Wednesday, July 13, 2005

European Judaism

European Judaism, which by the 10th century was already quite distinct from the forms of Judaism practiced in Palestine and Ethiopia, was monolithic until the 1600's. At that point in the time, the "Hasidic" (also spelled "Chasidic") movement began.

Rebbe (i.e., "Rabbi") Yisrael, called "the Baal Shem Tov" (menaing "Master of the Good Name") was the founder of the Chassidic movement.

Hassidism was distinguished from the Orthodox Judaism by its mystical and emotional emphasis. Hassidism has a number of sub-varieties within itself: Breslov, Lubavitch, and Satmar.

Rebbe ("Rabbi") Nachman of Breslov was the great-grandson "the Baal Shem Tov". Rebbe Nachman was born in 1772 (1 Nisan 5532) in the Ukrainian town of Medzeboz. He grew to be an outstanding tzaddik (saint), Torah sage, teacher and Chassidic master. During his lifetime he attracted a devoted following of "chassidim" (Hassidic followers) who looked to him as their prime source of spiritual guidance in their quest for God, as "the Rebbe." From the autumn of 1802 until the spring of 1810 Rebbe Nachman lived in Breslov, Ukraine. He then moved to Uman where he passed away from tuberculosis six months later, at the age of thirty-eight. He is buried there till today.

Thus, by the mid-1800's, a variety of forms of Judaism were practiced in Europe. Geographically, the Hasidic forms were found more in the East, the orthodox more in the west. The Orthodox Jews in the England, Spain, France, and the Benelux countries (Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands) tended to see the Hasids as too emotional, too mystical, irrational, and a little simple-minded. The Hasids in Eastern Europe tended to the view their fellow Jews in Western Europe as too cold and formal, and not perceptive regarding spiritual matters.

As we have seen varieties of Christianity influence history and be influenced by history, so also with the varieties of Judaism. The East / West divisions can be seen as reflecting the areas of Europe which were more receptive to Cartesian rationalism, Hume’s Empiricism, and the Enlightenment, all of which flourished in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, Hume, Descartes, and the Enlightenment didn't make much of an impact (in Poland, the Ukraine, etc.).

Much of what we now consider typical, or stereotypical, Judaism is actually European, or eastern European, culture. When one examines the native Judaisms of places like Ethiopia, or the Judaisms of those Jews who, for two thousand years, never left Palestine, they seem almost "un-Jewish" by the standards of American or European culture, because they do not carry the cultural influences of Europe; yet they are every bit as much "Jewish" as the Jews of Germany, Poland, and Russia.

Jewish texts in western thought:

Although it is known that there has been far too much persecution of the Jews in European history, the remarkable fact is that for about 1500 years, Jews and Christians co-existed in Europe rather peacefully, these regrettable times of persecution being exceptions, rather than the rule.

One factor which made this co-existence possible was a substantial amount of overlap between Jewish and Christian belief systems. (Hence the modern phrase, "Judeo-Christian".) The following excerpt from the Talmud gives us a sample of Jewish thought, which was incorporated into Christianity:

"He (Rabbi Elazar HaKappar) used to say, The born will die, the dead will come to life, and the living will be judged - so that they know, make known, and become aware that He is G-d, He is the Fashioner, He is the Creator, He is the One who understands, He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Litigant, and He will eventually judge. Blessed be He, for there is not before Him wrongdoing, forgetfulness, favoritism, or the acceptance of bribes - for all is His. And know that everything is according to a reckoning. And do not let your evil inclination assure you that the grave is a refuge for you - for against your will were you created, against your will were you born, against your will do you live, against your will do you die, and against your will you will stand in judgment before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

Note that Jewish texts often contain the word "God" written as "G-d". This is a literary mechanism designed to show respect.

Jewish thought:

From the examples of Spinoza and Husserl (to name but two of many), we see that Jewish thinkers were involved in the central questions of the development of European thought. They brought with them their intellectual heritage.

Although the central text of Judaism is the Tanakh, which is binding upon all Jews, another text, called the Talmud, is also very influential, although it is not technically binding.

The Talmud consists of two parts, first the "mishnah", which is a series of regulations, and second the "gemorah", which is a commentary on the mishnah. The gemorah ranges from technical questions about how to apply the laws of the mishnah in various cases, to more philosophical questions about issues raised, but not directly addressed by, the mishnah. Because the Talmud, as stated above, is not binding, it has exercised its influence upon the intellectual tradition by means of its method of discussion, rather than via its direct content, i.e., the most influential aspect of the Talmud is not what it directly states, but rather the manner of debate and commentary and analysis which is used in it.

Major Jewish intellectuals carried this manner into other fields, such as philosophy, mathematics, and philology (i.e., the careful grammatical analysis of ancient languages), and thereby made major contributions to European thought.

The influence of the Tanakh is the opposite: it is its direct content, its assertions, which are both binding and shaping upon Jewish thought. It has little of the Talmudic manner of discourse in it. The Tanakh also shaped culture by exemplifying the rules of Hebrew poetry.

One of the more popular sections of the Talmud is called "Avot" ("the fathers"), and it is a charming, folksy collection of ethical proverbs. Although it is a great deal of fun to read, study, and discuss, it is actually a-typical, different from the bulk of the Talmud, in that it does not engage in detailed technical and philosophical discussion. But it is probably the most-quoted section of the Talmud. Here are some examples:

Mishna 26: "Rabbi Yossi bar (son of) Yehuda of K'far HaBavli said, 'one who learns from the young, to what is he compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from the press. And one who learns from the old, to what is he compared? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.'"

Mishna 27: "Rabbi Meir (mai-eer) said, 'do not look at the flask but what is in it. There are new flasks filled with old wine and old flasks which do not even contain new wine.'"

Do you have a pocket full of art?

The coinage of the United States is an example of the lasting influence of Greco-Roman classicism. Examine current coins: the Lincoln penny, the Jefferson nickel, the Roosevelt dime, the Washington quarter, the Kennedy half-dollar, and the new one-dollar coin. The influence of late Roman portraiture and Greek architecture is evident. The influence of classical symbolism is evident: what, exactly, is on the back of a dime?

The classical influence in U.S. numismatics has, if anything, only gotten stronger in recent years. While the 19th century and early 20th century displayed some non-classical themes (the Indian penny and the Buffalo nickel), current designs are almost exclusively classical in style.

Look at the architectural designs on the back of a penny and a nickel. Can you identify them by style?

The question is open ... to you.

Numismatic iconography

We've discussed the influences on numismatic iconography. Look at the back of a penny and a nickel. Which type of architecture do you see? What are the symbols on the back of a dime, and in which style are they engraved? What about the back of the quarter and half-dollar? What is the “fasces” symbol?

The front side of the penny, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar all have portraits. Which style of portrait is this?

Within the last decade, we have two new coins featuring women: Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea have been pictured on one-dollar coins. You might think that this represents progress for women, but women have been pictured on coins often in the past.

During the first one hundred years of our country's history, only women were pictured on coins: no men at all! The first coin to picture a male was a penny around the time of the Civil War. The first coin to picture a president was not until 1909!

So women were actually more favored than men on coins in the past.

The habit of placing presidents on coins comes from the Romans.