Sunday 10 July 2022

390) A History of Torah Observance: The widespread rejection of Judaism is certainly tragic. But is it unusual?

Photo by Federico Di Dio photography on Unsplash

A Guest post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Some appear to assume that the current state of Jewish observance - where only a small minority of Jews are Torah-loyal - is an historical anomaly. The centuries and millennia preceding the European Enlightenment, so the thinking goes, saw more or less universal halachic compliance, and it was only through a combination of hostile external and internal 18th Century forces that we lost most of our population.

But I'm not sure that's true. First of all, mass defections seem to have been common through most periods of Jewish history. And second, Jewish life could hardly be considered "settled" during the early modern period (c. 1450-1800) that preceded the Enlightenment. In other words, while things may not be great right now, I'm not sure they were ever all that much better. There has always been free will and bad choices have always been an option.

Whichever way you define observance, there have been so many halachically-deviant historical movements through the ages that it's hard to imagine any time when observance was the overwhelming norm. From our very birth as a nation, as predicted by Deut. 31:16, religious rebellion has been a real force in our history.

Let's explore using generally available information. While we can't be sure exactly how widespread each of these problems was, I think you’ll agree that it's impossible to claim that they were negligible.

Just a few centuries after receiving the Torah - and immediately following our Golden Age under Solomon - ten of the twelve tribes broke away from Judah and the House of David. They rejected the status of the Temple and, for the next two centuries, ceased attending the three annual pilgrimage festivals (see 1 Kings 12). In time, most of the Northern Kingdom slipped into idolatry (see 1 Kings 19:18). Even the Jews of Judah were persistently unable or unwilling to fully observe all related Torah laws (see 1 Kings 22:44).

There seems to have been significant neglect of fundamental marriage laws in the exile during the period before the Second Temple was built. So much so, that Ezra was forced to directly intervene to keep things under control (Kiddushin 69b). Parallel problems existed among the contemporary Jewish community in Jerusalem (Ezra 10:2).

It's unclear which era(s) Shabbos 139a (based on Isaiah 14:5) refers to, but the Jewish governing class has seen frightening periodic descent into official corruption. Note the criticism of Jewish judges who allow themselves (מקל לחזניהם) to be used by their staff and handlers in order to facilitate corrupt schemes. And note, too, how prominent Torah scholars strengthened and provided cover for the crimes of their corrupt relatives serving as judges (שבט מושלים). From Pesachim 57a ("אוי לי מבית ישמעאל בן פיאבי אוי לי מאגרופן"), it seems this kind of corruption was a recurring problem.

The Second Temple wasn't standing too many years before cracks appeared. Jews (מתיונים) adhering to Greek-influenced Hellenist ideologies grew so powerful that Matisyahu and his Hasmonayim were forced to fight back using the tactics of an insurgency. Even after the defeat of the foreign Syrian powers supporting the Hellenists, access to the Temple and many Jewish neighborhoods was still dangerous. And safe transit through towns on the Mediterranean coast was nearly impossible.

Rather than return to full Torah observance after that defeat of the Syrians, ספר דורות הראשונים tells us how most, if not all, Hellenists drifted to the growing Sadducee movement. It's possible that the Sadducees counted only a relatively small percentage of Jews as followers, but those they did have tended to be wealthy, powerful, and associated with priests. And their destructive cultural and political dominance lasted until shortly before the end of the Second Commonwealth.

The final years of that period were particularly notable for the existence of many breakaway sects, including the Baryonim, Sikrikim (Zealots?), and Essenes. Jewish intellectuals of the time like Josephus and Philo, among others, didn't rise to prominence in Roman circles from within a vacuum. There were no doubt many more like them who shared their beliefs but enjoyed less fame.

The early centuries of the Middle Ages saw the rise of the Karaite heresy. The volume and ferocity of opposition to the movement by such scholars as Rambam and Saadia Gaon suggest that this was a serious population of some size. Had things gone just a bit differently, it’s conceivable that Karaism might have become Judaism’s dominant stream. Even today there are thought to be as many as fifty thousand Karaites - a faint echo of their former strength.

Intense official and social pressure on the Jews of Spain and Portugal in the century leading up to Catholic Spain's Alhambra Decree (March, 1492) likely led to the conversion of as many as 300,000 individuals to Christianity. And much has been written about the far reaching impact the experience left even on those Jews who chose to leave. It's no coincidence that so many later heresies can be traced to descendants of Spanish exiles like Benedict Spinoza.

Perhaps the most disruptive movement of the early modern era was the messianic career of Sabbatai Tzvi. The claims and eventual downfall of Tzvi himself are common knowledge. But the fact that a strong majority of Jews worldwide - numbering in the hundreds of thousands - signed on as followers of the antinomian and heretical movement is, perhaps, less well known.

But what happened to those masses of Jews once Tzvi converted to Islam in 1666? Many, in abject humiliation, no doubt returned to pick up the pieces of their previous lives. But undoubtedly many others did not. The 18th Century saw at least three major public conflicts over the secret Sabbatean beliefs of major rabbinic figures.

If there were dozens or even hundreds of prominent rabbis privately believing and sharing the teachings of Tzvi and his "prophet" Nathan - and there certainly were - then there must have been many of their students and admirers living and working through at least the rest of the 18th Century. We'll never know exactly how many, but they must have numbered at least in the thousands. And we'll also probably never know how many of their secret beliefs penetrated mainstream Jewish thinking and practice.

In the lasting chaos following the fall and death of Tzvi, the Polish Jew Jacob Frank adopted Sabbatean beliefs and gathered followers. His teachings eventually evolved to incorporate so much Christian theology that conversion to the church became a "logical" choice. In fact, between 1759 and 1790, 26,000 Polish Jews - including Frank himself - would actually be baptized.

This was the state of Judaism at the onset of the Modern Age. Jewish practice and belief were hardly universal, and the community was far from stable.

It’s certainly true that the 15th Century Spanish conversions were achieved mostly through coercion and violence. But the others were, like the post-Emancipation events, the results of genuinely popular movements.

Proper Torah observance is, by definition, a lifelong battle. One struggles either against hostile opposition or against habit and blind rote. Is it any surprise that, generation after generation, so many fail? The amazing - and miraculous - thing is that Torah somehow managed to survive at all.

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