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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Read more at Ancient Jew Review

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

 

Reengaging the Syrian Government Has Brought Jordan an Influx of Narcotics, but Little Stability

As Syria’s civil war drags on, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will be overthrown, Arab states that had anathematized his regime for its brutal treatment of its own people have gradually begun to rebuild economic and diplomatic relations. There are also those who believe the West should do the same. The case of Jordan, argues Charles Lister, shows the folly of such a course of action:

Despite having been a longtime and pivotally important backer of Syria’s armed anti-Assad opposition since 2012, Jordan flipped in 2017 and 2018, eventually stepping forward to greenlight a brutal, Russian-coordinated Syrian-regime campaign against southern Syria in the summer of 2018. Amman’s reasoning for turning against Syria’s opposition was its desire for stability along its border, to create conditions amenable to refugee returns, and to rid southern Syria of Islamic State cells as well as an extensive Iranian and Hizballah presence.

As hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians were swiftly besieged and indiscriminately bombed from the ground and air, Jordan forced its yearslong Free Syrian Army partners to surrender, according to interviews I conducted with commanders at the time. In exchange, they were promised by Jordan a Russian-guaranteed reconciliation process.

Beyond the negligible benefit of resuming trade, Russia’s promise of “reconciliation” has resolutely failed. Syria’s southern province of Daraa is now arguably the most unstable region in the country, riddled with daily insurgent attacks, inter-factional strife, targeted assassinations, and more. Within that chaos, which Russia has consistently failed to resolve, not only does Iran remain in place alongside Hizballah and a network of local proxy militias but Iran and its proxies have expanded their reach and influence, commanding some 150 military facilities across southern Syria. Islamic State, too, continues to conduct sporadic attacks in the area.

Although limited drug smuggling has always existed across the Syria-Jordan border, the scale of the Syrian drug trade has exploded in the last two years. The most acute spike occurred (and has since continued) immediately after the Jordanian king Abdullah II’s decision to speak with Assad on the phone in October 2021. Since then, dozens of people have been killed in border clashes associated with the Syrian drug trade, and although Jordan had previously been a transit point toward the prime market in the Persian Gulf, it has since become a key market itself, with Captagon use in the country now described as an “epidemic,” particularly among young people and amid a 30-percent unemployment rate.

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Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Drugs, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian civil war