Kenneth Ryesky

Significant changes for rabbinic Judaism?

The Arch of Titus in Rome was erected to commemorate Emperor Titus’s annexation of the Jewish state into the Roman Empire following the conquest of Jerusalem by his father, Vespasian.  The arch depicts Roman soldiers carrying off their plundered Holy Vessels from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Suppositions frequently circulate that the Holy Vessels, including the Golden Menorah, are held in the Catacombs beneath Rome by the Roman Catholic Church.  These suppositions may or may not have valid foundation, but regardless of whether the Church does or does not have current or past possession of those sacred objects, there are many, myself included, who strongly suspect that the Vatican may know more about the Golden Menorah than it has let on.

[Thinking dirty, given the monetary judgments in various courts against the Church on account of misdeeds by some of its clergy, melting down the Holy Vessels and selling the precious metals could benefit the Vatican by raising funds and also by disposing of the evidence.].

The Roman conquest of Jerusalem would have ended Jewish ritual practice, which, until then, had centered around the Temple in Jerusalem.  But while Vespasian had Jerusalem under siege, Yochanan Ben-Zakkai successfully obtained permission to establish a school in Yavne (approximately 50 kilometers distant, near present day Ashkelon) where Torah could be studied en masse, even after the inevitable destruction of the Temple.  Subsequently, as Jews in general and rabbis in particular continued to be killed, tortured, and exiled by the occupying Romans, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince) saw the need to write down the “Oral Law” that had accompanied the written Torah from the time it was received at Mount Sinai, and thus codified it into the Talmud.

Jewish religious practice thus transitioned from sacrifice by priests in the Temple to rabbinically-guided prayer ritual, with accompanying community institutions and legal systems which functioned without the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem and indeed, in communities geographically distant (though there remained a consistent residual Jewish presence in the Holy Land from the Roman conquest until the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948).

In the Nineteenth Century the Lithuanian Model arose, whereby the study of Torah was done in yeshivas that operated largely independent of the Jewish communities at large.  The Lithuanian model rose to prominence and today is the model of the insular so-called “religious” non-Hassidic communities in Israel and elsewhere.

[I have significant reservations about using terms such as “Haredi” or “ultra-orthodox” because men who wear a black hats but who submit false claims for government funds, bribe government officials  (including bribes to cover for insurance fires in which responding firefighters are injured), commit tax fraud, and/or cheat on their wives are not more religious than I, and using such terms only perpetuates The Big Lie that they are.].

Yochanan Ben-Zakkai and Yehuda HaNasi understood that the Roman conquest of Israel was a cataclysmic event that warranted significant changes in Jewish ritual practice so that the Jewish faith and Jewish people might survive.  The COVID-19 pandemic may well be an event of similar if not greater scale.  I shall not now speculate as to the details of what changes in Jewish ritual may be in the offing because the joystick for them is not in my cockpit.  I will, however, note some of the artifacts being left in the CoronaVirus’s wake.

First and foremost, the rabbis’ aura of infallibility has irretrievably been erased, and the taboo against expressing criticisms of the rabbinical leadership in the insular communities is being infracted in ways that were unthinkable just a few months ago.  As a direct result, the members of the insular communities, their trust in the rabbis weakened if not gone, are now increasingly turning to non-rabbinical sources (read Internet) for information about current world affairs.

The insular community has, until now, been “built on adhering to the rulings of its rabbis.”  For their part, the rabbis of the insular communities must now perform better due diligence in ascertaining the facts before making their pronouncements.  Their failure to do this has admittedly exacerbated the COVID-19 morbidity and mortality amongst their own communities.  It accordingly is highly likely that the place and function of rabbinical authority within the insular communities will never totally revert to the way it was pre-CoronaVirus.  Those Jews who are not members of the insular communities but who nevertheless, in pre-Corona days, gave much respect and deference to the rabbis of the insular communities will likely be similarly chary about doing so in the future.

Many of the insular rabbinical leaders now hold the natural sciences in unserious skepticism if not outright contempt.  This is frequently rooted in the differences between the age of the earth (5,780 years per the Hebrew calendar versus 2 billion years per the geologists), and in the notion of evolution.  While those differences are certainly reconcilable from the scientists’ perspective, the insular rabbis view the scientific theories as threats to their faith.

Also opened by the CoronaVirus pandemic to revision and reconsideration are the insular communities’ attitudes toward the Israeli government, and their social practices.

The CoronaVirus plague, then, is changing before our very eyes the insular communities’ views of government, science, rabbinical authority, other Jewish communities, and themselves.  Rabbinic Judaism as we have known it is likely in for some significant changes.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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