A very well known story in Rabbinic literature has Moses worried about the future of Judaism. What will become of Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments in generations to come? In the fertile mind of the Sages (scholars of the Talmud and Midrash, from about 200 B.C.E. to about 600 C.E.) God transported Moses to a second century academy of the rabbis where they discussed the laws. Moses complained that he did not understand what they were talking about until one of the Sages said that a particular law was given to Moses at Sinai. Recognizing his name and the intent of the remark, Moses was appeased, and realized that Judaism would continue for many centuries to come, but it would necessarily evolve.
The major transformation in Judaism took place during the time of the Sages, also called the Talmudic or Rabbinic period. Only in the 19th century and afterwards would Judaism undergo such a thorough evolution as it did then. Jews, who could point up to the Temple Mount and feel comforted that everything was well with rituals because the kohanim (priests), as representatives of the nation, were complying with the offerings, now had to find a substitute for Temple worship. The synagogue came into being as a response to that need. The offerings of animals were now replaced by the "offerings of the heart," or prayer.
The beginnings of Christianity, in the midst of the Jewish people, and almost contemporaneous with the destruction of the Temple, posed a deep theological question: Has God abandoned the Jews and are the "chosen" now the followers of the new Messianic sect? The Sages had to labor intensely and produce a new set of parameters of belief and practice to convey to their people the notion that God indeed is with the Jews even during times of defeat and in exile. Parallel to this was the issue of the predominance of Rome, the conquering Empire, and again the Sages provided answers. In this case the Jews were extremely divided between pacifists, who prescribed coexistence and temporary submission to Rome for the sake of endurance, and the defiant ones who encouraged several rebellions against the much more powerful armies of the invader.
The Talmud and the Midrash were creations of these Sages. As a class they represent new heroes in Jewish society. They also were responsible for the survival of a culture and a civilization based on God, Torah, and the People. Their language is not simple, but the message they conveyed still speaks to our generation. They spoke via deeds and words; at times through parables, fables, or paradigms. The implications may be clear or secret. Their minds were anything but simple.
This January, in four consecutive Sunday morning presentations, I hope to give a taste of the Rabbinic mind, and of the enormous implications of its vast creativity. As Jews, we are the descendants of the Sages, and every aspect of our Judaism is touched by their caring genius.
Rabbi Victor A. Mirelman
01/11/2001 2:28:23 PM