The Lonesome Road: Diaspora Judaism


Again and again in this course, I've talked to you about "world" religions as faiths can transcend a particular social and political environment.  Most of these faiths have had and still have many millions and even billions of followers.  There are more than two billion Christians in the world today, more than a billion Moslems, and nearly a billion Hindus.  Judaism would seem a very minor faith: 14 or 15 million followers--hardly a world religion at all.  Yet Judaism does persist, and Judaism wields an influence on the world completely disproportionate to the relatively small number of adherents. 

Some of you perhaps know Adam Sandler's Hanukkah song:

When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree
Heres a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me

David Lee Roth lights the menorrah
So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah

Guess who eats together at the Karnickey Deli
Bowzer from Sha-na-na, and Arthur Fonzerrelli

Paul Newman's half Jewish, Goldie Hawn's half too
Put them together, what a fine lookin' Jew!

You dont need Deck the Halls or Jingle Bell Rock
Cause you can spin the dreidl with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, both

Put on your yalmulka, its time for Hanukkah
The owner of the Seattle Supersonic-ahs celebrates Hanukkah

O.J. Simpson, not a Jew!
But guess who is, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, he converted!

We got Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby
Harrison Ford's a quarter Jewish, not too shabby!

Some people think that Ebeneezer Scrooge is
Well, he's not, but guess who is, all three stooges

A more serious treatment of the phenonoma of Judaism's disproportional influence on the world is Max Dimont's Jews, God, and History.  And then there are the many books less sympathetic to Judaism that emphasisize the Jewish faith as part of a vast conspiracy to dominate that world.

So how are we to understand Jewish survival and influence?

It helps some to see what happened to the Jews during the Babylonian captivity and after their return from exile.

II.  Zedekiah's revolt and the destruction of city and temple

It's 587 BC.  The Judaean king Zedekiah rebels against Nebuchadnezzar, the man who had put him on the throne.  

It was a foolish move.  Nebuchadnezzar moved against him like a winged lion, and the city of Jerusalsem soon had to capitulate.  Zedekiah had to watch while his sons were killed--and that's the last thing he saw.  Nebuchadnezzar's men gouged out his eyes, and made him their captive.  They then destory Jerusalem and the temple.  The deport the leaders and members of prominent famililies, leaving only some of the poor to till the land.

And Hebrew civilization came to an end.  Like the Hittites, the Mittani, and so many other peoples, the Hebrews disappeared from history, never to reise again.  At least, that's how it should have been.  Without a homeland, without leaders, and with a long tendency of blending into surrounding cultures anyway, the Jews should simply have been assimilated into the dominent Babylyonian culture.

But that's not what happened.  Instead, among the Jews in Babylon  there arose a determination to go back and start again, to re-establish their nation, to rebuild the city and the sanctuary.   And, amazingly enought, they succeeded.   Later Jews concluded their Passover celebrations with the words, "hashana ha ba'a b'yeroshaliem," next year in  Jerusalem.  That kind of sentiment was strong among Babylonian-exile Jews as well.

For the Jews of the exile and for the post-exilic Jewish community, nothing seemed more important that the Jerusalem and the temple.  And in the long struggle to rebuild and maintain the city and the sanctuary, something happend that transformed the jewish community and made it possibel for the Jewish people to survive without either.

III. Factors helping Jews keep their identity during exile

One key to Jewish survival: the prophetic messages that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem.  Isaiah had predicted both the captivity and eventual restoration.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel had likewise foretold both captivity and restoration.  This meant that, first of all, when Jerusalem was destroyed it was a confirmation of the prophetic message, not a suggestion that God had somehow failed and was weaker than the Babylonian gods.  Also, the prophetic message mean tthat a core group was commited to the promise of eventual return.

The story of Danieal and his three friends tells us one important way Jewish identity survived in Babylon.  These four young men determined to keep Jewish dietary law and (apparently) other ritual observences.  This would help a lot in keeping them a distinct people even while dwelling in a land not their own, and the distinctive Jewish diet is one of those factors that, thoughout Jewish history, has helped them maintain their identify as a people.

It probably also helped that Babylonian civilization itself was on the brink of a great collapse--and the Jews could see the handwriting on the wall.  The *original* handwriting on the wall!  Mene, Mene, Tekel Uparsin.  Sure enough, in 538 Babylon fell to the Persians

IV. Cyrus and the Persians

The Persian king Cyrus created the greates empire the world had yet seen.  It remained to be seen if Cyrus could hold that empire together.  The Persians were outnumbered 10 to 1 by subject peoples, and it was important for them to secure the cooperation of these people.  They did so partly be force, putting down revolts as swiftly as the Babylonians had.  But the Persians also adopted the wise strategy of using representatives of their many subject peoples in the actual governance of their terrtiories.  Further, Cyrus claimed to be (and to a certain extent was) a better ruler for the average person than the old "native" rulers he had replaced.

Cyrus got extra Jewish support by allowing the Jews to go back and restore Jerusalem and to begin the rebuilding ot the temple.  Cyrus seems to have favored the Jews in part because their worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was similar to his worship of Ahura Mazda, the wise Lord. 

V.  Zerubbabel and the beginnings of reconstruction

In 538 BC, a group of Jews returned to start the work of rebuilding.  Among the leaders were Zerubbabel and Jeshua.  The former was appointed governor, the later high priest.  Zerubbabel was a descendent of David, and Jeshua a descendent of Aaron.  The right ruling family, and the right priestly family: a good start.  After some setbacks, the temple was rebuilt, and the sacrifices and feasts commanded in the Torah could be kept once again. 

VI. Ezra and Nehemiah

Even more challenging than rebuilding the temple was the rebuilding of the Jewish people themselves.  A key figure here was Ezra, a man described in the Bible as a "ready scribe."  Ezra 7:10 says he "prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach in Israel statutes and judgements."  He had been living in Babylon, but around 458 BC he got special authority (and a substantial subsidy) from the Persian King Artaxerxes I to help restore temple worship to some of its former glory.  Ezra was also given special authority to teach the law and enforce it--given specificially the power to use capital punishment, confication of goods, or imprisonment as he saw fit.  He does seem to have been successful, even to the point of getting Jews who had married foreign wives to divorce them.

This whole episode (Ezra 8-10) is disturbing to us, and seems counter to the general Biblical idea of  the permanence of marriage.  But maybe this was necessary to avoid the problem of the reintroduction of idol worship.  Note the problems intermarriage had created for Israel during the time of the judges and during the reign of Solomon.  In any case, we see a key to lasting Jewish survival: a reluctance to marry outside the faith.

Another key figure in the restoration of Judea was Nehemiah.  A cupbearer to the king (Artaxerxes I), Nehemiah requested and got permission to help iin the restoration of Jerusalem.  He is given authority as governor, and uses that authority to defend  Jerusalem from attack and to rebuild the walls.  After the completion of the walls, a great dedication was held.  The law was read out, and the people renewed their pledge of loyalty to the covenant.  Key here is a great emphasis on festivals--connected to tabernacle/temple worship, but eventually transformed so they could be celebrated anywhere.  At one point in Nehemiah, the law is read out, the people mourn: and they are told to stop their morning.  "The joy of the Lord is your strength."  Eventually, the Jews develop Simchat Torah--the rejoicing over the law.  Such holidays join the Feast of Tabernacles, Passover, and the High Holy Days,  Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

VIII.  Strengths of the Jews: Synagogues and Rabbis

Ultimately, though, the most important key to Jewish survival is the synagogue tradition.  Malachi notes (3:16-18) that those who fear the Lord spoke often to one another.  What he seems to be talking about is those who really care about serving God making the study of scripture together a high priority.  This almost certainly refers to synagogue-type study.

Jewish tradition makes Ezra the head of the "Great Synagogue" a group of 120 men who focused on scripture study in Babylon, then came to Jerusalem and studied the scriptures there.  In Babylon, the scripture had had to be the focus of worship: no temple for sacrifice!  But the habit of meeting to study scripture together continued even after temple sacrifice had begun again. 

The priests are, theoretically, the official teachers of the law, but the priest now is rivaled by the rabbi.  And the prophets? Gone altogether.  Malachi begins in the typical prophetic fashion, "The burden of the word of the Lord to Malachi." But the end of the book is an exhortation to study the law and to wait for the day of Elijah the prophet.  The hint is that there will be no more prophetic word until the time of Elijah's return, and the coming of Messiah.

Tractate Sanhedrin (part of the Talmud) says specifically that the spirit departed with the last of the prophets, and that the prophetic voice was silenced.  The inter-testamental books (like Maccabbees) also reflect the idea that God, for at time at least, was no longer speaking through prophets.  I Maccabbees 14:41, for instance, "The Jewish people and their priests have made the following decision.  Simon shall be their permanent teacher and high priest until a true prophet arises."  The writer says this was inscribed on a bronze plaque and put on pillar on Mt. Zion.  So, without a prophetic voice, where do you turn to learn God's will?  I Mac. 3:48 says the Jews, "Unrolled a scroll of the law to learn about things for whom the Gentiles consult images of their gods."

There's a scene in "Mom and Dad Save the World" when a character called Sirk talks about the high tech weapons of his enemies.  Then he says: this is one of our weapons.  What is it?  A rock.  Now note that Judaism frequently is in a similar position: all the cards are stacked in favor of their enemies.  And here's our weapon: a book.  And, on top of that, at book that makes life difficult--a book that makes it hard for to blend in where you might really rather blend in.

IX. Greek hegemony: Seleucids and Ptolemies

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian empire and created an even larger empire of his own.  The empire didn't last: Alexander's successors split the empire among themselves.  The Ptolemies took over in Egypt, while the Seleucids took over Syria.   The kings of each of these dynasties all dreamed of being like Alexander with a universal empire.  Of course, that meant taking out their rivals, and for the Ptolemies and Seleucids their conflicts would take place--in Palestine! 

Now both Ptolemies and Seleucids wanted Jewish support, and were willing to cut deals with the Jews.  But it was a really tricky business to decide which alliance to make.  And, since their were palace rivalries in both Syrian and Egypt, one had to be careful not only to choose Ptolemies or Seleucids, but to choose which of the factions within each dynasty was the best to support--if any.

Because friendship with Greeks was, in some ways, more dangerous to Jewish survival than enmity.


Well, Greek culture was enormously attractive.  Plays, poetry, art, history, philosophy--lots to admire and love.  And, on top of all this, sports!  The Greeks built gymnasiums wherever they went, and for Jewish young men the temptation to want to go hang out at the gym was tremendous.  The problem was, though, the the gymnasium dress code.  "Gymnos" means naked--and Greek athletics were done in the nude.  That meant that, in the gym, a Jewish young man was markedly different--circumcision was obvious.  And it was certainly easier to fit in if one wasn't circumcised or if one underwent the painful process of having the circumcision reversed.

The temptation to assimilate was a tough one not to succumb to.  But an even greater danger occurred with the rise of a Seleucid king particularly eager to make himself a 2nd Alexander: Antiochus IV, better known by his nickname, Antiochus Epiphanes.

X.  The Great Tribulation I: Antiochus Ephiphanes

"Epiphanes" means manifestation, and it was a nickname chosen by Antiochus because he considered himself to be a manifestation of the god Zeus.  Jews (and others) changed this to Antiochus Epimanes, Antiochus the Madman. 

At first, Antiochus' major target was the Ptolemies, and he launched a semi-successful invasion of Egypt to try to cripple has main rivals to supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.  But the campaign proved very expensive, and so Antiochus launched a totally unprovoked attack on the temple in Jerusalem, plundering its treasures just so he could finance his military campaigns.

Two years later, still short of money, Antiochus decided to put Judea under tribute. Once in control, Antiochus decided to crush the Jewish faith.  He set up an image of himself as Zeus in the temple at Jerusalem, and sacrificed a pig on the altar.  He set out to destroy every copy of the scripture he could fine, and possessing any of the Jewish holy books became a capital offense.  If a mother had a baby boy circumcised, both mother and child would be killed, the dead baby hung around her neck.

Many Jews gave in easily--even enthusiastically.  But others resisted, including the family of the priest Mattathias.

XI.  The Maccabees (Hasmoneans) and the struggle for freedom

Mattathias was a priest in the town of Modin.  Antiochus had sent his representative to compel all to make pagan sacrifice.  Mattathias himself killed the first Jew who started to comply with this order, kills Antiochus' messenger, and prepares Modin for resistence.  Elsewhere, there is similar resistence to Antiochus' demands.

Antiochus adopted the strategy of attacking on the sabbath, in one instance killing 1000 Jews who, since it was the Sabbath, felt they would have been breaking God's law if they defended themselves.

Mattathias wouldn't concede this advantage: if they had to fight on the Sabbath to save their lives, they would.

Mattathias sons each in their turns become leaders of their people. It is well worth your time to read of the heroism of  Judah, Jonathan, John, and Simon.  Judah leads the way to the first great victories over the Syrians.  He captures Jerusalem, takes back the temple, tears down the polluted altar (where the abomination of desolation, i.e., pig slaughter to Antiochus, had been made) and redidicates the temple.  The Jews set up an annual feast to commemorate the victory over Antiochus and the cleansing of the temple--Hanukkah.

The Hasmoneans combined political and spiritual leadership.  They served as priests, but also as "ethnarchs" and, later, as kings.  Unfortunately, they didn't get complete support--and they didn't deserve it either.  Alexander Jannaeus was particularly ruthless.  In 95 BC, he crucified 800 of his Jewish opponents, killing their wives and children in front of them while they died agonizing deaths--and while he and his concubines held a big party!

XII.  Roman hegemony

Factions fighting for control in Judea meant a constant search for allies, and various Jewish groups made alliance with Syrians, Egyptians, and even Spartans!  But the most sought after ally eventually was Rome.  Rome was powerful (a big advantage) and too far away (so the Jews thought) to actually want to control Judea themselves.  The trouble was that gaining support from Rome was a tricky, tricky guessing game. This was the period of the Roman Revolution, and a Jewish leader who wanted Roman support had to guess which Roman faction was going to win out.  Do you support Caesar or Pompey?  Later, do you support Antony or Octavian?

Well, to make a long and fascinating story short and dull [nicely summarized here], I'll just say that the Hasmoneans ended up guessing wrong.  Who guessed right?  Not a Jewish family at all, but one of the despised Edomites.

In 63 BC, Pompey the Great annexed much of the eastern Mediterranean.   During his campaign, he besieged and took Jerusalem itself. 

Pompey didn't want to control Judaea directly, and he was willing to let the Hasmoneans continue as "ethnarchs," i.e., leaders of the people.  But factional strife continued...and a new problem.  In 40 BC the Parthians took Jerusalem.  When the Romans took the city back, they  put in power a clever but ruthless politician, Herod the Great. 

As an Edomite, Herod had potential problems getting the Jews to accept his leadership.  He married into a Jewish priestly family, and added greatly to the temple to try to gain popularity. But he was an extremely cruel man, and not much liked by his subjects.  He served Roman interests well enough, though, and, at his death, the Romans divided his kingdom among his sons. 

This wasn't particularly successful in Judea, and the Romans ended up using Roman governors (e.g., Pilate, Felix, and Festus) to try to bring a bit more stability.  It didn't work: the particular men sent were below average in ability and insensitive to Jewish popular sentiment.  Tension increased,  and it was clear that something was going to give.

XIII.  Different strategies for survival

The Jews adopted several different strategies for dealing with their Roman overlords.

 A. The Sadducees  (who included most of the priests and particularly the high priests) favored cooperation with whatever power happened to be on the throne, whether it be a Herodian or a Roman governor.  As long as temple-sacrifice continued (and they maintained their own privileges and wealth) that was good enough.

 B.  The Pharisees (who dominated the synagogues) stressed adherence to the law in one's personal life: proper diet and rigid following of the sabbath law were essential to keeping the faith.  Separate yourself by lifestyle, and that's good enough.

 C.  The Essenes, who regarded the temple priesthood as hopelessly corrupt, went out into the wilderness areas and set up communes where they could live their lives free from interference by either Roman or Jewish authorities.
D. The  Zealots thought armed revolt the only answer, and were determined to drive out the Romans by force.  Assassination and terrorist attacks, not just on Romans, but on Jews too, were the ticket.  Stir things up enough, provoke a war, and hope for the best.

XIV.  The Great Tribulation II: The Destruction of Jerusalem

In AD 66, things reached crisis stage.  The zealot types did succeed in provoking a war with Rome.  In the midst of this war, there was essentially a civil war among the Jews themselves.  Disunited, and doing horrible things to each other, the Jews couldn't hold out against the Romans despite the advantages of a magnificently fortified Jerusalem.  Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 AD, and, within a few years, the Romans had subdued all other pockets of Jewish resistance.  Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and we have the beginnings of the great diaspora, the great dispersion of the Jewish people  After one last desperate revolt (the Bar Kochbar Rebellion in 135 AD), the Romans, fed up, turned Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina, an entirely pagan city.  Jews weren't permitted to even set foot there or anywhere in Judea.  The diaspora was complete.

And Hebrew civilization came to an end.  Like the Hittites, the Mittani, and so many other peoples, the Hebrews disappeared from history, never to rise again.  At least, that's how it could have been.  Without a homeland, without leaders, and with a long tendency of blending into surrounding cultures anyway, the Jews should simply have been assimilated into the dominent Roman culture.

But that's not what happened.  Instead, among the Jews of the diaspora, there arose a determination to go back and start again, to re-establish their nation, to rebuild the city and the sanctuary.   And, amazingly enough, after nearly two thousand years, they succeeded.

XV. Keys to Jewish survival

What held the Jewish community together in the meanwhile?  Some elements mentioned above, and some additional keys:

1.  Synagogue study
2.  Sabbath
3.  Holidays
4.  Reluctance to marry outside of faith
5.  Distinctive diet and dress
6.  Hope in the coming of a Messiah
7.  Grudging admiration or at least acceptance from adherents of daughter religions Christianity and Islam

XVI.  Judaism in the Christian World

I do a short history of Judaism for the Good Shepherd Lutheran's confirmation class each year.  I give them a few Hebrew phrases, the most important of which are "oy" (woe) and "hallelujah" (praise God).  Here's what we get: 

And, I suppose, that that can be a good thing as well: the Jewish conviction that, despite appearances, everything will work out in the end.  There's a song censored out of Fiddler on the Roof that perhaps as well as any other summarizes the Jewish experience and the Jewish hope.

[Fiddler on the Roof] - When Messiah Comes

When Messiah comes, He will say to us,
"I apologize that I took so long.
But I had a little trouble finding you,
Over here a few and over there a few...
You were hard to reunite,
But everything is going to be alright!

"Up in Heaven there, how I wrung my hands,
When they exiled you from the Promised Land!
Into Babylon you went like castaways,
On the first of many many moving days.
What a day and what a blow!
How terrible I felt you'll never know!"

Since that day, many men
Said to us "Get thee out!"
Kings they were, gone they are...
We're still here.....
When Messiah comes, He will say to us,
"Don't you think I know what a time you've had!
Now I'm here you'll see how quickly things improve,
You won't have to move unless you want to move.
You shall never more take flight,
Yes, everything is going to be alright!"

When Messiah comes, He will say to us,
"I was worried sick if you'd last or not!
And I spoke to God and said 'Would that be fair
If Messiah came...and there was no one there!'
And the Lord replied to me,
'Wait! Everything'll be alright, you'll see!'"

Many times, many men
Took our homes, took our lives
Kings they were, gone they are...
We're still here....
When Messiah comes, and His reign begins,
Truth and justice then shall appear on earth.
But if this reward we would be worthy of,
We must keep our covenant with God above.
So be patient and devout...
And...gather up your things and get thee out!