Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change
In this course with Rabbi David Sedley we will examine “revolutions” from throughout history and discuss how traditional Judaism responded to them.
The course will cover such revolutions as the end of the Sanhedrin, Spanish Inquisition, invention of the printing press, Ba’al Shem Tov, French Revolution, Emancipation, Evolution, and the introduction of the internet.
The starting point will be Rav Tzadok, who says that ideas come to the world at certain times and appear in both Jewish and Gentile culture in different but similar ways.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 1
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: THE END OF PROPHECY: The first mishna in Pirkei Avot lists the transmission of Torah from Sinai to the time of the mishna. It seems to me that each transition (from Moshe to Yehoshua, from the elders to the Men of the Great Assembly etc.) marked a moment of crisis for the Jewish people. Similarly the transition from the Great Assembly to the tanna’im was a time of crisis and upheaval. During a relatively short space of time the nation had to deal with the end of prophecy, the destruction of the Temple (and the civil wars that raged before that), the exile and the influence of Greek and Roman culture. In this shiur we will look at how the Rabbis (and Judaism) responded to this situation. How does one know the will of G-d without prophecy? How does one serve G-d without a Temple? What is the source of authority without a King or Sanhedrin? And how does Judaism compete with other forms of knowledge and ideas to which the Jews are exposed. Time permitting, because it is Lag BaOmer, we will end with a group singing of Bar Yochai (don’t worry – I’ll make sure time is not permitting).
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 2
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: PEOPLE OF THE BOOKS: Judaism is built on two independent and interconnected “texts”, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah includes the Five Books of Moses and the entire Tanakh (Bible). The Oral Torah includes (amongst other things) the mishna and Gemara. How did it happen that the oral torah became a written mishna and gemara? When did it become permitted to write down oral “texts”? The compilation of the mishna occurred approximately at the same time that Christianity became a dominant force in the world. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the Gemara into being at approximately the same time as the rise of Islam. Yet the mishna and Gemara are different in many ways, structurally, logically and in terms of authorship. Though we know exactly who compiled the mishna (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi), where and when, we know virtually nothing of the final editors of the Gemara (a point which is still hotly debated to this day). Hopefully this shiur will cast some light on these issues, and will also discuss the difference between an oral tradition and a written tradition. How did the Rabbis respond to the revolutions of Christianity and Islam?
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 3
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: PHILOSOPHICAL REVOLUTION: After the Muslim conquest, the (known) world was divided between Christian and Muslim. During the medieval period, the Muslim’s rediscovered the works of the Greek philosophers and translated their ideas into Arabic. This led to the birth of Jewish philosophy, some of it incorporating Aristotelian or Platonic ideas, some of it written to present a Jewish alternative to Greek philosophy. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, Greek philosophy was virtually not known. The only access the Ashkenazi Rabbis had to philosophy was through those Jewish philosophical books which had been translated into Hebrew. By and large they were not impressed with what they saw. Of course, philosophy itself can be very dangerous. This led to a backlash against those who had espoused and created a Jewish philosophy. For the Ashkenazim philosophy was dangerous and heretical. For some of the 14th century Spaniards philosophy was a valuable tool, but only in the right hands. In this shiur we will look at how Greek philosophy (via Arabic translations) changed the Jewish world, and we may even find some parallels to the modern era.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 4
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: THE PRINTING PRESS: When Gutenburg printed his Bible, he introduced a brand new paradigm. Printing brought about one of the most profound changes in Western society. Authority switched from the elite to the masses and the printed word. People had access to information and ideas that had been the purvey of only a few. Printing put the copyists out of business, but created a new and important job of an editor, who was charged with ensuring the accuracy of texts. In an era of expulsions, pogroms and burning of books, the printing press was seen as a harbinger of the Messianic era by some Jews. Others debated the dangers of printing certain works (especially kabbalistic). The halakhic status of the printed word was discussed. Today we cannot imagine a world without books, a time when information was only available to a small elite. Not only did the printing press change who could learn, but also changed where, when and how people learned. Commentaries could be printed on the same page as the book. And because they were relatively cheap to manufacture, new books could be written by authors and Rabbis who perhaps would not have merited to have their manuscripts copied by hand. Even today, some see a spiritual power in the printed word.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 5
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: COPERNICUS: Copernicus ushered in a new era in the development of science. His understanding that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way round was controversial for scientific and theological reasons for more than a century. However, after Newton’s equations enabled the prediction of the planet Newton, the scientific community almost entirely came to accept Copernicus’ description. How did the Rabbis respond to heliocentricity? We will see that some Rabbis were amongst the earliest supporters of Copernicus’ system (and some studied under Kepler, Brahe and even Galileo). Yet some were adamantly opposed to heliocentricity (calling Copernicus “Satan’s firstborn”). What is equally interesting is that even though this issue was settled in scientific community almost 300 years ago, there are still Rabbis today who reject Copernicus and insist on a geocentric system.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 6
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: ENLIGHTENMENT: Sometime during the 17th-18th century the Western became enamoured with “enlightenment”. Although the term was not used at that time, and was never clearly defined, it became associated with “Reason”. There was a belief in human powers of logic and reason as the true guides for living a good life. This movement and ideology became a challenge to the Church, based as it was on Divine Law. The Jewish response to Enlightenment and the Age of Reason was most famously headed my Moses Mendelssohn, Although the son of a Rabbi, and destined to become a Rabbi, Mendelssohn instead became one of the greatest philosophers of his age. Yet one of his primary goals was to reconcile reason with Judaism. To this end he wrote “Jerusalem” in which rejected claims that Judaism was in contradiction to reason. He also sought to raise the Jewish people out of the “darkness” and enlighten them. He commissioned a new translation and explanation of the Chumash, known as the “Bi’ur”. Many others supported Mendelssohn or shared his views. However, there was an even stronger reaction to his views. By and large the Rabbis of the time condemned Mendelssohn and his approach to Judaism, rejecting the Age of Reason in the strongest possible terms. The Hebrew term for “”Enlightenment” is “Haskala.” In this shiur we will look at how the haskala was itself a reaction to the revolution of the Age of Reason, and led to a further reaction as haskala itself was viewed as a dangerous revolution in Judaism. Ultimately the haskala led to Reform Judaism as well as to the Mussar Movement and Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz. It made huge impact on the way in which Judaism is practiced today.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 7
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: CHANGING ROLE OF WOMEN: Since the Victorian era the role of women in society has changed radically. Especially after the World War, when women took on tasks and roles traditionally associated with men. In most countries there is now legislation banning sexism, and women are equal to men in almost all areas of Western life. In Judaism, too, the role of women has changed. There were always individual women who stepped outside the “traditional” role of women, but in the 20th century some Jewish women are looking for more equality within Judaism, to parallel the equality in secular life. In this shiur we will look at some outstanding Jewish women from history. We will look at some of the issues and changes in (Orthodox) Jewish life with regard to women, including Torah learning, mitzva observance and halakhic decision making. This is not a halakha shiur, and I will not be advocating or arguing against specific halakhic opinions, but we will look at some of the issues and factors which lead to halakhic decisions with regard to women.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 8
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: AGE OF THE UNIVERSE: Judaism counts the years from creation, and marks Rosh Hashana as the beginning of the history of the world. Yet science has dated the universe at some 13 billion years old, and the earth at approximately 4.5 billion. The Gemara describes 6000 years of creation. In only one place does it actually mention counting the years from creation (everwhere else years are counted according to the reign of kings, or Alexander of Macedonia). How do the Rabbis and Judaism react and respond to this apparent conflict? There were those who saw no contradition. Either these numbers are using a different counting system, or complex maths and physics (and a bit of fairy dust) can make the science chronology match that of the Torah (or vice versa). Then there were those who found sources showing that the Rabbis of the Midrash and Zohar knew that the world had existed for much longer than 6000 years. And there were those who decreed that science is simply wrong and cannot be relied upon in such matters. And others went a step further and ruled that anyone who holds that the earth is older than 6000 years is a heretic. We will look at as many of these approaches as we can in the time allotted for this shiur. See you there.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 9
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: EVOLUTION: In 1859 Charles Darwin first published his book “On the Origin of Species” presenting the idea and explanation of evolution. This idea presented a challenge to traditional Jewish ideas, and apparently explicit Biblical verses and statements of the Talmudic Rabbis. The idea that animals change over time is actually first mentioned by Tosafot, and most famously (and more recently) by the Chazon Ish. However Darwin’s idea that this change could come about without external agency, using natural selection seems to remove G-d from creation. Even more challenging is that according to evolution, homo sapiens is not the ultimate purpose of creation, but just one of many stages of evolution. Unlike the Age of the Universe (which we spoke about last week), there are still some scientists today who reject (totally or partially) the theory of evolution (though most of those scientists are coming from a religious background). Based on this, there are many contemporary Rabbis who reject evolution outright. There were those (in the late 19th century) who claimed that fossils were remnants from Noah’s flood, and therefore are in line with the Torah. Most interestingly, Rav Kook claims (based on kabbalah) that evolution is a Jewish idea. He embraced the concepts of evolution and explained how they fit with the ideal of gradual perfection of the world ultimately leading to the Messianic era. These are some of the ideas that we will discuss in tonight’s class. Looking forward to seeing you there.
Rabbis and Revolution: Traditional Judaism & Change: Lesson 10
RABBIS AND REVOLUTION: COMMUNICATIONS: The 20th and 21st century have seen an unprecedented technological revolution. The way we live our lives has changed so radically in the past 100 years. And the pace of change continues to increase. The way we communicate with each other and with the world is constantly changing. From the days of radio, to television, to cassettes (remember walkmen?), mp3s, youtube, facebook, twitter, pinterest – and who knows where it will go next. Like all tools this communication revolution has tremendous advantages and enormous disadvantages. In this shiur we will try to examine how the Jewish world, and the Rabbis, have adapted and responded to the internet (and the phenomenon of “Rabbi Google”), smartphones, international media etc. This is the final shiur, so it will also include a summary and review of the entire series.
Rabbi David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. He was born and raised in New Zealand before making Aliya in 1992. He left Israel temporarily (for eight years) to serve as a communal Rabbi in Scotland and England and returned to Israel in 2004. He has translated Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on Pirkei Avos and is the co-author of Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer (both Judaica Press). Over the years Rabbi Sedley has worked as a journalist, a translator, a video director and in online reputation management. He also writes a weekly Torah blog on the Times of Israel.