Dispersion and Contribution of the Jews

Dispersion of the Jews

As Christianity was made a state religion by Constantine, as the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians, and as Western civilization descended into the Dark Ages, we have noted the rise of Islam and Islamic civilization. We now trace the path of Judaism into the Middle Ages.

In Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, Volume III, Caesar and Christ, Chapter 25, “Rome and Judea,” at page 542 he observes concerning the Jews:

No people in history has fought so tenaciously for liberty as the Jews, nor any people against such odds. From Judas Maccabee a to Simeon Bar Cocheba, and even into our own time, the struggle of the Jews to regain their freedom has often decimated them, but has never broken their spirit or their hope.

Generally contemporaneous with the rise of Christianianity, Jewish control of Israel, under the Roman Empire’s supervision, became threatened. In A.D. 6, Augustus established Judea as a Roman province. Under provincial rule, in order to retain some semblance of control over their circumstances, they had agreed Roman authorities during the rules of Augustus and Tiberius that they would be permitted to continue their sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem provided that they also do it in the name of the Emperor. However, when Caligula became Emperor, he pushed the Jews over the edge by requiring that an image of himself be placed in the Temple and that sacrifices be made to his image. The Jews revolted. Not only did the Emperor tax the Jews, but he even raided the temple treasury. The Jews again revolted. This time Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and demanded that the 600,000 rebels gathered there surrendered. The siege lasted for five months. Titus offered lenient terms to the rebels, but they refused. The Jews fought to the last man, woman, and child. Many bodies were thrown over the walls, corpses lined the streets. The Romans showed no mercy to the Jews, slaughtered the Jews they could find, and set the wood structure of the Temple on fire, totally destroying it.

The Sanhedrin, the high priesthood of the Jews, was abolished. From that time to the present the Jews were without a Temple. According to Jewish law and custom, sacrifices could be made only at the Temple. Although the Jews were permitted to visit Jerusalem on holy days, the temple was destroyed. Therefore after 60 A.D. Judaism went without sacrifice. During the diaspora, the synagogue became the place of worship. Rabbis, rather than priests, led them in worship and in their religious life. Again, the Jews were dispersed throughout Empire revolted; and again, Gentiles slaughtered Jews, and Jews also slaughtered Gentiles. An historian of that day reported that 220,000 men were killed in Cyrene and 240,000 were killed in Cyprus. In 130, Emperor Hadrian ordered that a shrine to Jupiter be raised at the sidt of the Temple. They again revolted and again they were defeated. The Jews were even more heavily taxed and they were permitted in Jerusalem only one day a year, and then solely for the purpose of weeping at the wall before the ruins of their Temple.

Will Durant concludes that chapter,

No other people has ever known so long an exile, or so hard a fate. Shut out from their Holy City, the Jews were compelled to surrender first to paganism, then to Christianity.… Judaism hid in fear and obscurity while its offspring, Christianity, went out to conquer the world.

In dispersion, the Jews supplemented their Scriptures with the Talmud which is a collection of teachings or commentary upon the law. Study of the Torah occupied the energies of the Jewish male in the place of the dream of rebuilding the Temple. For the Jew, salvation was in the community, not individually bestowed. The Scriptures and the commentary were each believed to be literally the word of God. Having no Temple on which to focus their religious fervor, the Jews focused their attention and energies on the Sabbath. Rules of Sabbath observance abounded and were observed in the greatest of detail. At Maine’s true today. For example, not long ago we bought a new oven which has a “Sabbath mode” which may be set for the Sabbath to start automatically on the Sabbath so that Jews who operate that appliance do not violate Sabbath law.

The Medieval Jews (565 – 1300)

The Jews were scattered throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds during the Medieval Period. The Islamic civilizations had a great impact upon Jewish culture and learning. The first great Jewish philosopher, Saadia, was born in Egypt in 892. At the time, the Muslims scholars attempted to accord the Koran with faith, reason and history. Saadia attempted to do the same with Jewish Scriptures. He held that at times their holy Scriptures contradicted reason, and in those cases, the Scripture t was not to be taken literally. He had a great influence upon the Jewish mystic, Moses Maimonides.

The Jews generally thrived in the 10th through 12th Centuries and in Muslim Spain until the Muslim Almohads, orthodox Muslims from northern Africa, conquered the Spanish Muslims In the 11th century, and demanded that both Christians and Jews convert to Islam. The Jews were heavily taxed, but, nonetheless, they prospered. They tended to become moneylenders and financial advisors, amassing their fortunes in wealth, which was easily movable if they were suddenly expelled.

In 1095, Pope Urban II called Christians to the First Crusade. The Leader of that Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon, declared his intent to “avenge the blood of Jesus” on the Jews, intending to kill all Jews. Jews in northern Europe were required to convert to Christianity, and many chose suicide instead. To his credit, Bishop Hermann found Christian homes to shelter many of the Jews. Pilgrims nonetheless hunted them down and killed many of them. Many Jews died in northern Europe. The Pilgrims then began their march upon Jerusalem. At that time, the Muslims had control of Jerusalem. In 1099, when the Crusaders attacked Jerusalem, many Jews joined the Muslims in defense of the city. Jerusalem fell to the Christians, and the victors herded the Jews into a synagogue, where they burned the them alive. In the Second Crusade, 1147, Crusaders again attacked the Jews in northern Europe. Archbishop Henry of Mainz tried to hide Jews in his own home, but a mob of Crusaders attacked his home and killed the Jews in his presence. In 1243 the Crusaders slaughtered all of the Jews of Belitz, near present-day Berlin. Such atrocities occurred in each of the Crusades. Some Christians, however, did attempt to protect the Jews, including several of the English kings.

Abraham Ben Meier ibn Ezra was born in Toledo Spain in 1093. He was well known as a poet and traveled widely throughout Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Italy, France and England. He was known for his commentaries on the books of the Old Testament. He held that the books were authoritative and divinely inspired, but when they conflicted with reason, he advised that those passages should be interpreted as metaphors for a deeper truth. Spanish Jews of the 12th century tended to view scriptural passages that defied reason as poetical expressions of truth.

Will Durant, The Age of Faith, at page 394 concludes, “For that one death on the cross how many crucifixions!”

The Rise of Jewish Philosophy

Will Durant writes of Jewish philosophy in the Medieval Period at page 405:

… A civilization passing from poverty to wealth tends to develop a struggle between reason and faith, a “warfare of science with theology.”… Among the three faiths that divided white civilization in the Middle Ages, this was least true of Islam, which had most wealth, truer of Christendom, which had less, truest of Judaism, which had least. And Jewish philosophy ventured from faith chiefly in the prosperous jewelry of Muslim Spain.
Medieval Jewish philosophy had two sources: Hebrew religion and Muslim thought.…What religion taught as divinely revealed dogma, philosophy would treat as rationally demonstrated truth. And most Jewish thinkers from Saadia to Maimonides made this attempt in a Muslim milieu, derived their knowledge of Greek philosophy from Arab translations and Muslim commentaries, and wrote in Arabic for Muslims as well as Jews. . . .
Gabirol was a Jewish poet and philosopher of the 11th century. He wrote a book of Proverbs, Choice of Pearls, one of which states, ”How shall one take vengeance on enemy? By increasing one’s good qualities.” He was influenced by both Muslim and Christian theology and philosophy. Under that influence within that environment, he was a Neoplatonist, but he stressed the will of both God and man. He taught that we must assume the existence of God, but we cannot know the attributes of God. His philosophy was resisted by more orthodox Jews and thinkers.

Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204) live and wrote in Islamic – controlled Spain; his Arabic name was Abū ʿImrān Mūsā bin Maimūn bin ʿUbaidallāh al-Qurṭubī . He was greatly influenced by Gabirol. He eschewed anthropomorphic perceptions of the notion of God. In doing so, he developed the “doctrine of negative attributes:” we can say that God exists, but we say nothing positive about God, as such statements would tend to limit the loving God. We can only say what God is not.

Of man, Maimonides says, “the soul that remains after death is not the soul that lives in a man when he is born.” The soul that exists with the body, he calls “potential intellect.” He allows for some existence thereafter, which he calls the “active intellect.” In the 20th century, Catholic theologian and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin would likely have agreed with Maimonides’ notion of the “potential intellect.” Teilhard acknowledge the evolution of man and man’s continuing evolution, describing the mind and select as “matter aware of itself.” Maimonides had a great impact not only upon Jewish philosophy, but on thinkers of Islam and Christians of that day, also.

One of his major theological works is Guide for the Perplexed. Some Jews were inspired by it, some believed it was heretical. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guide_for_the_Perplexed for an excellent summary of that work. He intended it to speak to people who did not have scientific knowledge yet to understand his concepts.


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