Rabbi’s Study Corner: Beginnings of Judaism #1

This week, we launched The Beginnings of Judaism, a new Lifelong Learning series produced the The Teaching Company as part of its Great Lectures program. In this class on ancient Jewish history, we will explore the development of Judaism from the destruction of the First Temple in 587/86 BCE through the fall of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 770 CE. Taught by respected Hebrew University scholar Isaiah Gafni, the class will trace the way the Bible helped shape the consciousness of ancient Israel but was constantly reread and reinterpreted by each generation as it faced new realities and challenges.

Two examples that Professor Gafni offered stood out. Two of the central narratives in the Bible are Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, and the Exodus. The first story was not only about one man’s intense devotion to God; it was a paradigm for the willingness of Jews to make sacrifices in the face of trauma in each and every generation. The Exodus was not merely a tale about the birth of a nation; it was a metaphor for the possibility of redemption in every time of uncertainty and persecution. Read this way, these myths become larger than mere stories; they become symbols for a People’s reason to exist. In other words, the Bible isn’t meant to be history; it’s our story.

We also heard Dr. Gafni reference the ongoing interpretation of the Bible as an intentional exercise. He told the rabbinic legend of Moses transported into Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, where he sat in the back of the room and understood nothing. In this aggadah, Moses only takes comfort when he hears Akiva, pinned into a corner by tough questions, answer, “Halakhah leMoshe miSinai–it’s what Moses received on Mount Sinai.”

This is one of the most famous legends in all of rabbinic literature. Click here to read an excellent essay about this legend by our former scholar-in-residence, Dr. Noam Zion.


The next lecture, meeting Monday, January 26, is called New Challenges in the Late Biblical Period. I hope you’ll be able to join us. Stay tuned for more reflections in my Study Corner.