I was having a discussion about priest roles, reconstruction of ancient ways, and so on, and commented that I think that people coming from a tribal-religion background in many ways have some of this easier. Their historical record doesn’t include entire cities participating in festivals, and stuff that’s built at village and family scale is a lot easier to put together the resources to approximate.
Which of course raises the question of how one might adapt a state-level religious practice to something that is more like a tribal one. And I commented to that, too, noting that I steal ideas from rabbinic Judaism.
And while that may be a hilarious thing to say, especially during Pesach, I actually think it’s a very informative one. Because you really, genuinely could not create modern Judaism from the Torah. Too much has changed in the world, and Talmud, midrash, halacha, all these things have grown up to navigate and comment upon those changes.
In the time of the Temple, Judaism was the religion of a nation. It was governed by people who also carried religious authority. (And the architectural symbology of the Temple itself bears no small resemblance to the architectural symbology of temples as constructed in Egypt!) The understanding of that religion had to evolve – through various periods of exile (“How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”) and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.
I find that evolution profoundly fascinating. The priests could no longer do temple service in the absence of the Temples, and in the end lost power. The religious authorities were no longer priests, but rabbis – a word meaning teacher. Instead of having divinely appointed status and a particular holiness code, a rabbi had put in the word of doing extensive textual study, both of the holy texts themselves and the commentaries of previous rabbis who attempted to make sense of those texts and the changing world, making extrapolations and judgements about them. Schools of thought and consensus of interpretation arose over time, as well as dissenting schools of thought and dissenting consensusesesuses. (Seriously, the heck is the plural of consensus?)
So in modern Judaism, there are rabbis, scholars of the religion, who are not more authoritative by some sacrament (as a Catholic priest might be) but rather because they have dedicated the time and study to learn the ins and outs of these ongoing discussions about the nature of Adonai and Adonai’s Law. They are like lawyers, that way, differing from ordinary folks more by educational focus than anything else. They are, to my understanding, not more qualified to perform religious rituals in any way other than knowledge, as the rituals themselves may actually be performed by any adult (male, in some branches of the argument) Jew of appropriate standing. (However, the sacramental-division assumption-based culture would balk at anyone being able to, say, perform a marriage, for some reason … see also the decline of common-law marriage, which is a moderate peeve of mine.)
But this is actually important: there is survival here, even if there is no nation. There is not only survival, there is flexibility, there is meaning, and there is tradition. And it is built, not on the dictates of holiness, but interpretation and discussion among people who come together on equal terms and wrestle with God. The priest caste may no longer rule the roost by default (though you will run into rather a few Rabbi Cohens), but that didn’t kill Judaism.
This is what I want to do. Rather than having Torah to wrestle with and interpret, I have surviving ritual texts, notes, letters to the dead, and the surviving laundry lists of an ancient empire. I have the interpretations of scholars as grist to the mill. I wrestle with them. I argue with them, and with others. I wrestle, too, with the Powers.
And this is one of the reasons I’m big on my footnoting and trying to make clear where things are coming from. It’s not just a Know Your Mortar thing, but fundamentally that I do not have a superior position of authority. I’m not in on any secrets that you can’t be in on too. If you agree with me, fantastic: we’re building a school of thought and a consensus towards something functional, adaptable, surviving. If you disagree with me, also fantastic: the gods I know are gods not of two things, but of millions. We can fruitfully explore the differences in our interpretations, trade source texts, and work from there, making each of our lines stronger for the exploration.
The point is not settling the argument. The Jewish people have been wrestling with God since Israel won his name. It is continuing, and challenging, and learning more about the ancient ways – and ourselves – and how both persist in this time, transformed. And it is knowing that the way one group of us resolves this puzzle will not be satisfactory to another group, and that this is part of the wealth that we have now, now that we have lost the temples and won the space to build our own tribes out in the vast span of all the world.