were celibate, so as to not be distracted from their faith by lust.  This was, you'll note, very different for the Jewish people, who believe that marital relations are a mitzvah.  It's also...very similar to how Jesus Christ lived, and how priests live now.  On an archeological note, he Essenes left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And then comes Jesus.  At this time, the Essenes believed that the Messiah was soon to come, because God said that he would send his messenger at a time when all hope was lost.  It seemed like just about that time to the Essenes in the face of the Roman persecution.  I'll go more into why they thought he was the Messiah, and why this book says Judaism believes that he wasn't later.  He was crucified by the Romans in 33 CE.

In 70 CE, the Romans took Jerusalem, and destroyed the Second Temple on the 9th day of Av (Tisha b'Av).  This day is significant as a day of Jewish tragedy many times over, so many times that Jews believe that it is not a coincidence.
Due to a deal cut with the General who was attacking Jerusalem, the Jews were permitted to set up and maintain a small school, even while the Romans killed as many Jews as they could find.  This is a big part of the reason Judaism survived the Romans.  
At this time, most of the teachings were part of an oral tradition.  In the face of so much persecution and death, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi decided to defy tradition and write the laws down in order to preserve them, in the second century CE.  Tradition says that he prayed for forgiveness as he put ink to paper, but thank God he did.  His writings became the Mishnah, and they covered nearly every aspect of Jewish life.

Over the next 300 years, Jewish scholars studied the Mishnah in yeshivas.  Yeshivas were essentially universities, Jewish-style.  Eventually their discussions of the Mishnah were recorded, and the combination of these writing and the Mishnah became the Talmud.

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