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

 

The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics