Priests, Kings And Rabbis – Jewish History Of Power Transition Essay Examples
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(During 3 Periods: Early Judaism, the Hellenistic Period and the Muslim Domination)
In this book the author describes the development of Jewish thought from a spiritual and philosophical point of view. His main point of reference is the “Hebrew Scriptures” (15). This source is crucial for the topic of “rabbinic Judaism” – it contain the written documents that define the rabbinic tradition as it is today, which is a product of those Scriptures. More importantly, they contain answers to universal questions that have been studied by other streams and schools of philosophy – questions about the origin of the universe and of human beings in general. That is why the Hebrew Scriptures have such a cosmopolitan impact – by providing answers to those questions, the priests or the rabbis that were in contact with the Hebrew Scriptures became authority and an institution of power that preserved the truth about history of creation and life sustenance (15).
For the Jews there is a deity, the Lord, with many names and many chosen men to represent Him over the ages, for example Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David and others (51). Israel is a “covenant nation,” which means that the patriarchs like Abraham made a contract with God to be His representatives and to believe in Him (51). “However, a covenant is qualitatively more serious than a contract.A covenant may not easily be broken” (51). In this covenant the nation is obliged to observe God’s commandments, which were not always meant to be written at the beginning, but were applied to secure the nation’s belief in God, together with maintaining a sense of holiness and awe for God. This “covenant is forever and the deity, the Lord, is more a deity of the people Israel than he is a deity of the land” (52). The whole creation of the earth and everything in it is under God’s authority. Therefore, the authority of those, who represent God, is very important in this case. In addition, this covenant of God is spread over any form of life – to life-forms (like animals) God commands to “procreate,” to human beings – “to procreate and to kill their prey before eating it,” to “Abraham – “to circumcise his male children” (55). This circumcision applies to Ishmael and Isaac.
God’s “initial intention was to keep the terms of the covenant flexible,” in the form of a “direct form of theocracy.” However, the people of Israel insisted they would want only a “representative theocracy,” which meant that they did not want God speaking to them as a nation, but preferred Him to speak to certain chosen people, who would then proclaim the message on His behalf; such figures were Aaron and Moses (44). This is a clear lessening of the communication that God intended for His beloved chosen nation, but He agreed with their wishes. In fact, Samuelson claims that the whole history of Israel describes how they were trying to get rid of God, Who wanted to communicate with them. This is a controversy – God wanted to have a relationship with them, but they refused it (44). Sometimes the distrust of Israel comes from the fact that the nation would like to see the God who is talking to them, “but God only wants to be heard” (47). The institution of prophecy is also very important for the nation of Israel – it is essential in diminishing of the power of the nation in terms of political and military influence. The Jewish belief system defines the existence of the Jewish nation historically and theologically and reduces it to the function of serving God in a life that is circulating around the Temple of Jerusalem over the years (54).
There is something fatalistic about God’s choice of righteous people, just as in the case of Noah, who was the only righteous man on the whole earth, and was chosen by God to inherit the land. Everyone else was annihilated by a massive flood, due to their evil deeds and corruption. The institution that represents God the Creator can be extremely focused on the individual representatives of God and their messages for humanity. It could be a message of life and death (54). Out of one person a whole nation can emerge. Usually the names of such fathers were recorded, who later became a certain nation and populated a whole area or a continent (54). One can see that in the Jewish spiritual realm the theological representations draw a broader picture of the world. This information is so unique that there is no other way the listeners at that time could have received it in any other way. The function of its construction is to offer a massive amount on information.
Moses was the first figure, who successfully intervened “on behalf of the people.” He managed to shares the people’s vision and wishes, which God heard and the people were spared the destruction. There is the key to the institution of priests and kings, respectively that stems from this fruitful contact with God. In the figure of Moses – God not only delivered the nation, the descendants of Jacob, from captivity in Egypt, but He held back His wrath upon seeing their disobedience and led the promise into completion –gave them the land that Abraham was told they would have (57). This institution stemming from Moses was therefore considered by the Jews extremely trustworthy, since he was succeeded by the judges and by priests, who were able to anoint the future kings of Israel (Saul and David – by Samuel).
The theocratic state of Israel was run first by Moses and after the invasion into the Promised Land - by judges together with priests. The government consisted in “genetically generated bureaucracy of priests,” that were “associated with different sanctuaries through the nation” and were determining the social life by defining “daily and festive sacrifices” (22). They also played the crucial role in “political decision making” (22). Later on, after Saul and David emerged and represented the institution of anointed (divinely chosen) kingship of Israel, with them the institution of “charismatic military leadership” appeared (22). This constituted the “hereditary monarchy,” which was still “dominated by priesthood,” but later on became much more influential and independent, while the “political voice of the hereditary priesthood” lost its influence (22). The latter, however, re-emerged in a slightly different format, when the moral decay of the Israeli society became evident and by God’s standards pointed toward a decay of the state – the covenant with God had to be screamed back in the faces of Israel military elite and corrupt priesthood that had become subservient to the kings, who were forgetting the real status of their nation – “a covenant chosen nation of the Lord” (22). The “institution of prophecy” became “instrumental in the political and military” affairs and warned of the forthcoming decline of the Israeli kingdom’s power (22).
Again strong individuals arose with the task to point the nation towards the Lord’s standards and God’s judgment in case of opposition. Such names are Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. They reminded about the global function of Israel (particularly the first two), while Jeremiah sharpened the attention towards the execution of social justice by the country’s officials and leading men. The key issues in their message were that Israel was a “holy nation,” which meant they were “separated to God” – both their language and their people belonged to God (29). The name of God was known also as the “Tetragrammaton,” consisting of four letters, when written, that was too holy to be mentioned on any occasion (YHWH) (29).
Samuelson claims In the Jewish mindset “the primary purpose of the existence of the heavens is to serve the sacrificial cult of the temple of Jerusalem” (53). As the Scriptures describe it – the meaning of the mere presence of all living elements (plants, animals and humans) is to worship God in the holy Temple of Jerusalem and participate in this continuous worship one way or another – the plants – by providing food for the animals, which in turn are “divided into distinct species defined by their fitness for sacrifice of the Temple” (53). Animals are merely seen as created to be “first and foremost food” (54). The book of Genesis describes the separation of everything that initially is created by God in a kind of dichotomy – heavens vs. earth; animals vs. humans; men of God (‘good men’) vs. men of men (‘evil men’). The Mosaic covenant makes a fine distinction in the social life of the Israelites as described in the Scriptures. They are kept by priests who remind kings and leading men on crucial occasions about the legacy rooted in the creation of the holy chosen nation of Israel. The “Categories of the Mosaic covenant” (67) are so detailed that they are meant to pervade every sensitive area of social regulations, individual believes and way of interacting – there are rules about the “civil legislation” like “personal injury,” “property damages,” “political offences,” “liturgical offences” (67). There are also specifications about the “Sanctuary” (67) – about its “purpose” and “construction” (67), about its “priests” and the “Sabbath” (68), about the “Ritual laws” and the “Liturgical Laws” (68).
In order for the Jews to understand and obey the Torah, they needed mediators, who were of them and were devoted to maintain the knowledge of the Torah and to submit it to the next generation together with the oral tradition that came in parallel with it. The Jewish nation needed to obey in order to behave correctly (132). The wisdom that these books offered to every member of their society individually and together collectively would make them “perfect in front of God and [would] secure their good performance, and ultimately protect them from damage” (132). At some point the development of Hellenistic philosophy and studies of the Torah coincided, in the few centuries before the AD. Then the idea about what wisdom had to be observed, in order to understand what made the two cultures similar and different. While the Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle spoke of wisdom as a source of eternal joy, the Jewish rabbis also connected it to building up a character that ultimately brings divine gladness and serenity. Samuelson claims that this reference to happiness in both concepts of wisdom might be due to the fact that the rabbis at that time might have assimilated “this kind of ethics [from]the Hellenistic philosophy” (132). The Book of Proverbs is a very close narrative to the creations of Hellenistic philosophical thought.
Another rabbinic text, known as “Saying of the Fathers” is a compilation of moral prescriptions ending with a liturgy and is read on Saturdays “between Passover and the Jewish New Year” (133). It also gives some “practical political advice for people in power who rule by means of law” (134). With rhetorical means typical for Greek philosophy, it passes from theoretical verdicts to practical ones (134). There is a reference to an actual influential Jewish figure, Simeon the Just, “a miracle worker who reigned as a High Priest in the penultimate dynasty of the Onias family that was replaced in the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Greeks in the second century BCE” (134). The words of wisdom are subscribed to Simeon, who allegedly has something to teach about the importance of the inner values exhibited in the world. God’s ideal is one of perfect service in His holy Temple when performing “activities of sacrifice,” which is a metaphor of fulfilling God’s will without intermingling it with one’s own will, but rather acting like a voluntary “slave” of God (134). Here the words “service” and “Torah” are interconnected, because both are meant to fulfill God’s will and plan (135). The importance is always stressed on moral excellence and “deeds of piety,” which are the result of studying the law (135). Every “ordinary person is obliged to” study and observe the law (135).
There is a talk about “divine providence (hashgachah),” where the universe is moved by order of just and recompenses those who seek to do good, but punishes those who are with wicked intentions. Even though human beings are completely in control of their behavior and deeds, they still have to bear in mind that God already knows the outcome of their decisions: “Everything is foreseen (tsafui), permission (ha-reshut) is given, in goodness the world is judged, and everything is according to the majority of the action (rov ha-ma’asheh)” (136). An interpretation of later translations clarify that God is able to predict the final outcome, and people have been granted freedom of acting, since the world is run by God’s grace. However, the reward in in the heart of the matter – it might be good or evil, and it will be judged accordingly (136). This is a Jewish response within Hellenistic culture that debates about Providence and predetermination and the role of human free will.
The rabbis still have the last interpretation according to the Torah. They must have been thrown amidst a perplexing debate about the issues of God’s quality of all-knowingness and how He grants His beloved children the free will to act and to take decision. This is at least what Danby says, who is a more recent translator and commentator on the matter (136). A closer observation of the original text confirms the rabbis of the time did not seem to waver in their opinion about God’s role in matters of free will. In order a plan of the human free will to take place, there must be given a divine “permission,” which already connects the execution of free will as an act of a program from above – either it is approved in advance or blocked for good. This is the role of an all-knowing and good God – He cares for His children by protecting them from bad decisions (139). The Torah remains the ultimate source that teaches men how to prosper and how material success and lasting joy are interconnected with the moral decisions and devotion to God (139). Proverbs is just another book of the Torah that underlines the importance to devotion to God in order to achieve personal moral excellence and perfect obedience to a just God, who rewards social justice with prosperity and personal peace (139). In that way, the Hellenistic culture that makes popular the search of wisdom is re-integrated within Jewish tradition of referring all goodness to one God. Both cultures enrich their mutual aspects – one by stressing on wisdom, the other – by addressing wisdom as a way to get closer to God.
The 10th c. AD is crucial for the development of the “theoretical Jewish philosophy,” which happens in Spain, that is occupied and rules by Muslims and in Egypt as well (159). The Jewish scholars were an integral part of the social life of the local Muslims and could be direct witnesses to the flourishing of Muslim “theoretical philosophy,” which influenced the Jewish way of thinking in turn, just as later the Jewish philosophers were influenced by Christianity in Europe (159). Indeed, previous Greek and Roman philosophies were adopted by Muslims and their libraries became part of the Muslim culture, when the Muslims conquest of these territories took place. Muslims took over the culture, the libraries and translated Greek and Roman literature into Arabic. This happened predominantly in North Africa and mainly in Egypt from 7th c., but the tendency also spread up to Badhdad till the beginning of 9th c. In that period there were not only translations taking place from Greek and Roman into Arabic, but also a genuine transformation of the Greek philosophy by bringing their achievements a step further from a Muslim perspective (160). Muslim scholars set new principles in mathematics, “making explicit use of Hindu positional numerical notation” (160).
The five very important philosophical schools of ancient Greece (of, respectively: Pythagoras, Eucleides of Megara, Plato, Democritus of Abdera and Aristotle) were absorbed and did not disappear. They came from earlier schools and also left a legacy that could take their achievements to the next level (160). The most important Jewish representative to contribute to this process was Moses Maimonides, who was the author of Mishneh Torah teaching on “practical philosophy” and Guide – a study on “theoretical philosophy” (163). His work finalized the “dominant expression of Jewish Aristotelianism” and “Jewish philosophy in general” for the next 7 centuries to come at least (163).
There are other Jewish philosophers with substantial achievements at that period as well: Saadia (Book of Beliefs and Opinions), Judah Halevi (Khuzari) and Abraham Ibn Daud (Exalted Faith). Those scholars defended rabbinic Judaism and its tradition of observing the law. The question of debate was always shall one accept the Torah written laws and ignore the “authentic” rabbinic tradition that came alongside as a result of practicing it (163). There was a hectic debate about the “oral Torah” (163). Saadia claimed that “there are three ways to know the truth – by human reason, by revelation, and by tradition” (164). The first way is typical for the philosopher, the second – for the prophet, and the third – for any average person; however, they are in essence the same, since God is one (164). This fueled further the discussion of “God’s oneness” (164). “Saadia is the first in a long tradition of Jewish philosophers to argue, in accord with Islam, that God is in no sense corporeal, and that all of the biblical statements whose literal meaning is that God has a body cannot properly be understood literally” (165).
Maimonides grew up in Spain, where he had received a good educated before his wealthy family moved to Egypt. Even though a trained physician and a devoted scholar, he had to take over the family financial empire after the death of his brother to preserve the legacy. He, however, continued to contribute philosophically and to influence the Jewish culture in North Africa to a large extend, by becoming a prolific writer and defender of Jewish cultural and religious heritage (175-176).
Samuelson, Norbert M. Jewish Philosophy, An Historical Introduction. London: Continuum
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