The Limits of Tolerance: Halakhah and History

The Definition of the Problem

The problem of Jewish unity and disunity is not a new one. In fact, it is one which runs like a constant motif throughout biblical period, the Hellenistic age, medieval and modern times. As the Jewish community in America faces the breakup of old alliances and new challenges, it is only fitting that we follow the advice of the Book of Deuteronomy: “Go and inquire of days gone by” (Deut. 4:32). We shall therefore devote this study to an account of a variety of sectarian controversies and their effects, specifically asking why certain controversies result in total separation of a group from the Jewish people, while others seem to be tolerated. We will investigate four specific disputes, those of the Samaritans, the sects of the Second Temple period, the early Jewish Christians, and the Karaites.

In  each case, our central concern will be to  discover the litmus test of Jewish unity.  We will see that it is the permissibility  of marriage with other Jews.  Put simply:   Whenever a group takes issue with the accepted criteria for Jewish identity, the mainstream of the Jewish people eventually respond by prohibiting  marriage with this group.  Once marriage  is prohibited there is little to be done to prevent the eventual separation of this group from the Jewish people at large. Henceforth, they are a separate people, no longer considered to be Jews.

We will examine four precedents, as noted above. Yet we need first to demonstrate the relevance of such precedents. After all, one can argue that such precedents are of questionable value, since conditions and times appear to have been so different.

But we would argue otherwise. The  conditions in which Judaism finds itself today are analogous to those in which it found itself in each of the historical periods we will discuss.

Today the Jewish community is living in the aftermath of radical changes in its nature and structure wrought by the process of modernization. Modernization brought in its wake a variety of secondary processes: polarization and assimilation, enlightenment, emancipation. Yet these same processes occurred before in Jewish history.

The first period in which these    processes operated was the period of the Judges and the Monarchy, after the  Israelites entered and conquered Canaan. The  Bible describes at length the struggles of religious and group identity which  took place. Jews, just as they did in recent times, confronted a “modern” society. Canaanite society, archaeologist s tell us, was far in advance of that of the  primitive desert tribesmen who swept into Canaan. Israelites were faced with  a variety of options, from that advocated by the Bible–complete separation from the ways of the Canaanites–to complete assimilation. All kinds of intermediate options also existed. This very same process was repeated in the Hellenistic era, when Jews faced the “modern” society of Hellenism and the very same reactions occurred. After the Islamic conquest of the seventh century C.E. the Jews again were faced with similar possibilities, although here assimilation was a much less practical option than in the biblical and Hellenistic periods, and certainly than in modern times.

The problems faced by Jews when confronted by “modern” societies, in which the external cultures appear more advanced, commercially attractive, and somehow more open!’ are similar throughout Jewish history. Certain elements in the Jewish tradition, along with the economic, political and social role of the Jews, as well as the way in which external cultures react to the Jews, all combine to create a history which, to use a cliche, repeats itself. To understand any one period, therefore, others must also be examined. To understand the contemporary Jewish condition, its problems and its glories, we must appeal to the evidence of the past. It is in this spirit that this study will examine, in turn, the Samaritan schism, Jewish sectarianism in the Second Temple period, the rise of gentile Christianity, and the rise of Karaism.

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