Becoming Tribal

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.


5 thoughts on “Becoming Tribal

  1. helmsinepu says:

    In some senses, an imam would be similar to a rabbi, if I understand correctly. A religious scholar who holds services. If so, that’s at least two traditions from the area pointing in this direction.

    “…the gods I know are gods not of two things, but of millions…” That’s a wonderful quote!

  2. henadology says:

    In the Ptolemaic era, when the pharaoh was Macedonian, and rarely left Alexandria, or under the Empire, when the role was symbolically occupied by a Caesar ruling entirely from Rome, specific ritual functions of the office were sometimes performed by sacred animals, such as the living sacred hawk at Edfu, while over the longer term, the powers of the pharaoh began to devolve upon scribes, a process accelerated by the loss of state sponsorship for the temples and consequent forced “privatization” of ritual activity. (Frankfurter writes about these issues in his book “Religion in Roman Egypt”.) This process of adaptation, which began well before Christian hegemony, is very similar to what happened in Judaism, also in response to the decoupling, so to speak, of state power and sacred authority.

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      Dude. Awesome. I’m not completely nuts with this.

      (Also…? Shit, more books I clearly need to get. Damnit, I was doing such a good job of not paying attention to the Late Period and after, it was cheaper that way….)

      I did know that a lot of the religious Stuff carried on up until it was forcibly put down as a sort of underground movement, at least….

  3. E.M. says:

    I’d like to correct you. You speak of an “evolution”, saying: “The religious authorities were no longer priests, but rabbis – a word meaning teacher.”

    There always were rabbis. All our sages were Rabbis! One of the 613 commandments of the Torah is to learn Torah. You always had teachers who taught Torah.

    Going from Priesthood to Rabbinate was not a step in some evolution. Till today we have the priests and we have the rabbis.

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