What is Judaism?

Since Mosheh received the Torah in the Sinai, the Torah has evolved. It evolved according to the rules set out in the Torah itself, but still, halakhah has grown, courts of greater number and wisdom have overruled the precedent of inferior courts, etc… As the famous story goes (Menachos 29b):

When Mosheh ascended to the Heavens, he found Haqadosh barukh Hu (HQBH) sitting and tying crowns onto the letters [in the Torah]. He said before Him, “Ribono shel olam — Master of the universe! What could compel You (lit: who holds back Your ‘hand’) [to do this]?”
He answered him, “There will be a man in the future after many generations and Aqiva ben Yosef will be his name. In the future, he will clarify every point and mounds of law [from them].”
He said before Him, “Ribbono shel olam, show him to me.”
He told him, “Turn around.”
He turned around and went and sat at the back of eight benches [at Rabbi Aqiva's academy]. When Moshe had no idea what they were discussing, he became distressed until the students asked, “Rebbe, from where do you learn that?”
Rebbe Akiva answered them, “It is a halakhah that goes back to Moshe from Sinai.”
At that time, [Moshe's] mind became settled, and he returned to HQBH.
He said before Him, “Ribbono shel olam, You have one such as he and You wish to give the Torah through me?!” He answered him, “Silence! This is what occurred before Me!”
He said before Him, “Ribbono shel olam, You showed me his Torah, now show me his reward!”
He told him, “Turn around.”
He turned around and saw them weighing his flesh in the market place, and he said before Him [in horror], “Ribbono shel olam! This is Torah and this is its reward?!”
He answered him, “Silence! This is what occurred before Me!”

(Side note, the comment about deriving “mounds of laws” from the serifs and crowns on the letters probably has something to do with the difference between Rabbi Aqiva’s school of derashah (derivation from the Torah) and Rabbi Yishma’el’s. See my earlier blog entry on this subject. In short, there is a theory that Rabbi Aqiva’s school (from which we have Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, and thus the mishnah) saw derashah as being about syntax. Rabbi Yishma’el is the one who coined the idiom “the Toreah speaks in the language of man”, and it’s unsurprising that his rules of derashah focus on semantics. Rabbi Aqiva’s school literally derived “mounds of halakhos” from the presence of specific words and letters in the Torah.)

Note that although Mosheh Rabbeinu didn’t know this law outright, Rabbi Aqiva said it comes from him. Many rishonim take this to mean that it derived from Mosheh’s teaching. (A notable exception is Rashi, who says that it was simply a law Mosheh learned later, after receiving this vision.)

With the power to evolve comes the possibility that in different communities and schools of thought it halakhah evolves in different ways. And so, “These and those are the words of the ‘Living’ G-d, but the halakhah is according to Beis Hillel.” As we lived together, to coexist the Sanhedrin found consensus, and since then we have other means of reaching uniform ruling on issues that become contentious or pragmatically impact Jewish unity. (Such as laws of conversion, marriage and divorce.)

Picture how life was for the typical person in the days of the first Beis haMiqdash. Land was divided once, by sheivet and beis avos (tribe and clan). When, Yehoshua’s generation passed away, it inherited by their children, and then again by their children, etc… Women moved off to their husband’s beis av, but for men — you lived next door to your brother, two doors down from your uncle, and most of your other neighbors were relatives. The sole exceptions being tenants of your relatives.

I think much of what drives the Torah’s laws of inheritance is Hashem’s desire for each sheivet to have a distinct derekh avodah, and each beis av to have its own subspecies. Without that, there is little rationale for choosing one gender over the other, and from Chazal until today we find ways to avoid being obligated to do so.

In fact, most questions must not have gone forward to the central beis din in Yerushalayim, the Sanhedrin. Each sheivet had their own judicial system as well, and their own high court. Israel was much bigger then than once the Greeks and Romans brought more modern means of harnessing, modern roads, etc… There was opportunity for much greater variety of opinions than those of Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. Each sheivet had the opportunity to forge very distinct implementations of the covenant of Sinai. Each evolved according to the rules of halakhah, (in addition to the idolatrous and irreligious amongst us) and therefore all within the covenant, all of them “the words of the living G-d”, but with much less frequent need to impose “but the law is according to…”

The 12 nesi’im, the heads of the tribes, each gave the same gift for the inauguration of the Mishkan. And yet, for each day the Torah lists the items in the gift again, repeating the same text (or nearly so) twelve times. (Bamidbar 7:12-83) The Ramban explains that even though the items given were identical, a silver platter, a silver sprinking bowel, fine flower mixed with oil, a gold pan, a bull, a ram, a lamb, a goat, and shelamim offerings, the intent was distinct. And he goes through the gift of each nasi, explaining how he related it to his own tribe’s history, talents, and culture.

It’s mind-stretching to think how different their expressions of Torah would be. Perhaps they would even seem like different religions.

We are called Yehudim, Jews, because we are the descendents of the Kingdom of Judea, a population numerically dominated by members of the tribes of Judah. The first time we find the word “Yehudi” is in the megillah, describing Mordechai, “A Yehudi man was in Shushan, and his name — Mordechai the son of Ya’ir the son of Shim’i, a descendent of Kish, a Benjaminite.” Of all of the expressions of the covenant, only Judah’s survived. Just as within that tradition, we usually follow Beis Hillel over Beis Shammai. Rabbi Aqiva’s position is not the only one Mosheh Rabbeinu could see as a child of his own.

Yissachar was well known for their Torah study; despite living in the more idolatrous northern kingdom. I sometimes wonder what Isaacarism would have been like, as opposed to Judaism. Yehudah was more open to contemporary society. That’s how they merited to rule — they were known for he ability to admit wrongdoing (such as the story of Judah and Tamar, or David and Bethsheba), were spiritually committed, and were in touch with the facts on the ground. Yisachar were more isolected. Supporting their sheivet was a project of the sheivet of Zevulun, who tended to be seafaring traders and dye-makers. (Zevulun had a monopoly on techeiles for tzitzis and kohanic uniforms, as well as royal purple — both made from sea creatures.) A common model invoked for contemporary kollel is called “a Yissachar – Zevulun arrangement” for this reason. Would Isaacarism necessarily be ascetic, a religion of hermits and nezirim, with many gezeiros fencing in our physical desires from any taint of prohibition? Or is that too much speculation on too little data?

It’s interesting that the word for a halachic decision is a pesaq, a word meaning a break or an interruption. To pasqen is not to find a new position as much as to narrow down the set of permissable halachic rulings.

What is Judaism? Only one of the many possible expressions of the covenant of Sinai. Through the laws of halachic evolution and the forces of history, the only such expression that is still valid. But not the only one that could have been. Had we evolved differently as a people, the expression of the Torah that would address who we are would have been different as well.

11 thoughts on “What is Judaism?

  1. Not too relevant. True Blue Briskers would have stopped reading this blog back here.

    Second, I’ve been believing heresy since erev Yom Kippur of last year or so. So I guess I should be unsurprised that quoting the opinion of a number of rishonim in Menachos could also be heresy.

    But I’m wondering, perhaps for your own blog, how a Brisker would understand the gemara. Like Rashi over the Rambam?

    But in any case, I am unsurprised that quoting the opi

  2. Actually, the first time the word Yehudi shows up is II Kings 18:26. Sennecherib’s army is besieging Jerusalem, and Ravshakeh is spewing propaganda. So Elyakim, Shevna and Joach ask him to speak Aramaic, rather than Yehudit (the language of the Yehudim), so that the folks on the walls won’t understand. Needless to say, Ravshakeh doesn’t comply.

  3. Issachar was known for Torah study, but there’s no indication that this was the case during the period of the divided monarchy.

    Also, I’m just curious to know what your basis is for saying that cases didn’t go to the Sanhedrin in order to maintain One Torah. Rambam says otherwise. Do you have a reason to say the Rambam is wrong about this?

  4. The question isn’t the first use of “Yehudi”, but the first use that is clearly “Jew” as opposed to “descendent of Judah”. Mordechai being described as both from Binyamin and as a Yehudi IMHO is the first such case. I agree it’s arguable, but Sancheirev was in Yehudah’s territory, and Zecharia 8 speaks also of Beis Yehudah and Yerushalayim. Not clear indications that the word extended in meaning beyond the tribe.

    As for Lisa’s question… The role of the Sanhedrin was to bring a single ruling to questions that needed them. Not to resolve every debate that came up. Or to put it more simply: There aren’t enough hours in a day for 71 men to answer every open halachic question at the rate they arise.

    Simple proof: The dispute between using Rashi and using Rabbeinu Tam tefillin ran at least through much of the 2nd Temple Period until the rishonim, and more probably from Sinai on. (Given the ease of finding old tefillin and seeing what was done, it’s hard to believe anyone would forget what norm was if there ever was one. But in any case, the question was open for centuries of Sanhedrin without ever being resolved. Why? Because no one saw a need to unify pesaq on this issue.

    Thus, since each tribe had their own high court and their own subculture and because communications aren’t what they are now, I proposed (as I wrote in the post) that there were more questions that didn’t require common resolution.

    And then there are the non-halachic differences that shape our religious expression. A yeshiva guy and a Modern Orthodox Jew who both turn to the Shulchan Arukh and Mishnah Berurah (even both quote Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchaso) still vary significantly in religious expression and outlook. Issues like tendencies toward compassion and justice or confronting the world vs ascenticism are attitudes that run below specific and codifiable halakhah.

And your thoughts...?