Daniel Vital

From Israel to Israel: How a System of Thoughts Saved a People’s Identity

Wall relief on arch of Titus depicting Menorah taken from temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD - Israel history / Shutterstock Library
Wall relief on arch of Titus depicting Menorah taken from temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD - Israel history / Shutterstock Library

The Israelite identity has been shaken and shattered multiple times in history but has always found its way not just to survive during hostile conditions but also to flourish in favorable times. Major world events, such as the birth and fall of empires and the rise and spread of ideas of social revolution, have set the tone for tolerance by other populations and, therefore, the quality of life for the Jews.

The transition from Biblical Israel (the Israelites) to Rabbinic Judaism (today’s Jewish society) was a process that took centuries to complete, paced in particular by two major events: the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., the consequent Babylonian exile, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and the consequent diaspora that lasted till modern times. During this period, the Israelite society underwent a profound transformation from Temple-Priest-Offerings-centered to Book-Teacher-Shabbat-centered.

The Tower of David, also known as the Jerusalem Citadel. / Shutterstock library

It was the Babylonian exile experience after the destruction of the First Temple that triggered and created the path for change. The Israelite nation-religion-culture identity cohesiveness was shaken and shattered. In order to survive as a community in a foreign land, the Israelites were forced to find a consistent evolution to their identity and relationship with the divine. How could they preserve their values that favored equality among humans (Genesis 1:27 “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”) which separated them from other ancient populations? In the world of ancient societies where the creation of humans was often for the purpose of serving gods or fulfilling specific roles within a narrative that justified and maintained social hierarchies and inequalities, Israel was the exception, a moral revolution that seeded future values of individual responsibility, liberties, and rights.

The emergence of new groups of intellectuals, the tensions between priests and prophets and different sects, the progressive canonization of the scriptures, and the change of regional powers and sovereignties are the grounds on which this transformation evolved.

The new social reality deprived Priests of their unique social status and indirectly favored prophets and scribes. There was no more a Temple, so Priests were suddenly ‘without a job’. Prophets’ messages would gain prominence due to the religious vacuum. Prophetic-oracle replaced Priest-oracle, and the religious community became more tradition-and-book-centered, giving de facto authority to the masters of sacred scriptures.

The mastery of written and oral Torah and the modeling of Judaism became key to community leadership that was no longer viewed exclusively as a birthright. The intent of Judaism was to preserve the Israelite identity and the Covenant with God. The priestly offerings and Temple activities were replaced with Shabbat gatherings, individual prayers, and studying sacred scriptures.

There is a shift in the interpretation of Exodus by some. In Exodus, God wants Israel to become a Kingdom of Priests; however, God instructs Moses to install Aaron and his sons out of all to serve as priests. This paradox is solved by explaining that the Israelites were terrified to receive the Torah directly from God, therefore asking Moses to intercede. Instead, the Rabbis’ (from Hebrew Rav, teacher, or master) vision was to make every Jew responsible for the Covenant, stressing individual responsibility and a code of Law to follow.

The exile experience also introduced new ideas about the Covenant, which were coherent with the new social reality. The divine and sacred were not limited anymore by walls, but God was everywhere. Ideas of Universalism began to emerge, and the “religion for one people” began to be viewed as “people of one religion.” Tensions between Universalism and Particularism continued (and still continue today), and although Judaism never became a missionary religion, it was still able to attract proselytes.

After returning from the Babylonian exile, Ezra performed the reading of the Torah in public; this set the Torah on its path to becoming canonical, although the process of canonization of the Hebrew Bible (Torah/The Pentateuch, Nevi’im/Prophets, Ketuvim/Scriptures) was gradual and extended beyond Ezra’s time. For Rabbinic tradition, the first public reading of the Torah is the consumption of what began with Moses. By doing so, Ezra strengthens the Jewish identity and creates a precise reference for non-Israelites. Around the second century B.C.E., Judaism was forming its essential shape.

In time, the Torah gained canonical status as Jews continued to gather, and synagogues sprang up with regular worship of the Shabbat, as it became the regular exposition of the Law (or “teachings,” “instructions“). The Torah’s elevation represented the idea of a continuum with Israel’s ancient religion, a continuum of the covenant relationship, by regrouping its main features.

The tension, heritage from the Babylonian exile, between “Particularism” and “Universalism” was an additional layer to the tension between two views of religion and clergy, “Priest-centered” and “Torah-centered.”

The Second Temple period was characterized by a different social and theological scenario than the first. There was much less polarization, and different Temple rituals coexisted with various theological interpretations while the progressive canonization of the sacred scriptures advanced. Some of these sects were, for example, the Qumran community, who did not feel the need to follow any canonization process; the Samaritans, who separated themselves from the Judean community by not taking the Prophets with them; the Sadducees and their role as temple priests, and rejection of Oral Torah; and the Pharisees, their belief in both the written and Oral Torah and the importance of prayer and study. These latest considered the rabbis’ ancestors by rabbinic tradition.

Following the Bar Kohba revolt (135 C.E.– Romans allowed religious freedom to the Jews, but not political independence), the Roman Emperor Hadrian sought to suppress Jewish identity and quell future rebellions. Part of his strategy was to minimize Jewish ties to the land. By renaming the region from Judea to Syria-Palestina, Hadrian aimed to erase the Jewish connection to the territory and assert Roman authority and control. The name “Palestina” was derived from “Philistia,” referring to the ancient Aegean Philistines (a broad geographic region that includes parts of what are now Greece, Turkey, and the eastern Mediterranean), who were enemies of the Israelites in the Biblical narrative.

Wall relief on arch of Titus depicting Menorah taken from temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD – Israel history / Shutterstock Library

The diaspora following the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. and the suppression of the Bar Kohba revolt were key turning points that lasted into modern times, shaping Jewish history significantly. With no Temple standing and the renaming of Judea into Syria-Palestina by the Romans, priests once again were overshadowed by the lack of structure around them, and the Jewish community found in the Pharisees’ vision the way not only to survive but to flourish as well.

What distinguished the Pharisees from other groups was their idea of studying and teaching the Torah more formally. In a society with no Temple, offerings, or community, the text-centered approach became the way to stay connected and preserve legal and spiritual aspects. Their aim to extend the Temple site’s holiness to everyday life became even more essential. Their efforts paved a path not only to short-term survival but flourished into a vast literature that still has an impact today.

The removal of the Temple walls was an opportunity for the Pharisees to promote their vision that the sacred cannot be spatially limited. All of Israel was to be given a mitzvoth-centered (command-centered, also ‘good deeds’) pattern for daily life. Blessings were introduced as the enjoyment of the world and as an awakening for individual awareness of the Godly presence.

After 70 C.E., the Pharisees are called Tannaim, memorizers of tradition. According to the Pirke Avot (The traditions of the Fathers), the Tannaim believed an Oral Torah (Torah Shebe-al Peh) was given at Mount Sinai together with the written Torah. The Oral Torah was a chain of laws and traditions that passed intact from generation to generation from the time of Moses.

The Torah established the world in which Israel lived. For the Tannaim, although Judaism does not seek proselytism but seeks to maintain and evolve the Israelite ethnic-religious identity, the Torah is still being offered to the non-Jews as well, so they could never claim they were never offered it. The decision not to accept the Torah is theirs and legitimizes the revelation in the eyes of Israel as universal. The acceptance of the Torah makes Israel. It creates a community of people responsible for each other who comprehend the importance of the nation’s wholeness and acknowledge the universal conception of Israel.

With the canonization of the Torah, the Jews completed the process of seeking God not directly but through Torah study, prayer, ethical living, and observance of mitzvot.

Tiberias, Israel – January 19 2018: Menoras at the Hammat Tiberias Synagogue that dates between 286 and 337 CE. / Shutterstock Library

At the beginning of the third century C.E., the Mishnah was redacted, collecting the oral tradition known as rabbinic literature’s first major work. The concept of Oral Torah is critical as it gives fluidity to the written Torah. The Mishnah (from the Hebrew root Shanah, to repeat) is a non-authored book, completed around 200 C.E., and quotes different Rabbis. It became the central text for the Oral Torah. It talks about offerings, the Temple, Kings, Priests, Courts, Judges, and overall, a social reality that did not exist anymore when the Mishnah was written.

The Mishnah could be considered a ‘platform for hope‘ to regain order and system in a period of upheaval and change. Since its beginning, the Mishnah jumps into giving guidance to practices and prayers, assuming the reader is already aware of what these are. Two generations of Tannaim (from 70 C.E. to 132 C.E. from 132 C.E. to the end of the II century) wrote the Mishnah, covering a wide range of topics and a thorough description of the Jerusalem Temple’s rituals. Once the Mishnah was completed, following generations of Tannaim (from now on called Hamoraim, teachers) continued to study it, adding comments, interpretations, and writings until developing a vast new body of work called Gemara (approx. from 200 C.E. to 500 C.E.).

This approach of connecting to the divine through interpreting the written word allowed Israel to adapt to the times and evolve its teachings without compromising its core values. In this period, called the period of Hamoraim, questions about the Mishnah would be raised and discussed; other traditions and legends would find a way into a literature that had the scope to include all aspects of life. Topics would consist of private and public life, relationships among individuals, agricultural laws teaching that the earth must be treated with respect and care, and its relationship to biblical texts. Halachic (related to Jewish law and jurisprudence) and Haggadic (narrative, not related to Jewish law and jurisprudence) topics would stretch the narrative from rules and laws to philosophical matters, contributing to expanding the interpretation of biblical texts.

This search or investigation (Midrash) led to commenting on the scriptures and highlights the dynamic nature of Jewish scriptural interpretation. This approach gave birth to a system of thoughts capable of maintaining and adapting to times a moral and people’s identity despite discriminations and persecutions suffered for centuries. The Midrash is the process of interpreting and refers to literature, not to a single book, from 400 to 1200 C.E. The Midrash Rabbah is a collection of these interpretations. The midrashim would create harmony among apparent contradictions and maintain continuity with the ancient traditions.

The first example we find is the Tosefta. The Tosefta (from Aramaic, supplement, or addition) are traditions not included in the Mishnah. It is the first commentary on the Mishnah and can be considered the first building block of the Talmud. A passage from the Tosefta will cite and comment on a passage from the Mishnah. The Tosefta may amplify what is said in the Mishnah, frame a rule entirely separate from what the Mishnah says on the same topic, or even deal with a topic that is not treated (in the Mishnah). Understanding the Tosefta is essential to understanding the Gemara.

Haggadot (to say) were delivered during public sermons and were fluid to the haggadic task. Stories included biblical characters, tales of rabbis and sages, allegorical interpretations of the Bible, ethical teachings, and philosophical musings. These narratives are often rich in symbolism and moral lessons and are intended to convey deeper spiritual and ethical insights. Haggadot also allowed the Torah to stay dynamic.

The Baraita (Aramaic word, outside) are traditions that appear in the Talmud but are attributed to a rabbi living during or before the Mishnaic period– teachings of the Tannaim that were not included in the Mishnah

Studies and writings were developed in both the Palestinian and Babylonian areas, leading to two different Talmuds: the Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi), developed by Jews living in Palestine, likely compiled between the 3rd and 5th centuries C.E., and the Babylonian Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is recognized as the most complete, elegant, and sophisticated. It is universally considered, together with the Mishnah, to be the primary source of knowledge that covers all aspects of life for an individual Jew.

Rabbinic Judaism fully emerged only after the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. By the IV century C.E., the Babylonian Talmud became Law not only to the local Jewish communities but also to the Palestinian and European Jewish communities. The Talmud interpretations had to derive from the scripture and solve an immediate need of that time. The Talmud rabbis interpreted for their time, but the concepts and abstract thinking are perpetual and still used as a
reference by Rabbis today.

The new organization of Jewish communities in the diaspora – around a Synagogue, Yeshiva, and Bet-Hamidrash – was a constant presence from Babylon to Europe. Its goal was to guarantee a future for the Israelite identity through education, practicing Judaism, and continued participation in theological studies and interpretations also during adulthood.

Generations of Rabbis and scholars have studied and commented on the Talmud. Depending on which printed edition, some commentaries are included in the Talmud. The version of the text in our possession is that of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, 1040-1105). Rashi is universally acknowledged as the greatest commentator of the Talmud. His commentary is found in all editions next to the text on the inner side of the page, in Rashi Script.

There are many commentators on the Talmud, spanning centuries from medieval times to the 20th century and representing diverse approaches and methodologies. Some of the most influential and that deserve a dedicated and profound series of studies are Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), Rabbi Joseph Caro, Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels), Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel), Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman), Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz / Even-Israel.

Open-mindedness and hospitality became essential to the point that the table – sharing a meal with a stranger has priority to greeting Divine presence (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) – becomes the ‘altar’ for a rabbi. Abraham requested that God, the Divine Presence, wait for him while he tended to his guests appropriately (Genesis 18:3). Rituals such as washing hands – as priests did before entering the Temple and approaching the altar – and other blessings became the new practice of respecting the Covenant with God. 

One of the most significant historical events that certainly influenced today’s world was the French Revolution (1787–1799). In 1790-91, the French National Assembly granted full French citizenship to Jews, a groundbreaking event in European history. Jews were no longer viewed through the lens of their Semitic origin and religious identity but were now recognized as equal citizens. The Revolution contributed to the rise of nationalism across Europe and the Middle East. As people began to conceive of the nation-state as a unified entity based on shared culture, language, and identity, this prompted minority groups, including Jews, to reconsider their own identities and aspirations.

Initially, Jews increasingly sought full integration and equality within European societies, leading to the Haskalah. The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, was a movement among European Jews that emerged in the late 18th century. It advocated for the integration of Jews into European society, and it also emphasized the importance of secular education. The Haskalah encouraged Jews to learn European languages, engage with European culture and literature, and reform Jewish religious and cultural practices to align more closely with modern European life. The Haskalah was not merely about integration but also modernizing and revitalizing Jewish culture and intellectual life. However, the limitations and challenges of this integration brought to the emergence of Zionism, a national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland.

The decline and implosion of the Ottoman Empire was a slow process that took decades. The internal weaknesses, the impact of World War I, and the emergence of various national identities within its territory had a catastrophic impact that led to its formal dissolution in 1922. These national feelings emerging within the empire’s territory were encouraged by the British promise of support for the establishment of independent States. During World War I, the British made promises to various ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire to gain their support against the Ottomans.

The above context set the stage for significant geopolitical changes in the region, including the establishment of the modern State of Israel. This birth of modern Israel inevitably triggered a profound quake in the world around it, both non-Jewish and Jewish– including Jewish identity itself. If, on the one hand, Judaism appears to have been successful in not just preserving but also evolving the idea and passionate feeling of the Israelite identity, on the other hand, Judaism also seems to be invited to step into a new chapter of its evolution.

Just like during the Second Temple period, today, tensions between particularism and universalism still exist and are expressed through the dynamics of modern democracy. For many Israelis, the modern State of Israel is a secular modern social organization expressing universal values inspired by the originality of the Israelite beliefs (all humans are equal as all are created in the image of God). Others view the modern State of Israel as the establishment of a religious milestone and incorporate religious elements, seeing the State’s creation as part of a divine plan or a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

No matter how these tensions will evolve, what is remarkable is the historical continuity between the current Jewish ethnic-religious population and the ancient Israelite population that once ruled on the same land.

In 1989, the Dalai Lama met with a group of Jewish scholars. On that occasion, the Dalai Lama expressed a desire to understand the “secret technique” that enabled the Jewish people to endure through history. He drew parallels between the dispersion of the Tibetan people and the Jewish diaspora: “We have to learn from the experiences of our Jewish brothers and sisters,” stated the Dalai Lama, underscoring the importance of learning from the Jewish community’s historical resilience and survival.

The various sovereignties that followed the Romans were the Byzantine Empire (4th century – 636 CE), Early Muslim Caliphates (636 CE – 1099 CE), Crusader States (1099 CE – 1291 CE), Mamluk Sultanate (1291 CE – 1517 CE), Ottoman Empire (1517 CE – 1917 C.E.), British Mandate (1917 C.E. – 1948 C.E.). All of these sovereignties had one thing in common: a Jewish minority that always lived on that land, a thread of history that cannot fall into the cracks of forgotten history. The Jewish “Aliyah,” the return to Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries by many diaspora Jews, emboldened this minority until it became a substantial part of British Palestine, former Ottoman Empire territory.

Thanks to its system of thoughts, the Israelite identity was able not just to survive almost two millennia of persecution but to adapt and make universally recognized contributions in various fields to the societies they lived in. These contributions are a testament to the resilience, adaptability, and creativity of the Jewish people. They reflect a rich cultural heritage and a tradition that values education, inquiry, and social responsibility. It’s no surprise that the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam (‘fixing up’ the world) found its way into social activism, particularly in the US during the 20th century. Olam also means hidden– humans need to improve the world so that its Creator is no longer hidden within. It’s a concept of love towards the world we live in, as creation requires improvement (Genesis Rabbah, 11:6).

The profound impact of the rebirth of Jewish political sovereignty transcends the small geographical size of the land (which is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey) and the relatively modest global Jewish population (approximately 15.7 million, with 46% residing in Israel). This event has dramatically altered the existing social, theological, and political realities, prompting both personal and collective reflections on spirituality and morality. Regardless of one’s political beliefs or religious affiliations, the establishment of the modern State of Israel has had, and continues to have, a significant influence on international relations and interfaith dynamics. This impact extends to individuals as well, as it challenges and shapes our understanding of spirituality and morality, which have evolved in the context of various religions since the destruction of the Second Temple until 1948.

Understanding and respecting each other’s history and perspective is the most efficient way to overcome challenges and conflicts. Learning to coexist and live together peacefully as groups also goes through individual introspection. The message from the ancient Israelites is still valuable today: men are all equal in their diversity, as they were all created in the image of God.

About the Author
Daniel is an Italian-American Jewish filmmaker and writer who immigrated to the US in 2009. His mom, born in Ferrara, Italy, converted from Catholicism to Judaism in the 60s and married an Egyptian Jewish immigrant born to Corfiot and Moroccan parents. As a child, he lived in the US for four years and then moved back to Italy at age nine. In Milan, he grew up in a small Jewish setting that was predominantly Persian and Lebanese but also Italian, North African, Turkish, and Eastern European. With two Jewish grandparents and two Catholic grandparents, Daniel was raised with unconditional love no matter the religious identity. He earned a BA in advertising and worked as a film editor for multiple purposes, from TV Shows to documentaries, music videos, commercials, and corporate films. He evolved as a director while working on video and event productions across Europe as well as filming documentary footage in Tibet. After moving back to the US with his wife in 2009, he went through health challenges and a long immigration process. From the time he arrived in the US, he endured years of unemployment to to VISA restrictions, suffered from heart failure, and battled cancer at the bone marrow while being a stay-at-home dad to his newborn daughter. Such experiences shaped his approach to his artistic self in new ways that today come to life through his work. In 2016, as soon as his health challenges were over, he wrote and directed the short film Thank You Rebbe. In 2017 he received his green card and returned to collaborating and volunteering with film projects. Soon, he was helping nonprofits meet their filmmaking needs, and in 2018 accepted a full-time position as a video director at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. The first project he wrote and produced was a video raising awareness about antisemitism in the US. In 2020, this video received a Silver Telly Award and a Midwest EMMY nomination. In 2021, his short film Thank You Rebbe won the Best Jewish Film Award at the Cannes World Film Festival - Remember The Future competition. Today he is producing his first feature documentary about US literacy and is earning his MA in Jewish Studies at the Spertus Institute.
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