Continued from Last Week…
One of the saddest days of the Jewish year is Tisha b’Av, a day of fasting and mourning. It is the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, usually occurring in late July or early August by modem reckoning. Among the five calamities that took place on this fateful day, was the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, not once but twice on that same sad anniversary - first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans.
The Temple which housed the Ark of the Covenant was the place of sacrifice and God’s house on earth. It was first built by King Solomon in 832 BC and was destroyed by the Babylonians 587 years before the birth of Jesus, though rabbinic sources dispute this precise dating. The temple was rebuilt upon the return of the exiles of Judah in 516 before the birth of Jesus. It was remade and expanded by King Herod the Great just before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and was perhaps the most wonderful building of the Greco-Roman world. It was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 after Jesus’ birth.
Remember that the northern tribes of the Israel were deported from the Promised Land by the Assyrians in 732 BC. They lost their ethnic and religious identity during the exile, probably becoming part of the mid-eastern communities in which they lived. The southern tribes suffered a similar fate when the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Simeon as well as the Levites and priests among them were deported by the Babylonians in 587 BC when the southern kingdom of Juda and its temple were destroyed. The southern tribes, the largest of which was the tribe of Judah were able to maintain their ethnic and religious identity. They longed for Jerusalem and its temple and returned to the land after 70 years of exile. However, not all returned to the land. A substantial part of the exiled tribe of Judah remained in Babylon where they had built a thriving community.
They were a changed people after 70 years in that great cosmopolitan city, Babylon. They had exchanged their native language for the common language of the Middle East, Aramaic - a close relative of the Hebrew language of their ancestors, and more significantly, after two generations of exile, they had learned how to be Israelites without a temple. The temple had been the undisputed center of the Israelite religion since the exodus from Egypt. Sacrifice and the rituals of life happened there. The temple was so important that when the northern and southern tribes split, the kings of the north established a temple lest the norther tribes return to their old Jerusalem alliances.
Temple worship had been everything for the Judah and Israel. Now there was an addition to the life of Israel: the synagogue. From now on the synagogue would be the center for Jewish life outside the Holy land, and even within the borders of the holy land. Rituals of cleansing, and sacrifice slowly took second place to the moral and ethical content of the Torah, the Jewish law. In short, Judaism became a form of the Israelite religion that didn’t need a temple.
There was a period of perhaps 500 years in which temple rituals and the vibrant life of prayer and study that is still the orthodox Jewish synagogue functioned side by side. The synagogue opened up the religion of Israel up in way that had previously been unthinkable. People not from the tribe of Levi could now have a ritual function within the religious community. Some scholars maintain that the more extreme strictures of Jewish law applied only to the priestly class and those going up to the temple in Jerusalem, though Orthodox Judaism would strongly disagree with this. However, if this is true, then it would seem that a new school of thought encouraged the common man, the non-priest to enter into the ritual life of Israel, by participating in the rules that had formerly applied only to religious elite. This, I emphasize, is merely theory, and not acceptable to modern Jewish orthodoxy.
Certainly the dietary restrictions of kosher law seem universal during this period and before. An Israelite archaeological site is always easy to denote by its lack of pig bones, but the prohibitions of certain types of clothing and certain types of labor and some health conditions may only have applied to participation in temple ritual. Now the common man could become part of elite by following the laws of the temple, whether or not the temple was accessible to him. They would be a people set apart in the same way they had been set apart when they had gone up to the temple.
The scribes, authorities on the law, and the sages who developed Israelite thought and ethics in the course of these centuries eventually produced a theological/political party called the Pharisees, a Hebrew word meaning, “the separate ones.” The rabbi replaced the priest in the everyday life of the common Israelite, and the synagogue came to replace the temple, when the temple was no more. The religion of Israel had become rabbinic Phariseeism, or as it is usually known: Judaism.
Next week: The end of the temple and the beginning of Christianity.