Judaism, Surviving or Thriving?


Yerushalmi: Hc Svnt Dracones

In ancient times, writers would draw monsters, dragons, and all manner of fearsome beasts at the edge of their maps. This often signified that there was no knowledge of that darkly unknown area, and thus it was frightening to go there, or even think of going there. There was even a term for this in Latin: hc svnt dracones, (pronounced: hic sunt dracones) which means “there be dragons” as you could see on this map at the edge of East Asia, below India. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunt%E2%80%93Lenox_Globe

So it is with learning Talmud Yerushalmi (as opposed to Bavli which is the standard). Yerushalmi is the deep unknown, the place where one none dare enter because “hic sunt dracones”– there are dragons. Let us then dare enter it, and give a closer look, and perhaps we shall learn that the dragon is guarding a great treasure.

The Gemara in Tractate Baba Metzia (45a) says that when Rabbi Zeira traveled to Israel (arriving from Babylonia) he fasted 100 fasts to forget his Torah from Babylonia. He didn’t want it distracting from his learning in Israel.

What!? Why?

The Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin (24a) records a verse from Eicha (Lamentations 3:6) “He has placed me in darkness like the eternally dead.” Rabbi Yirmiyah comments that it is referring to Talmud Bavli, that it is dark like the dead. Shocking stuff! Let us first say that he wasn’t simply referring to the literal text of the Talmud, for indeed, the text as such had not been finalized and codified. Rather he is referring to the mindset and general intellectual framework of the Babylonian approach to Torah study.

This does not sound like a positive assessment, although there is way to interpret it so that Rabbi Yirmiyah was in fact being charitable in his assessment of the Bavli (e.g. Rabbeinu Chananel). But we can easily identify what Rabbi Yirmiyah actually meant by investigating Rabbi Yirmiyah throughout the Talmud. In five separate places Rabbi Yirmiyah demonizes his former neighbors with the statement: “Foolish Babylonians”. In Tractate Pesachim (34b) Rabbi’ Yirmiyah says “Foolish Babylonians! Because they live in a dark land, they state murky teachings.” We see here the real connection between his assessment that Babylon was a dark place intellectually, and his criticisms of them. The commentary Riaz says on this Gemara in Pesachim that Torah scholarship was hampered by the fact that they were away from the center of Torah study in Israel. Indeed, in three of the five instances where Rabbi Yirmiyah criticizes the foolish Babylonians, it is because they did not know some bit of information that was known in Israel.

Let us then attempt to figure out the difference between Bavli and Yerushalmi, or more generally, the difference between Torah from Israel and that of the exile in diaspora. I would posit as follows: The Torah in Israel is fundamentally more comprehensive, and therefore more authentic. The Torah of Israel deals with, and is immersed in, matters of the Temple, monarchy, state, the military, agriculture, and matters that involve the full range of Jewish life, not the narrower, parochial emphasis that is found in the Judaism of the exile.

The wide-ranging Torah that we pledge our fealty to have instructions and lessons for living life in a far more wholesale manner that a visitor from Mars would be led to believe. The Torah, as written, in fundamentally anchored, geographically and institutionally, to Israel. The walls and watchtowers that protected Jerusalem were mandated by Jewish Law. Farming was governed by various regulations. The placement of cities and road signs falls under legal religious jurisdiction. The size of the king’s cavalry was within the purview of Biblical injunction. To name but a few.

For some two thousand years Jews have not been building walls and watchtowers. We have not been establishing national governments and mobilizing armies. The Jews have not been making war and peace. This is from a bygone era. (Perhaps this bygone era has been created anew, but that is the subject of a future write-up, assuming, of course, that the editor of this site invites me back.)

We must be reminded that the Torah that we experience in exile: in Warsaw and Krakow and Amsterdam and London, is the watered-down version, not the full-throated Israeli edition. It is a stop-gap measure of Judaism that was created to deal with the Exile in the diaspora. Exile Judaism is a Judaism of surviving, Israel Judaism is a Judaism of thriving.

Judaism of Surviving or Thriving (PDF)

Author: 004


  1. What a thought provoking brilliantly written article. Definitely food for thought. Can’t wait for the next installment.


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