Did Ancient Jews See Themselves as a Religion or as a People?

Oct. 31 2018

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the question of whether a shared faith or a national identity unifies the Jewish people was the major question of Jewish political thought, with some founders of Reform Judaism representing one extreme and secular Zionists the other. Yet most Jews have insisted that the answer lies somewhere in between. David Goodblatt examines how ancient authors—Jew and Gentile—thought of the Jews, noting that many referred to them by using the Greek term ethnos, which implied a group with both shared ancestry and shared customs:

[T]he connection between [Jews’] behavioral expressions of Jewish identity and their ancestors [found in Greek writings also] may appear in rabbinic tradition. The mid-2nd-century CE rabbi Yosi ben Ḥalafta appears as the author of the statement in the talmudic tractate of Y’vamot that “a convert is like a newborn child.” This could be understood to mean that the convert is “born again,” this time as a member of the Jewish people.

If so, then one branch of rabbinic tradition disagreed. Tractate Bikkurim forbade converts from reciting the prayer formula “God of our fathers.” This indicates that culture is not sufficient for full membership in the Jewish people. A dissenting view cited in the Jerusalem Talmud permitted converts to recite this formula because they could claim the [the biblical patriarch] Abraham as their father or forefather. A probably later source, Midrash Tanḥuma, stated, “Abraham is the father of converts.” While this may mean only that Abraham was the original convert and hence model for all subsequent proselytes, it also could be taken as literal adoption. . . .

The fact that adopting the culture of a group entailed establishing a new kinship relation shows the tenacity of the idea that ancestry and behavior belong together. Further evidence of this concept in ancient thinking about ethnic identity is how Greeks commonly described the culture of an ethnos as “ancestral” as in “the ancestral customs” or “the ancestral laws.” . . .

In sum, the connection of behavioral expressions of Jewish identity to the ancestors reminds the reader that ancestry and culture normally go together. Further evidence for the ongoing significance of ancestry in Jewish identity appears in Tractate Sanhedrin, [where] Rabbi Abba ben Zavda (late-3rd early-4th century) comments, “Even though he has sinned, he is [still] an Israelite.” . . . Still more evidence on the ongoing role of ancestry comes from the phenomenon of the “Godfearers”—Gentiles who adopted Jewish practices but refrained from becoming full-fledged Jews. What they lacked was adoption by or absorption into the Jewish people.

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More about: ancient Judaism, Conversion, History & Ideas, Jewish people, Judaism, Reform Judaism, Talmud

 

Why Israel Pretends That Hamas Fired Rockets by Accident

March 21 2019

Israeli military and political officials have repeated Hamas’s dubious claim that the launching of two rockets at Tel Aviv last week was inadvertent. To Smadar Perry, accepting Hamas’s story rather than engaging in further retaliation is but a convenient, and perhaps necessary, way of aiding Egyptian efforts to broker a deal with the terrorist group. But even if these efforts succeed, the results will be mixed:

The [Israeli] security cabinet has met in Tel Aviv and decided that they would continue indirect negotiations with Gaza. A message was sent to Egypt, whose delegation is going back to Gaza to pass on the Israeli demands for calm. The Egyptians also have to deal with the demands from Hamas, which include, among other things, an increase in aid from $15 million to $30 million per month and an increase in the supply of electricity.

The requests are reasonable, but they do leave a sour taste in the mouth. Israel must ensure that this financial aid does not end up in the pockets of Hamas and its associates. [Israel] also knows that if it says “no” to everything, the Iranians will step in, with the help of their Gazan friends in Islamic Jihad. They are just waiting for the opportunity.

Hamas also must deal with the fallout from a series of massive handouts from Qatar. For when the citizens of the Gaza Strip saw that the money was going to the Hamas leadership, who were also enjoying a fine supply of electricity to their own houses, they took to the streets in protest—and this time it was not Israel that was the focus of their anger. . .

[But] here is the irony. With Egyptian help, Israel can reach understandings for calm with Gaza, despite the lack of a direct channel. . . . In the West Bank, where the purportedly friendlier Fatah is in charge, it is more complicated, at least until the eighty-three-year-old Mahmoud Abbas is replaced.

As evidence for that last statement, consider the murder of two Israelis in the West Bank on Sunday, and the Palestinians who threw explosives at Israeli soldiers at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem yesterday.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, West Bank