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70-1948 - The Jewish Diaspora

Top 10 Largest Jewish Populations
1 USA6,100,000
2 Israel 5,800,000
3 France 600,000
4 Argentina 450,000
5 Ukraine 370,000
6 Canada 350,000
7 United Kingdom 320,000
8 Russia 250,000
9 Germany 200,000
10 Brazil 150,000
The Diaspora, which had begun with the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC, and which had resumed early in the Hellenistic period, eventually involved most Jews in an exodus from what they continued to view as the land promised to them as the descendants of Abraham. In addition to the three groups identified by Josephus (Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes), Judaism was further divided into numerous religious sects and political parties. With the destruction of the Temple and the commonwealth in 70 C.E., all that came to an end. Only the Judaism of the Pharisees--Rabbinic Judaism--survived.

Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and especially after the suppression of the Bar-Kochba Rebellion in 135 AD, religio-nationalist aspects of Judaism were supplanted by a growing intellectual-spiritual trend. Lacking a state, the survival of the Jewish people was dependent on study and observance of the written law, the Torah. To maintain the integrity and cohesiveness of the community, the Torah was enlarged into a coherent system of moral theology and community law. The rabbi and the synagogue became the normative institutions of Judaism, which thereafter was essentially a congregationalist faith.

The focus on study led to the compilation of the Talmud, an immense commentary on the Torah that thoroughly analyzed the application of Jewish law to the day-to-day life of the Jewish community. The complexity of argument and analysis contained in the Palestinian Talmud (100-425 A.D.) and the more authoritative Babylonian Talmud (completed around 500) reflected the high level of intellectual maturity attained by the various schools of Jewish learning. This inward-looking intellectualism, along with a rigid adherence to the laws and rituals of Judaism, maintained the separateness of the Jewish people, enabling them to survive the exilic experience despite the lure of conversion and frequent outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

By the 5th century AD Palestine ceased to be the center of Judaism. Several circumstances conspired to bring this about. The position of the Jews in the Roman Empire had changed for the worse with the elevation of Christianity to be the religion of the state; the large autonomy which until then they had enjoyed in Palestine was now restricted; above all, the family of the patriarchs, which had come to form a veritable dynasty, became extinct. The diaspora began; in spite of Josephus (Ant., xi. 5, 2), it is to be carried back not to the Assyrian but merely to the Babylonian captivity; it was not composed of Israelites, but solely of citizens of the southern kingdom. It received its greatest impulse from Alexander, and then afterwards from Caesar. In those cities where they were at all numerous they, during the imperial period, formed separate communities. The emperors, taking umbrage at their intrusiveness, more than once banished them from Rome (Acts xviii. 2).

The Christianization of the empire helped still further in a very special way to detach the Jews from the Western world. In the West the equal civil rights which Caracalla had conferred on all free inhabitants of the empire came to an end, so far as the Jews were concerned, in the time of Constantine. The state then became the secular arm of the church, and took action, though with less severity, against Jews just as against heretics and pagans.

In the Germanic states which arose upon the ruins of the Roman empire, the Jews did not fare badly on the whole. The Jews fared remarkably well under the Prankish monarchy; the Carolingians helped them in every possible way, making no account of the complaints of the bishops. The market was completely in their hands; as a specially lucrative branch of commerce they still carried on the traffic in slaves, which had engaged them even in ancient times.

In the later Middle Ages the position of the Jews in the Christian society deteriorated. Intercourse with them was shunned; their isolation from being voluntary became compulsory; from the 13th century onwards they were obliged to wear, as a distinctive mark (more necessary in the East than in the West), a round or square yellow badge on their breast.

The popular aversion rested by no means exclusively on religious considerations; worldly motives were also present. The Jews of that period had in a high degree the control of financial affairs in their hands; and they used it without scruple. The Church herself had unintentionally given them a monopoly of the money market, by forbidding Christians to take interest. In this way the Jews became rich indeed, but at the same time made themselves still more repugnant to the Christian population than they previously were by reason of their religion.

Having, according to the later mediaeval system, no rights in the Christian state, the Jews were tolerated only in those territories where the sovereign in the exercise of free favour accorded them protection. This protection was granted them in many quarters, but never for nothing; numerous and various taxes, which could be raised or changed in a perfectly arbitrary way, were exacted in exchange. But in countries where the feeling of nationality attained to a vigorous development, the spirit of toleration was speedily exhausted; the Jews were expelled by the act of the state. England was the first kingdom in which this occurred (1290); France followed in 1395, Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1495. In this way it came about that the Holy Roman Empire - Germany, Italy, and adjoining districts - became the chief abode of the Jews.

When the nation was destroyed, the Rabbis saved from the wreck the Jewish law. Of all the national institutions, one only could be preserved, namely, the Bible. It was the national constitution of the Jews, and around it had grown a body of national religious laws. The Mishnah, or summary of the oral law, was the development, both explanatory and emendatory,of the Torah. It was not written, but repeated from teacher to pupil, in order that it might remain fluid and be changed according to the needs of the people. Tradition says that the Mishnah was given to Moses at the same time as the Law. This means that the right of interpretation is inherent in law itself. The vagueness and brevity of many Biblical laws lead us to infer that oral explanations existed from the beginning. The Mishnah was written down over a century after the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in the year 70 CE, and was written only when Roman persecution threatened to destroy wholly the human transmitters of this national treasure.

In Babylon and Palestine the Gemara, or commentaries on the Mishnah, were written down in the Rabbinic schools, and this together with the Mishnah forms the two Talmuds-or "instruction." But that was not the end of Jewish legal development. From land to land the Jews were driven-there always arose a king who knew not Joseph-and wherever the wandering Jew found peace for awhile, there he settled in his religious communities and developed his law. Through the ages persecution became more bitter and terrible. But still unity was maintained, and the great Rabbis and Rabbinical schools legislated for the Jews of all the world.

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Page last modified: 23-09-2012 17:49:47 ZULU