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CHAPTER XIII.

THE TALMUD.

The Law, with that calmness of mind that it produced, acted like a sedative which quickly restored serenity to the troubled spirit of Israel. The Jewish quarters of the West do not appear to have suffered much from the follies of their co-religionists of the East. Even in the East peaceable Israelites had not participated in the strife, and soon became reconciled to the conquerors. Some ventured to believe that heaven was favourable to the Romans, and that, after all, the Law, when it was strictly observed in families, always gave the Jews a modus vivendi. Thus order was re-established in Syria sooner than one might have thought. The fugitives from Jerusalem went either to the East to Palmyra, or else into the South towards Yemen, or else to Galilee. That latter country above all received a new impulse from the emigration, and for centuries afterwards remained an almost exclusively Jewish country.

After the extermination of the year 67, Galilee had been lost to Judaism for some time. Perhaps the revolt of 117 was the reason that the beth-din was 128transported thither. After the defeat of Bar-Coziba, the inhabitants who had been driven from the South took refuge there in a body and repopulated the villages, and then the beth-din became definitely Galilean. That tribunal had its seat first of all at Ouscha, then in the villages near Sephoris, at Schefaram, at Beth-Shearim, and at Sephoris itself; then it was established at Tiberias, and was not moved till the Mussulman conquest. Whilst Darom was almost forgotten and its schools were declining, whilst even Lydda was falling with wretchedness and ignorance, and was losing the right of fixing the embolismic calculations, Galilee became the centre of Judaism. Meïron, Safat, Gischala, Alma, Casioun, Kafr-Baram, Kafr-Nabarta, Ammouka, were the chief localities of this new development, and were filled with Jewish monuments, and these, nearly all of them reverenced in the Middle Ages as tombs of the prophets, can still be seen in the midst of a country which for the third and fourth time has become desert and desolate. Tiberias was, in a measure, the capital of that kingdom of disputation and subtlety where the last remains of original Jewish activity were exhausted.

In fact, in that tranquil country, restored to its favourite retired and studious life, the family life and that of the synagogue, Israel definitely renounced its earthly visions, and sought the kingdom of God, not like Jesus in the ideal, but in the rigorous observance of the Law. From that time forward proselytism disappears by degrees from amongst that people who had been its most ardent followers. A law of Antoninus put a stop to the restrictive measures of Hadrian, and allowed the Jews to circumcise their children; but Modestinus the lawyer draws attention to the fact that such permission applied only to their own children, and exposed those who should perform that operation on any one who was not a Jew to capital 129punishment. Only some madmen, the Siccani, continued their religious ambush, and forced the unhappy wretches whom they could surprise in their houses to choose between circumcision and the dagger. The majority knew nothing of these aberrations. It renounced heroism, and made martyrdom useless by those clever distinctions between the precepts which may be transgressed in order to save one’s life and those for which one must suffer death. And from this sprung a singular spectacle: Judaism, which had given the first martyr to the world, now left the monopoly of it to Christians, so much so that in certain persecutions Christians might be seen figuring as Jews, so that they might enjoy the immunities of Judaism. The latter only had martyrs whilst it was revolutionary; as soon as it renounced politics it settled down altogether, and was satisfied with that tolerance, so closely bordering on independence, that was accorded to it. On the other hand, Christianity, which never had anything to do with politics, reckoned martyrs amongst its ranks, till it in turn became triumphant and persecuting.

It was the Talmud that created the Jewish people during that long period of repose. The doctors of old had taught the Law without any logical order, solely according to the cases that were brought before them. Then in their teaching they had followed the order of the hooks of the Pentateuch. With Rabbi Ben Aquiba a fresh distribution was introduced, a kind of classification according to matter, necessitating divisions and subdivisions, like a Corpus juris. Thus a second code, the Mischna, was formed side by side with the Thora. The Scriptures were no longer taken as the foundation, and, to speak truly, with that taste for arbitrary interpretation that had been introduced, the Scriptures had become almost useless. It was no longer a question of understanding the will of the legislator clearly, it was a question of finding 130at any price, in the Bible, arguments in favour of traditional decisions, and verses to which received precepts could be attached. It is the destiny of religions that the sacred books should always be thus destroyed by commentaries. Sacred books alone do not form religions; it is the force of circumstances, involving a thousand wants of which the first originator could not have dreamt. Thus the coincidence between the sacred books and the religious state of any period is never perfect; the coat does not fit well enough, and then the commentator and the traditionalist come and settle matters. Thus it happens that, instead of studying the sacred book by itself, it was thought better, after a certain time, to read it in the codes which have been extracted from it, or rather which have been adapted to it.

The attempt to codify the oral Jewish law was made in different directions at the same time. We have no longer the Mischna of Rabbi Aquiba, nor many others that existed. The Mischna of Juda the Holy, written sixty years later, has thrown those that preceded it into oblivion, but he neither invented all the divisions nor all the titles. Many of the treatises in his compilation had been completely drawn up before his time. Besides that, after Aquiba, the original schools disappeared, and the doctors, full of respect for their predecessors, who seemed to them to be surrounded by the halo of martyrdom, tried no new methods—they were mere compilers.

Thus the Jews made a new Bible for themselves, which rather threw the first one into the shade, at the same time that the Christians did. The Mischna was their Gospel, their New Testament. The distance between the Christian and the Jewish book is enormous. The simultaneous appearance of the Talmud and the Gospel from the same race of people,—of a slight masterpiece of elegance, lightness, and moral subtlety, and of a ponderous monument of 131pedantry, of miserable casuistry, and religious formalism, is one of the most extraordinary phenomenons of history. These twins are certainly the most dissimilar creatures that ever issued from the womb of the same mother. There is something barbarous and unintelligible, a disheartening contempt for language and form, an absolute lack of distinction and of talent, that make the Talmud one of the most repulsive books that exist. The disastrous consequences of one of the greatest faults that the Jewish people ever committed, which was to turn their back on Greek discipline, which was the source of all classical culture, are clearly felt in it. That rupture with reason itself placed Israel in a state of deplorable isolation. It was a crime to read a foreign book. Greek literature seemed to be a toy, a female ornament, an amusement beneath the notice of a man who was preoccupied with the study of the Law, a childish science which a man ought to teach his son “ at an hour which is neither day nor night.” As the Thora says, “You shall study the law day and night.” Thus the Thora came to be regarded as the embodiment of all philosophy and all science, and dispensing with any other study. Christianity was less exclusive, and took a large portion of Hellenic tradition into its bosom. Separated from that great source of life, Israel fell into a state of poverty, or rather of intellectual aberration, from which it did not emerge till it came under the influence of the so-called Arabian system of philosophy, that is to say, under the influence of a singularly refracted ray of Greek light.

There certainly are in this confused medley of the Talmud some excellent maxims, more than one precious pearl of the kind as those which Jesus adopted and idealised. and which the Evangelists made divine in writing them. From the point of view of the preservation of the individuality of the Jewish people, 132Talmudism was an heroic party, and such as could scarcely be found in the history of a race. The Jewish nation, dispersed from one end of the world to the other, had no other nationality than the Thora; to maintain this scattered whole, without clergy, bishops, pope, or holy city, without any central theological college, an iron chain was required, and nothing binds men together so firmly as common duties. The Jew, carrying all his religion with him, requiring neither temples nor clergy for his worship, enjoyed incomparable freedom in his emigrations to the end of the world. His absolute idealism made him indifferent to material things; faithfulness to the recollections of his race—the confession of faith (the schema) and the practice of the Law, sufficed him. When one is present at any ceremony in a synagogue, at first sight everything seems modern, borrowed, common-place. In the construction of their places of worship the Jews have never sought a style of architecture which would be peculiar to them. The ministers of religion, with their bands, their three-cornered hat, and their stole, look like parish priests; the sermon is formed on the model of the Catholic pulpit; the lamps, the seats, all the furniture, has been bought in the same shop that supplies the neighbouring parish. Nothing in the singing or the music goes further back than the fifteenth century. Some portions of the worship even are imitations of the Catholic form. The originality and the antiquity suddenly burst forth in the profession of faith: 'Hear, O Israel, Adonai, our God, is One, holy is His name!” This headstrong proclamation, this persistent cry, which in the end has carried away and converted the world, constitutes the whole of Judaism. That people has made God, and yet there never was a people less given to disputing about God.

One very sensible feature, in fact, was to have 133chosen practice, and not dogma as the basis for religious communion. The Christian is united to the Christian by the same belief; the Jew is united to the Jew by the same observances. By making the union of souls bear on truths of the metaphysical order, Christianity prepared the way for schisms without number; by reducing the profession of faith to the schema, that is to say, to the affirmation of the Divine Unity and to the outward bond of ritual, Judaism got rid of the logical disputes from its midst. The season for excommunication amongst the Jews was generally acts, not opinions. The Cabala always remained a matter for free speculation, and never became a compulsory article of faith; the immortality of the soul was regarded as a consoling hope, and it was allowed without difficulty that religious practices would be abolished when Messiah came, when Jewish principles would be universally adopted. Even the belief concerning Messiah had a doubt cast upon it by a learned doctor, and the Talmud gives his opinion without blaming it. That was very judicious. It is perfect nonsense to be compelled to believe any particular doctrine, whilst the greatest external strictness may be allied to entire liberty of thought. That is the reason of that philosophical independence which ruled in Judaism during the Middle Ages down to our days. Eminent doctors, the oracles of the synagogue, such as Maimonides and Mendelsohn, were pure rationalists. A book like the Iccarim. (Fundamental Principles) of Joseph Albo, which proclaimed that religion and prophecy are only a form of symbolism which is destined to ameliorate man’s moral condition, that all divine laws can be modified, that individual punishments and rewards in the future life are nothing but figures of speech, that such a book, I say, should become celebrated and not incur any anathema, is a fact that is without example in any other religion. And piety did not 134suffer for it. Those men who had no hope in a future life endured martyrdom with admirable courage, and died accusing themselves of imaginary crimes, so that their death might not be too strong an objection against the justice of God.

Great disadvantages counterbalanced the advantages of that severe discipline to which Israel submitted in order to retain the unity of its race. Their ritual united co-religionists amongst themselves, but separated them from the rest of the world, and condemned them to an isolated life. The chains of the Talmud forged those of the Ghetto. The Jewish people, which up till then had been so devoid of superstition, became its most thorough type, and the mocking allusions that Jesus made to the Pharisees were justified. For centuries their literature turned chiefly on the sacred furniture and vestments, and on slaughter houses. That other Bible became a prison in which the new Judaism carried on its unhappy life of reclusion up to our days. Enclosed in that unwholesome encyclopedia, the Jewish intellect got so sharp that it went wrong. For the Israelites the Talmud became a sort of Organon, in every respect inferior to that of the Greeks. The Jewish doctors put forward the same claims as the jurists who in the sixteenth century declared that they could find a whole system of intellectual culture in Roman Law. In our time, this vast collection, which still serves as the basis for Jewish education in Hungary and in Poland, may be considered as the principal source of the defects which may be remarked occasionally amongst the Jews of those countries. The belief that Talmudic studies supply the place of all others, and make those who devote themselves to them fitted for everything, is the great cause of that presumption, that subtlety, that want of general culture, which so often destroy really fine qualities in the Israelite.

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The Jewish mind is endowed with extreme vigour. For centuries it was forced to rave because it was restricted to a narrow and barren circle of ideas. The activity which it displayed was the same as if it had been working in a wide and fertile soil, and thus the result of headstrong work, applied to a thankless dry matter, was mere subtlety. To wish to find everything in texts was to oblige themselves to childish feats of strength. When their natural sense is exhausted, a mystical sense is sought for, and then men set to work to count letters, and to compute them as if they were numbers. The chimeras of the Cabala and of the Notarikon were the last results of that extreme spirit of exactitude and of servile adherence. In such an accumulation of disputes as to the best means of fulfilling the Law, there was the proof of a very ardent religious spirit; but we may be allowed to add that there was in it something of a witticism and of amusement. Ingenious and active men, who were condemned to a sedentary life, driven from public places and from the general society of the time, sought means to get rid of their weariness by combining dialectics with the texts of the Law. Even in our time, in those countries where Jews live exclusively among themselves, the Talmud is, if we may say so, their chief diversion. The meetings which they have to explain its difficulties, and to discuss obscure or imaginary cases, seem to them to be pleasure parties, and those subtleties which we look upon as irksome, have seemed, and still seem, to thousands of men to be the most attractive matter to which human genius can be applied.

From that moment the Jews acquired all the faults of isolated men: they became morose and malevolent. Till that time the spirit of Hillel had not altogether disappeared, and at least some gates of the synagogue were open to converts; but now they would 136have no more proselytes. They asserted that they had the true, the only Law, and at the same time asserted that that Law belonged to them only. Any one who tried to join God’s people was repelled with insults. Certainly it was only right to be discreet, and to inform the neophyte of the dangers and unpleasantnesses that awaited him. But they did not stop there: every proselyte was soon looked upon as a traitor; as a deserter who would make use of Judaism as a short cut to Christianity. It was openly declared that proselytes were Israel’s leprosy, and that these intruders ought to be mistrusted to the twenty-fourth generation. The wise distinctions that the Jews of the first century, and the Haggadists, who took their inspiration from Isaiah and Jeremiah, made with regard to ceremonial, that grand concession that the precept of circumcision only applied to the descendants of Abraham, were all forgotten. From that time forward proselytism was forbidden, and the law of Antoninus, which permitted Jewish children alone to be circumcised, became superfluous; for it was evident that neither the Greek nor Roman world would resign itself to an ancient African practice which had its origin in a matter of health, but which was not at all fitted for our climate, and which had become oppressive and senseless for the Jews themselves.

Morals suffered somewhat from so many attacks on nature. Without containing any bad advice, and, even strangely enough, whilst insisting on bashful modesty, the Talmud often mentions lascivious subjects, and takes a tolerably excited imagination on the part of its writers for granted. In the third and fourth centuries, Jewish morals, especially those of the patriarchs and doctors, are said to have been very lax, but, above all things, in this decrepit Israel, reason seems to have been weakened. The supernatural is scattered about lavishly in an 137insane fashion. Miracles appeared so simple that a hallel, a special prayer, is devoted to them as to one of the most ordinary events of life. There never was any nation which, after a period of extraordinary activity, underwent such a terrible abasement.

A small sect, hedged in by numerous rules which prevent it from living the general life, is unsociable by nature, and is necessarily hated and easily gets to hate others in turn. In a large society which is imbued with great liberal principles, as our modern civilisation is, and as in some respects Arabian civilisation, and that of the first half of the Middle Ages were, that causes no great inconvenience. But in a society like that of the Christian Middle Ages, and like in the East in our time, it is the cause of accumulated antipathies and contempt. The Jewish Talmudist, who, wherever he went, was a stranger without a fatherland, often proved himself a scourge for the country to which chance had taken him. We must remember the Jews of the East and of the coast of Barbary, who are filled with hatred when they are persecuted, and are arrogant and insolent as soon as they feel that they are protected. The noble efforts of the Jews of Europe to improve the moral condition of their Eastern brethren are themselves the best proof of the inferiority of these latter. No doubt the detestable social organisation of the East is the primary cause of the evil, but the exclusive spirit of Judaism has also much to do with it. The regulations of the Ghetto are always disastrous, and, I repeat it, that Pharisaism and Talmudism made that rule of reclusion the natural state of the Jewish people. For the Jew, the Ghetto was not so much a restraint coming from outside as a consequence of the Talmudic spirit. Any race would have perished under it, and the manner in which the Jewish people resisted this deleterious mode of life, speaks highly for its moral constitution.

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No one who has any lofty mind can help feeling a profound sympathy for a people which has played so extraordinary a part in this world, that one cannot imagine what would have been the history of the human race if chance had checked the destinies of that small tribe. In judging of that terrible crisis which the Jewish people went through about the beginning of our era, which caused, on the one hand, the foundation of Christianity, and, on the other, the destruction of Jerusalem and the introduction of Talmudism, there are several acts of injustice that have to be repaired. The colours in which the Pharisees are represented in the Gospels have been rather heightened; the Evangelists seem to have written under the influence of the violent ruptures which took place between the Christians and the Jews about the time of the siege of Titus. In the Acts of the Apostles, in all that we know about the Church of Jerusalem, and of James, the Saviour’s brother, the Pharisees have a very different part to that which they play in the discourses which the Synoptists attribute to Jesus. Nevertheless, one cannot prevent one’s self from being decidedly with Hillel, with Jesus, with St Paul against Sehamaï, or with the Haggadists against the Halachists. It was the Haggada (popular preaching) and not the Halacha (the study of the Law) which conquered the world. Certainly Judaism, serried, resisting, enclosed between the double hedge of the Law and the Talmud which survived the destruction of the Temple, is still grand and imposing. It has done the greatest service to the human intellect; it saved the Hebrew Bible, which the Christians would probably have allowed to be lost, from destruction. Judaism, since it has been dispersed, has given great men to the world, and some of the highest moral and philosophical characters; and on several occasions it has been a valuable auxiliary to civilisation; but it 139is no longer that grand, fertile Judaism, carrying in its loins the salvation of the world, which the period of Jesus and of the Apostles presents to our view; it is the respectable old age of a man who once upon a time held the destinies of humanity in his hand, and who afterwards lives in obscurity for many years, still worthy of esteem, but for the future without any providential part to play.

St Paul, Philo, the author of the Sibylline verses, and of those attributed to Phocylides, were right then when they rejected the practices of Judaism, whilst they maintained its basis. These practices would have made all conversions impossible, for, scrupulously observed by the majority of the nation, they were, and are still, a real misfortune for it and for those countries which they inhabit in large numbers. The prophets, with their lofty aspirations, and not the Law, with its strict observances, contained the future of the Hebrew people. Jesus is the outcome of the prophets, and not of the Law, whereas the Talmud is the worship of the Law carried to superstition. After having waged relentless war on all idolatries, Israel substituted a fetichism for them, the fetichism of the Thora.

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