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Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks: Unraveling a Mishnah Mystery

Introducing Rabbi David Wolpe’s new series on Jewish scholarship

David Wolpe
November 01, 2013

Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In a new Scroll series, Wolpe will examine a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.

The Mishnah is a founding text of Judaism with a mystery at its core. Completed more than a century after the destruction of the Temple—the great cataclysm of Jewish life—it barely mentions the destruction. Quite the contrary in fact; the Mishnah recounts the laws of the Temple in meticulous detail as if the Temple was still standing.

This puzzle has generated a range of solutions. The frequently offered response that the Mishnah is essentially a law code (which is certainly true) is insufficient. Many codes, the Mishnah included, have some explanatory and narrative material. And they certainly acknowledge the prevailing social conditions. Yet Jerusalem was in ruins, rabbis and scholars killed, the Temple was rubble and the Mishnah is silent.

Some argue that the Mishnah wished to preserve the Temple for its eventual rebuilding. While this is certainly undeniable, we also know that some of the laws of the Mishnah were indeed invented or altered by the rabbis and do not reflect Temple practice. The role of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic court, is considerably enhanced in the rabbinic recounting. So fidelity to memory alone cannot account for the Mishnah’s being stuck in the past.

The scholar Jacob Neusner proposed that the Mishnah’s lack of a response to the destruction was its response. The rabbis’ insistence that nothing had changed was a reaction to the reality that everything had changed. By freezing the Mishnah in time they removed it from the messy, tragic reality of the world to the pristine, incorruptible realm of ideas.

The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis, published in October 2012, contains within its title author Naftali S. Cohn’s thesis. Cohn writes that the rabbis created the Temple’s memory in a way that would serve their own authority. They forged links with the ancient court and rabbinic tradition not because it was exactly as the Temple had been, but because it was as they needed the Temple to be in order to claim continuity with the past and, therefore, sway over the present.

Cohn then reviews several accounts of the Temple that show subtle shifts in the direction of the rabbis’ priorities. Comparing the account of the biblical prophet Ezekiel’s description of the Temple with the Mishnah’s, Cohn shows how in the Mishnah, the Temple’s court is emphasized and its biblical center, the Holy of Holies, deemphasized. The sacrifices were the province of the priests. The rabbis considered the court to be the rabbinic center of influence.

We rarely see the struggles that attended a complete triumph. Rabbinic influence won the day. But in the rabbis’ time there were other groups who sought to bring the Jewish people within the ambit of their influence, including early Christians and various groups of non-rabbinic Jews. So Cohn writes, “Situated as it was among competing Temple discourses, mishnaic writing about the Temple paralleled the Temple discourses of other groups. Much like other groups, the rabbis created the Temple in their own image…”

According to Cohn’s provocative work, why were the rabbis of the Mishnah silent about the greatest catastrophe of Judaism to their day? Because they were busy rebuilding their own Temple past that could support the rabbinic present and future.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe