Jewish Tug Of War
There are two ways to look at Jewish history and, individually, they are both simultaneously right and wrong.
Judaism, for at least the first couple centuries, had a king and high priest who were at the top of the caste system. These individuals lived by a different set of rules and laws and, as those in power often do, benefited from the labor of others. These men (yes they were always men) had to come from the right genealogy, have the right physical attributes, often came from a background of wealth, and would be steeped in tradition.
It would be these men, along with others in their sociological class who were in charge of maintaining the Jewish tradition. Priests would adhere to the exact same rituals day in and day out, with even a small deviance or modification being room for rebuke. Levites would not only participate in these rituals but would also spread themselves throughout the nation as educators, ensuring that the next generation was prepared to take over the mantle of tradition. Similarly, Kings would be required to carry around a small Torah scroll, a reminder of their constant deference to the traditional Jewish legal code.
After the destruction of the temple and Judaism’s subsequent exile, many of its laws, rituals, and ideas were written down and codified by men set on continuing this tradition. Priestly sacrifices were replaced by the thrice-daily prayer services, ensurimg that the Jewish tradition would continue day after day. Today there are many Jews who continue to bear the mantle of this tradition. Continuing the legacy set forth by the kings, priests, and rabbis, they do their best to pass on the Jewish tradition, creating a direct line between the Jewish community of today and that of antiquity.
Now, this group of Jewish communal leaders were obviously extremely important in the preservation of Jewish tradition. There is much that the modern day Jewish community shares with our biblical ancestors, and this would have been impossible were it not for these men dedicating their lives to Judaism. However, as I said at the outset, this way of viewing Jewish history is simultaneously right and wrong. While there is nothing explicitly false, it does cut out half the picture….
Judaism’s origin is steeped in moral innovation. While ancient Canaanite society (Judaism’s predecessor) had a caste system with priests and kings - Judaism was all about changing the status quo. Brave, charismatic individuals from diverse backgrounds, known as prophets, constantly harangued the people to abandon their moral depravity based upon and backed by an archaic view from tradition, instead opting for a more progressive view of the future.
These prophets were generally not worried about what came before. They were not impressed by the rigid rituals of the ancient Israelite religion, and often roamed around arguing for their abolition and replacement. Indeed these Jewish prophets were among the first in the ancient world to envision a worldview where every individual was created in the “image of God” and therefore needed to be treated as such. A world where the poor and destitute would be cared for, and where, in a future time, world peace would ensue as the “lion would lay with the lamb.”
As Judaism continued to evolve throughout the years, more prophetic types arose and increasingly challenged the status quo by forcing Judaism to progress. After the destruction of the temple, when Judaism was forced into exile, Rabbis and Jewish leaders, in continuation of the prophetic tradition, continued to innovate, ensuring both the future and survival of Judaism. New laws, enactments, and ideologies were created allowing Judaism to better fit in with the dominant cultures, morals, and worldviews wherever the Jewish diasporic community happened to find itself. Today, many Jewish leaders do their best to ensure that we as a community are able to constantly adapt to the society and moral progress of the world at large.
In the early 20th century a German sociologist named Max Weber posited a theory of religious evolution that involved a constant dialectic between the “prophets” and the “priests”. The latter ensured that tradition remained the same from day to day and generation from generation while the former continuously challenged the priestly dogmas with their innovative spirit. Drawing on a wealth on biblical texts, Weber noted that these two groups were often pitted against each other as the fundamental spirits of their beings came into direct conflict. One group’s essence is the preservation of tradition while the other’s is the abrogation of norms in hope of progression.
Judaism, and its history, involve a constant interplay between these two spirits, and it is crucial to understand that neither of these streams alone make up Jewish history. However, in the Jewish world today we are faced with the multiplicity of communities that attempt to adopt only one of these spirits while pretending that the other doesn’t exist.
Many Orthodox communities foster a myth that the Judaism they are practicing today is a direct copy of the version that God told to Moshe on Sinai. The very idea that a contemporary Orthodox community would be wholly unrecognizable to any Jew 2,000 or even 300 years ago is rejected outright by the majority of the Orthodox world.
Similarly, in the liberal Jewish community there is often an underlying belief that authentic Judaism is paying lip service to a couple of ethical values and practicing social justice while completely ignoring and rejecting tradition. Just as the Orthodox world rejects the spirit of the prophets, these groups completely reject the priestly half of Judaism, claiming that tradition and ritual is unimportant within Judaism (for more on this idea see here: http://jewishvaluescenter.org/jvoblog/Liberal-Critique).
The only way for the Jewish community to move forward while remaining true to its roots is to retain the constant dialectic between these two fundamental components, as both the spirit of the prophet and the spirit of the priest are integral to the Jewish tradition.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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