Once, as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai
was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him
and beheld the Temple in ruins.
"Woe unto us!" Rabbi Joshua cried, "that this,
the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid
"My son," Rabban Johanan said to him, "be not grieved;
we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it?
It is acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, For I desire mercy
and not sacrifice." [Hosea 6:6]
Judah Goldin, tr., The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (Yale University Press, 1955)
Jerusalem and the Temple served as the political and religious
center of Jewish life for almost 1,000 years. The destruction
of the Temple in 70 CE was a catastrophe, affecting not only Jews
in the Land of Israel, but also large numbers already living in
the Diaspora. Fortunately for the survival of Judaism, however,
the Pharisaic belief that religious authority should rest with
rabbis (teachers) rather than with the Temple priesthood had already
firmly taken hold. Under the leadership of Johanan ben Zakkai,
a group of rabbis assembled in Jabneh, a small town south of Jerusalem,
where they established a synagogue and rabbinical academy. Over
time, individual synagogues assumed a heightened importance throughout
the Diaspora as places of prayer, learning, and social activity.
Religious authority shifted to the new rabbinical institutions
that were developing in Palestine and Babylonia.
The Pharisees conceived of Torah, or divine law, as composed of
two dimensions: a written law and an oral law, which interpreted,
refined, and elaborated upon the written text. This concept reinforced
the pliability of Judaisms sacred tradition, allowing it
to adjust and modify itself to the needs of Jewish life in subsequent
centuries. In about 200 CE, a selection of oral law was compiled
into the Mishnah, the work that became the foundation for the
continued development of Judaism.
Economic conditions in the devastated Land of Israel led many
Jews to settle elsewhere in the Roman Empire or beyond the empires
borders, in Babylonia. The Babylonian Jewish community, established
in biblical times, eventually became the largest and most influential
of Diaspora Jewish settlements. It was here that the Babylonian
Talmud (a compilation of the Mishnah and rabbinical commentary)
was completed in around 500 CE.
In the Roman Empire, Christianity had grown from a Jewish sect
to a separate religion whose differences with Judaism had become
irreconcilable by the end of the 1st century CE. The emperor
Constantine began to favor Christianity in 312 CE, and by the
end of the 4th century CE, the once persecuted faith had become the
official religion of the Roman Empire. Jews found their civil
status reduced under imperial Rome. By the beginning of the 5th
century, they were subject to civil and economic restrictions
that eventually served as the basis for the legal status of Jews
in medieval Europe.
By 476 CE, the once mighty Roman empire had fallen victim to poor
government and barbarian invasions. Centralized government deteriorated
and countless petty chiefs set themselves up as lords. Government
and classical culture crumbled, the old Roman roads decayed, and
what later generations would call the Dark Ages settled upon Europe.
On the Arabian peninsula, Islam, the third great monotheistic
religion, was born in the 7th century CE. Influenced by both Judaism
and Christianity, Islam is based on divine revelation in the form
of a textin Islams case, the Quran. The new religion
spread quickly throughout the Arab world. Less than a century
after the death of the prophet Muhammad, Muslim rule extended
over a vast empire stretching from Afghanistan to Spain. A cultured
and sophisticated Islamic civilization flourished in the great
cities of Baghdad and Cordoba. The treasures of classical Hellenistic
civilization were translated into Arabic by Muslim scholars. During
this period of Islams flowering, the Jews in Muslim lands
constituted the majority of world Jewry and shared in the vigorous