The Chosen People Have Always Been Picky

Today’s struggle between 'open’ and more insular Orthodoxy is only the latest round in a debate between two conflicting outlooks that has been going on for 2,000 years.

James Kugel
James Kugel
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James Kugel
James Kugel

The current tug-of-war between a liberal form of Orthodox Judaism, “Open Orthodoxy,” and its opponents may seem new, but actually it is part of a struggle that has been going on since late biblical times. Judaism has, almost from the beginning, felt itself drawn in two opposite directions, openness and insularity; indeed, these terms describe well two contrasting outlooks that scholars know from texts dating to the end of the Second Temple period.

Numerous writings from the 3rd century B.C.E. onward describe a certain Jewish hostility to outsiders. The Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera (3rd century B.C.E.) is quoted as saying that the Jews are a “somewhat unsociable and foreigner-hating people,” while the Egyptian chronicler Manetho (also 3rd century) similarly claimed that the Jews’ laws require that “they have relations with no one except those of their own confederacy.”

Josephus reports that Apollonius Molon (1st century B.C.E.) denounced the Jews as “misanthropes,” while in the same century Diodorus Sicilus wrote that Jews are not allowed “to break bread with any other race, nor to show them any good will at all.” All the things that amongst us are sacred are profane [for the Jews],” wrote the Roman historian Tacitus toward the end of the first century C.E., “likewise, the things that are impure to us are permitted amongst them.” Moreover, “the Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hatred and enmity.”

Jewish xenophobia

Certainly some of these characterizations are the result of anti-Jewish sentiment,and later authors seem sometimes to have borrowed from their predecessors. Still, it seems unlikely that all this was invented out of whole cloth. Way back then, it would seem, some of these writers had encountered Jews who indeed sought to minimize all contact with non-Jews as well as with their ideas and customary way of life.

One such Jew is someone whom I feel I have come to know well: the anonymous author of the Book of Jubilees ‏(ca. 200 B.C.E.‏). His book is an imaginative re-telling of most of the Book of Genesis, but in it he consistently demonstrates what a Greek would no doubt describe as Jewish misanthropia or misoxenia ‏(hatred of foreigners‏).

To begin with, the author of Jubilees believed that the Jews were different by nature from all other nations, having been selected to be God’s own people – not following their acceptance of the Torah , as the book of Exodus implies, but on the sixth day of Creation, when God first conceived of the idea of Israel, long before the people even existed. Circumcision was another mark of the Jews’ utter specialness: In heaven, only the two highest classes of angels had the merit of being, like the Israelites, circumcised.

The Jews were thus, for this author, a people apart from the very start, and contact with non-Jews was deemed corrupting. He therefore changed numerous details in his retelling of Genesis to reflect this view. For example: When Isaac swears an oath of peace with the Philistine chief Abimelech (Gen. 26), this positive event in Scripture is transformed into the opposite in Jubilees. There, Isaac immediately regrets having made this deal with a non-Israelite. He names the place in which the oath was made Be’er Sheva (“Well of the Oath”) – apparently to commemorate his mistake – and then roundly curses the Philistines to counteract the oath he had just sworn. Similarly, the lesson imparted by the story of the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34) was not, for Jubilees, the horror of rape, but the horror of intermarriage.

Despite such views, the author of Jubilees was no doubt troubled by a problem that has always plagued the champions of insularity: those non-Jews sometimes seem to know things, so that even the most rabid xenophobe might find himself having to make use of their knowledge. For Jubilees’ author, a case in point was geography. When his retelling of Genesis came to describe the division of the world among Noah’s descendants, he felt he had to present a precise delineation of each descendant’s inheritance. In so doing, he ended up having to use a highly detailed map of the world that was indisputably borrowed, directly or otherwise, from Greek geographic writings. In such cases, the phenomenon sometimes described as “defensive modernism” appears.

Thus, while freely mining the knowledge of Greek geographers, the world map reflected in Jubilees, in common with that of other Jewish texts of the period, included a number of crucial adjustments to keep it in line with traditional Jewish views, significantly relocating the “center of the earth” (omphalos mundi) to the territory assigned to Shem, Israel’s ancestor.

Another example: When an anonymous writer of perhaps the 3rd century B.C.E. sought to import Mesopotamian astronomical lore into Judea, he hid its foreign origins and connection to alien worship, presenting it instead as the teaching of an altogether “kosher” figure, the biblical Enoch, who, having ascended bodily into the heavens (Gen. 5:24), must have found himself in a position to converse with the angels as well as to observe the movements of heavenly bodies first-hand, enabling him to impart this knowledge to the Jews on earth.

Ancient adherents

But “Open Orthodoxy” also had its adherents in ancient times. The conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great had put Jews in close and sustained contact with non-Jews and non-Jewish ideas, not only within the Land of Israel, but also in the substantial Jewish community of Alexandria (Egypt) and other centers of Hellenism. While some Jews simply turned their backs on Greek learning, others sought to face its challenges head-on, with towering figures such as the 1st-century philosopher and biblical commentator Philo of Alexandria standing as a monument to the ability of Jews to absorb or otherwise reckon with outside ideas and influences without surrendering what they hold most dear: the Torah, its ideas and the way of life it sets forth.

Philo wrote in Greek, and with the collapse of the Greek-speaking diaspora, his works were lost to mainstream Judaism, but he has reemerged in modern times as one of Judaism’s greatest minds. Among others, the late Samuel Belkin, president of Yeshiva University, wrote several studies of Philo’s works.

Philo is, however, merely one of numerous Jewish writers who, in one way or another, sought to embrace aspects of Hellenistic learning while upholding traditional Jewish teachings. Further examples might include such Jewish writings in Greek as the Wisdom of Solomon, large sections of the Sibylline Oracles, the Letter of Aristeas, the book of 4 Maccabees, the historical writings of Artapanus, Demetrius the Chronographer, Eupolemus and others, the philosophical works of Aristobulus and the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, the poetry of Ezekiel the Tragedian, Philo the Epic Poet, Theodotus and yet others.

Even rabbinic writings, concerned as they are with internal Jewish subjects and apparently intended solely for a Jewish readership, did not shy away from the use of Greek (or, later, Latin or Persian) terms, nor from references to Greek institutions, themes and ideas.

For this and other reasons, it would be difficult to connect later Jewish practitioners of separatism specifically with the founders of rabbinic Judaism. Rather, movements such as that of the Dead Sea Scrolls covenanters at Qumran (whose library included 15 different manuscript copies of Jubilees), or more generally the Essenes, with whom they appear to have been affiliated, seem to have most clearly embraced values reminiscent of today’s separatists.

The conflicting tendencies witnessed in the Judaism of the Second Temple period hardly disappeared in subsequent centuries. Today’s proponents of the “openness” approach often cite Maimonides as another model of the integration of secular and religious knowledge – and certainly the intellectual biography of the great 12th-century scholar gives evidence of the profound influence of Greek and Arabic thought.

More generally, the whole intellectual tradition of Jews in medieval Spain reveals broad areas of outside influence extending into such unassailably Jewish domains as the study of Hebrew grammar; medieval Hebrew poetry and rhetoric; biblical commentary; legal principles and jurisprudence; and, more broadly, much of Jewish thought and philosophical writings.

All of these have, in the most concrete sense, become part of Orthodox Judaism, profoundly reshaping our siddur ‏(prayer book‏) and our understanding of Scripture; indeed, the writings of these medieval “Open Orthodox” Jews have themselves become canonical.

Chain of tradition

In short, the back-and-forth pull of openness to the outside and isolation from it seems to be a constant feature of Judaism. What appears quite new, and somewhat ironic, in the current debate is that it is being played out in terms of the proper limits of something called “Orthodoxy.” As modern historians know well, this term (and the idea underlying it, that Orthodoxy constitutes a particular brand or sect of Judaism) was originally rejected by Orthodoxy’s own founders. They insisted that there were not two or three kinds of Judaism, but only one: the great chain of halakha (the practice of religious law) and tradition that stretches from the Torah itself through rabbinic literature and the writings of the Geonim, on through interpretations of various medieval and later decisors and codifiers of Jewish law, and continuing on to their own day.

This chain of tradition was hardly univocal: Different local communities have always practiced halakhic Judaism in strikingly different ways and, among other differences, the age-old conflict of separatism and openness has continued to play itself out through self-defined communities in our own day.

Indeed, “Orthodoxy” has become an umbrella term that now includes various shades of “ultra-Orthodox” (Haredi) Judaism, along with “centrist Judaism,” “modern Orthodoxy,” “modern Ultra-Orthodoxy” and today’s “Open Orthodoxy.” Taking the broad, historical view, we probably ought not to hope that any one group will ever succeed in laying exclusive claim to the title of Orthodoxy.

After all, times and conditions change, as the last century of Judaism in America well exemplifies. What was at one time normative “Orthodoxy” has moved first in one direction and now in another. Despite a deeply rooted respect for tradition, halakhic Judaism has always been characterized by a certain tolerance of individual variety, one that has been played out not so much in programmatic pronouncements as in the actual practices of different communities.

It seems altogether likely that different shades of Orthodox Jews will continue to choose the community, and the rabbinic leadership, that best allows them to carry out fully Judaism’s central goal of avodat haShem, the service of God, as best they understand it.

James Kugel is professor of Bible emeritus at Bar-Ilan and Harvard Universities. His latest book is “A Walk through Jubilees” ‏(Brill Academic‏).

Worshipers in a synagogue.Credit: AP

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