Did we Jews lose out?


    Rabbi Francis Nataf, in his capacity as the Educational Director of the David Cardozo Academy, wrote:-

    ‘A question that bothers many Jews is – why did the Rabbis create so much halacha? Why did Chazal (the early rabbis) want us to be so busy with mitzvot? What did they have in mind?

    When I say Chazal and not God, I do so deliberately. The pristine Divine Torah as given to Moshe, is actually sparse in its daily demands upon us. It only legislates a few blessings each day. It tells men to put on Tefilin and gives some general guidelines for our behaviour. It prohibits some situations, most of which we rarely encounter. In addition, it tells us to keep Shabbat and Yom Tov, which to transgress on a Torah level, is not uncomplicated. The vast majority of our religious behaviour, however, is rabbinic in origin. (The Oral Law). Most of our prayers and blessings were ordained by the rabbis. Kashrus and especially Shabbat are full of rabbinic emendation, which makes them quite demanding. What we do when we mourn and when we get married is almost entirely rabbinic. The picture that emerges is that the rabbis had a conscious plan in expanding the Torah into a system that makes constant demands on our daily and weekly schedules”.


    We often hear rabbis, and others, say, that if it were not for the Talmud, the codification and legislation of the Oral Law, Judaism would not be alive today. I would like to discuss this concept and see whether the rabbis-of-old had the authority to do what they did and whether the result of what they did is as beneficial as is now claimed.


    The rabbis set out their authority in the Mishnah ‘Avot 1’. This is what ‘Avot 1’ says:-

  1. Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua.

  2. Joshua to the Elders,

  3. The Elders to the Prophets.  

  4. Prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.

    If you read the Torah (Deut. 31v9) you will see that all of these statements are either patently false or questionable. In fact the originally appointed teachers in Israel were the Priests, who were given their authority by Moses and they acted as such for over a thousand years. (Ezekiel XLIV v 15). Their status was taken from them by the rabbis in the manner described by Prof. Stuart A. Cohen below. They, the priests, did not believe the Oral Law as codified by the rabbis although they must have had their own traditions.   


    Prof. Stuart Cohen (Ph.D. Oxford U.) is an observant Jew within the orthodox community; a leading expert on the changing relationship between the Israel Defence Forces and Israeli society and on IDF manpower policies. A professor of political science at Bar-Ilan U. He is involved in religious aspects of army life. This is what he wrote in his book, page 59, ‘The Three Crowns’, about ‘Mishnah Avot 1’.


    ‘Trenchantly political in its refusal of any overt political content or allusion, ‘Avot 1’ is a stunningly audacious piece of political propaganda. Like most examples of its genre, it is also tendentious,” i.e. not impartial.


     It is often claimed by the rabbis that ‘The Oral Law’ is the interpretations of the Torah which were given to Moses by God at Sinai. Let us read what Prof. James Kugel says about this in his book, ‘How To Read The Bible’, page 680.

    Prof. James Kugel  is chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel and the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University He too is an observant Jew within the orthodox community. Referring to the Written Torah and the Oral Torah he wrote: - (page 680),

    “Although these two bodies of writings were, and are, said to be of equal authority, in practice the Oral Torah always wins. So Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given handbook and probing lovingly its tiniest details of its wording and even spelling. Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text is alone not all-powerful; in fact it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definite and final interpretation.”


    Let us summarise the points made so far.

  1. Torah law is comparatively simple to obey; The Oral law is more demanding.

  2. The Oral Law was codified by the Rabbis who took the religious leadership from the Priests.

  3. The straight-forward reading of the Torah shows that they had no authority to do so. This is also the understanding of Professor Stuart A. Cohen.

  4. Professor James Kugel argues that the rabbis put the Oral Law above the Torah Law.


    The ‘Mishnah Avot’ is replete with good moral and ethical teaching and wise sayings. (1) How could the same kind of people who compiled the Mishnah prepare such a false curriculum vitae? Was it justifiable? (2) And having done so why did they change the religion so that it is not recognisable when compared to the original?


    The answer to question 1 is complicated and varied but I will try to give my under-standing. As I have tried to show, the priests were appointed to be our teachers but after the Maccabean wars they became corrupt and the High Priests behaved more like politicians than priests. Or to quote from ‘A hidden revolution’ written by Prof. Dr. Ellis Rivkin who asks, ‘Why did they (the rabbis) take the Priest’s authority’?

    Dr. Rivkin gives two reasons. The first is ‘that at the time, the priesthood had become corrupt. Jason was improperly appointed and then Meneleas was corruptly appointed as High Priest after him although neither was eligible. Secondly, the Written Law was bogged down in a commitment to immutable laws administered by a priestly class which was tied to preserving the interests of only the priests and peasants. It was not geared to the fast-paced urbanisation and commercialisation which was then developing. People became frustrated and the time for revolution had arrived. The Pharisees, (the early rabbis) were there and took their opportunity to seize power.

    So, although the Pharisees acted against the Torah’s instructions we can understand their dilemma.

    However, in answering the second question, ’why did they change our religion so that it is not recognisable compared to the original’ we cannot be so charitable or understanding. I will quote from three Jewish historians.

    Précis extract of “Sects in Judaism” by the Rev. Reuben S. Brooks. He quotes the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (37-100 CE) as saying that the Pharisee party came into existence either, circa, 160 BCE or circa. 134 BCE and suggests that they introduced into normative Judaism, certain beliefs based upon apocalyptic visions only hinted at in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    Précis extract of ‘ popular history of the Jews’ by Graetz. He suggests that the Judaeans (Pharisees) borrowed some beliefs from the Babylonians and succumbed easily to their influence. They believed it would be to the glory of God if He were surrounded, after Iranian fashion, by myriads of beings ready to carry out His will and desires, i.e. angels. The Judeans also borrowed their reprehensible demonology i.e. Satan. A new concept of reward and punishment after death and the belief in future resurrection of the dead also developed in Judaism as a result of this Babylonian influence.

     In later years the Pharisees made these beliefs Articles of Faith and part of the Oral Law which the Sadducees would not accept. It became a bone of contention between them.  

 Prof. Dr. Ellis Rivkin again; They introduced their grand achievement as an Article of Faith i.e. the concept of individual eternal life, a concept that the majority wanted to believe but, he added, it was nevertheless a new concept.

    So, according to these (and other) historians, our religion was changed beyond recognition.

    Today there are no more than 14 million Jews in the world of whom, perhaps, 10% are heredim or ultra orthodox, another 10% are modern orthodox and the rest are Masorti, Reform, Liberal, unattached or married out. Even allowing for losses due to the Holocaust, pogroms and other similar tragedies, is this a result to be satisfied with?

    Let us compare Judaism’s growth with the growth of the Christian and Muslims religions, each of which has some 1½ billion followers, remembering that Maimonides said that these religions are not pagan religions. Christianity covers much of Europe, the Western World and beyond. The Muslims cover much of the Middle East and beyond. Why did we lose out? Why did Judaism not participate in a similar growth? As I will try to show, Jews were in Europe and the Middle East well before these other two religions were established; Christianity had not yet become the official religion of the Roman Empire and the prophet Mohamed lay many years in the future.


    Jews in Arabia. (An extract downloaded from Google)

“Immigration on a larger scale (from Palestine and also from Mesoptamia-modern day Iraq, etc.) to Arabia does not appear to have preceded the 2nd cent. C.E. Inscriptions discovered in the Bet Shearim catacombs evidence the existence of Jewish communities in Yemen in the early 3rd cent., and Byzantine sources testify to them from the 4th cent. At first, the number of Jews was small (the figure for the Yemen in the first centuries CE is estimated at 3,000, scattered all over the country), but it rapidly increased through conversion of Arabs to Judaism, especially in the south where even some rulers, e.g. Dhu Nuwas, embraced Judaism.

    In the 6th and early 7th cents, there was a considerable Jewish population in Hejaz, and particularly in Medina and its vicinity. Judaism spread from Medina to the South. Smaller Jewish communities also existed in Bahrein, at Makna on the Gulf of Akaba, at Adhruh between Maan and Petra, and further North at Jarba.

    According to Moslem tradition, conversion to Judaism started under Abu Karib Asad (ruled 390-420), who became a Jew himself and propagated his new faith among his subjects. Arabic sources expressly state that Judaism became widely spread among Bedouin tribes of Southern Arabia and that Jewish converts were also found with the Hamdan, a North Yemenite tribe. This time, many of the upper strata of society embraced the Jewish faith. The position of Judism in Yemen reached its zenith under DHu NuwAs. DHu NuwAs (d. 525) was an Arabian king; the last ruler of the independent Himyarite kingdom. He embraced Judaism under the name Yusuf (Joseph) after ascending the throne (c. 518).

    An Arabic tradition holds that his subjects also became converts. On the surrender to his forces of the Christian city of Najran (probably in 523), he invited the inhabitants to embrace Judaism and when they refused, executed many of them. He was killed and his kingdom destroyed in a combined attack by Abyssinia and Byzantium.  After his death and the downfall of his kingdom, Christianity rapidly gained ground in Southern Arabia, especially among the former converts to Judaism; but even then, some Yemenite rulers were of the Jewish faith.”


    The Encyclopaedia Judaica discusses the number of Jews living in southern Europe during the first centuries C.E.

    “As a result, Jews were far more numerous in proportion to the population than they are today. There are estimates that "Jews (were) one tenth of the population of the (Roman) empire as a whole" and in Greece and Asia Minor the proportion may have been as high as one fifth (according to the historian Salo W. Baron).

    From the above extracts we see that the Jewish religion was popular in both of the two areas, Arabia and Europe, well before Christianity and the Muslims arrived on the scene. So why did we lose out to them? They both believe in the same one God, they both have a bible; the Christians the New Testament and the Muslims the Koran; they both have a Sabbath, and the Christians also have a christening and believe that Christ is the Messiah. Saint Paul abrogated the Oral Law to attract non Jews to the new religion. The Muslims have circumcision & Halel meat. They both maintain their basic rituals but they have no Oral Law. This is similar to the scenario within Judaism for some 1000 years before the priests were replaced. What would be our situation today had our religion, based on Torah commandments alone, as then taught by the priests, continued? Would we have disappeared as the rabbis suggest or would we today be 1.5 billion strong as God promised, “you will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore”? And why did the early converts to Judaism desert us? They joined us when Judaism was under Torah Law only. Did the introduction of the Oral Law frighten them away?   


October 2010.