Rabbi Akiba's Coup

I found a very interesting book: Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority by Daniel Gruber. The title is a reference to the fact that Rabbi Akiba annointed Simeon ben Kosiba (aka Bar Kohhba) as Messiah. Oooops!

Gruber has a very interesting theory as to why Akiba supported Kosiba but I won’t spoil the surprise for you. Read the book!

What I’m more interested in discussing here is his revelation of Akiba’s role in the invention of Rabbinical Judaism. Gruber, who is Jewish, knows where the bodies are burried, figuratively and literally.

If you are like me, you have probaly been at least dimly aware of the ancient debate between Christianity and Judaism as to which is more faithful to the Bible. Usually the debate is focused on how far Christianity deviates from the Old Testament and whether such deviation is justified (Christians point to Jesus as a fulfillment). The unspoken assumption is that Jews, while ignoring the New Testament, keep to the Old Testament.

Not true. And, in fact, the invention of Rabbinical Judaism is well documented in the Talmud and Mishnah.

In short, there is no Biblical basis for the authority of the Rabbis. The Pharisees simply took control of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple led, principally, by Rabbi Akiba and his creative interpretation of the Torah. To join Rabbi Akiba’s Sanhedrin you needed to be able to prove from the Torah that a serpent was clean, knowing that the Torah declared serpents to be unclean.

The Rabbis literally asserted an authority superceding God himself. I had heard Jewish jokes to this effect but I had never imagined that they were based on the Talmud.

To join Rabbi Akiba’s Sanhedrin you needed to be able to prove from the Torah that a serpent was clean, knowing that the Torah declared serpents to be unclean.<<

I believe this was and still is a standard mental exercise in yeshivas.

He appears to be a “Messianic Jew” and so would not be recognized as authenticlly Jewish by most Jews. Your statement is equivalent to a non-Christian saying of a Mormon writer, “he is a Christian and so knows where the bodies are buried.” We would not be impressed by this claim, because we know that Mormons have a vested interest in debunking orthodox Christianity. So here. You hurt your own credibililty when you use Gruber’s ethnic Judaism and self-identification as a Jew to suggest that he has some particular authority to speak on the alleged “buried bodies” of orthodox Judaism.

If you really want to read good Jewish scholarship on the origins of rabbinic Judaism, read Jacob Neusner.

The unspoken assumption is that Jews, while ignoring the New Testament, keep to the Old Testament.

Catholic scholars discovered that this wasn’t true in the 13th century, which led to vicious persecution of Jews by Christians (I’m sure Gruber will point to this persecution, to discredit orthodox Christianity as well as Orthodox Judaism!). Your news is old news. For that matter, anyone who bothered to read the New Testament would know that rabbinic Judaism interpreted the Old Testament through the lens of tradition. Of course, this is what Catholics do with the whole Bible.

And, in fact, the invention of Rabbinical Judaism is well documented in the Talmud and Mishnah.

If Gruber is using “invention” in the rather coy way that contemporary scholars often use it, then I have no problem with this claim. Just bear in mind that one can similarly speak of the “invention” of orthodox/Catholic Christianity in the second century C.E.

Both rabbinic Judaism and Cahtolic Christianity emerged from the destruction of the Second Temple as organized continuations of Biblical faith, interpreting the common Scriptures (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) through different theological lenses. One can engage in vigorous theological debate with rabbinic Judaism without resorting to cynical reductionism, which will rebound on our own heads anyway (unless, like “Messianic Jews,” we flee to an ahistorical idealism that can’t be hurt by history because it floats free in the stratosphere).

In short, there is no Biblical basis for the authority of the Rabbis

I think that’s too strong, but ironically it’s truer of the O.T. than the N.T. (See Matt. 23.)

The Pharisees simply took control of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple

There’s some truth to this. But obviously the Pharisaic rabbis were around before the destruction of the Temple, unless you discount both the New Testament and Josephus!

led, principally, by Rabbi Akiba and his creative interpretation of the Torah.

The rabbis were indeed creative in their interpretation of the Torah. Almost half as creative as the writers of the New Testament.

The Rabbis literally asserted an authority superceding God himself.

“Literally” is exactly the wrong word. The point was/is that God has given the Torah, and now it is up to Jews to interpret it. Claims of direct revelation from God can’t trump the rabbinic consensus on the interpretation of the Torah as God has given it.

Edwin

Literally is exactly the right word given that a concensus of Rabbis overrides the opinion of God.

Jesus spoke, and the Josephus wrote before Akiba, before the tradition became the Oral Law. What is most fascinating is how the rabinnical assertion of authority turned on Akiba. I think we all have some idea that Rabinnical Judaism is different from Christianity not why.

No, it doesn’t. The assertion is yours, the burden of proof is yours. I presume that you’re getting this from the famous story of the voice from heaven saying that Rabbi Eliezer was right and the majority of the rabbis were wrong. The rabbis argued that they could not accept a voice from heaven as authority, because the Torah isn’t in heaven–it’s on earth now. That does not literally mean that a consensus of rabbis overrides the opinion of God. It means that ultimate authority rests in the Torah as the word of God (which has been given to humans to interpret), and not in any other way in which one might claim that God has made His will known.

Aggadic stories like this should not be taken with wooden literalism.

Edwin

No, beginning with Akiba, the Rabbis held that they were the ultimate authority even above God. Among the reasons they gave was that “the Torah isn’t in heaven–it’s on earth now”. But as with kosher reptiles, reason is not an essential element of the claim.

The Rabbis claimed ultimate authority, a claim unsupported by the Torah. If ultimate authority rested with the Torah the Rabbis would be out of business.

The single best example of this is the Rabbinical position on sacrifice vs. prayer. The Torah is quite clear that prayer is no substitute for sacrifice. Nobody can read the Torah and come to any different conclusion. But Rabbinical Judaism holds that studying the sacrificial law is equal to performing it, something you will hear frequently from Jews defending their faith.

If the Torah were the ultimate authority then no serious Jew would hold a straight face while making that claim.

Another great example is one you yourself relied upon in your opening ad hominum attack on Gruber: That he would not be recognized as Jewish by most Jews and, hence, is not a reliable source of information. But what is the basis of that claim? Not the Torah, which simply regulates behavior and worship. The basis of that claim is Rabbinical authority which, from Akiba on, was designed to innoculate Judaism against Christianity.

You haven’t given any evidence to support this. I have had to provide one bit of evidence for you, which was unreasonably generous of me.

Among the reasons they gave was that “the Torah isn’t in heaven–it’s on earth now”. But as with kosher reptiles, reason is not an essential element of the claim.

That’s dismissive–you aren’t trying to understand how the rabbinical texts work.

The Rabbis claimed ultimate authority, a claim unsupported by the Torah. If ultimate authority rested with the Torah the Rabbis would be out of business.

On the contrary–the Rabbis are by definition the people who have dedicated themselves to studying the Torah.

The single best example of this is the Rabbinical position on sacrifice vs. prayer. The Torah is quite clear that prayer is no substitute for prayer. Nobody can read the Torah and come to any different conclusion.

That’s plainly false, because Jews do read the Torah and come to a different conclusion. You can’t handle the possibility that people might read the Torah differently from you, so you gratuitously accuse the rabbis of some kind of cynical power play. This is pretty typical of how all religious traditions reinterpret their sacred texts–Christians do it all the time, starting with the NT interpretation of the OT.

But Rabbinical Judaism holds that studying the sacrificial law is equal to performing it, something you will hear frequently from Jews defending their faith.

If the Torah were the ultimate authority then no serious Jew would hold a straight face while making that claim.

You mean “if my interpretation of the Torah were the ultimate authority.”

Come on. You may be a “Zen Catholic,” but if you are a Catholic of any kind you should know better than this.

Another great example is one you yourself relied upon in your opening ad hominum attack on Gruber: That he would not be recognized as Jewish by most Jews and, hence, is not a reliable source of information.

That is a misrepresentation of what I said. I said that you can’t claim his “Jewish” identity as providing him with some special authority.

But what is the basis of that claim? Not the Torah, which simply regulates behavior and worship. The basis of that claim is Rabbinical authority.

Rabbinical authority interprets the Torah. Again, I shouldn’t have to explain this to a Catholic.

Edwin

One becomes a Rabbi simply by studying the Torah? Then that would make for a lot more Rabbis than Rabbinical Judaism acknoweldges.

So now you wish to add straw man arguments to ad hominum arguments in claiming victim status?

Which has no basis in Torah. Hence the title of the thread.

In my experience, and from what I’ve read, “laypeople” who study the Torah express their opinions very freely and have no problem arguing with “official” rabbis on the basis of the Torah. I think that you are reading into rabbinical Judaism a clericalism that isn’t necessarily there.

So now you wish to add straw man arguments to ad hominum arguments in claiming victim status?

You were the one who brought up his Jewish identity. I didn’t. So you are the one creating a straw man by accusing me of trying to discredit him. If you didn’t think that his being “Jewish” was relevant, why did you mention it?

Which has no basis in Torah. Hence the title of the thread.

It has no basis in the Torah as you interpret it. Why do you think that your interpretation is infallible?

Edwin

That’s certainly truer today but not particularly relevant to the development of Rabbinical Judaism which, in 2C AD, was putting people to death for holding incorrect beliefs. But even today laypeople who study the Torah are not called “Rabbi” hence your claim that Rabbis are, by definition, those who study the Torah is false. But nice try at changing the subject.

I think most reasonable people would expect, all else being equal, that someone raised in a religion will know it better than those not.

I studied the Torah. Therefore I am a Rabbi. Call me Rabbi Bubba.

In any case, you have already conceded my original main point so I’m not sure what your argument is at this juncture: Rabbinical Judaism was a 1-2C invention comparable in departure from the Torah to Christianity.

Examples?

But even today laypeople who study the Torah are not called “Rabbi” hence your claim that Rabbis are, by definition, those who study the Torah is false.

Rabbis are people who are recognized as having become experts in the Torah. And yes, this does require immersion in and submission to the tradition. The point I’m making is that rabbis are respected because of their knowledge of Torah.

I think most reasonable people would expect, all else being equal, that someone raised in a religion will know it better than those not.

People might expect that if they have never talked to people who have left a religious tradition. Do you trust ex-Catholics about Catholicism? I sure don’t. I learned this the hard way. Until I went to grad school most people I knew who had been raised Catholics were ex-Catholic evangelicals (I had had a very few conversations with Catholics who still practiced their faith). Once I started hanging out with practicing Catholics on a regular basis, I realized what a distorted impression I had received from ex-Catholics. As a matter of fact, until I went to grad school I had never met a Jewish person who practiced their faith (as far as I can remember), so I had the same problem there (though I hadn’t been given as hostile a picture of Judaism as of Catholicism). I learned my lesson. I don’t understand why you haven’t, given that you hang out on these forums, which are full of ex-Catholics who think they are authorities on their former religion.

In any case, you have already conceded my original main point so I’m not sure what your argument is at this juncture: Rabbinical Judaism was a 1-2C invention comparable in departure from the Torah to Christianity.

I’m not sure if I would use the word “comparable,” except in the sense that they both take the tradition in new directions. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity reinterpret the Torah in very different ways. On the whole I think it’s fair to say that there are far more obvious breaks in the case of Christianity, but I certainly agree that rabbinic Judaism is also a new development in the tradition.

My argument is that you interpret this reinterpretation in cynical terms, while presumably not viewing Christianity’s (arguably far more radical) reinterpretation in equally cynical terms. Your cynicism derives not only from your own prejudice but from your uncritical acceptance of a Messianic Jewish apologist as an authority on Jewish history.

Edwin

Not sure if history records any names but the Mishnah does record the Oral Law: “An elder rebelling against the ruling of the Beth Din is strangled” (Sanhedrin 86b). Most of the bodies were piled up during the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Aha. Recognized by whom?!

Or perhaps simply for their conformity to the Rabbinical interpretation? As for example in your first ad hominum attack?

Sorry to hear about your bad experiences.

QED.

You presume to think you know a lot about me that would be quickly dispelled by a review of my prior posts.

You also presume to konw a lot about Gruber that would be similarly dispelled by a review of his books. (Hint, he’s only an ex-Jew according to Rabbinical authority which leads us back to the start of your circular argument.)

I don’t consider him a non-Jew. I do respect the right of adherents of the rabbinic tradition to define what their religion is and what its limits are, just as orthodox Christians do. As I said, your use of the word “Jew” in this context was misleading, just as using the word “Christian” to describe a Mormon could be misleading, even though by a neutral, historical standard it’s a perfectly appropriate word.

You’re just repeating a typical pop-postmodern line that a tradition is doing something sinister when it defines its boundaries or reinterprets its classic sources. This is just normal and members of other religious traditions have no right to complain or criticize.

I do have a certain prejudice against Messianic Judaism, since in my opinion they are trying to reinvent the wheel. There are two great religious traditions that have been around for 2000 years representing Biblical religion. Messianic Jews could engage in the heroic work of trying to bridge these two traditions. Instead, they typically snipe at both, drawing on the ahistorical primitivism common in evangelical Protestantism (which is often their true spiritual inspiration) to present themselves as the true alternative to both.

Edwin

I seriously doubt that you were misled by my use of the word “Jew”. You seem too smart to mistake my original meaning. More likely you are simply swallowing Rabbinical authority per your “respect”. You don’t consider him a “non-Jew” but you’re prefectly willing to put forward the Rabbinical argument to the same effect.

I won’t bother asking why you are not Catholic, then. But I can’t help but note that you seem quite willing to give Akiba the very same approval that you refuse to Gruber. Akiba invented Rabbinical Judaism. But that was 2000 years in the past. Gruber calls a spade a spade and he is a revisionist. Whatever.

I was misled initially. I assumed that Gruber was a mainstream if somewhat revisionist Jewish scholar. Then I googled him and found out that he was a Messianic Jew. What I did not find was that he had any scholarly credentials. Your language was misleading. When you say without qualification that someone writing about rabbinic Judaism is a Jew, people assume that they are writing as insiders to the tradition. Since this was not the case, you ought to have qualified your description of Gruber–just as non-Christians writing about a Mormon ought to qualify their description of the Mormon as a Christian.

But I can’t help but note that you seem quite willing to give Akiba the very same approval that you refuse to Gruber. Akiba invented Rabbinical Judaism. But that was 2000 years in the past. Gruber calls a spade a spade and he is a revisionist.

Neusner is a revisionist. I don’t consider revisionism to be necessarily bad. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

I am in sympathy with much of what Messianic Jews are doing. But their contempt for both Jewish and Christian tradition is problematic. And the fact that Akiba is 2000 years in the past is relevant. Perspective matters. If I were a Christian in the early 2nd century, I’m sure I would view Rabbi Akiba very differently. For one thing, opposing him back then could have accomplished something–opposing those forces in both Judaism and Christianity that were creating two bitterly opposed traditions might still have had some effect. Now there is no point–we have 2000 years of Jewish tradition, and I as a Christian can look back and see how much there is to respect in that tradition, and in its founders.

No doubt there is something to respect in Gruber too. If there are Messianic Jews around in 2000 years honoring his name and remembering his wisdom, I posthumously give people of the fifth millenia my gracious permission to say all sorts of nice things about him.

But just as Akiba and his Christian counterparts created two traditions where there might have been one rich and unified tradition, so Gruber and those like him are creating yet another variant with sharp hostility to both the existing traditions, instead of bringing them together. I can only see what there is to see at this point.

Edwin

If you want to call Gruber an ex-Rabbinical Jew, that would make at least make some sense though I don’t actually know how his parents raised him. Note, however, that I didn’t describe him as a Rabbinical Jew. But to follow your “logic”, we should distrust anyone who criticizes a tradition since either they begin as an outsider or they place themselves outside by their dent of their criticism.

Because bad arguments improve with age?

I guess I’m just not as cavalier about truth as you seem to be. If an error is 2000 years old it is still an error. (If it’s not an error then the whole matter is moot.)

And it it turns out that we have two distinct traditions instead of one because of Akiba.

Maybe Gruber should develop his theory into a story about Episcopleans supressing the truth about the origins of Rabbinical Judaism and the schism with Christianity in order to protect the Queen’s authority. I’ll be that idea would sell.

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