An Untold Story From the Talmudic Era

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I read a fascinating article on BibArch over the weekend. The article stands on its own merit, but it has some secondary relevance that I think is worth noting.

There are a number of ancient Jewish synagogues that have been excavated in the Land of Israel that date back to the sixth century. That means that these synagogues were extant around the closing of the Babylonian Talmud. Today, we are very familiar with the kind of Rabbinic Judaism that was practiced by the rabbis of the Talmud and to a large extent, orthodox Judaism is a logical extension of that form of Jewish practice.

However, these synagogues had mosaics and the mosaics tell a story that is different than the Judaism practiced and preached in the Talmud.

The mosaics combine very Jewish symbols such as the Binding of Isaac, a citron and palm frond, the ark of the covenant, and other uniquely Jewish symbols with Astrology and imagery reminiscent of Greek Gods. This is very confusing.

The well-behaved Jews were virulently against Pagan symbols in general. Certainly, they would not be welcome in a synagogue! Yet, it seems that these people also paid homage to the holy symbols of traditional Judaism. Quite the mystery indeed.

In the article, Walter Zanger proposes that there was a large segment of Jews who were not rabbinic Jews. They had the same ancient traditions from the Bible as rabbinic Jews but they handled the quasi-enlightenment of the Hellenistic era in a very different way. They simply superimposed neo-pagan, Greek Philosophy on top of Judaism and them Judaism back on top of that. To them it was a natural progression from religious cult to enlightened post-Biblical culture. They cared passionately about Judaism, but it was just a different kind of Judaism. Zanger calls it “vertical”. That’s because the religion evolved from what we see in the Bible to what we see in the later prophets, to what we see in the non-Pharisee groups of Judaism, culminating with the practices present in these synagogues. One progresses from one to the next. Whereas, Pharisaic Judaism is horizontal. It is a more modern view of Biblical Judaism, but it is an attempt to remain true to the original Biblical path.

These synagogues were the places of prayer for a different tradition of Judaism in the sixth century. Much like the Sadducees or the Karaites or the Essenes who did not really survive the test of time, this group eventually vanished. But they clearly rejected the tradition that has been recorded and preserved in the Talmud and that is by and large practiced today by orthodox Jews.

The dogma of the vertical Judaism that Zanger describes is not necessarily offensive to our modern notions of Torah Judaism. Their belief was that there was a natural order as described by Greek Philosphy but Israel was above that natural order. This explains why the Jewish symbols were always above the Pagan symbols in the mosaic hierarchy. The God of Israel was supreme and the natural world was subject to God and the People of Israel were above the natural order because of their fealty to God. The offensive thing here is including this imagery in the synagogue. Further, they seemed to have rejected rabbinic Judaism as described in the Talmud. This rejection alone is sufficient to set them apart from our tradition.

Considering that this is a possibility, I think we gain insight into some of the fears of the rabbis in the Talmud. The things that they were careful to avoid and that they wanted to prevent could very well be represented by these synagogues and the religion associated with them. On the other hand, astrology is fairly prominent in the Talmud. I would not go so far as to say that the rabbis of the Talmud would endorse its imagery in the synagogue, but the they were definitely involved in astrology.

I am fairly certain that if you read the article, you will find it very interesting. If you don’t care for the content and analysis, you’ll still love the photos. So check out the article and let me know what you think.

Link: BibArch

  • new here

    Great article. These kinds of findings can often make frum Jews today uncomfortable, but it is really important to understand that Judaism at the time of bayit sheini was as fractured and sectarian (and perhaps even more so) than it is today. Also, thought you would get a kick of this comment thread. P.S. I love your daf yomi shiur! It is a fast and easy way to get through the daf, without spending hours and hours like in yeshiva.

    • Welcome. I think we all admit that Judaism was sectarian in Bayis Sheini. This was several hundred years later! And yes, I saw that thread in on YWN. People are funny… Glad you are doing the Daf with us.

  • LFD
  • yidl613

    I have a hard time with the orthodox view of our uninterrupted “prushim” messora.
    Machloket Bavli/Yerushalmi, Ravina/Rav Ashi vs. rest of the Amoraim, Zohar, Litta derech ha’limud & weltanshauung etc. & all the huge historical time gaps over the last 2 millenia makes my yeshivishe kop spin.

    • The truth is that it is only “uninterrupted” for a few things. Not everything. And even the places of dispute all agree on the original source material. It is a life based on the Talmud Bavli.

      • yidl613

        Did the Bavli take itself as seriously as we are taking it it today?
        Rav Zeira davened to forget his Bovel learning, Bovel being called “Eretz Chashucha”, Rav & Shmuel overturned very easily by Rav Ashi, many Halochos brought down anonymously (“stamo’e”), droshos to underpin a machlokes with no historical background (the protractors were long dead) and many more ideas brought down without apparent messora.

  • Bob Miller

    Syncretism was pretty common in the ancient world. A sort of consumer society or supermarket of religion. That’s why we have so many stern cautions against it in Tanach.

  • ahg

    The idea of using animal imagery in the synagogue did make its way to mainstream rabbinic Judaism. We see it the images of lions on arks and torah mantels. The second commandment is very explicit in its prohibition of the use of imagery of animals. However, even rabbinic Judaism manged to take a narrower interpretation of that commandment to make allowances for what was popular at the time.