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Manual for Faculty
Unit 3: The Shaping of Traditions
(First to Ninth Centuries)
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Teaching This Unit
At the start of Program 3, Abba Eban reflects on the survival of the Jewish people despite the destruction of their Temple. Judaism had developed within itself the ingredients that would enable the Jews to survive the loss of political independence and the absence of their central shrine. Still, as Professor Ruderman notes in the Study Guide and as we briefly mentioned in the last unit, some Jews, specifically those at Masada who were led by the daring Eleazar ben Yair, continued to battle against Rome. Eleazar ben Yair's stirring speech to his followers, reproduced in the Study Guide and of dubious authenticity, is a poignant reminder of the heroism of these Jews in the face of the mighty Romans. Josephus' account of the destruction at Masada appears in Source Reader Selection 1.

Roman Empire

Judaism could not survive if it continued to confront the Roman Empire. Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who escaped from defeated Jerusalem, had his own ideas about the perpetuation of Judaism. With the Temple in ruins, the Jews could still serve God through acts of loving-kindness. The student should be encouraged to grasp this revolutionary idea, which is expressed in Source Reader Selection 2.

These new ideas were carried by Jews throughout the Diaspora, to all the lands where the Jews lived. There, faced with misrepresentations of Judaism, Jewish writers strove to defend themselves against their detractors. Source Reader Selection 3 is also from the historian Josephus, who argues against the falsification of the Jewish faith by a pagan writer named Apion. But as the video demonstrates through its footage of ancient ruins, the Jewish communities of the Diaspora were relatively comfortable. A remnant of an ancient community can be seen in the depiction of synagogue worship on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia.

Even after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 C.E., the Jews of Judaea continued to rebel against the Romans. Led by Bar Kokhba in the 130's C.E., the Jews were at first successful, but in time suffered terribly at the hands of the Romans. Slowly, the ideas of the rabbis, such as those of Yohanan ben Zakkai, took hold. From the town of Yavneh, where they founded a new seat of Jewish learning, the rabbis established a process by which the words of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, would have eternal relevance. They taught that when God granted the Torah to the Jews on Mount Sinai, God gave them a twofold law: not only the actual written text, but also the ability to interpret and develop the divine will over generations. The second part of the law, called the "Oral Torah," was to be interpreted only by the rabbis. This group, originally called Pharisees, developed through this process of interpretation a sophisticated catalogue of divine commandments, Mizvot, which it was incumbent upon all Jews to observe. Each Jew was equal in God's eyes and was responsible for following the intricacies of the Jewish tradition.

The literature of the rabbis is extensive. In Selection 4 of the Source Reader, David Ruderman has chosen a number of representative texts to impart some flavor of rabbinic learning. From ethics to law to legend, these innovative minds expanded and deepened the Jewish tradition and gave Jews a legacy that would allow them to survive no matter where fate would bring them.

Jewish Sects

As mentioned in the last unit, there were many sects embracing rival interpretations of the Jewish heritage. Among them were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and early Christians. The latter, originally followers of a Galilean preacher named Jesus, continued to believe in his message even after he was executed by the Roman authorities. His disciples argued that he was the messiah, the "Anointed One" for whom Jews had been waiting as the harbinger of the end of days. The video shows some of the areas where Jesus taught, specifically Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus' followers, called the Nazarenes, originally consisted of Jews. But due to the efforts of Paul, by birth a Diaspora Jew, the group began to extend its influence and seek converts among all the peoples of the Roman Empire. The program shows the many areas Paul visited. There he argued that converts to this new religion no longer had to observe Jewish laws and customs but had only to believe in Jesus. This was shocking to Jews, who felt that their ways and customs were essential to salvation.

Slowly, the Jews and the followers of the new Christian religion split. The Jews did not believe that Jesus was the messiah, for they could not accept that such a figure would be crucified. The Christians, on the other hand, awaited the second coming, when Jesus would finally redeem the true believers. The Christians began to interpret the Jewish Bible, which they called the Old Testament, to elicit proofs of the veracity of the messiahship of Jesus. Jesus' crucifixion, for which the Jews were now blamed by the Christians, was explained by the parable of the vineyard where God's tenant cast out his most beloved son. This parable, found in the New Testament, is reproduced in Source Reader Selection 5. Also found there are excerpts from the Gospel According to John in which heightened hostility between the Christians and the Jews is especially notable. Christians vilified the Jews and saw them as children of the Devil. The rabbis, in response, expelled the Jewish Christians from the Jewish community, and from that point the two groups were not able to reconcile their differences.

In the Study Guide, Professor Ruderman discusses the adversos Judaeos tradition, a compilation of writings by the early Church fathers which describe God's rejection of the Jews and conclude that following Jewish law is no longer important. John Chrysostom, in his late-fourth-century essays in Source Reader Selection 6, even compares the Jews of his time with the murderers of Christ. However, the classic Christian attitude towards the Jews is seen in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, in which Jews are allowed the right to live even though they have killed Jesus. The Jews, Augustine argued, must be treated as a pariah people and kept in a debased state until they can acknowledge the truth of Christianity. (On Augustine, see Source Reader Selection 7.)

The Fall of Rome

After the early centuries of Roman persecution of the Christians, Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the fourth century. With Christendom's accession to power, Christian theological attitudes were transferred to the realm of law. The resultant discriminatory legislation regarding the Jews is described in Source Reader Selection 8. But as the student should also note, the laws indicate that Jewish-Christian relations on the popular level were still characterized by closeness and integration.

Once Christianity and Judaism had separated, they saw themselves as two separate religions.


Judaism sought to codify its many rabbinic traditions, some of which we have briefly discussed. In the early third century, Judah ha-Nasi redacted the laws of the Jews into a six-part work called the Mishnah. In it he condensed and edited the various developments of the Oral Law that were extant at the time. Professor Ruderman offers a careful delineation of the types of sources the rabbis produced. Again, refer to the items in Source Reader Selection 4. A close reading of these materials will provide a glimpse into the often misunderstood world of early rabbinic Judaism. Far from dry and lifeless, it was a colorful and rich religious tradition.

Rabbinic Judaism was destined to develop and be reinterpreted by each succeeding generation. The Mishnah was studied not only in Palestine but also in Babylonia, and the resultant investigations were compiled in a multivolume work called the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud was considered to be a superior work and, as Abba Eban explains, is full of discussions of ethical behavior, ritual observance, legends and folklore. The rabbinic period of Jewish history was as decisive in the development of Judaism as the literature of the Church fathers was crucial in setting the foundations of early Christianity.

The Rise of Islam

The peoples of the Middle East were not to acclimate themselves gradually to either the rule of the Roman Empire or of the Sassanians in Babylonia. For in the seventh century, on the Arabian peninsula, a prophet named Muhammad began to preach a new monotheistic religion, Islam. Originally Muhammad sought to convert Jews and Christians on the peninsula to his new faith. He acknowledged his debt to the other monotheistic religions in the Muslim holy scripture, the Koran, excerpts of which appear in Source Reader Selection 10. Professor Ruderman in the Study Guide delineates the concepts that Islamic theology borrowed from Judaism. As Muhammad became stronger on the peninsula, he no longer needed the political help of the adherents of other monotheisms. Soon he successfully united the entire peninsula under his banner. Islam's success did not end with Muhammad's death in the year 632 C.E. In the next century, an amazing conquest was effected as Islam stretched its dominion from Spain in the west to Persia in the east. The video contains striking footage of mosques, Muslim houses of worship, and of stunning landscapes, all of which reflect the glory of the Muslim empire.

Within this great empire about ninety percent of world Jewry resided. Islam tolerated these "people of the Book." The Muslims needed the Jews to help administer their land, develop commerce, and generally aid in the large bureaucracy while the conquerors were solidifying their rule over their extensive territories. The Jews, called dhimmis -- protected minority -- were granted freedoms, including the right to practice their own religion. All this was granted in exchange for the payments of various taxes. This relationship between Muslims and Jews was set down in the Covenant of Umar. Historians have shown that this document was not written by Umar, Commander of the Faithful, yet it is still an accurate reflection of Jewish status. (See Source Reader Selection 11.) However, students should understand the difference between tolerance and equality: the Muslims did not consider Jews and Christians their equals. Nevertheless the Islamic empire was a great boon for Jews, both religiously and economically.

Since the Mediterranean world was now divided between Christianity and Islam, the Jews were seen as neutral parties and were able to ply their trade among Muslims and Christians. Some, like the Radhanites, became world traders, as Source Reader Selection 12 attests. Jewish communities began to spring up along the trade routes, as can be seen in map 5 of the Study Guide.

The Jews of Baghdad, the capital city from which the Abbasid dynasty governed the Muslim empire, began to extend their influence beyond the confines of their city. Local Jewish institutions began to claim hegemony over all the Jews of the empire, just as the Abbasids had established their dominion over all the Muslims. Eventually, the entire Jewish community under Islam was governed by a triumvirate consisting of a resh galuta (exilarch), head of the exile, and two geonim (excellencies), whose religious dicta and developments of the Oral Law were considered authoritative. A colorful description of the Jewish leaders is found in the report of Nathan the Babylonian, whose remarks are excerpted in Source Reader Selection 13. The Jews were also much influenced by Islamic religion and thought, especially the Arabic translations of Greek philisophical [sic - philosophical] and scientific works. One of the greatest of the geonim, Saadia, authored a major philisophical [sic - philosophical] treatise, "The Book of Beliefs and Opinions," in which he attempted to reconcile Jewish tradition with the regnant school of Muslim philosophy. For a glimpse into this profound work, see Source Reader Selection 14. Saadia was also distinguished as a Jewish communal leader. Some of his efforts were dedicated to suppressing Karaism, a Jewish sect that emerged during the Muslim period. A Karaite refutation of Saadia's polemics against the sect is excerpted in Source Reader Selection 15.

Since the Jews under Islam traded extensively with Christian societies in Western Europe, they were gradually invited to settle in these lands. Buildings and artifacts from early medieval times are shown throughout this segment of the video. The Roman Empire had already fallen and German tribes now occupied parts of the former imperial dominions. While Jewish residence in Northern Europe was favored by rulers such as Charlemagne and feudal lords in general, Christian religious leaders were of two minds on the issue. For Gregory I, one of the greatest medieval popes, the Jews had a right to reside in Western Europe, although they were segregated from Christians and enjoyed a debased status. (On this, see Source Reader Selection 9.) But Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, was alarmed at the large number of Jews who in charters were given freedom by feudal lords to practice their own religion. He bemoaned the perilous influence of the Jews on Christian society, but his writings had little practical effect on the status of the new Jewish communities.

As the ninth century drew to a close, Jews were mainly to be found living under the aegis of two other monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam. The relative degrees of tolerance they enjoyed will be traced in the next unit.

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