From July ’08 Spotlight: The recent death of actor Charlton Heston set me to brooding about Rome, so when I learned that “The Teaching Company” had added a new course by Isaiah Gafni to its catalogue, I ordered it immediately. Gafni, the author of Land, Center and Diaspora: Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity, is the Sol Rosenbloom Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Beginnings of Judaism (Gafni’s twelve-hour audio course for The Teaching Company) is anchored by two critical events: the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.
The image of Heston as “Judah Ben-Hur,” dragged from his Jerusalem home in chains and marched over the desert sands by Roman soldiers, terrified me as a child.
Gafni describes waves of earlier conquests by Assyrians, Macedonians, Ptolemies, and Seleucids, all of them also exporting enslaved Jews to foreign lands, although the massive scale of the Babylonian exile (in which approximately 10,000 Judean priests, officers, warriors, and community leaders were transported to what is now Iraq) was an historical anomaly.
But, as Gafni explains, the Diaspora grew by “pull” as well as “push.” By the time of his death in 323 B.C.E., Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world, and the imposition of Hellenistic frameworks enabled trade routes to expand as never before. Even as the Romans conquered Judea in 63 B.C.E., Jewish communities were building synagogues in cities along the North African coast; Jewish merchants were finding their way to the Crimean and Iberian Peninsulas; and a large Jewish population had already settled in the city of Rome itself.
According to Gafni, the painful process of adaptation begun during the Babylonian captivity enabled the Jewish people to thrive in the Diaspora, and then to survive as a people after the Second Temple was sacked: “The lessons that Jews would have to learn after their initial dispersion around the Middle East go to the heart of understanding Judaism, and the complex makeup of Judaism, which at times is a faith but at times is a land-oriented religion,” Gafni told me by e-mail. “We Jews have juggled these two components of our self-identity for centuries, and we still do so today.”
To order Gafni’s lectures (available on CD and DVD as well as audio download), visit The Teaching Company website: www.teach12.com.
Photo of Heston as “Judah Ben-Hur” enslaved: Picture-Alliance/Newscom