Seasons of Judaism
Remember in the ’60s the folk-rock song made famous by a music group called The Byrds” which began with these lyrics: To everything (turn, turn, turn) There is a season (turn, turn, turn) And a time to every purpose under heaven.
After describing the cycle of seasons—life, death, love, hate, building, tearing down—the lyrics urge that there is “a time for peace: I swear it’s not too late.” The young singers spoke of changing seasons and exhorted hearers to take advantage of “changing times” to strive for peace.
The seasons color much of our world. Autumn’s wide brush strokes cover our trees in paint-box reds and golds; winter’s cold breath blows the same trees bare brown. The seasons gather together to silver our hair, to bend our backs…and hopefully, to add wisdom to our years.
Changes that occur over the passage of time often mean progress, improvement, maturation. Sometimes they mean only survival. Still other times, they are indicative of decline or regression. At any rate, changes are a fact of life, because nothing remains the same…or does it?
Some would even say that Judaism has been changing, evolving, ever since our father Abraham left Ur. Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, the father of the Reconstructionist movement, began his profound influence upon Judaism in 1934, with a publication entitled, Judaism as a Civilization. Kaplan maintained that “adherence to Judaism should not be judged by the acceptance of a creed, but by participation in the total life of the Jewish people.”1 This does not mean that religion is not important in the Reconstructionist movement. According to Kaplan, “The task of the Jew is to reinterpret ancient Jewish concepts in terms of modern thought and conditions and to make them relevant once more to the realities of our generation.”2
Many Jewish people who do not consider themselves reconstructionists are, nevertheless, inclined to practice Judaism in much the same way as Dr. Kaplan suggested. One need not be labeled a reconstructionist in order to advocate changing with the times. Kaplan’s influence was far-reaching, partly because his ideas appealed to those who wanted to maintain a strong Jewish identity, but who were reluctant to commit to religious beliefs which are thousands of years old.
The question of changing times poses some challenging questions for those who are serious about being Jewish. If God is the creator of seasons, what kind of changes does he expect us to make to adapt to them? Is the Bible a road map which has been antiquated by the changing terrain? Or is it more like a weather map, which predicts the changing seasons and lets us know what we should be wearing to cope with today’s weather?
Our people are sometimes referred to as “the People of the Book.” We maintain that “the Book,” the Tanakh, is the unchanging Word of God. But regardless of whether or not the book has changed, the way our people view the Tanakh undergoes constant changes. Shifts in attitudes toward the Tanakh often accompanied major events in the lives of our forefathers. The following factors help trace the history of our changing attitudes toward the Scriptures.
The story is told of a tete-a-tete between President Harry S. Truman and Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel. While complaining of his tsuris (troubles) to President Weizmann, President Truman lamented, “How can you compare your problems with mine? You have about two million people while I have over one hundred and twenty million!”
“Ah, Mr. President,” replied Mr. Weizmann, “It’s true you are the president of one hundred and twenty million people. But remember, I am the president of two million presidents!”
Times change and leaders arise with every new movement. Weizmann’s complaint is one often heard in Israel. Moses himself may have agreed with Mr. Weizmann’s assessment. Yet it remains true that Israel has always been profoundly affected by her leadership. Throughout the Bible we see that prophets, priests and kings have affected the nation, both politically and spiritually. The people’s response of either reverent obedience to God’s Law, or else mocking disobedience was often directly related to those in leadership positions.
Good leadership nearly always turned Israel to the Word of God. This was not necessarily accomplished through dazzling charisma or careful reasoning; sometimes the leader challenged and actually battled the people in order to force them to God’s Law. When Moses descended from Sinai and saw the people dancing about the golden calf, he shattered the tablets upon which the Law was written. Those who believed God and wanted to follow him joined with Moses to slay about 3,000 Israelites who wanted to make their ownn laws rather than receiving God’s.3
King Hezekiah, through his influence, caused the southern kingdom of Judah to return to observance of Torah. After the reign of his father, wicked King Ahaz, Hezekiah instituted a number of reforms. He began with restoration of Temple worship, and continued by ridding the country of idols and re-instituting such important practices as the observance of Passover. The king who was concerned about God’s commandments was a king who was able to bring the entire nation back on the right track.4
Poor leadership had exactly the opposite effect. Hophni and Phinehas were priests who acted immorally and did not follow the Law. They blatantly violated God’s commands by eating portions of the sacrifice which were reserved for the Lord and by flaunting illicit sexual relationships. Their behavior at the Temple caused the people of Israel to look upon the sacrifices which God required with disgust.5
King Manasseh’s reign (which followed good King Hezekiah’s) is recorded in the 33rd chapter of 2 Chronicles. He not only ignored God’s Law, but he observed instead the pagan rituals of the gentiles. Thus it was written of Manasseh, “…Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel” (v. 9).
Lack of leadership had the same effect upon the children of Israel as did poor leadership. A recurring phrase in the Book of Judges is: “…every man did what was right in his own eyes.”6 That is what happened between the time of Joshua (c. 1406 B.C.E.) and the institution of the monarchy (c.1050 B.C.E.). God appointed temporary leaders during that time, but in each of the periods between leaders, the people would stray from God and his commandments. Chapter two in the Book of Judges describes how, after the death of Joshua, a new generation of Israelites arose, which “did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals” (v.11). And so God allowed Israel’s enemies to plunder her, until she cried out to God; then he brought forth judges to deliver her (v. 14-16). But with the death of each judge, the cycle began all over again (v. 19).
The biblical mandate for Israel’s separation from outsiders was not xenophobic; it was a necessary defense. Avoiding ungodly neighbors meant avoiding the temptation of turning away from God’s Word to follow after idols. The Jewish people were called by God to be separate from these other nations, and yet the Bible records instances of how we were seduced by them.
First, there was the influence of the nations conquered by Israel. They were driven out of the land of Canaan because of their gross immorality. Their acts were so deplorable to God that he caused the land to “spew out its inhabitants.”7 God’s Word warned the people of Israel that if they followed in the nations’ footsteps, they too would be removed from the land.8
And yet the children of Israel allowed themselves to be influenced by these pagans, most commonly through intermarriage. “And the sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD their God, and served the Baals and the Asheroth.”9
The nations which conquered Israel had their influence on her as well. Idolatry led to captivity…and captivity seemed to be the divine cure for turning away from God’s Law. When Israel chose to ignore Torah and follow after strange gods, God allowed enemies to overtake her. But when the ways of the nations were forced upon her, Israel no longer found them attractive or tempting. We see this pattern throughout the Book of Judges. Without ever meaning to, Israel’s tormentors influenced her toward righteousness. For the experience of captivity always seemed to drive our people back to God. We would cry out to God, he would deliver us and, for a time, we would serve him and obey his commandments. This was an integral part of the cycle already mentioned from the Book of Judges.
One powerful influence on how our people have viewed Scripture is the change in our political circumstances.
Before the Babylonian Exile, the entire nation of Israel was either blessed or cursed depending on whether or not she observed the Law. When the nation was obedient (as represented by the current monarch and priesthood) she prospered and was victorious over her enemies. When idol worship and corruption set in, the entire nation became materially and morally impoverished. And when the Temple was destroyed and the nation was held captive in a foreign land, an alternative to the Temple worship had to be found.
A major shift from Temple worship to the synagogue was a direct result of drastic political changes. In 722 B.C.E. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. In 586 B.C.E. Judah was conquered by Babylonian invaders.
Synagogue worship began in the sixth century B.C.E. The synagogue enabled us to survive as Jews in the midst of strange lands. As with synagogues today, reading and study of the Law were emphasized, along with the offering of prayers, and the opportunity for social interaction. The individual’s response to the Law became paramount, rather than the corporate response of Israel.
When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians in 538 B.C.E., he allowed our people to return to the land. Many chose to remain in Babylon, where they lived in a state of comfortable assimilation. However, those who did return quickly began the work of rebuilding the Temple. They knew that without a place of sacrifice they were lost. To them, the synagogue had been merely a “stopgap” measure, not a replacement for the Temple. They were eager to resume worship as it had been before the Exile. Opposition from hostile neighbors slowed the progress, until the prophets Zechariah and Haggai urged the people to continue the work around 520 B.C.E. Finally, the Temple was completed and worship resumed in 515 B.C.E.
Ezra and Nehemiah helped to see our people through this time of transition. Ezra led a group of Jews back to the homeland c. 458 B.C.E. Nehemiah followed with another group about 13 years later. He rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and under his joint leadership with Ezra, the Law regained its prominence among our people. By the end of that era (c. 440 B.C.E.), Temple worship was well established and the Jewish religion was firmly in place. It was centered, as before, around the Law that God had given to Moses.
Ezra’s importance to the legacy of Judaism should be emphasized. He was one of the first men to initiate the instruction of a group of scholars in the beginning stages of what is now Jewish Orthodoxy. According to the Talmud, he trained a group of teachers called Sopherim, or scribes. They were the religious leaders of the day and remained so through the first century C.E. The scribes became interpreters of Scriptures, and their teachings were carried down as a body of oral tradition.10
In the second half of the fourth century B.C.E., Alexander the Great was successful in Hellenizing the civilized world. The Jews who lived in the dispersion at this time began to speak Greek, as it had become the language of the land. And so, c. 250 B.C.E., the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. This version of the Bible is known as the Septuagint.
The next phase in the development of Jewish attitudes toward the Law took place in the second century B.C.E. and it involved the Maccabees and the pious ones.“11 The “pious ones” or “piety” of the second century B.C.E. formed the womb from which the Hassidic movement was eventually born in the latter half of the 18th century. Hassidut remains, to this day, a highly religious and pietistic sect.12
The Maccabean revolt was a direct reaction to the tyranny of Antiochus “Epiphanes,” the Syrian ruler. Not only did he desecrate the Temple by ordering a sow to be slain on the altar, but he also demanded that his subjects worship him as God. The original family of Maccabees struggled and gained independence for Israel from 175-135 B.C.E. The “pious ones,” whose influence was concurrent with that of the Maccabees, were the religious leaders of this period. They stood firm for their religious freedom, but stayed out of the political arena.13
By 135 B.C.E., two well-defined parties appeared in Israel: Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees traced their spiritual leaders back to the Sopherim, whom Ezra had trained.…
They were known for their separatist stand in developing and adhering to Judaism. Oral tradition, which had begun in Ezra’s day, was greatly emphasized by this group. Contemporary Orthodox Judaism is largely the product of the efforts made by the Pharisees. The Sadducees, composed mainly of Hasmonaeans and other priests, denied the oral traditions and accepted only the Torah.14
Around 30 C.E. a new sect of Jews appeared on the scene: those who accepted Yeshua (Jesus) as the promised Messiah. Though this group numbered in the thhousands, their numbers did not rival those of the other two groups.
Because the Sadducees’ party was organized around the system of Temple worship, they lost all power when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. The Pharisees became the major influence. Although the influence of Jewish believers in Yeshua was not to be easily dismissed, the Pharisees had more “clout.” They expounded further upon the oral traditions, and eventually this body of tradition became codified as the Mishnah (about 200 C.E.). This led to the compilation of the Talmud, which is widely regarded by observant Jewish people as having equal, and in some instances more significance than the Torah itself.
Since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E., religious Jews have found ways to adapt to the changing seasons and centuries. Much of what the written Law required was no longer possible for them to perform, so they had to dismiss the sacrifices, which were required by God for atonement.15 It is not that these people scorned the Torah, but without the Temple, what could they do? Something was needed to keep the Jewish community together. Those who did not accept Yeshua had no choice but to focus upon the oral tradition. As time went on, the emphasis shifted from the study of Torah to the study of those who studied the Torah.
The Jewish people who accepted Yeshua as their Messiah believed that his death was the capstone of the whole sacrificial system. They believed that God had not intended this sacrificial system to last forever, according to the “new covenant” prophesied by Jeremiah in the Tanakh.16 They believed that the 53rd chapter of Isaiah explained the atoning work of the Messiah. Therefore, they viewed the previous animal sacrifices as God’s “stopgap” measure, until the Messiah would come to pay the actual price of atonement. Their dismissal of the sacrifices was not based on the absence of the Temple, but on the presence of the promise of the Messiah and his new covenant, according to the Tanakh.
Some Things Never Change
Seasons change, but the Word of God does not. The Pharisees dismissed Leviticus 17:11 because the situation dictated that sacrifices could no longer be made. Today, every Jewish person is responsible for his or her own response to God’s Word. It is not a decision that one inherits, but a decision born of struggle and hopefully, a desire to know God. Will we allow changing situations to determine how we respond to God’s Word, or will we allow the unchanging Word of God to determine how we respond to situations?
Most of our people would like to believe that God intends to keep his promises to Israel in one way or another. Some believe that there will be an actual person sent by God to be the Messiah. Others prefer to think of a “messianic age.” But most of us are hopeful that God’s promise of blessing to Israel has not changed. After all,
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:7,8)
Here is the quandary: if God’s blessings are eternal, and not situational, what shall we say about the rest of his Word? If the same Scriptures which promise blessing say we need forgiveness through a system that God himself ordained, is it reasonable to assume that system has disappeared without a trace? The destruction of the Temple was predicted in the Book of Daniel, but was the alternative way of atonement also foretold?
There is a season to every purpose under heaven. But in heaven, there are no seasons, and God’s purposes remain the same. His purpose in giving us the Scriptures was that we might know him. And it is through knowing him that we achieve true peace.
Progress, by definition, is a change which elevates and improves. Has the passage of time caused our view of the Tanakh to progress past the point of taking it literally? Or is it we who need to be elevated, not past the studying of Scripture, but rather through the studying of God’s unchanging Word.…
Notes 1Baruch Braunstein, Judaism in America (The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 6) (New York: Ktav Publishing House Inc., 1969),246.
2Ibid. 3Exodus 32 19-28. 42 Chronicles, chapters 29, 31. 51 Samuel 2:12-17, 22-24. 6Judges 17 6, 21:25. 7Leviticus 18:25. 8Leviticus 18:26-28. 9Judges 3:5-7.
10Dr. Louis Goldberg, Our Jewish Friends (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977),11. 11Ibid, 10. 12Dr. Milton Aron, Ideas and Ideals of the Hassidim, (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), 13. 13Goldberg. Our Jewish Friends, 11. 14Ibid, 11-12. 15Leviticus 17:11. 16Jeremiah 31:31 ff.