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March 19, 1965 - Image 15

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1965-03-19

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America, Babylonia: a Comparison

Professor of Semitics
Dartmouth College
It has become stylish among
American Jewish ideologists to
compare our community to that
of Babylonia. For example, Oscar
Janowsky states (in "The American
Jew: A Reappraisal"), "Tse great
centers of Jewish population of
the past did not blossom into cul-
tural communities in a few gen-
erations. The Jews were in Baby-
lonia in the sixth century B.C.E.
but they did not achieve cultural
leadership until 800 years later. In
Spain and in Western Germany,
Jews lived in considerable num-
bers for at least 600 years before
cultural life assumed significant
proportions in the tenth century
C,E.." The comparison between
American and Babylonian Jewry
seems appropriate because, in both
cases, these communities flourish-
ed alongside that in the land of
Israel, in antiquity as in our own

Yet it is important to emphasize, if
comparisons must be made, what sep-
arates American Jewry now from
Babylonian Jewry in the second cen-
tury. The Jews in Babylonia, unlike
those in America, never divorced
themselves from their tradition, either
through apathy or through lack of
education. It is simply incorrect to
say that they existed without sub-
stantial cultural and religious re-
sources for 800 years, or to believe
that they only began much later to
achieve "cultural leadership" (wha-
ever one means by that, for Baby-
lonian Jewry did not "lead" Palestin-
ian Judaism at any point before the
fifth century, if then!). Babylonian
Jewry always cultivated indigenous
traditions. When new and challenging
viewpoints were brought there from
Palestine, it was the meeting be-
tween the old. needing revivification
and the new, requiring a new and
vigorous host-culture, which produced
the impressive outburst of legal,
theological, and educational crea-
tivity characteristic of the third and
fourth century Babylonian Judaism.

Without an antecedent tradition,
and without a large and cultured
population, Babylonian Jewry
could never have responded crea-
tively to the challenges of early
Sasanian times, both the inner
challenges represented by Ray's
coming and the advent of the
Mishnah. and the external ones
embodied in the great mixing of
cultures and religions in the time
of Shalipur I. Ray did not have to
teach the Bible, or the centrality of
law and theological concern for
the community life. These he
found. He had to reorient the com-
munity, and when he did so, it
was with the cooperation of resi-
dent authorities of great prestige,
wide influence, and prof o u n d
A second striking difference is
that of leadership. Babylonian
Jewry possessed in the exilarchate
a highly developed political au-
thority. It also accepted the leader-
ship of the Tannaim of both Baby-
lonian and Palestinian origin. The
extent of their actual authority
was probably limited. But their in-
fluence and prestige were not.
These men were substantial, for
they possessed both learning and
material wealth. Babylonian Jew-
ish leaders led in meaningful ways.
They led the formation of culture
and the application of religion.
When they stood apart, as they
did, from the common culture,
they did so in the cause of an un-
common demand upon the lives of
their community, and not merely
because they possessed greater
material wealth than the masses,




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though they mostly seem to have
been wealthy. American Jewry has
no exilarch, nor is it clear to me
that it needs one. But it also does
not have many leaders who are
both rich and learned, and it is
difficult to conceive of an effec-
tive communal (as opposed to spiri-
tual) leader who cannot give some
material support to his plans.

The "Torah" and Greatness" in a
single person which were the attri-
butes not only of R. Judah the Prince,
but also of Samuel's Father, Samuel
and many others, are not common-
place in American Jewry, where im-
portant Jews are generally important
by reason of wealth alone. The Jews
have never taken seriously the leader-
ship of men whose qualifications did
not include spiritual gifts and also
great learning, who did not partic-
ipate sincerely and personally in the
Life of the community and in the
activities of religion and piety which
the community stood for, and it is
not surprising that American Jewry
today ignores, or apathetically toler-
ates, the pretentions of its current
generation of "leaders." With rare
and noteworthy exceptions, these
leaders have nothing at all in corn-
mon with the kind of men who ex-
erted profound influence in ancient

Furthermore, Babylonian Jewry
saw itself in a very different per-
spective from that which charac-
terizes our community. It regard-
ed itself as the bearer of impor-
tant truths. It believed that Jewry
existed for universally significant
reasons. In the economy of the uni-
verse, the Jew bore a very special
place. Through the Jewish com-
munity, men were brought nearer
to their father in heaven. Through
Jewish laws, men were made bet-
ter human beings. Through Jewish
theology men understood better
than they could in any other way
what reality was about. Babylonian
Jews in the third century lived in
one of the world's centers of cul-
ture in their day.

In Babylonia, moreover, Chris-
tianity made numerous converts

(toward the end of the third cen-
tury). There also flourished the
cults of many gods, believed by
men to be of some value in attain-
ing desired ends. In this cosmo-
politan, sophisticated, and rela-
tivistic universe, not terribly dif-
ferent from ours in the plurality
of options available to men and
in the richness and vitality of its
cultural potentialities, the Jews
did not respond as they do today.
They did not turn away from their
own tradition out of embarrass-
ment, out of fear that it could not
contribute to the great conversa-
tion among many kinds of men
which flourished in their day.
They did not treat their tradition
with indifference, either because
of the attractions of other cultures
or because of inability to relate
their own to affairs of the day, or
surely because they would not de-
vote the time and effort needed to
achieve significant mastery of
their ancient heritage. On the con-
trary, they took great pride in their
own traditions.

They admired what was good, ac-
quired what was true, including
medicine and astronomy, and most-
ly rejected was was of no conse-
quence, no matter how much stock
others put in it, such as astrology
and the various forms of magic and
superstition. Above all, they acquired
from the interesting world in which
they lived a deeper sense of who
they themselves were, what they
represented in the scheme of things.

For our part, American Jews do
not yet have a vivid awareness of
how much effort is required to
master their own tradition; nor do
they have enough respect for them-
selves and their tradition to de-
vote the necessary effort. They
are captivated by the attractions
of their cosmopolitan, sophisti-
cated, and relativistic situation,
but are unable to find the equili-
brium necessary to cope with it
with dignity and with a keen sense
for what is valuable, and what
is nat.
The world of the Babylonian
pagan, whether Iranian or Greek,
did not reaffirm the teachings of
Judaism, but on the contrary, chal-
lenged them—even within their
own terms—by asserting that the
way to health, prosperity, and re-
demption lay through the service
of this cult, or that cult, or many
cults, each Of which offered its
own very attractive rites for re-
demption. Up the river about 150
miles from the center of Jewish
settlement in Babylonia lay a fron-
tier trading and garrison town call-

ed Dura-Europos. In Dura was set-
tled a relatively small and unim-
portant Jewish community, whose
synagogue nestled far away from
the great courts and marketplaces
of the city, against the outer wall.
In Dura, the Roman soldiers
held that Mithra was God. The
cults of every pagan Semitic deity
flourished there. Iranian cults and
Greek cults flourished side by
side, and doubtless many felt that
the truth was one, only seen
through a many-faceted prism. On
the walls of their synagogue, the
Jews wrote an immortal comment
on the religions and high cultures
they observed round about them.
As interrupted by Prof. Erwin
Goodenough in Jewish Symbols in
Greco-Roman Times (N. Y. 1963,
vols. IX-XI), the walls of the syna-
gogue indicate that the Jews had
a rich appreciation for the spiri-
tual blessings of each cult, and an-
nounced to the world that what-
ever was good in any of them was
to be found first and best in the
synagogue, and in the Torah which
was at the center of its design.
The west wall presented, for exam-
ple, the scene of the destruction
of the gods of the Philistines, be-
fore the ark of the Holy One of
Israel. These gods were drawn
precisely according to the artistic
conventions widely familiar to
those who frequented pagan
shrines. No one could have missed
the point.


Renting ski equipment this week-
end? The Greater Detroit Safety
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using release bindings and safety
With no divide, between heaven and
straps.° Bindings are designed for
A vast outspreading space,
protection in the event of a spill.
What added to this spaciousness,
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Marcia is here with its howling wind,
It entered like a lion.
The snow, it covered all the land,
The sun above didn't shine.

Winter blew with all its strength,
Carrying its weight on wing,
To leave its burden entirely,
Along with its last fling.


The expression "Apocalypse" is
a transliteration of the Greek
term "Apokalypsis" which means
"unveiling" or "uncovering" or
"revealing." It would thus refer
to the revelation or disclosure of
some hidden truth. It is used with
reference to the Jewish literature
of the Hellenistic period as refer-
ring to those parts or books in
that literature which describe a

vision of the Almighty or the Di-
vine Purpose. This literary out-
put, called the Apocalyptic Liter-

ature, somehow claims to possess
secret knowledge of the future
and particularly the End of Time,

etc. One would therefore find men-
tion of such literature of the
Messiah, the last Judgment and a
general eschatological outlook.
Such visions are found to some
extent in the canonical writings

of the Bible, as for example in
the Book of Daniel. They are
mostly found however in the extra-
canonical books known as the
Psuedepigrapha. Among other
things, it can be said that these
visionary writings served a pur-
pose in helping the martyred vic-
tims of Jewish history find some
measure of hope and faith in the
future at a time when the present
looked bleak and discouraging to
say the least. Some of these visions
found their way into later estoeric

Harvard swimming captain
David Abramson, who won three
gold medals in the 1961 Maccabiah
Games, is an outstanding candi-
date for a berth on the 1965 U. S.

Maccabiah Team.

Friday, March 19, 1965-15

The simple man trusts every-
thing; But the sensible man pays
heed to his steps. —Proverbs

Spring too was here, the seasons were
Together in a row,
The trees rebuffed the snow that fell,
And shook it from branch and bough.

Like GIN

Now consequently, what will be?
Who from this row will gain?
A lone bird soloed from a barren
"The spring, it will remain!"
From Mrs. Shames' book,
"The Pulse of the Mortal Clock"

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As Goodenough states, "The theme
of the synagogue as a whole might
be called the celebration of the
glory and power of Judaism and its
God." The artist of the synagogue
did so by copying the "inner shrine
of a pagan temple and filling it with
images of human beings and Greek
and Iranian divinities." And the point
of it all was to respond with tenacious
and unfailing pride to the challenges
of the pagan environment with the
ever-new assertion that the Lord the
God of Israel is the one God, and
there is none else.

Until any Jewish community,
anywhere and at any age in his-
tory, can respond to the challenge
of its age by affirming as a com-
munity and through the lives of
its individual members that the
gods of the age are no-gods, but
that the Lord, God of Israel, rules
and that his dominion is supreme
over all, it cannot begin to com-
pare itself to Babylonian Jewry in
the Tannaitic age, nor begin to
hope to achieve what Babylonian
Jewry in the Amoraic age created
and left as a legacy for all time.


By Rhoda Zahavie Shames




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