As is my longstanding High Holidays tradition, I spent Yom Kippur in synagogue half paying attention to the liturgy and half paying attention to the book I was reading (or in this case, re-reading), which was Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. You may doubt that a book about Second Temple Judaism and the emergence of rabbinic Judaism millennia ago, and a history of Judaism during a short period of quasi-sovereignty and a long period of imperial domination, has any relevance to today’s Judaism, characterized by a sovereign Jewish state and the most successful and powerful diaspora community in history. But you’d be wrong, and reading Schwartz’s assessment of the variables that led to the reemergence of Judaism as Christianity took over the official organs of the Roman Empire got me thinking about what, if anything, it may tell us about the future of American Judaism.
Without going too deep into the weeds, Schwartz’s argument is that Jewish practice, identity, and society were heavily influenced and actively shaped by their interactions with the Greek and Roman imperial powers during this period; until Christianity took over the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Judaism was shaped as much—if not more—by the imperial powers than by its own internal debates. Schwartz contends that the emergence of the Torah and the Temple in Jerusalem as the central and dominant symbols of Judaism was due to Persian, Greek, and Roman support for them as mechanisms for cultivating a local elite to which local control could be outsourced, but that this situation ended with the Jewish revolts against Roman rule in the first and second centuries.
According to Schwartz, Roman policy then transformed to one of direct rule rather than reliance on local proxies and no longer recognized either Jewish secular authority or Jewish religious authority. The resulting shattering of the forces that had bound Jewish practice and identity together—Torah and Temple—combined with mass disillusionment and attrition from Jewish practice and belief following two failed revolts, led to decline and, in some instances, disintegration. Schwartz argues that as a result, Palestinian Judaism during the subsequent two centuries was effectively an offshoot of Greco-Roman urban paganism, with most Jews maintaining some loose sense of their Jewish identity and heritage while lacking any real Jewish society or strong social structures.
The reemergence of a strongly identifiable and distinctive Judaism came about with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, as religion’s growing importance in society led to the marginalization of Jews within wider Roman culture. The effect, according to Schwartz, was that Jews’ positions in society and the imperial patronage structures became unstable, forcing them into a choice of living as Jews in homogenous, socially isolated communities or abandoning Judaism entirely and becoming Christians. The choice of many Jews to retreat into their Judaism led to the rise of local Jewish communities and synagogues, and the resurgence of a comprehensive Judaism that included adherence to Torah law, new Jewish iconography, and a sense of Jewish tribalism that had been absent for centuries.
As much as I have pretensions to expertise in ancient and early rabbinic Judaism, I don’t actually possess that expertise, so I won’t assess Schwartz’s thesis on the merits beyond noting that his descriptions of Jewish collapse in the second century are enormously controversial and contested. I will also insert the enormous caveat that the situation of Jews in the U.S. in the twenty-first century is about as different a universe as one might conceive from the situation of Jews under Roman rule in the second century. Notwithstanding that, what interests me is Schwartz’s description of the transformations that Judaism underwent in response to the collapse of central institutions that bound Jews together, and how external pressures related to being Jewish led to a different set of transformations, as these processes are indeed deeply relevant to American Judaism today.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Zionism was one of the primary forces binding American Jews together and helping them to preserve their Jewish identity. While Zionism still reigns supreme in many corners of American Judaism, it now functions more as a dividing line than a centripetal force. One of the consequences is that there are fewer distinctive central ideas or practices binding American Jews together as a single group, as evidenced by the far larger percentage of American Jews whose Judaism is manifested by cooking and eating traditional Jewish foods than those whose Judaism is manifested by marking Shabbat in some way or who attend synagogue services even once a month. The snapshot in the 2020 Pew survey was of an emerging reorganization of American Judaism into groups around two poles, a larger one that considers itself ethnically or culturally Jewish but expresses no connection to Jewish religion and a smaller one that considers itself traditionally observant.
While not overlaying directly on the transformation of Judaism in the second century, there are inescapable parallels. The increasing debates within American Jewish circles over Zionism are reminiscent of the similar process that took place as the binding forces of the Temple and Torah law lost their power. Schwartz’s description of second century Jewish society fragmenting into a larger group of Jews who evidenced no demonstrable connection to Jewish religion or Jewish heritage beyond a vague sense of family history, and a smaller group of Jews who abided by rabbinic Judaism and were isolated and alienated from the larger group, also looks like what seems to be emerging in twenty-first century America.
Most worrisome, the story of Jews being marginalized in larger Roman society following the rise of a new ideology and set of values is also taking place in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. This is not the centuries-old story of religious persecutions and state-sponsored expulsions, pogroms, and attempted exterminations, but it is a story of a different type of alienation and exclusion. The exclusion of Jews in some progressive circles, whether it be because of their Zionism, because Jews are viewed as part of the machinery of white supremacy, because Jews are considered to fit into the hierarchy of systems of power and privilege, or because Jews are seen as part and parcel of globalization, is steadily increasing. While it may not yet be widespread or bleeding into wider society wholesale, to dismiss it as imagined or irrelevant or overblown is myopic.
This comparison can and should only be taken so far, especially given all of the mitigating factors that exist for American Jews in 2021. But to stretch this out a bit, if patterns of history repeat themselves, this would point toward a revitalization of Jewish identity among American Jews, as the outside world forces Jews to look inward and decide how they want to define their Jewishness as it is thrust upon them. This process would undoubtedly look immensely different than it did in the late Roman Empire, but it is possible that we are entering a period of American Jewish reformation, which could point in any one of a number of directions.
American Judaism has been a unique historical experience due to the rights and protections afforded by the Constitution, the position of the U.S. for the past century as a world superpower, the prominence of American Jews in so many parts of society, and the existence for seven decades of a sovereign Jewish state alongside this enormously successful and comfortable diaspora. We should not be lulled into thinking that we are at the end of American Jewish history, and as conditions in the U.S. transform before our eyes in a number of ways, there may be more lessons and parallels from ancient Jewish history for the future of Jewish history than we care to admit.