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Imperial Eschatology in Byzantine Christian and Jewish Literature

December 1st, 2011

Review of  Alexei M. Sivertsev, Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 247 pages. By Alexandria Frisch In Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity, Alexei M. Sivertsev examines eschatological Jewish texts, such as piyyutim and midrashic collections, dating from the fifth through eighth centuries CE in their larger Byzantine imperial context. In doing so, Sivertsev situates himself within a group of scholars (e.g. Biale, Boustan, Schäfer, and Himmelfarb) who have endeavored to understand Byzantine Jewish literature as constructed in large part in reaction to the dominant imperial discourse, variously imitating, appropriating, rejecting, or subverting that discourse. Throwing his analytical hat into the ring, Sivertsev argues that the Jewish discourse about the future messianic age integrated imperial eschatology much more than it sought to overturn it, even going so far as to claim ownership of the imperial schema. What made the imperial ideology so adaptable to Jewish interests is that by the fifth century CE the empire was officially a Christian empire, one that had combined “Roman imperial universalism with the messianic universalism of the Hebrew Bible as well as early Christian millenarian expectations” (10). The resulting eschatology, therefore, envisioned no end to imperial rule.  Instead, the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity assured it would continue until the advent of the messianic era and indeed be the foundation upon which the kingdom of heaven would be built, making the two practically synonymous. For example, the Christian theologian Theodore Syncellus considered Byzantium to be the true Israel and Constantinople the New Jerusalem. The profound importance of Israel and Jerusalem in this messianic order, in turn, meant that Byzantine Jews could develop “their own supersessionist narrative that both internalized and inverted a traditional Christian Roman supersessionism” (13). Thus, in Byzantine Jewish literature the Roman Empire remained intrinsic to the eschatological scheme, but, instead of being part of the last universal kingdom, Rome paved the way for the restored Davidic kingdom of Israel.  For Sivertsev, this is best exemplified in the interpretations of the biblical story of Esau and Jacob (hence, the title of his first chapter, “Esau, Jacob’s Brother”). According to Genesis Rabbah, Esau, symbolizing Christian Rome, necessarily has a special brotherly connection to Jacob, or Israel. Esau/Rome exits his mother’s womb first and readies the world with his own sovereignty for the ultimate rule of Jacob/Israel. In other words, for the Jews of the Byzantine world, the existence of the Roman Empire was not an impediment, but a necessary precursor to the renewal of Israel. The relationship of Esau and Jacob is a motif commonly deployed within both Jewish and Christian literature to understand the correlation between the two faiths (although in Christian texts Esau is Judaism). Sivertsev joins a multitude of scholars who have studied this brotherly theme, many of whom have used it to delineate the development of Judaism and Christianity. Both rabbinic texts and the New Testament evince an understanding of Christianity as emerging from Judaism, but then becoming a distinct religious movement early in the Common Era.  With the discovery of such texts as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library, however, scholars have dismissed this paradigm as too simplistic and have instead opted for an understanding of the two religions as separating much more gradually, termed “the parting of the ways.” In more recent years, scholars have questioned even this gradual notion of “parting” (see Boyarin 2004; Becker and Reed 2007) and have emphasized the fluidity of religious identity and the continued interaction between Jews and Christians throughout Late Antiquity and even into the early Medieval period, an interaction that mutually shaped each religion. It is surprising, therefore, that Sivertsev does not explicitly position his own argument within this discussion. What I would offer as Sivertsev’s inherent and important contribution to the “parting” discussion comes across most significantly in his understanding of the relationship of the messianic expectations of Byzantine Judaism to earlier Jewish traditions. While his assessment that “eschatological themes were without precedent in pre-Destruction literature” (44) seems rather extreme, Sivertsev highlights such strong parallels between imperial and Jewish eschatology that pre-Destruction and early post-Destruction Jewish apocalypticism hardly enters into the picture. When it does come into focus, however, it is clearly not the most fitting precursor. For example, in reviewing the image of the Messiah in Byzantine Jewish texts in chapter five, “King Messiah,” Sivertsev identifies the common conception that the messianic royal seat will be in the Temple. While biblical and Second Temple texts do assign the Messiah a kingly status and even a throne, they place his throne elsewhere in the palace and in heaven, respectively. The Temple throne, instead, was coopted from the Byzantine imperial court, which, although located in a palace, was architecturally modeled on ecclesiastical ceremonial chambers. Thus, Sivertsev’s general comparative discussion allows him to conclude that “Byzantine Jewish texts were deeply steeped in uniquely Byzantine imperial symbolism, borrowed not directly from the Hebrew Bible or later rabbinic tradition but from the Byzantine narrative of their own day” (214). As such, Judaism and Imperial Ideology implicitly gives greater contextualization to the parting of Christianity and Judaism. While the former was the religion of the empire and the latter that of one of many minority groups living within the empire’s borders, their understanding of the divine empire to come was remarkably similar. Their eschatological ways, as Sivertsev has demonstrated, had clearly not parted. Alexandria Frisch, a former CJL fellow, is a PhD candidate in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department of New York University.  Previously she received a Masters in Religion from Yale Divinity School (2006) and a Masters in Jewish Education from Baltimore Hebrew University (2004).  Her dissertation focuses on the conceptualization of the time, space, and power of foreign empires as seen in Second Temple literature.

The Rabbinic Fetus as Israel

March 22nd, 2011

by Alexandria Frisch Review of Conceiving Israel: The Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives by Gwynn Kessler (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) 248 pages. In Conceiving Israel, Gwynn Kessler turns our modern-day fascination with the beginning of life into an exploration of the rabbinic interest in the fetus as seen in rabbinic narratives. But, as Kessler states repeatedly, this book is not meant to read the rabbinic fetus in light of our current debates about issues such as abortion or vice versa.  Instead, she reads the fetus as found primarily in the Yerushalmi, Bavli, and aggadic midrashim against the antecedents in the Hebrew Bible, and, when parallels exist, in the context of contemporaneous Greco-Roman and patristic sources.  She concludes that the rabbinic view of the fetus is sharply different from Greco-Roman, Christian, and even biblical views. As compared with the Bible, which does not even have a specific word for fetus, rabbinic literature abounds with fetuses.  In the stories that Kessler cites, fetuses talk, sing, study Torah, and praise God.  God, in turn, makes them an integral part of Revelation as, in the case of one midrashic text, the bellies of the pregnant women at Mount Sinai turn to glass in order for God to peer in at the fetuses and ask them to guarantee the covenant. Elsewhere, Creation is reenacted through fetuses, as God is the driving force behind conception, more so than even their parents. Where there is a mention of fetuses, there is a mention of the role of God, a connection that Kessler terms, “theologizing procreation” (102). This is what makes the rabbinic fetus unique. These stories, therefore, “are important textual sites where the rabbis reveal that which is most foundational to rabbinic Israel -- its covenantal relationship with God – by projecting it onto the fetus, a symbol for Israel as it takes shape” (29). In making this point, Kessler situates herself within a group of scholars (e.g. Herr, Fonrobert, Kalmin, Porton, Boyarin, and Berkowitz) who have used particular motifs in order to explore the rabbinic self-perception as Israel. In short, these scholars view the rabbis as weaving discourses that, on the surface, seem to be about the topic at hand – foreign government, gentiles and converts, heretics, capital punishment, or fetuses – but, in reality, are actually sites onto which the rabbis have projected and worked out their concerns about their own identity. Kessler, however, argues that these previous studies have tended to focus on how the rabbis construct Israel in relation to those who are not Israel; by looking outside their community, the rabbis theorize about the inside of their community. But Kessler offers a new angle for study, one in which we see the rabbis turning inwards to look at fetuses and, thereby, themselves. The advantage of this is that the rabbis can use the fetus to express beliefs that, unlike practices, are not so easily depicted in stories with actual human actors. Instead, the fetus stories are able to highlight “the belief in God as the God who brought Israel forth – from Egypt and the womb –  and who revealed, and continues to reveal, the Torah to Israel” (39). This novel approach, then, opens up the possibilities for future thematic studies that move beyond understanding the rabbis via their relationship to the “other” or through their external actions. The result is that the reader is left eagerly wondering what other motifs are waiting to be explored. The profound influence of Kessler’s work, therefore, lies not in what we learn about fetuses in rabbinic literature (although that does make for an interesting read), but in Kessler’s efforts to re-conceptualize the state of the field. Part of that entails engaging with the “parting of the ways” debate, a debate that centers on defining the split between Judaism and Christianity. Whereas Judaism was once seen as the parent of Christianity, scholars have increasingly sought to see the two religions as siblings that continually influenced one another. Kessler challenges this contention through a comparison with patristic texts, demonstrating that the two communities did not always have contact and, when they did, the rabbinic exegetical maneuvers were not always motivated by anti-Christian polemics. For example, in a well-known fifth-century CE midrash, Genesis Rabbah 63, about Jacob and Esau fighting in their mother’s womb, Esau clearly represents Christian Rome, which would seem to suggest a polemic. But Kessler points out that Esau acts pagan by worshipping idols, prompting her to posit, “That the rabbis chose to portray prenatal Jacob struggling with prenatal pagan Esau, or at least Esau as much idol-worshipper as Jesus-worshipper, should caution against the notion of Christianity as an all-encompassing or all-consuming force throughout rabbinic literature” (61). While Kessler does not explicitly say so, this outlook most likely accounts for the absence of Jesus in this book.  Given the centrality of original sin and the virgin birth in Christianity, one would anticipate that these would play at least some role in rabbinic constructions of conception, but Kessler only briefly touches on them. Kessler’s methodology is similar in regard to Greco-Roman sources and, here too, she is concerned with moving away from scholars’ concerns with the degree of external influence.  While rabbinic thought does exhibit similarities with classical thinkers, such as Aristotle, she admonishes, “what worries or preoccupies the rabbis is not so much Greeks, but God” (87).  Looking too hard for influence can cause us to miss the real point of the text. One issue in rabbinic scholarship that Kessler does not weigh in on is the relationship between aggadic and halakhic texts. The scope of Conceiving Israel is limited to narrative texts, but one wonders what the implications are for legal texts dealing with fetuses. Kessler does not hesitate to read one story in light of another, stating that she assumes that “if the fetus illuminates Israel in one context, it does so too in the other” (9).  Is it possible that her reading of the fetus as a motif for Israel and its relationship with God carries over into legal texts as well? If so, do the stories give added force or importance to the law? This question is not easily answerable, but demonstrates yet another way that this book sparks methodological and theoretical questions that extend beyond the book (and the fetus) itself and into the field of rabbinic literature at large. Alexandria Frisch, a second year fellow at the CJL, is a PhD candidate in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department of New York University.  Previously she received a Masters in Religion from Yale Divinity School (2006) and a Masters in Jewish Education from Baltimore Hebrew University (2004).  Her dissertation focuses on the conceptualization of the time, space, and power of foreign empires as seen in Second Temple literature.