SLAVERY IN THE TANAKH (Jewish Bible)

During the last few months our country has seen a number of protests by tens of thousands of women and men marching against the murder of unarmed innocent men and women of color killed by members of our police force. Acts of such egregious discrimination against folk of color bring back memories of the past and the ethical inequities and horrors of American slavery. As far as I know, the question of how to dispose of the many post-civil war monuments celebrating confederate personalities who owned slaves imported like cattle from Africa and sold to slaveholders in this country, has not been solved so far.

This said, the sad and regrettable historical chapter of American slavery has once again been exposed center stage. Once again the unjust treatment of people of color in this country points to a criminal justice system that stands in need of thorough reform. Sadly, these racist events point to the fact that Dr. Martin Luther Jr.’s great “dream” of racial equality in the US, after all these years following his assassination, still waits and cries for fulfillment.

Slavery is an ugly word and concept. It is especially so to those of us who once were slaves ourselves. You must understand that as a biblical scholar and because of my past existential involvement in slavery as a victim of the Holocaust, I thought it meaningful to explore what place it occupied in ancient Israelite history and how past ancient slave systems may have influenced the American experience.

Biblical Palestine, for a period of thousands of years was economically and socially an integral part of the ancient Near Eastern world. Slavery was an economic institution there. In order to evaluate biblical slavery in its proper perspective, we must take a quick look at slavery as it existed in neighboring parts of the Fertile Crescent, the crescent-like geographical area stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

There is extant literature on the subject of slavery in the ancient Near East. This literature contains a number of law codes, the names of which are generally unknown to non-professionals. This documentation covers a period stretching from about 2050 B.C.E (Before the Common Era), the Ur-Namu Code of Sumer to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1700 B.C.E. and on down to court documents from Babylonia and Assyria from the 14th to the 12th cent BCE.

All these codes contain legislation dealing with slavery. This being the case, it is not surprising that our Torah, whose written reminiscences, historical and pseudo-historical, fall into the latter part of the above period of documentation, also contains legislation covering the phenomenon of slavery.

Before continuing with this inquiry, a word of caution. The biblical Hebrew term for a male slave is eved, for a female slave shifchah. In dealing with these terms, it is important to pay attention to the literary context in which they occur, because eved, slave, can also mean servant, bondsman, serf while the word’s female counterpart shifchah, female slave, can also mean maidservant.

This said, what comes to mind is the question: was the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite slave system racist and therefore similar to the American system, begun here in 1619 when the first slave ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort in the English settlement that would become Virginia, and when after landing, the ship’s captain immediately proceeded to sell the Africans kidnapped from their villages in what is now Angola. Regarding the above date, it should be mentioned that documentation exists that African Blacks had been imported as slaves in the English colony of Bermuda already before 1619.

Before we try to respond to the questions as to whether the biblical Israelite slave system was based on racist ideology, let us define race and racism. Race. Britannica. com: “Contemporary scientists hold that human physical variations, especially in those traits that are normally used to classify people racially – skin color, hair texture, facial features, and to some extent bodily structure – must be understood in terms of evolution processes and the long-range adaptation of human groups… Racism, according to the Oxford English dictionary is “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race; belief in the superiority of a particular race.”

These preliminary remarks having been presented, let us now go to one of the more important biblical texts that deals with slavery.

“Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bear him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.”

Exodus 21:1-6

This ordinance is one of great many legal references to slavery in Israel. Notice that this ordinance deals with Hebrew slaves explicitly. This explicitness is not found in many legislative texts dealing with slavery where the slave is designated by the term eved. Given this problem, scholars disagree in their interpretation with regard to which slave is meant: Jewish or foreign. Furthermore, slavery is a broad concept that must be broken down into a number of categories: captives of war; Israelite or foreign slaves; minors sold into slavery; people’s self-sale into slavery; insolvency caused slavery; female slavery; marriage between free men and slaves; manumission; Temple slavery; and the important economic role of slavery.

Obviously, it is impossible to deal here with all the references to slaves enumerated above. What can be said, however, is that while the Bible considers slaves to be a chattel of their master, there are regulations which the master must respect. Here is one such text. Deut. 21.10-14: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”      

There are many other similar legislative stipulations in the Bible. Lev. 25:44 allows the people of Israel to buy and sell slaves; Ex. 21:16 and Deut. 24:7 legislates against kidnapping, stealing and selling a person which carries the death penalty. In Israel, the master/owner was not allowed to harm his slaves. In case this happened, the slave had to be set free (Ex.21:26-27). On the other hand, Ex.21:20-21 seems to me contradictory: “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he died under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”

Clearly, the Israelite law, based on Torah and thus considered to have come from God, is not all that clear about master-slave relationship. To me it is puzzling that nowhere in the Torah God, the master legislator, forbids slavery. Interestingly, this holds true for the New Testament and thus also for Jesus of Nazareth. What can be stated with certainty, on the other hand, is that in the Hebrew Bible the slave has certain rights that protect him from being abused, maltreated, injured or killed. The slave is not hated. He is, rather like a useful machine, to be kept in a good workable state.

While the biblical concept of slavery is nothing to be praised it is a system of slavery seen fit for the economy then in place. Sadly, there is no voice raised, not even that of God, condemning it. It is curious to me that none of the great prophets of Israel, staunch advocates for justice, have anything to say about it. Slavery is a concept accepted and used in the Ancient Middle East and thus Israel accepted it and seemingly also practiced it.

My writing the word “seemingly” above in bold suggests that considering the history of ancient Israel I have a problem accepting the fact that slavery was actually in use there. Why so?

Israel as a geopolitical entity begins with King David, if we accept the biblical Davidic kingship stories as historically accurate. Seen from an archaeological viewpoint questions about the grandiose narratives concerning King David and the Davidic empire leaves many questions unanswered.

It is highly probable that if slavery in ancient Israel existed, the slaves were not prisoners of war but rather fellow Israelites. This is substantiated in I K 5:27-32 where we read that “King Solomon [David’s son] raised a levy of forced labor (Hebrew mas) out of all Israel and the level numbered thirty thousand men. The so-called United Kingdom of David (ca. 1,000 BCE) fell apart with the fiasco of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, against whom the ten northern tribes revolted under the leadership of one Jeroboam in protest against the harsh treatment of the people by Solomon (931 BCE) and Rehoboam’s boasting that his future leadership would be even harsher. This led to the subsequent breakup of the United Kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom ended in 722 BCE when Sargon II, king of Assyria, defeated the ten northern tribes. Judah in the south fell to Babylonia in 586 BCE when Zedekiah, its last king, was defeated.        From then on the geopolitical state of Israel no longer existed. A relatively short resurrection of Israel occurred under Hasmonean/Maccabean rule from 165 BCE to 63 BCE at which time the land became a Roman province. Summarizing the above we conclude that an independent Israel existed for a total of 512 years. After the fall of Israel to Rome, 1,085 years went by with Israel being dispersed and without a homeland until 1948 when Israel was resurrected again and became Eretz Yisrael, the modern state of Israel.

Given the relatively short periods of Israel’s independent existence it is highly unlikely that slavery ever played an important role in Israel. This said, I wonder whether the biblical slavery legislation is little more than wishful thinking of what slavery should look like in a future reconstructed kingdom of Israel, which once again will have become a geopolitical independent entity. Whatever the actual reality of ancient Israel’s approach to slavery was, lived or optimistically envisioned for the future, it seems certain that Israel’s legislation provided rules of law regulating the slave owner- slave relationship. In most cases, these rules provided the slave protection against slave owners’ possible cruelty. There is no display of hatred for slaves to be found in Israel’s slavery legislation. The biblical picture of slavery is not founded on racist ideology.

Remains to be shown where certain Americans, primarily southern clergy and their followers, found justification for slavery in the Bible.

The biblical story of Noah and the Flood is well known to all of us. After Noah’s family survived the worldwide flood in the famous floating ark, Noah planted a vineyard. The story tells how Noah overindulged in his wine and fell fast asleep in his tent in the nude.

Noah had three sons named Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen.9:18-19, 27). A literal interpretation of this Genesis story suggests that the population of the world descended from these three sons and their wives.

The story has it that Ham, the father of Canaan, entered the tent, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers about it. These two, Shem and Japheth, entered the tent and covered their father walking backwards so that they did not see his nakedness. When Noah found out what Ham, his son, had done, he curses Canaan, Ham’s son and his progeny to the effect that Canaan and his progeny will be servants to Shem and Japheth. In the popular version of this bizarre story, known as “the curse of Ham,” Canaan, Ham’s son, disappears and Ham was made black and his descendants, all black, were Africans. This is how the perversion took place.

The Canaanites, throughout Israel’s biblical history, were demonized and their land, Canaan, was occupied under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges and became the “homeland” of the People Israel.

Finally, where does God’s curse of blackness of the people come from? Nothing in the biblical story suggests or refers to the world populations’ skin colors! In Genesis chapter 10, the sequel to the Flood Story, we read, “These are the generations of the sons of Noah,…” with enumerations of their populations and lands. In Genesis 10:6 this reads, “The sons of Ham: Kush, Egypt, Put …” (Don’t be confused by the fact that countries and populations were named after Ham’s sons.) Ham, the perpetrator of the sin of having seen his father’s nakedness is here identified with Kush, the area south of Egypt, today known as the Sudan and Ethiopia, in which the population has pitch black skin color. Also Egypt, the archenemy of ancient Israel falls under God’s curse of Ham.

To the white southern slaveholders it was clear that Ham must have been black and thus right along with him all black skinned people had been cursed by God and destined to serve Shem’s and Japheth’s people who in the southern preachers’ opinion were white.

Here then we find the birth of white supremacism. Interestingly, the human skin color scheme is nowhere mentioned in the Bible story.

Such are the vagaries of biblical interpretation. This one served as the justification for the slavery of about 600,000 American slaves or 5% of the 12 million slaves hunted down and taken from Africa. This, in turn, resulted between 1882 and 1968 in 4,743 documented lynchings with 3,446 of these done to Black People in America.

Clearly, racism and white supremacism are not found in the Bible. What can be found there is religious supremacism which is regrettable. More about that some other time.        Let me end this mini-study of slavery in the Bible with a reminder. One of the Haggadah’s texts we sing at the Pesach (Passover) seder begins with the words avadim hayiynu… or “we were slaves.” Let us never forget our people’s sufferings as slaves in Egypt and the Holocaust and our liberation to become an am chofshi, “a free people.” May these lived experiences of our people, the Jewish people, provide for us the spiritual compass and mandate to stand with all people of color who continue to be threatened by white racists and supremacists.


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Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 3, final)

More remains to be said about this alleged God who supposedly made promises to Abraham and his progeny’s future conquest and possession of the land of Canaan which, at the time of king David had become a fait accompli. Who was this God and where did he come from? What about his becoming the one and only and unique God of Israel?

In a polytheism practicing religious environment such as was the ancient Near East in the second millenium BCE, the god who allegedly demanded the people’s obedience and worship, as well as recognition of him as the dominant God of the already existing pantheon, had to be properly identified so that his authority be respected by all.

To accomplish this feat, king David’s royal historiographers looked into the mythologies of the countries adjoining Canaan, north and south, Mesopotamia and Egypt. In both those areas they found myths and holy stories that lent themselves to re-interpretation in the light of the Hebrew tribes’ experience in the Exodus-cluster of events. It is probable, given Moses’ experience at the Egyptian royal court, that he remembered what he had heard there and shared this mythological material within the circles of the liberated Hebrew slaves, after Exodus and before his death.

King David, in an effort to justify the conquest of Canaan may have “unpacked” Moses’ Egyptian legacy and with some modifications, introduced it into Israel’s nascent constitution, the Torah.

One of several Egyptian creation myths was contained in what is known to us as a part of the Egyptian Memphite theology. This myth may have served king David’s purpose. Its theme consists of the mechanism of creation which reverberates in the Jewish Bible story of creation.

The myth tells that before creation there existed a watery void, accompanied by darkness, formlessness and invisibility. This sounds very much like the tohu vavohu in Genesis 1:2 which translates as “the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Then, just as the flood waters of the Nile subside and small hillocks of mud appear, the annual event making agriculture of that inundated area feasible, so also according to the creation myth, the primeval waters subsided and the first hillock of earth appeared in the middle of nothingness. On that hillock sat the creator god Atum whose name means that he was “all within himself.”

The phrase “all within himself” resembles the Jewish liturgical text, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot, melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, or in English, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory,” (Isa. 6:3)

Note: In Christian Church liturgy this acclamation of the divinity is called the “trishagion” (Greek: thrice holy).

God Atum then brings the other gods into being by naming them. That mode of creation sounds similar to the biblical text in which the biblical God brings animals to Adam, the first human being, so that Adam name them.

The Memphite theology goes even further in terms of being a prototype, as it were, for the biblical creation text. It states that Ptah, the god of Memphis, then the capital of Egypt,was “the heart and tongue of the gods.” Heart and tongue was the Egyptian pictorial way of saying mind and speech. “Indeed, all the divine order came into being through what the heart thought and the tongue commanded.” Interestingly, the biblical creation text echoes this Egyptian concept, “And God said, ‘Let there be light! And there was light.’ ” Creation, in the Genesis text, happens by means of the spoken word of God.

It is worth mentioning here that the Memphite theology precedes early Greek and Hebrew thought by 2,000 years!

It was clever on the part of David to refer in the Torah, Israel’s Constitution, right at its beginning, to the creation event and to credit Israel’s God, elohim, with that accomplishment. Interestingly, the name of the Canaanite chief god was el (plural elim or elohim). In the Genesis text, it is this elohim who is the creator of the world but in the Abraham- related narratives, beginning in Genesis 12, this god has acquired the unpronounceable name YHWH (often pronounced Yahweh, when probable vowels are added to the four consonants). Here lies a contradiction, in as much as the name YHVH, according to the biblical narrative itself, does not become known/revealed until the episode at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:15 where God introduces himself as YHVH to Moses, an event, in all probability 500 years or more after Abraham.

In many Bible narratives the two names are joined to read YHWH-Elohim. By doing this, the creator God, the God who promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and the victorious God of the Exodus who defeated not only Pharaoh but also the Egyptian gods, are now united into one supreme divinity. No greater god than Israel’s God can now be invoked by anyone to quarrel about Israel’s having taken possession of Canaan. And scrolling forward in history, this also is this very god who has an intimate relationship with David, Israel’s king and author of the new Constitution, the Torah.

For David, the new monarch of the geo-political state of Israel, a state consisting of a number of tribes with each one having its own historical and religious past, unification was of utmost importance.

For Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) about whom Moses had undoubtedly heard while at the Egyptian court, this too was a concern. His solution to the problem was the introduction of what we today call monolatry, the rule of a single supreme god. This was not elimination of the pantheon of gods but merely the multiple gods’ demotion to a lesser status. Akhenaten promoted the god Aton (or Aten) to the supreme position and incorporated the god’s name into his own: thus Akhen-aten meaning, “successful for Aten.” or something very similar. The symbol of Aten was the disk of the sun with each of its rays ending in the Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh.

From monolatry to monotheism it is only one step. It is an all important step. Promotion of one god to a supreme position and worship of that one god by all twelve tribes as the one and only true god would undoubtedly encourage and eventually establish unity, a precondition for the establishment of the United Kingdom under David. E pluribus unum.

How can this be accomplished? It is here that we discover David’s genius. Transforming the name el (singular) into elohim (a plural) but having this plural followed by both verbs and adjectives in the singular rather then in the plural, as is grammatically required in Hebrew, the MANY [gods of the tribes] are now changed into ONE [god].. This grammar-related process accomplished the transition from monolatry to monotheism.

The codification of the above grammatical procedure for religio-political purposes is clearly evident from the shema, the single faith affirmation of Judaism to this day. Stemming from the time of Judah’s king Josiah (640 BCE). It was he who instituted the so-called Josianic Reform which consisted of centralizing worship in Jerusalem. The text of the shema is found in Deut. 6:4 and reads in Hebrew, shema yisrael yhvh eloheynu yhvh echad. The literal translation of this text is, “hear Israel YHVH our gods YHVH one.”The usual English rendering of the sentence is, “hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”Without going into the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, the shema can also be translated as, “Hear Israel, YHVH is our gods, YHVH is one.” What might strike the reader is that the verb “is” cannot be found in the Hebrew text. Reason for this is that the verb “to be” in conjugated form does not exist in the present tense in biblical Hebrew. An example: to say “I am a woman” is in Hebrew ani ishah or “I woman.” Both the “am” and the “a” (the indefinite article) must be supplied by the reader.

The tradition calls for a circumlocution for God’s name YHVH. Why so? Because the name consists of four consonants only. Written biblical Hebrew consists of consonants only. The vowels must be supplied by the reader. This makes the reading of Hebrew biblical texts tricky and difficult. Besides, there was reluctance to pronounce God’s holy name. This explains the circumlocution adonay employed when the reader of Torah texts encounters the four holy letters of God’s names. The term adonay literally means “my lords” (1st person plural, possessive of adon, meaning “lord” ). Eventually, the term’s usage transformed it into a singular, followed by verbs and adjectives in the singular. It follow that in the shema two nouns in the plural are, on the basis of religious tradition, considered singular and treated as such. Once again, E pluribus unum.

Finally, where did the four holy letters of God’s name, YHVH (also called the tetragrammaton) come from? As far as the Bible is concerned, this was God’s name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai. Among Bible readers it is rarely known that YHVH was not a complete newcomer to the Near Eastern pantheon. Excavations in the eastern Sinai at Kuntillet Ajrud in 1975-1976 yielded several inscriptions dated to the 9th and 8th centuries BCE in which blessing formulas involving the name Yahweh and Asherah are mentioned. On the wall of a tomb at Khirbet el-Quom the excavators found an inscription reading, “May Uri-Yahu be blessed by Yahweh my guardian and his Asherah.” Also ancient sanctuaries with primitive statuary identified as Yahweh with his consort Asherah were found in that general geographic area.

How and why this particular pagan divinity was adopted by Israel as her God and adapted into playing the major role in certain major historical events, we do not know. Much work dealing with these issues remains to be done.

The term Asherah occurs in the Torah text a number of times. While in the above mentioned excavations, Asherah is identified as Yahweh’s consort, the Torah speaks of it as a sacred pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El. The biblical texts condemns these poles. So for instance Exod. 34:13 states, “Break down their [Canaanite] altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherim [Asherah poles].”

It might be of interest to mention that echoes of monolatry within ancient Israel survive within the Jewish siddur (prayer book) such as, mi khamokha ba-elim adonay, “who is like you among the gods, Adonay? In the amidah, the standing prayer, we read, barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu melekh ha-olam, ha-el ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, ha-norah, el-elyon…:”Praised are you Adonay, our God, king of the world, the great God, the powerful God, the awesome God, the highest God…” Both texts suggest the existence of gods other than YHVH. Are these “errors” in monotheism caused by carelessness of editors?

To summarize, it is my belief that Torah began with King David’s plan to create a founding document for the United Kingdom. In trying to establish justification for the Hebrew tribes’ invasion and taking possession of Canaan and adjoining territories, he invoked God’s promise to Abraham, the head of a tribal group, to take possession of the land of Canaan. To establish this God’s absolute superiority overl the other gods in the tribal and Canaanite pantheon, he appropriated and adapted Egyptian myths of creation and combined these with tribal reminiscences/sagas, forming a pre-history that explained and justified ancient Israel’s hegemony over the defeated local population.

By conquering the city of Jebus, a city previously not conquered by any of the tribes, renaming it Yerushalayim or “Inheritance of Peace,” establishing it as capital and religious pilgrimage center of the newly formed kingdom, he succeeded in temporary unification of the tribes into a quasi-homogeneous geo-political entity.

The United Kingdom did not survive the reign of David’s son, king Solomon. It split into two entities after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel, consisting of ten tribes and the southern kingdom of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Following the reign of 20 kings in the north, that kingdom fell to Assyria under king Sargon II in 722 BCE. Little or nothing is known about the fate of the conquered northern tribes.

Judah, in the south, following the reign also of 20 kings, was conquered by Babylonia in 586 BCE under king Nebuchadnezzar and a large part of the population was exiled to Babylonia. With the fall of Babylonia to Persia under Persian king Cyrus (538-529 BCE) the Judean exiles were allowed to return home and to rebuild the walls and the Temple of Jerusalem shortly after, but Jewish independence had been lost. With the exception of the roughly 100 years of the Maccabean Kingdom (165-64 BCE) the Jewish state ceased to exist until its rebirth as Eretz Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, in 1948.
*

Through the many centuries of Jewish exilic existence, Torah not only has survived but has kept its relevance and even religious authority for many Jews.

Much in Torah draws on the supernatural. As a person bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, I find it impossible to join in my superstitious ancestors’ belief systems. I fully realize, however, that had I lived in their times, I probably would have been on the same page with them. I find it simplistic to criticize past world views from the viewpoint of our times.

I do stand in awe of some of these ancestors’ insights. In my studied opinion the Torah did not originate in heaven and was brought down to us humans by a god or his angels. As I see it, our ancestors recognized certain truths, saw these as critical for the maintenance and well being of their society. As it happened, that wisdom was handed down to us as advice for the viability of future societies.

It was our ancestors’ observation of events and their consequences that helped them arrive at conclusions certain of which, if followed by us today, would undoubtedly improve the lives of many and perhaps even slow down, stop and possibly reverse our descent into planetary human self-destruction.

Reliance on some kind of a future supernatural intervention into human affairs to stop our tendency to self-destruct is counter intuitive and downright dangerous. It will not happen!

As I see it, the purpose of Torah, originally the Constitution and By-laws of a newly formed nation, is not so much about giving us information allegedly relevant about God but rather about a community that considered itself destined to bring enlightenment to the nations, something that remains to this day Judaism’s task and mission.

I continue to be impressed by a text from the Yerushalmi, The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Tj chag. 1:7) in which our sages (z”l) quote God as having said, “Would that they forsake me, but keep my Torah.”

This ends the mini-series.

 


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Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 2)

I will begin this essay by dealing in abbreviated form with Jewish origins. To ask about origins is to ask the question: where do we Jews come from? Where are our historical roots? What is the first documentary evidence about Israelite existence? Since the heart of Judaism’s existence is Torah and Torah is our source for the existence of God and his alleged special relationship with the Jewish people, we need to inquire about the Torah’s origins.

I will try to respond to the above questions drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship.

It should be clear that in my effort at a non-supernatural reconstruction of Jewish history I will not deal with phenomena such as divine revelation or divine interventions in human affairs because, these belong into the realm of faith and not documentable historical events.

But even documentable historical facts call for interpretation and interpretation is not mathematics! It is always, at least to some extent, subjective because, like everything else in life, it is human and thus suffers from human existential limitation.

Let’s scroll back to the Near-East in pre-biblical times. In an extant letter within a correspondence between the ruler of a Canaanite city-state and his powerful overlord, a pharaoh in Tel el-Amarna, probably pharaoh Akhenaten (d. 1336 BCE), in Upper Egypt, we read, “There are marauding habiru tribes here who cause damage to our land and its farmers.”

While we do not have a response from this unnamed pharaoh, this sentence introduces us to the term HABIRU which, even without sophisticated knowledge of linguistics, corresponds by and large to our term HEBREW. The Canaanite letters forming the term Habiru are related to the Hebrew term ‘ivriy from which our word “Hebrew” is derived. Interestingly, the Hebrew ‘ivriy, in turn, derives from the Hebrew verb ‘avar which means “to move, crossover, pass over.” What do semi-nomadic tribes do? They move, they cross over, they pass over land.

The Habirus were semi-nomads. With their cattle they crisscrossed the land looking for fertile areas, settled here and there, let their cattle graze, and when nothing was left for the cattle to eat, moved on to the next fertile spot. No wonder that the local Canaanite farmers considered them intruders and asked pharaoh for help to keep the Habirus and their herds away.

It is likely that the earliest historical ancestors of the Hebrews were these Near Eastern semi-nomadic Habiru tribes. Avram, later to become Abraham, (approx. date between 2,000 and 1,700 BCE), who with his family and tribe had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran in Syria and settled there was subsequently told by the LORD to move on.

Genesis 12:1-3 is a seminal chapter for my thesis. It is here that the LORD (i.e., YHWH, name of God allegedly revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai peninsula) ordered Abraham to

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…”

And so, according to Gen 12:4, “Abraham went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, from Haran in Syria, Abraham’s family/tribe traveled south, to the Land of Canaan, allegedly guided by the LORD.

Some scholars suggest that the person of Abraham is a personification of a migratory movement. Semi-nomads migrate, remember! It is a well established fact that different Near Eastern tribes worshiped and followed their particular God. The time frame we are considering here is one in which polytheism was the generally practised form of religion in the Near East.

In the Bible, the stories about Abraham are followed by the tribal stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. These, in turn, are followed by the stories covering the exploits of their son Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel whose twelve sons become the eponymous ancestors of the so-called Twelve Tribes of Israel. Their daughter Dinah did not become ancestress of a tribe.

Now to a quick forward in biblical history. The book of Genesis reports that the Twelve Tribes, during a devastating famine in Canaan where they had settled, migrated south to Egypt where there was food available and where they established themselves under favorable circumstances. Without going here into the details of many associated stories like, for instance, the Joseph narratives, we are told that eventually they became enslaved in Egypt. How so?

Upon arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt, an unnamed Hyksos-related pharaoh ruled over Egypt (the Hyksos invaders’ reign in Egypt: 1730-1570 BCE). The Hyksos people were of Semitic ethnic background, (like the Habirus/Hebrews), which explains the favorable welcome they extended to the Twelve Tribes, by now known as Israel. When the Hyksos’ relatively brief dynasty was terminated by one Ahmose who expulsed them and re-established the pre-Hyksos native Egyptian royal dynasty, the Israelites fell into disfavor. The biblical narrative conveys this development rather laconically: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8f.) This unnamed new Pharaoh was in all probability Ramses II, a ruler generally considered to have been a megalomaniac, suggestion based on the ubiquitous statuary of his person found all over Egypt.

This is not the proper place for a detailed account of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Based on biblical chronologies which do not agree with each other, approximately 400 years.

As a result of the alleged Ten Plagues which God brought down on Egypt, the last of which was the death of the Egyptian firstborns which included Pharaoh’s son, the slaves were released and traveled toward the land of Canaan, located north of the Nile Delta. Still scrolling forward, the liberated slaves stopped over at the Sinai desert where, on Mount Sinai, (exact location to this day not identified), according to the tradition, Moses received both the Written and the Oral Torah, containing among other laws, the famous Ten Commandments.

After Moses’ death, the liberated slaves under the leadership of Joshua, followed by the so-called Judges (military leaders), engaged in the conquest of the land of Canaan whose possession had been promised to Abraham and his posterity. According to Deut. 7:1-5, God’s promise of giving to the Israelites the land of Canaan took place as prophesied. It was fulfilled by means of what in our time would be called “ethnic cleansing” or the destruction of the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. It would seem that despite temporary setbacks here and there, in the end everything went as planned and the liberated Hebrew tribes, by slaughtering the natives in their land with God’s help, achieved God’s plan of coming into possession of the land of Canaan. It should be noted that apart from the biblical witness to these events, none is preserved in extra biblical documentation.

The two biblical books of Samuel tell us about the transition of the liberated tribes from functioning as a loose confederation to a monarchy, first under king Saul and subsequently under king David who became the intermediary between God Yahweh and the people Israel. The previous direct theocratic rule of Israel was now modified.

David was a very astute politician. Having conquered the city of Jebus, capital of the Jebusites, he established it as the political capital of the newly conquered country, as well as its religious center. This was accomplished by bringing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, previously held by the various tribes in rotation, to this city and renaming it Yerushalayim, “Inheritance of Peace.” It was a brilliant move in as much as it brought the Twelve Tribes into a closer relationship with each other, both politically and religiously, the latter by means of designating the city as the pilgrimage center for the three ancient Israelite pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, (Passover), Shavuot (lit. “Weeks,” commemorating the giving of the Torah) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths, a reminder of Israel’s desert wanderings).

Solomon, David’s son and successor, built the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem that took the place of the movable desert sanctuary (‘ohel ha-mo’ed or Tent of Meeting). This was undoubtedly a further effort to unify the tribes and to strengthen the newly created geo-political nation. As presented in the Bible, it was done in response to God’s desire to dwell in a house.

After Solomon’s death, the misbehavior of his son Rehoboam, resulted in separation of the northern and southern tribes and the formation of two distinct countries.

Note: The ten northern tribes, calling themselves Israel, fell to an invasion by the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BCE whereas the remaining southern tribes, calling themselves the kingdom of Judah, fell to an invasion of Babylonia in 586 BCE.

Back to king David now and my reconstruction of Israel’s history.

A newly established nation needs a constitution or founding document that conveys to its own country’s population, as well as to its geographical neighbors, the raison d’etre for its existence. Such a document explains the justification for its incursion into and its establishment in the geographical and political space held by its previous owners; the salient events in history that led to and legitimize the conquest; the civil and religious legislation that would from here on guide its society in its pursuit of daily life; last but not least ,the relationship between God, king, nation and each individual.

It is here that king David’s and king Solomon’s historiographers went to work. By combing through the Hebrew tribal records, oral and perhaps also written, they found treasures that lent themselves for such an undertaking. Scouring the oral and written histories of Mesopotamia, in the north, and Egypt in the south, as also the myths and legends of the conquered land of Canaan itself, turned out to be helpful.

Their most important discovery was the Abraham (the Habiru?) stories, beginning in Genesis at chapter 12. “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… so Abram went as the LORD had told him.” According to Gen. 15, the commanding voice of the divinity said to Abraham, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess,” etc. And in Gen 15:18 a further promise, “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadminites, the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The divinity’s alleged promise to Israel now fulfilled, was incorporated into the country’s founding document or, as I call it, the Constitution of the new land of Israel – the Torah.

Note: If you would like to comment, please address them to me directly by e-mail.

Jewish Origins Explained Without Reference to Revelation: A New Approach

Preface

The next few blogs will be dealing with the above indicated title. You may ask yourself why so. Certainly not in order to persuade anyone to understand Judaism as I do! I am not a Jewish missionary! However, from conversations with fellow congregants I have become aware that there are Jewish persons who, similarly to my understanding of Judaism, reject the supernatural elements in our faith but decided to maintain their Jewishness in terms of adherence to Judaism and membership in a synagogue congregation.

Now the question arises: is it possible to maintain one’s Jewish faith while jettisoning belief in a supernatural God as the Torah and TaNakh (Hebrew for Bible) present this God to us? Clearly this is impossible without one’s necessity to rethink Jewish origins and religious development.

In the following essays I will try to convey to folks who wrestle with this issue that yes, indeed, it is possible to remain a Jew, to read certain faith affirmations in the siddur without being a traitor to one’s faith, or a hypocrite. Jewish history and its resulting faith can be understood without one’s having to make intellectual sacrifices. One can be an agnostic (a person confessing lack of absolute knowledge, the preposition “a…” meaning without) or an atheist, (a person living one’s life and belief system without the biblical God).

Introduction

On the Jewish high holiday of yom kippur the Day of Atonement (in October 2013), during the worship service, after one of the Torah scrolls had been taken from the aron hakodesh, the holy Torah ark or holy Torah closet, there arose something like a collective gasp emanating from the congregation. Three Torah scrolls tumbled from the Torah shrine’s open doors with one of them partially unscrolled, touching ground and being slightly damaged.

Catastrophe! What next?

Why is such an accident considered a disaster? Because the Torah (the hand-written Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, (Genesis through Deuteronomy), is the centerpiece of Judaism without which the Jewish religion could not exist. Without the Torah and a minyan, (an assembly of a minimum of ten Jewish adults), public worship cannot take place according to Jewish tradition. Torah is the greatest treasure the Jewish people possess. Torah is referred to as etz chayiim, a “tree of life for those who hold on to it.” As a sign of contrition for having let this happen the tradition calls for a congregational fast of 40 days.

One of the earliest mentions of this practice is found in a responsum (a rabbinic response to a question submitted to a rabbi or a body of rabbis by a congregant or a congregation) of Rabbi Israel of Brunna (present day Brno, capital of Moravia in the Czech Republic, 15th century). According to this responsum the fall of a Torah scroll is something for which one must repent not just as an individual but by the congregation. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (18th century) known as the CHIDA explains that by fasting, the congregation repents for the lack of care and respect which allowed the holy object to fall. The tradition of 40 days of fasting is derived from the time that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days while receiving the Torah from God, without eating or drinking. Even though in our time this quasi command is not exactly followed – the times they have changed! – people will perform alternate practices of teshuvah (repentance) such as offering monetary gifts to the synagogue or fasting a shorter length of time than 40 days. To have let this happen was a deplorable sign of disrespect for the Torah that demanded repentance as ordered by Jewish minhag or tradition.

Our synagogue leaders decided, rather than calling for a congregational fast, to use the following weeks for special education sessions concerning Torah, its origins, history, values and sanctity.

It was to be my honor to initiate this special educational unit by giving one or more sermons on Shabbat morning on the subject of Torah.

And so I did. My first sermon dealt with how the Near Eastern tribe of the Habiru developed into a theocratic nation presided over by Israel’s second king, David, around the year 1,000 BCE, something I want to deal with in the following essay very briefly. This was followed by a session dealing with David’s and king Solomon’s reign and the initial formation of Torah as the religious and civil constitution, as it were, of the so-called newly formed United Kingdom. It is here that my reconstruction of Israel ‘s history offers elucidations of much that has been puzzling to thoughtful Bible readers. I might add that my understanding of the beginnings of this first version of Israel as a geopolitical entity shows some resemblance to the formation of our country, its Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Before we go any further with this we need to agree that Judaism as well as Christianity teach that their respective religion’s origins came by way of revelation from the biblical God. So, for instance, as the Torah scrolls are about to be returned to the Torah ark, one of the congregants holds up high the partially opened Torah scroll for everyone to see its written text while the congregation chants in Hebrew, “This is the Torah that Moses set/placed before the people Israel [al piy adonay] by order of the LORD , through Moses.”

Note: The literal translation of the Hebrew in italics above is an idiom that reads “according to the mouth of.” When LORD is found written in English Bibles as used here it stands for the four sacred letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh usually transliterated as Y-H-W-H and representing the name of God as revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. The tradition calls for the Torah reader to pronounce these four letters as adonay, the Hebrew word for “LORD” in 1st person plural possessive form or actually “my lords,” followed by a verb or adjective in singular. (More about this a bit later when we will discuss Judaism’s only faith affirmation, called the shema.)

It follows that the words “set, placed, given” in this literary context are synonyms for “revealed.” Based on this text sung in synagogue and found in many other biblical places that deal with God’s spoken conversations with Moses, the Torah was given to Moses for the purpose of its transmission to the people Israel in order to serve the people as instruction and guidance for life, as well as religious law. It follows that the word “Torah” when translated into English (or any other modern language) needs to be translated as one of the three nouns given above depending on the literary context in which it is found. Let me mention here that one of the gross errors found in the New Testament where reference is made to a Hebrew Bible text, the ever repeated translation of the word “Torah” is given as law.

It could be said that Torah in an ultimate sense is not just about religion but represents guidance to a way of life as, allegedly, demanded by the biblical God.


Note: Please direct your comments or responses to my e-mail, waziff at aol dot com. Thanks.

The Ancient Synagogue: A Mini-Introduction, Essay #5 (final)

Scholarship generally agrees that the institution of the ancient synagogue was shaped by larger social, material, cultural and religious contexts. The impact of the surrounding culture on the Jews in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine worlds was significant. We can be certain that no area of Jewish life was immune to these influences which were of an infinite variety.

The Jewish people never possessed an independent architectural tradition. The exhibits of miniature replicas of synagogue buildings from various periods in Tel Aviv’s museum of the Diaspora shows that each was constructed and decorated in the style of the predominant culture of that time. The exhibit shows that it was almost impossible to distinguish a synagogue from a non-Jewish edifice by looking at its exterior only. This is further corroborated by a rabbinic tradition where it was debated whether one was guilty of an intentional or unintentional sin by bowing before a pagan temple, thinking it was a synagogue (Tb Shabbat 72b).

It is very likely that the Jews of the Diaspora worshiped in the vernacular. In a well known document published by Roman emperor Justinian dated from 553 CE it is stated that Jews read the Torah in Greek. Furthermore, “those who read in Greek shall use the Septuagint tradition which is more accurate than all the others.” The Yerushalmi (Talmud of the Land of Israel) preserves a story about two rabbis entering a synagogue in Caesarea in the 4th century where they heard the worshipers reciting the shema in Greek. One of the rabbis wanted to stop the service right then and there but the other suggested that it was better for these Jews to pray in Greek than not at all (Y Sotah 7, 1, 21b). It is generally thought that in the Galilee and in Babylonia, on the other hand, prayer and some sermons were delivered in Hebrew. The targum, i.e., the translation of the liturgy into Aramaic, the lingua franca of the land at that time, is well known to have been used to help the Jews understand Torah texts. A few Aramaic prayers in the liturgy have been preserved to this day as, for instance, the Kaddish.

The sanctity the Palestinian synagogue acquired must be seen as a sort of transfer of this attribute from the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. It also developed naturally as a counter-balance to the ubiquitous presence of pagan places of worship that were considered sacred. Undoubtedly it was also the presence of the Torah scrolls housed within the synagogue building that contributed to the synagogue being seen as a holy place. Possible also is that the growing Christian interest in Palestinian holy places may have influenced Jewish attitudes of holiness attributed toward their own place of worship, the synagogue.

The variety of artistic and architectural forms that have been alluded to in previous essays points undoubtedly to the influence of Hellenization. There is evidence that suggests that this influence was not uniform. Large cities along the coast of Roman Palestine with their cosmopolitan culture show this effect to have been stronger there than in rural areas. But even within urban areas there was diversity, with certain synagogues being more and others less receptive to non-Jewish influences.

What were the uniquely Jewish characteristics of the ancient synagogue? The orientation of the synagogue was one of these, as was pointed out elsewhere. Pagan temples and Christian churches almost always faced eastward, toward the rising of the sun. Synagogues outside of Israel were oriented toward Israel and those within Israel toward Jerusalem. Prayer was directed toward Jerusalem. While the stone benches in synagogues were generally on either two or three sides of the building, the fourth wall faced Jerusalem and it is this wall that contained either a semi-circular niche or the aron ha-kodesh, housing the Torah scroll(s).

The artistic representations consisted generally of Jewish symbols, ethrog, lulav, shofar and incense shovel, the latter being a reminder of the incense sacrifices burnt on the incense altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Very popular was also the seven-branched menorah, appearing in various forms and shapes, sculpted into walls and appearing in mosaic floors. A departure from these specific cultic objects was the Jewish adoption and adaptation of the zodiac. While Christians generally did not depict religious scenes or symbols, the cross being definitively banned from such use, a number of synagogues such as Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias and Sepphoris did not shrink from depicting religious artifacts such as Torah shrines and biblical scenes containing persons in their mosaic floors.

It is worth mentioning also that while in the Byzantine church there was a strict division between groups such as clergy, laymen, laywomen, catechumens, etc., such divisions were unknown in the ancient synagogue.

I would have liked to report here that the status of women in the ancient synagogue was equal to that of men. This, I regret, was not the case. Woman’s place was seen primarily as domestic and was often discussed in rather disparaging and uncomplimentary terms. Josephus writes: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man (Against Apion 2, 201). Paul in I Cor. 14:34 expresses similar sentiments about women. History, on the other hand, reports notable exceptions regarding some Jewish women’s societal status: the Hasmonean Queen Salome, Queen Helena of Adiabene and Beruria, wife of rabbi Meir. These are examples of Jewish women who became powerful in the politics of their time and were known for their intellectual and religious achievement in society. These and lesser known women’s remarkable achievements, however, were not the rule either in Jewish society nor in the surrounding Greco-Roman circles.

It can be said with certainty that women attended worship in synagogue. Both Paul of Tarsus and also Philo write about the presence of women in worship. Some rabbinic sources, as well, speak of the presence of women in synagogue. Among the Christian Church Fathers it is the rabid antisemite John Chrysostom (4th cent.) who claims that the synagogue is a place of abomination because men and women gather there together (Adv. Jud. 3,1-2, 7,4).

For a long time it was assumed that women sat in a separate section in synagogue. Based on archaeological findings, however, the claim now can be made that women in the early synagogue did not sit separately from men. No archaeological or documentary traces have been found suggesting a separate synagogue area designated exclusively for the seating of women.

Did women play a role in the ancient synagogue’s ritual? Did they lead in prayer, preach sermons and read from Torah? Only one text in the Tosephta (Megillah 3:11-12) addresses this question. Unfortunately, this text is ambiguous. The statement reads: “Everyone is included in the counting of seven [people to be called up to read from the Torah on Shabbat], even a woman, even a child.” This is followed by, “One does not bring a woman to read to the public.” The ambiguity and seeming contradiction of these sentences following each other lead us to a dead end.

Much more could be said on the subject of women in synagogue as for instance on their altruistic roles and their various support functions within the institution. Chiselled inscriptions on synagogue pillars and texts in mosaic floors witness to women’s contributions to the richness of synagogue life. To my disappointment I did not find that women played any kind of liturgical role in the synagogue. Their role in synagogue was supportive but liturgically peripheral. This by no means suggests, however, that their role in synagogal life was negligible.

Summarizing this very quick excursion into the reality of the ancient synagogue a few final reflections are in order. What strikes me most is that the synagogue was all inclusive. Communal needs were met within its framework and the synagogue reflected the community’s wishes in its physical appearance, its functions and leadership.

Jewish elements existed alongside elements taken from the surrounding world. Rather than damaging what was uniquely Jewish, the resulting amalgam strengthened Judaism. The inclusivity also made it possible for Judaism and Jewish life to survive the many crises it was forced to undergo. The strong communal and religious dimensions shaped Jewish concern for society at large and, in my opinion, provided Judaism with the ability to be in some ways society’s ongoing conscience.

Having personally experienced Christian church-dominated life for twenty-two years, it pleases me enormously that Judaism, via the ongoing presence as community, guided and led by synagogue, is not hierarchy dominated, let alone governed. Every willing Jew has the opportunity to actively participate in Torah and Haftarah readings, in sermons, prayers as well as in Jewish community-led activities that participate in or interface with non-Jewish activities. And it is, of course, in such activities that both the importance and joy of the “synagogue-as-people” lies.

For Gail and me the term synagogue evokes feelings of home and family. This is how it has been for most Jews for millenia. May it remain so in the future! Something to be thankful for.

Note: The preceding mini-essays were written with the help of prof. Lee I. Levine’s magisterial book The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years. I am also greatly indebted to prof. Herbert Gordon May (z”l) who not only encouraged my research of the ancient synagogue in graduate school but had me join him on a lengthy research trip through much of the Middle East in the late 1960s.