The Biblical Period
The Babylonian Exile: The Creation of a Paradigm

The Second Temple Period: The Creation of a Strong Diaspora

What Created the Diaspora - Force or Desire?

Jewish Loyalties in the Second Temple Diaspora

The Rejection of the Jeremian Paradigm

Living with Ambiguity

 

Diaspora and Exile

We know very little about any diaspora at the time of the biblical period. Later generations of rabbinic thought often referred to the period in Egypt as the Egyptian Galut, but this is clearly anachronistic.

The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 722 BCE led to the expulsion of the Israelite community and their dispersion in the lands of the Assyrian empire. Nothing more is heard about them and the assumption is that - after an initial period of sorrow and regret characterised by yearnings towards the land that they had lost - they accepted their fate and slowly assimilated, losing their characteristic national identity.

There were Jews in Egypt at the end of the First Temple period - see the last chapters of the book of Jeremiah (chapters 43 and 44): although the text mentions a group of Jews who left Judah after the destruction to settle in Egypt, the impression given is that the Jews in Egypt were spread throughout the country - probably a sign that at least some of them had been established there for some time. Nor do they appear to be overwrought with grief at the destruction of Judah, at which Jeremiah is totally appalled!

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The Babylonian Exile: The Creation of a Paradigm

However the major community to develop outside Eretz Israel was clearly in Babylon, from just prior to the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

Some ten years before the final destruction of the Temple, a preliminary group of several thousand Judeans (Jews) was exiled to Babylon. In a letter that Jeremiah sends to them he gives them advice as to how to live their lives in Babylon. (Chapter 29). This letter constitutes the first "recipe book" for diaspora living that we have. He urges them to accept their lives in Babylon, to raise their households and families, and to live in peace. If they are faithful to God and do what God wants them to do, God will bring their families back to Jerusalem after many years. In other words, they should not forget their origins and should remember that Judah is really their land, but should make no practical preparations to return. God will provide for that.

When the rest of the exiles join them, after the Destruction, they appear to internalize Jeremiah's advice. The general picture of the Jews in the Exile is of a people faithful to God and to Judaism. All the evidence is that they yearn to return to their native land:

"By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion," says Psalm 137.

The great prophet of the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel, develops the same idea, promising freedom and a return to Zion as long as the Jews do not lose faith (see: the vision of the dry bones, Ezekiel Chap. 37, and the great futuristic visions of the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem - the last nine chapters of the book).

The Babylonian experience epitomizes the paradigm of Israel-diaspora relations at a time of enforced Galut:

  • The Jews are punished by God;
  • They must reverse that punishment - they will do this by behaviour acceptable to God.
  • As reward, God will ultimately bring them back.

There is absolutely no question as to the real identity of the land of the Jews. Jeremiah's advice is a recipe for temporary diaspora living. They must be loyal to the land where they live - until God brings them back.

So much for the theory. The practice, however, is somewhat different. This very clearly evident when the Jews are granted the option to return and rebuild their temple and their land by Cyrus, their new ruler, after the conquest of Babylon by the Persians. Only a minority actually go! This is the first clear rift between declarations and actions; the first time - but hardly the last.

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The Second Temple Period: The Creation of a Strong Diaspora

It is only in the period of the Second Temple that we a proper large scale Jewish diaspora develops.

  • Firstly, there are the heirs of the Jews who never came back from Babylon/Persia, who form the basis of the large community that will develop in the eastern lands.
  • In addition, at least from the late fourth century BCE, there are the beginnings of an enormous future diaspora, developing in the lands that had come under the control of the Greeks from the time of Alexander the Great. One of the centers of this diaspora was Egypt which, with its capital, Alexandria, drew Jews like a magnet in the centuries before the Second Temple's destruction. Contemporary estimates run at about a million Jews in the Egyptian diaspora in the early first century CE.
  • Once the Greek lands were taken over by the Romans, Jews could soon be found throughout the Roman Empire, and in large numbers. A recent estimate for the Jewish population of Rome in the years preceding the destruction talked of over 50,000 Jews in that one city alone!

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What Created the Diaspora - Force or Desire?

Whatever the precise numbers, it is clear (although often misunderstood) that - well before the destruction of the second Temple - more Jews lived in diaspora than in Eretz Yisrael. This fact has very important implications. Jews got to these lands in all sorts of ways: some went as hostages, others went as slaves - but the majority went of their own free will, largely for economic reasons, because they were attracted by the possibilities of "life out there".

Contrary to popular belief, very few Jews were forced into exile after the exile that followed the destruction of the first Temple. This means that, by and large, Jews chose to live in the lands of diaspora rather than the Land of Israel.

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Jewish Loyalties in the Second Temple Diaspora

However, unquestionably, most - if not all - Jews seem to have remained faithful to their tradition. The Romans, for example, were wary of the Jews throughout their empire, because they felt that the Jews were very sensitive towards their traditions and wrong moves by their rulers could easily push them into open rebellion. As such, the Romans generally tried to be sensitive towards Jewish needs in the lands of diaspora - at least up to the great Second Temple revolt which destroyed not only the Temple but also the basis of trust between Roman rulers and their Jewish subjects.

There are also other stories which touch on the loyalties of diaspora Jews. There is the case, for example, of two Jewish generals of the Queen of Egypt in the second century BCE who refused to lead their armies against the Maccabee leaders of Eretz Israel because they said that they could not fight their co-religionists. Moreover, they warned that the Jews of Egypt might turn against the Queen if she ordered the attack to take place.

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The Rejection of the Jeremian Paradigm

These were people who played by different rules to those Jeremiah proposed to the exiles of Babylon. These were loyal Jews indeed, but in the centuries that had passed since the days of Jeremiah, other factors had entered into their calculations. It is clear that individual comfort and convenience were playing larger roles in people's lives. Even if they perceived themselves to be loyal Jews, it seems that national needs were lower down on their priority list. So they stayed in the diaspora - although the way was open for families and communities to pick up and move to Eretz Israel.

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Living with Ambiguity

If the Jews were loyal to their tradition, and the idea of Eretz Yisrael played such an important role in the Jewish tradition, how did the Jews of this period live with this ambiguity?

It is very difficult to say.

  • There were some Jews who lived their comfortable lives until they felt that they were really needed in Eretz Yisrael - and at that point they made life changing decisions and went to Eretz Yisrael. The story of Nehemiah in the biblical book of the same name is a classic example of the beginning of this period.
  • There were many Jews who went up to the Land of Israel in order to study, sometimes to stay there for ever. The story of Hillel, the great scholar who was born in Babylon is another such story.
  • There were also many who went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to the Temple, especially on the great festival days at Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

But it was not so easy. The tradition demanded that every Jew should journey to Jerusalem for each of the big pilgrim festivals. Whereas that might be possible for a Jew from the area around Jerusalem, and it might even be possible for a Jew from the Galilee for example, but it could hardly be demanded from a Jew who lived in North Africa or in Spain or Persia. Clearly, the ideal was an ideal - while the reality was something else. Probably, for many Jews it was a once in a lifetime journey and the rest of the time it was a pious thought or hope.

For the most part, the Jews in the diaspora affirmed their connection with Eretz Yisrael, with Jerusalem and with the Temple, by sending a monetary contribution towards the upkeep of the Temple - a half shekel to be paid by Jews and proselytes alike from throughout the diaspora. The tax had been instituted by the Maccabee kings and, despite the fact that Jews could not be forced to pay this money to Eretz Yisrael, the evidence indicates clearly that it was considered very important by the Jews themselves to pay the tax and thus help the upkeep of the Temple, and, incidentally, strengthen their own ties with their ancient land.

In addition, there are records of wealthy Jews - for example, from Alexandria - who made large extra financial contributions to the Temple for ornate decorations. Thus, in this period, financial contributions, visits and pilgrimages, and study visits to the academies of Eretz Israel were the major forms of a very practical connection.

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31 May 2005 / 22 Iyar 5765 0