Because of its age and record, it is with Judaism that we should begin. It is a mistaken idea that the Jewish religion has no history, but represents something constant and unchanging in the procession of the centuries. Like all the peoples of the world, at first the Jews too were monotheist, but we have no information about them from that epoch. It is impossible to know whether any differentiation at all had then taken place between the Hebrews and the proto-Semitic ethnic mass. The epoch is open to guesses which here are indifferent to us.
From the time they entered history in Palestine the Jews always had several systems embracing the relation of the natural to the supernatural world. Instead of speaking of Jewish religion, the plural, Jewish religions should be used. They adopted various idolatries up to Hellenistic times. The evidence is in a mass of Biblical texts, particularly the Prophets. Moreover revealed monotheism survived only among few people, while the true tradition of the Covenant with the Lord flowed in a narrow stream. What did they do with revealed monotheism?
Catholic Biblical scholars long ago discovered the religious duality of the Jews of old, and refer to a loose monotheism, a materialist conception of the Covenant; but they tend to go round in circles and employ long drawn-out descriptive terms. Scientific accuracy clearly suffers because of the lack of an exact terminology. Since, however, the majority of Jews regarded Israel’s relationship to Jehovah as contractual (on this scholars are generally agreed), and the condition of the contract that Jehovah should protect Israel from all other peoples destined to be its “footstool” — and since only a co-religionist was a neighbour — it is plain that this Jehovah is only a Jewish god and not the universal God. So here too is a distinct tribal monolatry. The Jews very quickly threw off their mission as elect, abandoning monotheism and adopting monolatry with their materialistic Messianism — in so far as they did not sink into polytheism.
Bloody sacrifices continued until the destruction of Jerusalem. Having destroyed the Jewish Temple, the Romans did not transfer the cult of Jehovah to Rome, the sole exception to this Roman practice. They despised the cult, and left not a stone upon a stone of the Temple (also contrary to their custom) because in their eyes it was a centre of barbarism unworthy of the age of Titus and Vespasian. In it the blood of victims flowed ankle-deep. Official parish sacrifices alone accounted every year for 1093 lambs, 113 calves, 37 grown rams and 32 goats. Adding as many again for private offerings, we reach a total of 2550, so that on the average seven animals were slaughtered daily on the altar. There were surely milder days, but how blood gushed on solemn festivals — and this was still done, although they knew bloodless sacrifices and offered them also.
History distinguishes several levels of sacrifice. At the beginning there is human sacrifice, then comes the period of bloody animal offerings, followed by symbolical offerings limited in the end to fruit and flowers. Thus Israel remained at a low level and was unable to rise above it until forced to do so by the Romans.
The extent of the confusion in religious concepts in Palestine is witnessed by the second royal public temple, of the State of Israel at Betel, the present Betin, three hours’ journey north of Jerusalem. For Samaria was only the secular capital of this State, the religious was Betel. This was a temple equipped with extreme splendour, with a complicated system of sacrifice. It is typical that doubts can exist about exactly what religion was served there. On one occasion the “cult of the calf” is mentioned, on another “the ritual which the law of Moses prescribed”, and the cult of Jehovah, although differently named; but a text of the Prophet Amos suggests the conclusion that local gods were in question.594
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem there was an end to all sacrifices, so that prayer only remained. The break came suddenly and radically, as if the leaders of Israel were glad at last to be able to extricate themselves. The principle was proclaimed that sacrifice could only be offered in the Temple at Jerusalem — which by no means followed from the sacred books. The renewal of sacrifice was therefore postponed until the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, which has never been and is not now attempted.
The priestly status of the tribe of Aaron is still recognised, and its members have certain privileges in the synagogues, but are without occupation. They were never religious guides, only men who made offerings; the guides were and are those learned in the Scriptures, the rabbis, who are legal advisers in a contractual religion, but entirely without priestly character. A priest had to be born, a rabbi had to leam. Moreover synagogues do not have the character of temples and are not houses of God. A house of prayer may be founded by anyone, but the founder remains the owner and enjoys all the rights of ownership and may even take payment. The Jews do not regard any synagogue as God’s sanctuary. A religion without temples and without a priesthood developed (the same is true of Islam).
This was a basic break with the past, particularly as Palestine played a decreasingly important part in Jewish lives. Outside Palestine they freed themselves of many of the demands of the Law, on the strength of a new doctrine that the whole Law was only binding in the Promised Land, and outside it only in so far as this was feasible. A factor unknown to any other religion — geographical relativity — had appeared.
The Law of Moses, written down in the Pentateuch as the commandments of Jehovah, embraces family, marriage, inheritance, property, and contract law, in a word the whole of civil and penal law, the organisation of the judicature, legal procedure, genealogy and all social institutions, rules for farming and cattle-rearing, ploughing, reaping, vintage-gathering, orchards, even birds’ nests; attitudes to art and learning are defined and rules of hygiene included; neither international and political law nor State institutions are overlooked. And so the whole of community life — the whole structure of Jewish civilisation with a mass of detail — is contained in the rules of the Old Testament. It is a sacral civilisation.
The Old Testament is poor in passages relating to the sciences and arts. We encounter only liturgical music, singing to the lute and hieraic dancing. Sculpture was forbidden; nothing is known about the existence of painting. Of the sciences, Jehova’s followers recognised law and as much mathematics and astronomy as was needed to observe the moon; medicine was condemned. Thus it was a defective civilisation, with the tiniest provision of the intellectual categories of being.
To this was added in time a second source-book of Jewish religion and civilisation — the Talmud. This vast collective work was produced by two thousand rabbis between the second and the sixth centuries A.D. It may safely be said that there is nothing in heaven or earth which is not debated there, but always exclusively from the sacral angle. The Talmud is a commentary on the Old Testament with added detail. Not a corner of life escapes the restraint of rules allegedly coming from Jehovah. Jewish civilisation would become even more strongly sacral.
But the Jews scattered over the wide world before the Talmud was written. The Jews of the oldest forced settlements — Assyrian, Persian, certain branches of the emigration in the Diadochian States, also in Arabia, India. Abyssinia, the Caucasus and on certain African coasts — knew nothing of its appearance. Absence of knowledge of the Talmud is the surest evidence of the antiquity of a settlement. There existed an extensive non-Talmud, because pre-Talmud diaspora.
In addition, others who do in fact know the Talmud, do not acknowledge its authority. These are the so-called Karaites, who had their origin in the mid-eight century in Babylon itself, where the Talmud itself emerged. Until the end of the ninth century the authority of the Talmud was under heavy attack, then came hesitations increasingly favourable to the Talmudists. The fight for the Talmud took place mainly under the aegis of Arab-Jewish universalism. The Karaites were the first Jews to begin writing in Arabic, the Talmudists were obliged to copy them in this, and in assimilating secular knowledge from Arab culture. From the middle of the twelfth century, the pillars of Jewish learning were already in the Talmudist camp.
The Karaites were the first to agree to equal rights for women in family law. The resulting monogamy — proposed and already practised by the Karaites — was in the eleventh century enjoined upon the Talmudists of Alsace, where the Rabbi of Metz, Gerson, laid a curse on Jews who forced a divorce upon their wives against the latters’ will.
Is not monogamous civilisation different from polygamous? And yet Jewish civilisation did not split up. The Law only permitted polygamy, but did not impose it, and did not ban monogamy; and so the Law remained untouched and there was no derogation from the sacral character of Jewish civilisation.
Meanwhile a third source of religion and civilisation, still sacral, had made its appearance, the cabbala. It began in the eighth or ninth century A.D. with study of the secret powers of the letters of the sacred Hebrew alphabet; gematria, consisting in specific operations with numbers expressed by letters of the alphabet — a Greek game which the cabbalists took seriously — was added; then came the doctrine of systematic manifestations of divine attributes from which “cabbalistic philosophy” (oddly close to the avatars of the Brahmins)595 developed.
The cabbala helped to uphold the Talmud, covering over the absurdities with cabbalistic interpretation, so that all proved comprehensible and holy. Rabbi Nachman (1195-1270) undertook this task proclaiming cabbala to be the most sacred science. The basic book of Jewish cabbala is the Sohar of Moses ben Shemtob from the, Spanish province of Leon (1250-1305).
Cabbalistic methods were at ones adopted in small circles-of scholars as an attractive “philosophy” leading to control of nature, and the issue, of commands to her. And when belief in the possibility of influence on the external world by secret but religious means became popular, and moreover accessible only to Jews, to what end would a Jew use this power if not to hasten the coming of the Messiah? The cabbala also won hearts and minds by alleged partial realisations of the Messiah with the help of Messianic men, local Messiahs.
Cabbalistic fantasies adapted to Messianism were to acquire practical significance; but before this happened, a beginning was made with the adaption of the Talmud to the new conditions of the diaspora. From the thirteenth century the vastness of these books was reduced, what could only concern Palestine and what could in no wise be carried out omitted, and the learned arguments cut almost to the conclusions alone, the commands and prohibitions. These labours, which began with the famous Maimonides (1135-1204), who dealt karaism the final blows, lasted to the middle of the sixteenth century. In the year 1565 the Rabbi of Jerusalem, Jacob Karo, completed an edition of the Talmud entitled Shulchan-Aruch, with supplementary remarks by the contemporary Cracow Rabbi Isserles (1525-1572). This book is still binding; all Talmudic works of the more recent period are based on it. A thousand years divided the big Talmud from the small, from Shulchan-Aruch. Today it is still required in the name of religion that the whole course of life be ordered in accordance with rules nearly fifteen hundred years old, where sacral power is held to be inexhaustible.
It should be noted that the Shulchan consistently proclaims monolatry. Jehovah appears as the enemy of all mankind, and protector of the Jewish people alone; one’s neighbour is a Jew only. The resulting double ethic is blatant in the Shulchan. Is this monotheism?
But in cabbala the concept of God was reduced even further. Fantastic speculation is mingled with practice of the crudest superstition. And simultaneously with Shulchan-Aruch appeared the so-called “practical” (mashiit) cabbala, drawn up in Palestine, by a certain Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Ways were devised of discovering when the Messiah would appear, and with him Jewish hegemony, over the whole world. On several occasions a date was expressly indicated (1525, 1568, and most important, 1648).
Meanwhile at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came a discovery which was to hasten the Messiah. The most famous of Isserles’s pupils. Rabbi Jacob, later on in Prague called “the Pole”, worked out a new method of study and prayer known as pylpul. This consists in constant movements of the whol body, but in particular of waving of the right hand with fist clenched and thumb extended obliquely. The significance, of this movement was and is variously explained to the uninitiated. The truth is that pylpul is associated with the branch of cabbala which explains even the supernatural world by differences of sex.
Among cabbalists in Poland the old doctrine about Shechin, the female element among the divine attributes, became dominant, and in Volhynia at the time of King Augustus III Rabbi Eliezer, founder of Hassidism, based himself on it. In doing so he created a cheerful religion, for what more agreeable to Jehovah than the cheerfulness, of his chosen-people; cheerful prayers were even brought into the synagogue, origin of the proverbial commotion there. Scandalised Talmudist misnagdim put them under interdict, but were afterwards compelled to retreat from whole provinces. Only in Vilno the Hassidim were refused entry by the famous Elias, creator of a new school and spiritual father of Lithuanian Jewry. To tsadyk, the divinely elect of Hassidism, was ascribed a definite influence on human affairs and on nature. A tsadyk is a wonder-worker and a local Messianic man. It is the Messianic concept fragmented.
By this tune, however, the eastern Sephardim (descendants of the old exiles from Spain) already had their Messiah. His arrival had been forecast for the year 1648, and on this occasion he appeared. For the eastern cabbalists he was Sabbatay Zwi, who proclaimed himself the “incarnation” of the Torah and was already winning adherents in Poland by the year 1666. Incarnation of the Torah became hereditary, passing to the son, and grandson of Sabbatay (to the year 1740). Blood descendants then failing the idea passed to Jacob ben Jehuda ben Leib of Czerniowce (Cemauti), known to history as Frank. He was active in Turkey for fifteen years, then in 1755 moved to Poland.
Sabatay and all his successors enjoined monogamy.
In Poland Frank found a fierce struggle between Talmud and Sohar in progress. The Frankists went so far as publicly to accuse the Talmudists of ritual murder. Frank used all means to win the favour of court and higher clergy, in 1759 accepting baptism with 24,000 of his followers. At stake was a grant of administration over a considerable area in Podolia, a grant which would enable the Messiah to rule somewhere at last. This first project of Judaeo-Polonia might have succeeded had not Frank broken with the Talmudists, who avenged themselves by causing Frank to be interned in the fortress of Czestochowa, whence he succeeded in leaving for Germany only in 1773.
But cabbalistic speculations continued to spread among Talmudists, and after Rabbi Bynem of Przysucha (died 1817), study of the cabbala and of the Talmud became one, against a background of Hassidism. There arose in Poland a kind of synthesis of Jewry.
In principle, recognition of the Torah does not bring with it recognition of the Talmud, and a man who recognises the Talmud need not recognise the cabbala, and not every cabbalist need be a Hassid. In the outer world also, four divisions of Jews developed, on the following plan:
I without Talmud and without cabbala
II without cabbala
III old cabbala
The line from I to IV on this table may be regarded in two ways: as representing progress or retreat, one religion or four. If, despite everything, the verdict is one religion, what is the common bond? Only Messianism — faith that all must end with the Jews ruling the world. There is no other commonwealth here. Incidentally, where is the common ground between Hassidism or even the cabbala and the Pentateuch? All recognise the Torah, but they do not have foundations in it; and if they turn to it, that also has a Messianic basis. There lies the source of the sacral argument for Messianism.
Across all the centuries, and through all changes and vicissitudes, Jewish civilisation has never ceased to be sacral — Kosher rules for slaughtering and cooking are in force unchanged, and so is the double ethic.
It is sometimes heard that “Neo-Judaism” represents a break with this. But the founder of so-called Neo-Judaism, Mendelsohn (1729-86), clothed Judaism with the forms of modem life and nothing more. He was an excellent Talmudist, and his handbook of Jewish law (1778) keeps to the Talmud in everything, not even hesitating over the double ethic. So-called Neo-Judaism only provided new forms for the old Talmudist spirit.
In 1855 it was claimed in Germany that “only he is a Jew who scrupulously fulfils the rules of the mediaeval rabbis, of Shulchan-Aruch and its commentators”. Those who made this pronouncement were dressed in frockcoats and had organs in their synagogues. Similarly in 1870 the learned lawyer Auerbach acknowledged the law of the Talmud to be the law of God. And in our days Jewish literature in the German language has even pronounced in favour of Hassidism (Buber, 1908), and feelers of Hassidism already reach out to England, where old Jewish families, English by language, are turning again to Jewish sacralism.