Friday, December 06, 2013

The Chosen People have always been picky 

The current tug-of-war between a liberal form of Orthodox Judaism, “Open Orthodoxy,” and its opponents may seem new, but actually it is part of a struggle that has been going on since late biblical times. Judaism has, almost from the beginning, felt itself drawn in two opposite directions, openness and insularity; indeed, these terms describe well two contrasting outlooks that scholars know from texts dating to the end of the Second Temple period.

Numerous writings from the 3rd century B.C.E. onward describe a certain Jewish hostility to outsiders. The Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera (3rd century B.C.E.) is quoted as saying that the Jews are a “somewhat unsociable and foreigner-hating people,” while the Egyptian chronicler Manetho (also 3rd century) similarly claimed that the Jews’ laws require that “they have relations with no one except those of their own confederacy.”

Josephus reports that Apollonius Molon (1st century B.C.E.) denounced the Jews as “misanthropes,” while in the same century Diodorus Sicilus wrote that Jews are not allowed “to break bread with any other race, nor to show them any good will at all.” All the things that amongst us are sacred are profane [for the Jews],” wrote the Roman historian Tacitus toward the end of the first century C.E., “likewise, the things that are impure to us are permitted amongst them.” Moreover, “the Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hatred and enmity.”

Jewish xenophobia

Certainly some of these characterizations are the result of anti-Jewish sentiment,and later authors seem sometimes to have borrowed from their predecessors. Still, it seems unlikely that all this was invented out of whole cloth. Way back then, it would seem, some of these writers had encountered Jews who indeed sought to minimize all contact with non-Jews as well as with their ideas and customary way of life.

One such Jew is someone whom I feel I have come to know well: the anonymous author of the Book of Jubilees ‏(ca. 200 B.C.E.‏). His book is an imaginative re-telling of most of the Book of Genesis, but in it he consistently demonstrates what a Greek would no doubt describe as Jewish misanthropia or misoxenia ‏(hatred of foreigners‏).

To begin with, the author of Jubilees believed that the Jews were different by nature from all other nations, having been selected to be God’s own people – not following their acceptance of the Torah , as the book of Exodus implies, but on the sixth day of Creation, when God first conceived of the idea of Israel, long before the people even existed. Circumcision was another mark of the Jews’ utter specialness: In heaven, only the two highest classes of angels had the merit of being, like the Israelites, circumcised.

The Jews were thus, for this author, a people apart from the very start, and contact with non-Jews was deemed corrupting. He therefore changed numerous details in his retelling of Genesis to reflect this view. For example: When Isaac swears an oath of peace with the Philistine chief Abimelech (Gen. 26), this positive event in Scripture is transformed into the opposite in Jubilees. There, Isaac immediately regrets having made this deal with a non-Israelite. He names the place in which the oath was made Be’er Sheva (“Well of the Oath”) – apparently to commemorate his mistake – and then roundly curses the Philistines to counteract the oath he had just sworn. Similarly, the lesson imparted by the story of the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34) was not, for Jubilees, the horror of rape, but the horror of intermarriage.

Despite such views, the author of Jubilees was no doubt troubled by a problem that has always plagued the champions of insularity: those non-Jews sometimes seem to know things, so that even the most rabid xenophobe might find himself having to make use of their knowledge. For Jubilees’ author, a case in point was geography. When his retelling of Genesis came to describe the division of the world among Noah’s descendants, he felt he had to present a precise delineation of each descendant’s inheritance. In so doing, he ended up having to use a highly detailed map of the world that was indisputably borrowed, directly or otherwise, from Greek geographic writings. In such cases, the phenomenon sometimes described as “defensive modernism” appears.

Thus, while freely mining the knowledge of Greek geographers, the world map reflected in Jubilees, in common with that of other Jewish texts of the period, included a number of crucial adjustments to keep it in line with traditional Jewish views, significantly relocating the “center of the earth” (omphalos mundi) to the territory assigned to Shem, Israel’s ancestor.

Another example: When an anonymous writer of perhaps the 3rd century B.C.E. sought to import Mesopotamian astronomical lore into Judea, he hid its foreign origins and connection to alien worship, presenting it instead as the teaching of an altogether “kosher” figure, the biblical Enoch, who, having ascended bodily into the heavens (Gen. 5:24), must have found himself in a position to converse with the angels as well as to observe the movements of heavenly bodies first-hand, enabling him to impart this knowledge to the Jews on earth.


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