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The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith (2 volume-set)

by Louis Finkelstein

Bibliographic information

TitleThe Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith (2 volume-set)
AuthorLouis Finkelstein
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002
SubjectJewish Religious Thought
Pages1148


Description 

FROM FOREWORD TO THE SECOND EDITION

Pharisaism is the anomaly of religious history. Nationalist and ritualistic in origin, it became universal and philosophic in outlook. Though it admitted but thousands to formal membership, it included millions — of whom many were not Jews — among the believers in its doctrine. The Pharisees disappeared as an organized society in the third century of the Christian Era, but their influence on western spiritual thought still endures.

Two antagonisms, neither of which has any valid basis, stand in the way of a sociological study of Pharisaism. One is the antagonism between the social sciences and religion; the other is that among the religious faiths themselves.

The disregard of social science by the theologian has been due in large measure to misunderstanding. The facts, and even the theories of social science, are entirely consistent with religious teachings. The theories of the humble origin of religious ceremonial are no more disconcerting to the theologian than the theory of evolution. Even the doctrine of the material basis of the intellectual life is no denial of religion. Like other scientific observations and theories, it becomes a factor in the philosophy of religion, indicating for the religious thinker one of the ways in which human society has been impelled toward higher planes of civilization.

The hostility of some sociologists to religious thought is not inherent in the science. Humility comes to sciences, as to individuals, only with maturity. Given further development and more adequate research, the social sciences must inevitably prove as valuable to religious thought as the natural sciences. Indeed, social science may prove even more valuable; for the natural sciences can be helpful only in the development of religious philosophy, while the introspective sciences can advance also the technique of religious teaching.

The contribution which sociology can make to religion is illustrated by a study of the Pharisees. The sect came into being in the second century B.C.E., just before ancient civilization, having attained its complete expression in Greek philosophy and Roman imperial administration, began to show signs of decay. Factional in its beginnings, Pharisaism finally became the religion of the Jewish people. From them its major dogmas spread to the ends of the Roman empire. When the empire fell, the Pharisaic tradition helped preserve much of classical civilization from destruction.

Told as a simple chronicle, the story assumes the proportions of an epic. Its meaning is enhanced, rather than diminished, by sociological study which demonstrates that the founders of the sect built far better than they knew. Tradesmen of ancient Jerusalem, they thought they were banding together for the protection of their ritual. Actually, they were laying the foundations for a world civilization.

The sociological study of Pharisaism has been further impeded by the misunderstandings among the religious faiths. Dogmatic theology is rightly suspicious of partial agreement. The experience of centuries has taught religions to beware the dangers which lurk in half-truths. “Travelers from one religion to another,” Santayana wisely remarks, “people who have lost their spiritual nationality, may often retain a neutral and confused residuum of belief, which they may egregiously regard as the essence of all religion, so little may they remember the graciousness and naturalness of that ancestral accent which a perfect religion should have.” The very indebtedness of modern religions to Pharisaic doctrine has thus compelled theologians to stress the extent of their deviation from it. Nevertheless, there is so much common to all western, theistic religion — the doctrine of God and Man, the belief in the sanctity of truth, and the value of mercy — that the antipathy between the various religious traditions is tragic. Theological distinctions may be recognized and even stressed without being transformed into religious animosities. The recognition of the enduring value of the different religious traditions of the western world, both Jewish and Christian, is entirely consistent with an appreciation of their common heritage.

This thesis is not based on the assumption that the early Christians were members of the Pharisaic Order. Obviously they were not. But among the merits of Pharisaism was its ability to differentiate from the very beginning between acceptance of its dogma and adherence to the Order. The number of haberim, regularly enrolled Pharisees, was small; that of the co-workers of the Order was large, including the Essenes, the Therapeutae, the Sect of Damascus, and the early Christians.

Josephus was careful to draw this distinction between membership in the Order and the acceptance of its chief tenets, when he describes his own relation to Pharisaism (Life, 8).

The Alexandrian Jews who inquired of Hillel (the Pharisaic leader of Herod’s day) about the legality of their betrothal customs (Tosefta Ketubot 4.9) were like Josephus not members of the Order, but followers of its precepts. Had these Alexandrines been Pharisees, their betrothal customs would have been identical with those of Palestine. Their deviation from Palestinian custom marks them as non-Pharisaic; their inquiry to Hillel reflects their acceptance of the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law.

The Pharisaic movement thus transcended by far the Pharisaic Order. Nothing is more vital for an understanding of Palestinian religious history than a clear appreciation of this fact. The ability of the Pharisee to impress his doctrine on others without drawing them into the Order was a direct outgrowth of the discovery of religious dogma. The Pharisee did not demand universal obedience to his discipline. He sought primarily an admission of his philosophical truth and an acceptance of his universal ethics. To admit the belief in the Resurrection or the validity of the Oral Law was perhaps not as righteous as to accept the full “yoke of the Law.” But it was far better than associating oneself with the Sadducees by a denial of the Pharisaic doctrines. He who violated a Pharisaic interpretation transgressed the Law; he who rejected a major Pharisaic dogma lost his immortality.

This idea and the technique it introduced was as important in the history of religious teaching as the Macedonian phalanx in the history of military tactics. In this way the faith was spread, but was not diluted. The Pharisee of the second century of the Christian era was as firm, as devout, and as uncompromising, as his ancestor three hundred years earlier.

As Professor Frank Gavin and others have intimated, this form of organization was also adopted by the early Christian community. It, too, was a haburah, an association, which spread its doctrine to all, but admitted to its membership only the limited few.

But the relation of Church and Synagogue during the first century was even closer than that indicated by the similarity of doctrine and of organization. The two institutions were so intimately related, that the changes introduced in the one necessarily affected the other. Thus, the establishment of an obligatory evening service in the Synagogue was almost immediately followed by the establishment of a similar service in the early Church.

The intolerance of the Middle Ages did not entirely destroy this close relationship between the Church and the Synagogue. There is a similarity between their music, between many of the rites introduced into their worship, and even between many of their later forms of organization. The history of the rabbinical synods of the Middle Ages bears a close resemblance to that of the Church synods; there was a close association between the Jewish, Christian and Mohammedan scholastics; and there is even a suggestion in the Book of the Pious that the habits and ways of the Jews in the different communities varied as did those of their Christian neighbors.

To recognize the kinship of the faiths derived from the Prophets is not to advocate their reduction to any common denominator. The three faiths, and their subdivisions, have come into existence to fulfill purposes of which we can be only vaguely aware. But in view of the modern attacks on all theistic religion, the future strength and development of these faiths may depend as much on their cooperation as on the preservation of their individuality. Working together with the sciences, these faiths may be able to create the synthesis of science and theology needed to guide men out of the intellectual confusion of our time. The events of the last decade have demonstrated that science and liberalism cannot survive in a world bereft of religion; and that religion cannot survive in a world bereft of liberty and science.

Out of man’s present spiritual chaos may emerge an ordered, pluralistic universe of thought. It will be a universe in which the principle of federalism is applied to the realm of the spirit, as it has been to the realm of political life. Unity will be achieved with no sacrifice of liberty; cooperation without imposing uniformity.





About the Author 

Louis Finkelstein ---

Rabbi Louis Finkelstein was considered a dominant leader of Conservative Judaism. He served as the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from 1940 to 1972, during which time he helped transform the school into a major university, establishing the Cantor Institute, the Seminary College of Jewish Music, and a West Coast branch of the seminary. A scholar who promoted dialogue between religions, he founded the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, which was later renamed the Finkelstein Institute in his honor. He wrote a number of books, including New Light from the Prophets and The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith. He was also the editor of Sifre on Deuteronomy, The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, and American Spiritual Autobiographies.




Contents 

VOLUME I

FOREWORD TO THE FIRST EDITION

FOREWORD TO THE SECOND EDITION

FOREWORD TO THE THIRD EDITION

INTRODUCTORY NOTE TO THE THIRD EDITION

CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE

I. INTRODUCTION

II. PALESTINE AND ITS DIVISIONS

III. SOME TYPICAL VARIATIONS OF CUSTOM

IV. THE CUSTOMS OF JERICHO

V. THE ORIGIN OF THE PHARISEES

VI. THE URBANITY OF THE PHARISEES

VII. THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND OF THE PHARISAIC LEGISLATION

VIII. THE DOCTRINE OF THE RESURRECTION AND IMMORTALITY

IX. THE ANGELS

X. THE SIMPLE LIFE

XI. PROVIDENCE, DETERMINISM AND FREE WILL

XII. THE PLEBEIAN PARADOX

XIII. THE ORAL LAW

XIV. REVERENCE FOR MAN

XV. THE PROPHETIC IDEAL OF HUMAN EQUALITY

XVI. THE ORIGIN OF THE PROPHETIC DOCTRINE OF PEACE

XVII. THE DOCTRINE OF PEACE AND THE PROPHETIC MOVEMENT

VOLUME II

XVIII.THE IDEALS OF PEACE AND HUMAN EQUALITY DURING THE EXILE

XIX. SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONFLICT UNDER THE PERSIAN RULE

XX. THE STRUGGLE AGAINST ASSIMILATION: JUDAISM BECOMES THE SYNAGOGUE

XXI. HELLENISTS, HASIDEANS AND PHARISEES

SUPPLEMENT

I. THE UNIQUENESS OF PHARISAISM

II. THE BACKGROUND OF THE SADDUCEAN VIEWS

III. THE AM HA-AREZ

IV. THE ORIGIN OF THE SADDUCEES AND BOETHUSIANS AS SECTS

V. THE SOCIOLOGICAL BASIS OF THE CONTROVERSIES WITHIN PHARISAISM

ABBREVIATIONS

APPENDIX A. THE UNITY OF ISAIAH 40–66, AND THE PLACE AND DATE OF THE AUTHOR

APPENDIX B. THE MEANING OF EZEKIEL 1.1–2

APPENDIX C. ADDITIONAL CONTROVERSIES BETWEEN THE SECTS

NOTES

NOTES TO THE SUPPLEMENT

BIBLIOGRAPHY

INDEX TO PASSAGES

INDEX TO SUBJECTS



Excerpt 

Ethicists rather than metaphysicians, the Pharisees found the combination of the two opposing formulae convenient and helpful. If a man tried to further his material interests by ordinary methods of prudence, the Pharisee smiled at his naïveté in thinking that he could achieve success without the aid of God. “There is no wisdom, nor counsel, nor understanding, in opposition to the Lord.” Human judgment itself was but an instrument in the hands of God. But if anyone tried to draw the conclusion that man was not responsible for his acts, the Pharisee insisted that he was. In the words of R. Akiba: “All is foreseen, but freedom is granted.”

Josephus tries to explain this paradox in a wordy passage, which really adds nothing to R. Akiba’s terse apothegm. Josephus says: “While they [the Pharisees] hold that all things are done by Fate, they do not deny the freedom of men to act as they see fit. Their notion is that it has pleased God to create such a temperament whereby what He wills is done, yet so that the choice is given men to pursue vice or virtue.”

In another passage, written at an earlier time, Josephus had offered a simpler explanation of the difficulty inherent in the Pharisaic view. He there says: “The Pharisees ascribe everything to Fate and to God; yet they maintain that it lies principally with man to do what is right or otherwise; although Fate shares in every action.” This interpretation, too, has its talmudic parallel in the dictum: “All is in the hands of God, save the fear of God.”

But neither the ingenuity of the Talmud nor the prolixity of Josephus could resolve the difficult puzzle which still persists as a perplexing problem until this day. We shall probably never know—at least not till man has evolved far beyond his present capacities—whether the paradox is inherent in the mind at a certain stage in its development, or in the universe itself. Looking at himself from within, the ancient plebeian of Jerusalem, like his successor in the modern industrial world, saw his acts proceeding from personal volition and choice. But then rising out of himself and gazing back, with the objectivity which he used to scrutinize his neighbor, he discovered how little in his life was a matter of decision and how much of pure chance. Heredity, environment, family connections, physical appearance, accidental injuries and escapes, seemed to play a determining part in human life. The paradox to which the Pharisee cleaved thus seemed as natural to him as the air he breathed; he could not tell, any more than we can, how much of it represented objective reality and how much subjective delusion. Prophetic vision or mephitic nightmare, it was inescapable. His comparative poverty prevented him from admitting the principle that “if you wish it you can be successful”; and on the other hand, his freedom from clan, family, and tribal connections, left his ego exposed, incapable of hiding under the protecting covers of a social group.

Among the provincials outside of Jerusalem, the whole problem never arose. There the individual still lay hidden in the womb of his clan, not even desiring to be born. The conception of human freedom was naturally alien to a people who did not yet recognize their ego.

Among the poorer farmers of the Judean hills arose the order of Essenes who, according to Josephus, were scattered over the country in small communistic groups, tended together their little farms, and asked from the earth nothing more than enough to sustain life. These Essenes had been won away from their rural complacency by Pharisaic teachers, but like many pupils they had gone beyond their masters, carrying the received doctrine to its logical conclusion. They found the doctrine of determinism which they had received in their country communities, natural and logical. Being unworried by the individualism of the metropolitan Pharisees, they could assert without any qualification that “fate determines all things and that nought befalls man but what is according to its determination.”

As the Pharisaic Order spread among the people of Judea and counted within itself all “but the wealthiest” nobles, it was inevitable that it should divide on the question of determinism, as on the question of angels. The forces which had made the pre-Maccabean patricians and the Sadducees believe in human effort, operated also among the Pharisees when they developed a patrician wing. The whole Pharisaic Order accepted as a matter of course the doctrine of faith and Divine Providence. But they disagreed regarding the manner in which Providence operates in human life. The plebeian Pharisees insisted that the future is not in man’s hands to change, either through prudence or through piety. Man must be willing to entrust it entirely to God’s mercies. The patrician faction of the Order held that while human prudence, such as the Sadducees depended on, might fail, piety was an effective means of changing one’s fortunes, and that even foresight had its place in the ethical life. To strengthen their position, the plebeians developed into a fundamental principle of their faction the ancient teaching of the merit of the fathers (zekut abot), which seemed necessarily to imply the pre-determination of man’s fate. The patricians, rejecting the principle, pointed to the many biblical passages which explicitly denied that the virtue of ancestors can help descendants. The oldest recorded controversy on the subject, among the Pharisees, is that between the two leading scholars of the middle of the first century B.C.E., Shemayah and Abtalyon. Shemayah insists that the Red Sea was opened before the Israelites in reward for the faith which Abraham displayed; Abtalyon, the patrician, maintains that the miracle was caused by the merit of the Israelites themselves.

It is altogether probable that this controversy regarding the ancient history of their people was associated with different policies of these scholars toward contemporary events; and that it is recorded for that reason. Nevertheless the positions which they take are entirely in accord with the traditional theologies of their classes.

This is evident from a study of the teaching of the later patrician sages. A hundred years after Shemayah and Abtalyon, Akabiah ben Mahalalel, the foremost Pharisaic patrician of his day, when asked by his son for a recommendation to the other sages, answered, in what seems to have been a maxim, “Thy deeds will bring thee near, and thy deeds will remove thee.”

In the following generation, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and R. Joshua ben Hananya discussed the application of the principle to national policy. R. Eliezer maintained that “if the people of Israel repent and do good deeds they will be redeemed, otherwise they will not be redeemed.” Joshua insisted that they would be redeemed in either event. But, as usual, it remained for the scholars of the next generation, R. Akiba and R. Ishmael, to formulate the opposing doctrines into philosophical ideas. R. Akiba said, “A father determines the fate of his son in five respects: in regard to beauty, strength, riches, wisdom, and longevity.” This was denied by his colleagues, who would only agree that the child’s fate depended on his father during minority. “Where have you seen,” R. Akiba asked them, “a person who was blind when he was a minor and suddenly gained his sight at puberty?” Yet this would naturally happen frequently if children suffered for their parents’ sins during their minority, but were freed from the incubus when they reached their majority.

As the schools of Ishmael and Akiba developed, they continued their controversy regarding the doctrine of Zekut Abot, and the midrashim which emanate from the rival schools have perpetuated the difference in their explanations of a whole series of biblical verses.

On the other hand, R. Akiba was compelled to defend the traditional plebeian paradox of Providence plus Freedom against the provincials who, accepting the principle of Providence, were inclined to limit the scope of human choice even in ethics. The leader of these was the Galilean sage, Simeon ben Azzai, Akiba’s son-in-law. He taught that “freedom is granted only in the sense of the verse, ‘So far as concerneth the scorners, He addeth to their scorn; but unto the righteous, He giveth grace’” (Prov. 3.34). The verse implies that if a man desires to study the Torah a little, he will be given opportunity to study it much; if he desires to forget even a little of it, he will be made to forget much more. Putting the same thought more succinctly, he said: “The reward of observance is that it leads to more observance; the punishment of sin, that it leads to further sin.” With even greater emphasis, he denied the effectiveness of piety or prudence on man’s life. “By thy name,” he said, “shalt thou be called; in thy place shalt thou be seated; and thine own shall be given thee. No man can touch that which is prepared for his fellow; and no kingdom can take a hair’s breadth of what is destined for its neighbor.”

Akiba admitted the power of habit, but could not see how that affected his doctrine of freedom in the moral sphere. “The attraction of sin,” he said, “is at first as fee- ble as a spider’s thread; but ultimately it becomes as powerful as a ship’s cable.”

In agreement with this teaching, Simeon ben Zoma, Akiba’s younger colleague, remarked, “Who is strong? He who rules his passions (yezer).”

While the plebeians disagreed among themselves regarding the place of free will in their system, there was one subject regarding which they had no doubt—the futility of prudence, and hence of anxiety. Of their great sage, Hillel, it is recorded that on one occasion, returning to his native city, he saw a large crowd massed in the market place, uttering painful and pathetic cries. It was obvious that some accident had occurred, and Hillel’s companions were anxious for the safety of their families. The saint alone retained his equanimity. “I know that there is nothing wrong in my home,” he quietly remarked to his followers. And with that assurance he proceeded into the city to inquire after the cause of the commotion.




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