Rabbinic Judaism and Radical Hope: Judaism’s Defense Against Cultural Devastation

Radical Hope by Jonathon Lear investigates the role of hope in the Crow Indian’s transition to the reservation. Lear’s work illuminates the power of hope in a culture’s fight for survival amid the most desperate circumstances. By applying Lear’s analytic techniques to a pivotal moment in Jewish history, we may more deeply understand the structure, flexibility, and strength of Jewish tradition. Jewish society in the Second Temple period paralleled the Crow’s vibrant cultural world in its orientation toward shared values, traditions, and social roles. The two cultures each faced total devastation–the Crow with the end of their nomadic, militaristic lifestyle and the Jews with the destruction of their Temple. Both the Crow and the Jews embraced radical hope, reimagining traditions to cope with new realities. Comparable to Plenty Coup’s strategies to maintain Crow culture, Rabbinic Judaism preserved a connection to the past while generating a new world of Jewish possibilities. While the Crow drew upon cultural tools to safeguard Crow life from extinction, Judaism was equipped with a greater multitude of resources to more readily defend against cultural destruction.

Jewish culture in Judea at the time of the Second Temple embodied Lear’s conception of a tradition rooted in a communal world of concepts. It is possible to transcribe Lear’s analysis of vibrant Crow culture onto this Jewish community. Traditional Crow culture was built on the customs and rituals associated with warfare and hunting. Practices like counting coups and planting a coup stick gained meaning through a shared understanding of possibilities, virtues, and social roles. Lear writes, “…Everything was somehow related to hunting and war. All the rituals and customs, all the distribution of honor, all the day-to-day preparations, all the up-bringing of the children were organized toward these ends” (35-36). Every action and event, no matter how mundane, was oriented around shared goals, concerns, and values. This cultural framework embedded significance and purpose into daily Crow life. Within this uniquely Crow world of concepts, it was clear how to act as a virtuous Crow. Lear explains that a vibrant culture functions with established social roles and standards of excellence, allowing one to constitute himself as a subject who embodies cultural ideals (42). The Crow’s frame of purposefulness prescribed social norms that guided members toward self-constitution of Crow ideals.

Jewish lives of the Second Temple period were oriented toward the Temple, the priestly caste, and the sacrificial cult. While these traditions differ from the Crows’, the two groups’ cultural structures are comparable. All Jewish practices, rituals, and social roles were within the Temple framework. Jews understood the Temple as the house of God, where heaven and earth met. The Temple was a culmination of the covenant between Israel and God and a symbol of Jewish autonomy. Communal and individual rituals, such as daily and holiday sacrifices, took place in the Temple, and the influence of the Temple reached far beyond religious life. Just as every Crow event occurred within a larger frame of significance around war and hunting, all areas of Jewish culture happened within the conceptual Temple scheme. The Temple was central to the Jewish calendar, as Levites recited the Psalm of the Day and special psalms for the new month. The marketplace of the city ran by the Western Wall of the Temple mount. The main bank in Jerusalem and legal courts were located on the Temple platform. Jews from outside of Jerusalem regularly made pilgrimage to the Temple and paid a tax for the Temple’s upkeep. The Temple established social roles among the society, with different areas for gentiles, women, Israelites, Levites, and Priests. Within this vibrant world of concepts, Jews navigated social norms to fulfill communal needs and ideals. The authority of the Temple in political, social, religious, and economic realms gave Jews direction, meaning, and purpose in their daily lives.

With the demise of the buffalo and the rise of the white man, the Crow Indian lifestyle became impossible. There was no more warfare, migration, or hunting when the Crow moved onto the reservation. Actions and practices no longer held meaning, because the Crow’s conceptual world broke down. Without this orientation, their shared virtues, purposes, and social norms were incomprehensible. Facing total cultural devastation, traditional Crow subjectivity was not possible. Lear writes, “If the culture’s traditional ideals become unlivable, the possibility of constituting oneself as a Crow subject must have become problematic” (47). Members of the Crow tribe had no basis for what it meant to live as a virtuous Crow. Their customs and practices ceased to be significant without the Crows’ conceptual framework.

The destruction of the Second Temple paralleled this breakdown of cultural orientation. Without the Temple to anchor all aspects of Jewish life, traditional social roles, religious rituals, and daily activities no longer made sense. The Temple’s destruction derailed Jewish conceptions of virtues and excellence, and Jews no longer had the tools to constitute themselves as righteous Jews. Losing the Temple meant losing Jewish political autonomy, and the siege left thousands of Jews dead from disease or battle. Jews internalized the destruction as a punishment from God, but they lost the framework to resolve questions about atonement, salvation, and religious obligation without the Temple cult. The breakdown of concepts threatened complete Jewish cultural devastation.

Cultures facing this challenge must overcome despair and destruction by transforming traditions to make sense of a new reality. By embracing radical hope, the community may enter a new world with dignity and virtue, despite their inability to comprehend future possibilities. In order to sustain cultural identity, the society must maintain a sense of continuity throughout the breakdown of concepts. Plenty Coup’s dream of the chickadee taught him to learn from the wisdom of others, so he encouraged the Crow to adapt the white man’s education system. “…Plenty Coup drew on traditional tribal resources—the chickadee—to formulate an ego-ideal of radical hope. That is, he gave the tribe the possibility of drawing on a traditional ideal that would help them endure a loss of concepts,” Lear writes (141). Plenty Coup’s leadership exemplified the power of reinventing traditional concepts to adjust for the impossibility of collective ideals, purpose, and ritual outside of the traditional context. In order for the Jews to survive as a vibrant culture after the destruction of the Second Temple, they needed to internalize the past, reimagine tradition, and create new ideals and practices for the future.

Rabbinic Judaism emerged as a resolution to Jewish devastation after the loss of the Temple. The Rabbis set out to transform Temple-centered Judaism and imbue new significance in Jewish practice, theology, social roles, and self-constitution. To do this, the rabbis rendered new meaning to scripture. Since God’s house was destroyed and His presence was no longer felt among the Jews, the Torah, a symbol of the covenant, lost its significance without the sacrificial religion. But the rabbis introduced a new system of interacting with scripture. They claimed that God gave the rabbis authority over interpreting the Torah through specific methods of study, discussion, and consensus. Through the redaction and codification of Oral Law, the rabbis reoriented Judaism around the sanctification of daily life through the study and practice of halakhah, kashrut, blessings over mundane acts, and cycles of prayer. The study of Torah and Oral Law became the most important religious act, leading to the proper Jewish way of life. Rabbis taught the necessity of a virtuous Jewish lifestyle, organized around Jewish law, to bring about the world to come. This reimagined Judaism allowed ordinary Jews to engage in holiness in their daily lives, despite the destruction of the Temple. Emphasis on the interpretation and performance of Jewish law provided the Jewish society with concrete standards of excellence and a framework of purpose and meaning.

The success of the rabbinic resolution to the Temple crisis was dependent upon its strong ties to the past. Rabbinic Judaism recognized and accepted the loss of their traditional way of life, which Lear argues is crucial in cultural survival. In order to maintain continuity in Jewish subjectivity through the transition into rabbinic Judaism, the rabbis incorporated connections to Temple life in new rituals, institutions, and social norms. Many elements of Temple religion and social life were woven into rabbinic Judaism through parallels and imitations. The synagogue replaced the Temple as a gathering place and holy center of the community. Rabbis held religious authority, instead of the Temple priests. The prayer service, performed on the same schedule as offerings at the Temple, replaced the sacrificial ceremonies. The rabbis substituted the traditional tithes to priests and offerings with money collection for charities and study in local synagogues. Lamentations for the destruction of the Temple were a vital component in rabbinic liturgy, ritual, and discourse. Just as Plenty Coup drew upon traditions to create new ideals, the rabbis rooted new Jewish conceptions of piety, virtue, and purpose in the memory of the Temple.

While every culture is vulnerable, certain societies are equipped with important resources to defend against destruction. Plenty Coup’s most vital resource was his dream about the chickadee, which granted legitimacy and assurance to his faith in the world’s goodness. The Crow Indian believed they were chosen by God to flourish in a specific land. Plenty Coup’s dream supported this belief and sustained the culture through the trauma of conceptual breakdown. With the help of these inherent beliefs, the Crow Indian could courageously venture into an unpredictable future with the conviction that the world’s intrinsic, incomprehensible goodness will somehow deliver their cultural survival.

As demonstrated by the rise of rabbinic Judaism after the Second Temple destruction, Judaism is stocked with a multitude of resources to safeguard Jewish culture in the face of potential devastation. An especially important device in Jewish culture that did not exist for the Crow was the capabilities of reading and writing. Lear explains that cultural text provides a way for traditions to evolve and endure tragedy. Radical Hope reads, “The entire culture is in the process of being forgotten; the only hope is to write it down in the hope that future generation may bring ‘it’ back to life” (52). The rabbis utilized Jewish texts to reinvent Jewish tradition. The rabbis wrote down the Oral Law for the first time, and they introduced the obligation to study the Torah and halakha. The study of Jewish law allowed Jews to participate in tradition even when certain laws were rendered impossible. Jews still studied laws about sacrifices in the Temple, keeping alive lost traditions in a mental, imaginative sense after the Temple’s destruction. Through an emphasis on text, rabbinic Judaism clears the way for interpretation of Jewish rituals and ideals. While laws may be adjusted throughout time upon an interpretive consensus of rabbis, Jewish tradition may be flexible and face lesser threats of cultural devastation.

Like the Crow Indians, the Jews think of themselves as a chosen people of God. The Jewish God controls events and is loyal to his promise to protect the Jewish people through all possible turmoil. This theology plants inherent hopefulness in the Jewish people. Hope demonstrates faith in God. Jews believe in the divine goodness of creation, and Jews hope that this goodness of creation will be stabilized throughout the world in the future. This radical hope differs from the Crow hope described by Lear. Jewish hope is deeply bound in the theological conception of God’s transcendent, reassuring goodness. This robust hope readily defends against the despair of cultural devastation.

The flexibility and endurance of Jewish culture succeeded in saving Judaism from total cultural destruction after the fall of the Second Temple. The Crows’ story is in some ways very similar to the story of rabbinic Judaism, but Judaism is equipped with sturdier resources to sustain cultural flourishing. In both cases, the immense power of hope is a vital component in the preservation and reinvention of tradition.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for The Problem of Hope in a Secular Age with Professor Alan Mittleman at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Works Cited

Lear, Jonathan. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

One response to “Rabbinic Judaism and Radical Hope: Judaism’s Defense Against Cultural Devastation

  1. Steve Stauffacher

    FASCINATING analysis and spot on Theology, Lucy. As well, this is a great focus and jumping off point for several dozen conversations we need to be having on the American cultural landscape today. Wonderful job and well-worth the read!

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