Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Adler's The Origins of Judaism, Reviewed

I've been reading Yonatan Adler's book The Origins of Judaism (Yale, 2022), which I am finding very helpful and mostly persuasive. So I was interested to see that Jim Davila linked to a critical review of the book appearing in the Jerusalem Post and written by Ari Zivotofsky

To my mind, the review misunderstands the basic point of Adler's book. Zivotofsky seems to think that Adler wants to demonstrate that Judaism didn't exist before the second century BCE, or that the Pentateuch didn't exist until then, or that nobody had heard earlier of certain practices that have come to be associated closely with Judaism or Jewish identity (such as Sabbath observance and keeping kosher, etc.).

From the review: 

For example, Adler presents evidence that he claims demonstrates that the Torah's kosher dietary laws regarding forbidden species were not observed before the first century BCE. 


He then states that substantial numbers of non-kosher fish bones were found in and around Jerusalem in periods earlier than the second century BCE—proof, he says, that the Torah's dietary laws were not part of Jewish consciousness. 


Even if non-kosher fish bones prove lack of observance of dietary laws, they do not necessarily prove lack of awareness. Persian-era Nehemiah (13:16) sharply criticizes Judea's Jews: "And the Tyrians [who] abode therein were bringing fish and ... selling [them] on the Sabbath...." Thus non-kosher fish (whose remnants were found in a Jewish area) perhaps were eaten by non-Jewish merchants or purchased by non-observant but fully aware Jews.  

The reviewer is arguing that even if the Jews of Nehemiah's time did not observe the Torah's food laws, they may have been aware of those laws. This argument is intended as a criticism of Adler, but Adler does not argue any differently. Indeed, the reviewer repeatedly establishes Adler's case. 

Adler has no intention of arguing that the prescriptions of the Torah were unknown in Judah or Israel prior to the second century BCE. Instead, he seeks to show that there is no evidence that a variety of practices enjoined in the Torah were practiced among a large swathe of the Jewish population in an attempt to adhere to the Torah. All aspects of that sentence are important for Adler's thesis. He is looking for certain practices (kashrut, Sabbath rest, etc.), not knowledge of those practices. He is looking for widespread practice among the Jewish people, not among a distinct minority. And he is looking for practices that are motivated not by cultural norms but by adherence to the Torah. He shows repeatedly, in chapter after chapter, that it is the second century BCE when we have this kind of evidence. That does not mean that Jews did not observe the Sabbath before the second century BCE—or even that a widespread segment of the Jewish population did not observe the Sabbath in an effort to adhere to the Torah prior to the second century BCE—but we do not have evidence for such observance. Indeed, regarding the Sabbath command, we have explicit biblical evidence that not many Jews were observing the Sabbath in certain periods prior to the second century BCE (Jer 17:19–27; Neh 10:32; 13:15–22). They certainly knew about the Sabbath prohibitions, at least the ones who heard Nehemiah or Jeremiah yell at them about it, but they weren't practicing them. 

The reviewer insists that "A lack of adherence does not prove lack of knowledge...," which is true, but it does prove a lack of adherence. 

The reviewer disputes Adler's argument in regard to figural art, noting that later periods interpreted the Torah's proscriptions of images (such as in the Ten Commandments) differently from the common interpretation current in the first century CE and the immediately preceding centuries. But Adler himself had pointed this out on the first page of the chapter (p. 87) and in the last endnote of the chapter (p. 268 n. 126). 

About tefillin (the subject of Adler's chapter 4), the reviewer says:

Adler uses lack of evidence to "prove" that certain rituals did not exist, such as not finding evidence of tefillin earlier than the second century BCE. 

Contrast this interpretation of Adler with Adler's own concluding sentence of the relevant chapter: "No evidence for the observance of any practice resembling either tefillin or mezuzah is available from any time before the middle of the second century BCE" (p. 131). "No evidence for the observance" is true, if one follows the analysis of Adler, and I wonder if the reviewer—had he read Adler closely enough to realize what Adler is actually arguing—would dispute that conclusion. At any rate, "no evidence" is a far cry from the reviewer's claim that Adler seeks to prove non-existence for these rituals. According to the reviewer: "For Adler to argue that the absence of even older tefillin proves their nonexistence is fallacious." Indeed. 

One last quotation from the review: 

Finding a suggestion of lack of observance is not definitive proof of ignorance of the laws nor lack of observance among other contemporaneous Jews. Even a cursory reading of the Bible paints a picture of the masses not always following the Torah's rules; thus it is not surprising to discover evidence of laxity among the Iron Age II or Persian-era masses. 

Again, the reviewer makes half of Adler's point for him, which is the laxity. The other half of Adler's point: where is the evidence for fastidiousness among the Iron Age II or Persian-era masses when it comes to observing the Torah's laws? 

Now, admittedly, I said I'm reading Adler's book, so I haven't read all the way through it. Perhaps in later pages he will start making sweeping generalizations or giant leaps of logic, but I haven't seen it yet, nothing like what the reviewer attributes to him. Hitherto his argument is reminding me a lot of Morton Smith's 1971 book Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament, a book that does not appear in Adler's bibliography. The last chapter of Adler's book promises a historical reconstruction that requires some imagination, so we will see what he comes up with. 

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