Prof. Rachel Elior and the Invention of Judaism

JPOST: Prof. Rachel Elior of Hebrew University

JPOST: Prof. Rachel Elior of Hebrew University

Prof. Rachel Elior of the Hebrew University has recently sparked some attention due to her opinion that the Essenes were not the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and, moreover, they never existed! Apparently, the Scrolls originally authored by some sort of priestly group. Here opinion is not new, in that it has been suggested by other scholars, most recently Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (Note: Schiffman does not say that the Essenes never existed).

Today (5.7.09) the Jerusalem Post has published another article where Prof. Elior claims that the sages invented Judaism as we know it (From the Sun to the Moon). She uses accounts from the Babylonian Talmud to shape her assesment. While some of what she says is interesting and thought provoking, I am not sure that I agree that the rabbis picked the biblical canon at Yavneh (after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and a common Christian interpretation of the canonical process) and chose to suppress other apocryphal works like Enoch and Jubilees. I would contend that we have enough evidence from the Second Temple Period to assert that several works play a very important role in Ancient Jewish thought and piety, and perhaps were already considered biblical (i.e. canonical). Though I would also warn that the situation was a bit more fluid. Many modern critical scholars would suggest that by in the early decades of the Second Temple Period the canon of Moses, that is the Pentateuch (Torah), as well as the Prophets (Neviim—which contains more than the prophetic books of the BIble; e.g. 1&2 Kings ) were closed, where as the Writings (Ketuvim) remained open and was closed by the end of the Second Temple Period.

While I realize that it is in fashion to claim that books were ‘banned,’ or as PRof. Elior states, ‘supressed,’ I would be hesitant to use such controversial and esoteric-creating language when a group attempts to define the books they will hold as sacred (Then again, “controversial” may be the point). Also, regarding the rabbis, there is some question as to the extent of their sphere of influence during the period after the destruction (70 CE) up through the end of the Tannaitic period (post-Yavneh). Several scholars have suggested that it was quite limited until the 3rd century with the Patriarchate of Yehudah ha-Nasi and the move to of the rabbinic center to an important city, Sepphoris. (See Levine, The Rabbinic Class in Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity [Yad Ben-Zvi, JTS Press: 1989]; Shaye J.D. Cohen, “The Place of the Rabbi in Jewish Society in the Second Century” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity. ed. Lee Levine [JTS Press: 1992]; Hayim Lapin, “The Origins and Development of the Rabbinic Movement  in the Land of Israel,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism vol. 4 [Cambridge University Press: Cambridge]). For all intents and purposes, however, bringing lively discussion of the Scrolls to a popular audience is very important.

Credits: Joe Lauer made me aware of this article.

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