The Post-Second Temple Period

Diaspora as Center - A New Paradigm

Saving the Nation - A New Game Plan

Eretz Yisrael - Real or Ideal?

Early Modernity - A Denial of Galut

 

A Return to Exile

The destruction of the second Temple was perhaps the great turning point in Jewish history. From the traditional point of view, this is the start of the long period of Galut that would only end with the foundation of the next Jewish state in the twentieth century. It is in relation to this period that one of the great misunderstandings of Jewish history has arisen.

The conventional view is that since this period this period is known as the start of the exile, then was when all Jews were forced to leave their land. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Romans, who defeated the Jews and destroyed the Second Temple, in no way forced the Jews to leave the land. The only ones whom they actually "exiled" were a few of the militant leaders of the revolt who were taken to Rome to meet their deaths; the rest were allowed to stay. Their already very limited control of their own lives and land was, however, reduced still further.

In the aftermath of the defeat, many Jews clearly decided to leave the land - but this was only a more radical escalation of already prevailing trends. Jewish life would continue strong in the land for several more centuries, although the writing was unquestionably clear on the wall. The future of the Jews - at least the near future - would not be in Eretz Yisrael. Rather, for the first time, the centers of Jewish life, qualitatively even more than numerically, would move to the lands of the Galut.


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Diaspora as Center - A New Paradigm

In essence, this is what happened as new Jewish communities emerged. Initially, most were weak and did not see themselves as centers of Jewish life in the early centuries of the common era - with the exception of Babylon, the first great center of Jewish life which emerged as a Jewish center before the close of the Talmudic era.

Relations between the emerging center in Babylon and the declining centre in Eretz Israel were complex and difficult. Unquestionably, there was rivalry between them. Some Babylonian scholars came to Palestine, accepting the authority of the local scholars because of the holiness and centrality of the Land. But for many, the theoretical holiness and centrality of the Land were not sufficient: they viewed the situation in real terms as a struggle between two genuine and dynamic centers. In a sense, that was the real picture - for the first time, there were two centers of Jewry.

Nevertheless, it was clear to the Rabbis in Babylon, as much as in Eretz Yisrael, emerging as the new and future leadership of the shattered Jewish nation, that something had to be done to prevent Judaism from disappearing in the Galut lands. Without replacements for the central elements that had kept the Jews together as a nation - Jerusalem, the Temple, the Land as a physical center - there might be little future.

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Saving the Nation - A New Game Plan

A great rescue plan developed to save the Jewish nation and enable it to survive in the lands of exile until such time as God decided to bring it home. A new way of life was shaped, based on an entire legal-halachic system, designed to bring the Jew into a framework of distinct behaviour that would separate him or her from outside society by a kind of invisible wall.

The Jew was to remember at all times that he or she was not a full part of his/her neighbors'world; that the neighbors' concept of God and God's world was different from that of the Jews; and that the Jew was not at home in the neighbors' land. On the contrary, the Jew had another land, which was never to be forgotten - the Jew must always remember the reality of Galut.

It was at this point and for this reason that the rabbinic authorities, who became the architects of Jewish national existence, built this idea into Jewish life in such a way that it would be accepted and not forgotten by all Jews throughout the world.

  • Jews would face Jerusalem in prayer.
  • In those prayers Jews would regularly remind themselves of their state of Galut and would pray to God to end the exile and to bring the exiles back home.
  • Traditions, both domestic and communal would be developed to confront the Jew with constant reminders of the unnatural situation. Glasses would be broken at weddings, walls would be left unplastered and songs would be sung - all to remind the Jew of the Land left behind.

On each festival, ritual elements were added to remind the Jews of the Land and the Temple that had been lost - but would be theirs again. Rituals formerly observed at the site of the Temple in the previous era were now relocated and woven into home and community life around the world.

  • When the "arba minim" were waved at Sukkot
  • Or the prayer for rain was said during the winter months until Pesach,
  • When the trees were remembered on Tu B'Shvat
  • Or the Omer was counted between Pesach and Shavuot

All these acts connected the Jew in with Eretz Yisrael. Jews could live at all four corners of the earth, but ritually they lived in the land of Israel, tied in through the details of ritual to a calendar and a reality that existed in the land they called their home.

The system worked. For hundreds and hundreds of years Jews lived in distant lands all over the world and never related to those lands as home. Can there be any precedent for this in human history? A people which lived for twenty or thirty generations in the lands of Yemen or Poland and never considered themselves Yemenite or Polish by nationality? This was the achievement of ritual.

On the theoretical level, at least, the emerging system became a new, more complete version of the paradigm for Galut living that had developed in Babylon at the end of the first Temple period. The Jews were in exile, mourning their land and constantly remembering it, and praying for the Messianic era to be initiated by God, an era that would bring them back to that land. The assumption was that this was what all Jews were waiting for - the Messianic return to the Land.

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Eretz Yisrael - Real or Ideal?

It is indisputable, however, that Eretz Yisrael became an abstraction for many Jews in this period - a mystical reality, divorced from the real world; they could say "Next year in Jerusalem" at Pesach and have no real expectation of going there, while the stories and concepts of the homeland were passed on in the day to day life of the Galut Jew. This was the true basis of Israel-diaspora relations in this long period.

There were certainly other, more tangible, expressions of this connection:

  • There were those who made long journies of pilgrimage to the land.
  • Some went there to stay - those who made aliyah.
  • There were regular connections of money to support the Jewish communities of Israel - some were initiated by Jews sent out by the communities themselves and, from time to time, organisations developed in the Galut to collect funds.

But the true connection lay in ritual.


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Early Modernity - A Denial of Galut

A change began to emerge in the late eighteenth century among the Jews of western and central Europe. As the outside world, propelled by the new political and social ideals known as the Enlightenment, hesitantly started to grant Jews civil rights, western Jewry was drawn into a new situation. Increasingly, western Jews - even orthodox Jews - began to relate to these lands in which they lived as their homelands - in France, Germany, Britain, Holland, Austria and the Americas.

Adjustments now had to be made, either in ritual or consciousness - or both: it was only a matter of time. Some Jews, in the newly emergent reformed communities of the west, adjusted the ritual. References to Eretz Yisrael were now made to the old, historic homeland rather than to the eternal homeland; messianic ideas were reinterpreted to refer to a new age for humanity which the Jews would celebrate in their contemporary homelands. Orthodox Jews retained the ritual and the messianic faith but underwent a change of consciousness that connected them no less strongly in the present time with the lands where they lived.

Interestingly enough, among these same emancipated Jews in the nineteenth century, we see a number of initiatives to improve the lot of their "co-religionists" in other parts of the world, including Eretz Yisrael. Moneys were sent and initiatives were taken to launch a whole host of new institutions to help the poor Jews of the Land. Schools, housing projects, hospitals, training farms, charity funds and institutions - all these were organized by western Jews who would have increasing problems defining the Land as their land.

In other parts of the world, where no real external change had developed, the situation remained much as it had been. In eastern Europe and North Africa alike, for example, the majority of Jews continued to perceive themselves as being in a state of Galut, and prayed fervently for the messianic time that would return them to their land.

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31 May 2005 / 22 Iyar 5765 0