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Galut

How did the Jews survive their exile?

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As we read in earlier articles, the Jews were truly spread worldwide, driven from country to country by waves of persecution. For each country that banished them from their borders, another reluctantly absorbed them. But how did they live and how did they flourish in these strange lands? What was it that kept them together as a distinct people, knowing that assimilation – absorption into the general population – would have been a better bet for individual, if not racial, survival.

The one thing that they had that bound them together was the Torah, the teachings. To understand this, first we need to define what we mean. In the first instance the Torah is the first five books of Moses, referred to by the Jewish people as the Chumash, or the Pentateuch, which are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Sometimes the definition is extended to include the whole Hebrew Bible, called the Tanakh, the Old Testament. It can also include the oral (spoken) as well as the written law, bringing other Jewish writings such as the Mishna, the Midrash and the Talmud into the equation.

This final definition is the one most used by Orthodox Jews, Jews who take their religion the most seriously. They would define the Torah as both the initial reason for Galut, the exile, and the reason for its continuation. The Torah was entrusted to the Jews as a sacred responsibility and their failures to meet its demands resulted in Galut. That is the accepted position within Judaism. The continuation of exile is also attributed to their self-confessed failure to spread Torah principles to the nations that surround them, to be a blessing to the nations. That’s how they consider the working out of the Abrahamic Covenant, as defined in Genesis 12:2-3.

So Torah was both a blessing and a curse to them. It provided them with a strict moral framework for living as strangers and pariahs in foreign communities. It ensured a high degree of literacy and cleanliness, setting them apart from the ignorant, superstitious masses who viewed them with such disdain. But it ironically worked against them too. Jews were accused of creating the Black Death simply because their higher standards of hygiene ensured that fewer Jews succumbed to it, though this didn’t stop 20,000 of them being killed for supposedly poisoning the wells.

A cornerstone of the Jewish community in Galut was and is the family home. In the absence of a Temple, the rabbis referred to the home as a substitute, a place of sanctuary, set aside for holy purposes, such as prayer, study and serving the community. The Sabbath and Festivals, in particular, drew these elements together, with the dinner table as central focus. As well as eating and drinking, the other sacraments of Bible study, songs of praise and prayer took place around this table. It cemented the family together, with the father as head, his wife at his side, making sure the next generation receive adequate instructions in the way of Torah. Every father took on this responsibility as a sacred duty, a duty thoroughly validated by biblical teaching.

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children …” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

Although Jewish people through the ages have kept their identity and distinctiveness as a community bound by the Torah, the last 60 years or so has seen many changes. As the world opens up and communities mix more freely, Jews are diffusing into the culture of their host nations, taking on their morality and ethical framework. Although there are still strongholds of Jewish orthodoxy, holding onto the (perceived) restrictions of Torah, each new generation of Jews are sucked further into the secular society, with as much danger of losing their distinctiveness as other immigrant communities, such as the Asian one. In Medieval times almost 100% of Jews in Europe would have been observant of the Torah – what we today would call orthodox – but that figure has now dropped to around 10%. The rest either celebrate their religion in a more “culturally-sensitive” sense, as liberal Jews or would just not celebrate their Judaism at all, save for the occasional Passover, Yom Kippur and a weekly subscription for their burial plot.

For Christians who may still be wondering about what possible role Jews could have in God’s plans during the Galut, when the Church considered them cursed and hated by God, consider this – without them and their faithfulness and their stubbornness, you would not have the Bible today in its current form. I am not referring to the original writers of the Bible, but the driven, obsessed people who painstakingly again and again made copies of aged manuscripts, ensuring that, by the time Bibles, such as the King James Bible, were printed in English, the Old Testament portion was guaranteed virtually 100% free of error. Meet the Masoretes, Jewish scribes from the 1st Century to the 9th Century.

There’s no room here to give their whole story but just one aspect of their working practice will serve to illustrate their contribution to Biblical scholarship. Consider the fact that, when copying from an old scroll to a fresh parchment, no word or letter could be copied from memory and, if a single tiny mistake was made, the parchment would be destroyed and they would start again. Thank goodness our standards have dropped, otherwise this particular book would never have reached you, if I had to scrap my work every time I made a mistake! This behaviour of the Masoretes may seem over obsessive to us, but it ensured that the manuscripts that were used as sources for the Bibles that we read today were extremely accurate, a fact that has been born out since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

For the next article in this series, click here.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

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