Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Second Life

How Judaism remade itself in the wake of the Second Temple’s destruction

Adam Kirsch
May 18, 2009

The history of the Jews as a people begins with God’s covenant with Abraham, or else with God’s dictation of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai—that is, it begins in prehistory, in the realms of faith and myth. But the origin of Judaism can be dated much more precisely, to a political crisis that we know about from multiple, secular sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish. This was the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E., in which the province of Judea rebelled against the Roman Empire and attempted to regain its independence—with disastrous consequences.

The revolt began when the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, angered by Greek and Roman disrespect for Jewish rites, refused to offer the usual sacrifices in honor of the Roman Emperor. Things quickly turned bloody when Jewish extremists—the original Zealots—massacred the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. The Jews managed to defeat the first army sent to subdue them, but they were no match for the full might of the Roman legions, which subjected Jerusalem to a devastating siege. When Titus, the Roman general and a future emperor himself, finally took the city in 70, he destroyed the Temple: visitors to Rome can still see the Arch of Titus, which shows the Romans carrying off the Menorah and other spoils.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem put an end to a thousand years of Jewish religious life. As any reader of the Bible knows, the heart of Jewish worship since the days of King Solomon was the offering of animal sacrifices at the Temple, presided over by a hereditary priesthood. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and many Israelites were carried into captivity. But that proved to be a temporary disruption, and the Temple was rebuilt 70 years later under the sponsorship of the Persian Emperor Cyrus, as related in the Book of Ezra. After 70, however, the Temple was gone for good; and after the disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135, Jerusalem itself was razed and replaced by a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina. How, then, were the Jews to celebrate their festivals, affirm their nationhood, and maintain their relationship with God?

The answer is summarized in the title of Jacob Neusner’s new book, In the Aftermath of Catastrophe: Founding Judaism 70-640 (McGill-Queen’s University Press). The death of Judea meant the birth of Judaism as a new kind of religion—a religion of diaspora instead of sovereignty, based on prayer rather than sacrifice, and led by rabbis and sages instead of priests. Above all, it was a religion of laws: the law codes that define traditional Judaism—the Mishnah and the Talmud—were completed in the aftermath of the Jewish War, between the years 200 and 600 C.E. For all the transformations Judaism has undergone in the modern world, then, the religion that emerged in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple is still the ultimate basis of all Jewish practice today. As Neusner writes, “It was then that the normative or Rabbinic Judaism carried forward by today’s Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaisms emerged.”

Neusner, a professor at Bard College, is one of the leading authorities on this period of Jewish history, having produced, by his own count, no less than a thousand books on the subject. This may sound scarcely credible, but reading In the Aftermath of Catastrophe helps to show how Neusner does it: the book, short as it is, is highly repetitious and often badly written, as though it had not been composed so much as transcribed from lectures or an internal monologue. Nor does it possess the kind of comprehensiveness the title implies: it is, rather, a collection of five studies that address particular texts and themes in early Judaism.

Still, the importance of the subject and Neusner’s obvious erudition make it a thought-provoking book. For as Neusner writes, there is an unmistakable analogy between the situation of the Jews after 70 C.E. and after 1945, when he began his own scholarly career. Indeed, he points out that in the immediate postwar period, before the term Shoah gained currency, the annihilation of the European Jews was often referred to as Hurban, or destruction, the same term used for the destruction of the First and Second Temples (Hurban Bayit Rishon, Hurban Bayit Sheni). By studying the birth of Judaism in response to catastrophe, Neusner hoped to learn lessons for its rebirth, which struck me as the task of the coming generation, my generation.”

Yet as Neusner goes on to explain, it is no easy task to deduce the history of the Jewish people in the years 70-640 C.E. from the texts of the Mishnah and Talmud. Students of early Christianity, he points out, have multiple original texts by named authors—from the Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew down to Church Fathers like Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine—each of whom offers a unique historical testimony and an individual theological perspective. For the same period of Jewish history, however, we have legal texts that represent a single, homogenized canon, anonymously edited and reedited, meant to be the voice of the Law itself. “A life [that is, a biography] of Jesus or of Augustine is plausible; a life of Aqiba or Hillel is not,” Neusner observes. “The Rabbinic sages did not write history and their records yield none.”

The best parts of In the Aftermath of Catstrophe are those in which Neusner ingeniously prods these impersonal texts into revealing some of their unspoken assumptions—about God, history, covenant, and the nature of suffering. To choose one famous example, the essence of the transformation of Judea-ism into Judaism is captured in a dialogue between Yohanan ben Zakkai, the greatest sage of the Hurban period, and his disciple:

One time Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was going forth from Jerusalem, with Rabbi Joshua following after him. He saw the house of the sanctuary lying in ruins. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe is us for this place which lies in ruins, the place in which the sins of Israel used to come to atonement.” He said to him, “My son, do not be distressed. We have another mode of atonement, which is like [atonement through sacrifice], and what is that? It is deeds of loving kindness. For so it is said, ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, [and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings]’” (Hosea 6:6).

Here is the principle by which Judaism would survive the loss of the Temple: it would transform itself from a religion of sacrifices to a religion of inwardness. Yet as Neusner goes on to show, the Mishnah, the great law code that was completed around 200 C.E., is by no means so straightforward in acknowledging the changed historical circumstances of the Jews. On the contrary, he writes, the whole form and substance” of the Mishnah, with its detailed regulations for sacrifices and priestly rites, presuppose. . . that the Temple, priesthood, altar, and its blood-rite of atonement all flourish . . . that nothing that matters has changed.” He offers a vivid demonstration of this principle from tractate Hullin:

The prohibition against slaughtering on the same day an animal and its young (Leviticus 22:28) applies in the Land and outside the Land, in the time of the Temple and not in the time of the Temple, in the case of unconsecrated beasts and in the case of consecrated beasts . . . . The requirement to give to the priests the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw (Deuteronomy 18:3) applies in the Land and outside of the land, in the time of the Temple and not in the time of the Temple . . . .

And so on for a series of other priestly practices, all of which are said to be unchanged. “The sanctity of Israel, expressed here in the Halakhic system,” Neusner writes, “endures beyond the loss of the holy city, the holy Temple, and, ultimately, the holy Land.” Yohanan ben Zakkai’s notion that “deeds of lovingkindness” can replace sacrifices is never, in the Mishnah, given concrete expression. On the contrary, a story from Tosefta Shabbat shows Rabbi Ishmael repenting for accidentally lighting a lamp on the Sabbath by promising, “When the sanctuary will be rebuilt, he will bring a sin-offering.” In this view, the absence of the Temple is merely temporary, a technicality rather than an essential shift in the nature of Judaism.

It is not until the Jerusalem Talmud, completed some 200 years after the Mishnah, that Neusner finds the rabbis acknowledging the changed situation of the Jews, and seeking explanations for it. They found those explanations, characteristically, in the Jewish past—specifically, in the destruction of the First Temple, and the prophet Jeremiah’s account of it. From Jeremiah they learned that all Jewish suffering is God’s just punishment for Jewish sins, but also that God will eventually show mercy to his people once they genuinely repent. The comforting message, as Neusner writes, is that “Israel controls its own condition; its attitude governs its own fate . . . . The nations serve as instruments of God’s wrath; nothing that they do comes about by their own volition, but only by consequence of Israel’s.”

In this sense, Neusner concludes, the Jewish response to the catastrophe of 70 C.E. was “denial, denial, denial.” The loss of the Temple could not be permitted to change the basic understanding of God’s relationship to Israel, or of Israel’s responsibilities to God. Yet this conclusion, the reader can’t help observing, means that there is very little for post-Holocaust Judaism to learn from post-Hurban Judaism. For all but a few ultra-Orthodox sects, the notion that the Holocaust was a just punishment for Jewish sins is self-evidently abhorrent. And the founding of the State of Israel has given the Jews a political, rather than merely virtual, relationship to their ancestral land. In these senses, Neusner shows despite himself that the events of 1939-1948 may mark an even greater break in Jewish history than those of 66-70.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.