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In the Talmud, Jews in Exile Are Considered Defenseless Before Their Enemies

Daf Yomi: The one protection God granted the Jews was to scatter them, so that no single enemy could destroy them all at once

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; center image Dorot Jewish Division, NYPL)
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Here, as often before, the Talmud allows a fair degree of independence to women within an essentially patriarchal system. There is no question, for instance, that it is the male heads of households who are responsible for organizing groups to register for the Passover sacrifice. However, a wife is not automatically subservient to her husband; she at least has the option of returning to her father’s house, which would also be the house where her mother and siblings live. Later on, the Talmud clarifies that “one may not slaughter [the Passover sacrifice] on behalf of his adult son or daughter, or on behalf of his Hebrew slave and maidservant, or on behalf of his wife unless he has their consent.” All these categories of people are dependent on the head of household, but he is not allowed to tyrannize over them or ignore their wishes.

It is in the course of discussing this rule that the Gemara veers into the most fascinating part of this week’s reading—a long stretch of aggadah that begins on Pesachim 87a and addresses the most fundamental question of Talmudic Judaism, the Exile. After quoting a passage from the book of Hosea, the rabbis go on to expound that prophet at length, retelling the story of how Hosea, infuriated at Jewish sin, begged God to divorce the Jews and “exchange them for another nation.” In response, God told Hosea to marry a prostitute, which he did, going on to have three children with her. Then, when God instructed Hosea to divorce his wife, he refused, saying, “Master of the Universe, I have sons from her and I am unable to dismiss her or to divorce her.” God replied that he felt just the same way about the Jewish people: Just as Hosea could not “dismiss” his wife, God could not dismiss the Jews, even though they were steeped in sin.

Yet the rabbis were living at a time when God evidently had divorced the Jews. The Amoraim were in exile in Babylonia, meticulously interpreting the laws of a Temple that had been burned down centuries earlier. How could this evidence of divine wrath be reconciled with God’s promise to remain faithful to his people? For Rabbi Elazar insists that “even at the time of the anger of the Holy One, Blessed be he, he remembers the attribute of compassion.”

Then the Amoraim perform a remarkable and moving feat of interpretation. If God loves Israel, they reason, then even when he punishes Israel he must manifest that love. The Exile cannot be all bad; it must have redeeming features, which prove that God had the welfare of his people in mind, even as he condemned them to dispersion. Indeed, Rabbi Oshaya says, the dispersion itself is a blessing in disguise. By scattering the Jews around the world, God made sure that their enemies could not exterminate them at one blow. Oshaya once argued this very point with a Roman: If the Romans had not managed to annihilate the Jews after so many years, it was not because they were well-disposed to the Jews, but “because you do not know how to do it.”

To which the Roman responded: “I swear by Gappa, god of the Romans, with this we lie down and with this we rise up.” That is, the Roman admitted that his people think of nothing else, morning and night, than how to exterminate the Jews. This, the Talmud takes for granted, is the condition of the Jewish people in exile: defenseless before hate-filled enemies, constantly vulnerable to persecution and violence. The one protection God granted them was to scatter them around the known world, in Rome and Babylonia and elsewhere, so that no single enemy could destroy them all at once. And for this, Oshaya implies, we must be genuinely grateful to God. Oshaya’s speech is one of the most astonishing things I’ve read in the Talmud so far: Nothing could be more eloquent of the despair the rabbis felt in Exile, or of their deep need to find a reason, however slight, to keep praising God.


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In the Talmud, Jews in Exile Are Considered Defenseless Before Their Enemies

Daf Yomi: The one protection God granted the Jews was to scatter them, so that no single enemy could destroy them all at once

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