A Life of Yohanan Ben Zakkai, ca.1-80 C.E

A Life of Yohanan Ben Zakkai, ca.1-80 C.E

A Life of Yohanan Ben Zakkai, ca.1-80 C.E

A Life of Yohanan Ben Zakkai, ca.1-80 C.E

Excerpt

Coming to maturity at one of the great turning points in the history of Judaism, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai set the course followedby subsequent generations for many centuries. While the faith of Israelundoubtedly has been enriched by many other figures from biblicaltimes to our own day, none apart from Moses and Jeremiah held suchextraordinary responsibility. Second to these two alone, unendowedwith prophetic gifts, therefore without the assurance afforded to theprophet by the Divine word, Yoḥanan guided both the faith and thepeople of Israel beyond the disaster of the destruction of the secondtemple and then laid foundations which have endured to this very day.

We know only a few of the barest facts about him. We do not knowwhat he looked like or how he lived from day to day. We do not evenknow what he thought about many of the great issues of his day. Hadhe lived in some less interesting time, he would have been unknownin life, forgotten afterward. His kind of sober, irenic wisdom in politics, combined with intense religious concern, does not usually produce a broad reputation or vivid memories. We know for certain onlythis, that when everyone else had given up hope, Yoḥanan foundreason to persevere. A man who overcomes despair in a time of disaster and keeps his eye upon the important matters in a day of confusion--does it count that we know a little of what he said, but notwhat he looked like?

In the first century men generally regarded religion as in irreducible historical reality. They for the most part did not try to explain itas a consequence of economic, social, or psychological causes. ForJews, Scripture embodied the record of man's genuine religious experience. They therefore looked into its ancient literature to find paradigmatic instruction on the nature of religion. They did so throughthe medium of disciplined exegesis, called midrash (from darash, tosearch). "The word of God is like fire," the Jewish sages taught, "andlike the hammer that breaks the rock into pieces." No word of Scripture could therefore fail to yield a particular nuance of light, and,properly understood, none was irrelevant to events at hand. Some . . .

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