Monday, September 3, 2012

How Jewish are the Jews?

Reading an intriguing Israeli book (in translation of course), Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, (Verso) a 19-week bestseller in Tel Aviv in 2009.

Sand examines a figure that has always puzzled me: The statement (often seen) that the population of the Roman Empire c. 100 CE was seven or eight percent Jewish, and the notoriously broad spread of Jewish communities throughout Roman Asia, Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa, not to mention Egypt and Arabia, a community that included several converted Arab and Berber tribes and entire kingdoms (Yemen, Adiabene and — much, much later — Khazaria), that was not Hebrew-speaking and required the translation of the Bible into Greek c. 2nd century BCE, all descending somehow from the tiny Temple state that threw out the Seleucids in 2nd century BCE under the Maccabees (who went on to conquer, and forcibly convert, many neighboring entities for a century or so until Rome subsumed all).

Examining both the historical and the Talmudic evidence (I, of course, have read no Talmud, but Sand has), Sand claims that proselytization, far from being unusual, was very common in this era and passionately encouraged, that gentiles were converting to Judaism on all sides. The era was one where, as states and tribes lost their independence, local faiths lost their juice and people began to merge in new urban agglomerations, where they accordingly began to seek new, more universal religious faiths. Hundreds of such faiths (if not more) arose and faded, including the great Mystery cults of Life after Death (I have been told this is when an interest in such things was tacked on to Judaism, where it had not previously featured), the mix-and-match cults of Cybele, Bacchus, Orpheus, Isis, Serapis and Mithras, and of course this is the era that produced not merely the Septuagint but also both Talmuds — and the canonization of the Bible. Ultimately, a Jewish messianic spin-off group became Christianity, took over the Empire and outlawed all the other faiths — and then fell to pieces due to violent heretical disputes.

But until that happened (notes Sand), Judaism still fascinated many gentiles who often became converts, though circumcision was sometimes a sticking (hoho) point. Christianity was originally just Judaism without circumcision. Later, the Trinity developed. And whole kingdoms (Yemen in the fourth, fifth, sixth centuries, Adiabene near the Caspian Sea in the first century) professed Judaism. Sand also notes that the "exiles" of Jews (Nebuchadnezzar, Titus and Hadrian) only applied to the region immediately surrounding Jerusalem; the rest of Judah (Judaea) was not depopulated and the country people continued to practice their version of their ancient religion. (Babylon remained a Jewish metropolis until the Mongols destroyed it a thousand years later. So did Alexandria until it became Christian.)

This explains why so tiny a state could produce such a large and resilient Jewish population across North Africa, in Spain (where the Vizigoths persecuted them heartily), in Italy and Greece and Asia: Most of them were conversos. And it is from these, he infers, that most modern Jews are descended. He notes that this was an accepted theory in the early days of the Israeli state but has become less and less the approved national narrative in the course of half a century, especially since the occupation of the West Bank. For one thing it implies that many Palestinian Arabs, Christian and Muslim, are descended from Jewish peasants who converted over the centuries.

I'm not at all sure myself that the word "race" has any useful meaning (except several people running for the same goal line), and not all Sand's analysis of trends in modern nationalist myth-making in Europe convince me, but it is a fascinating book and explains better than anyone else I have read what was going on in the early Roman imperial centuries.

Perhaps it explains a little better who exactly my ancestors were.

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