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Friday, January 30, 2015
History ... Religion ... Society ...

I came across two interesting articles recently about why you don’t see all that many Jewish farmers out there. A recent economic study points out that back in ancient times (say when Jesus lived or even before), most Jews were farmers just like in most every other human culture. But over the upcoming millennium, they largely left that way of life, mostly moved to the cities, and took up a wide variety of trades and enterprises.

According to these economists, this was not so much because of laws forbidding land ownership by Jews (although such laws did exist given that Jews were usually a minority group and often treated as outsiders by the powers that were). The main factor was the high degree of literacy promoted by the Jewish culture. I.e., smart people found better things to do in a world where trade was growing than raise crops and milk goats.

A similar conclusion was reached in a Slate article from 2003. Judaism has always emphasized the importance of reading, so as to keep the Torah alive (and thus preserve the Jewish identity). And so, Judaism early on developed a tradition of literacy. This tradition seemed to filter down to the people, it was not just for the rabbis. Compare this with medieval Catholicism, where priests and monks were taught to read, but the feudal peasants were left to being read to by the churchmen. The situation in Islam was pretty similar.

As to Judaism, we are pretty much talking here about post-Temple Judaism, i.e. the late first century rabbinical era. The motto “go study” was not taken from Torah or from the Prophets, nor from the Davidic / Hasmonean nationalists. The urgency of reading came about as part of the “second exile” strategy, once the Roman Empire proved to most Jews that a Davidic kingdom was never going to come back

How did Jesus relate to this? Jesus was one of the apocalypticists, who arguably became the last breath of the Davidic restoration movement (well OK, there were also the Zealots, the warrior faction). When Jesus didn’t come back after the Roman Wars (when the Zealots got wiped out), the Jews knew it was time to dig in for the long haul, to try to keep the dream alive. That required literacy. It required that everyone in and of himself (and maybe even “herself”) be a little rabbi. The 2nd Century Jews couldn’t depend upon a strong ecclesiastical structure, which Catholic Christianity was just starting to develop at the time. Nor until recently could the Jews access an economically and militarily strong national structure, as could medieval Islam.

(It could be argued that the lack of a strong, centralized ecclesiastical structure and an historical dependence upon national power leaves the Islam of today with a growing wish to return to a strong and stringent Islamic nation. This wish is mostly shared by peaceful people, but unfortunately inspires a small but persistent fringe to use violent and inhumane means to seek a righteous caliphate. Ironically, in its glory years Islam had a wonderful tradition of learning. However, that tradition never became central to the religion itself. As with Catholicism, Islam came to depend upon an educated elite, e.g. mullahs/ayatollahs/sheiks, to lead its ranks of mostly untutored followers. However, Catholicism’s heavily centralized command structure in Rome eventually learned, after its many bad experiences with Crusader military expansionism, to impose a restraining discipline against any radical inspirations on the part of the faithful or their local leaders. By comparison, Islam doesn’t have a pope to keep the extremists in check.)

It is interesting that the total number of Jews has stayed about steady since 500 AD, while world population has increased many times over. In the annals of history, Catholicism and Islam became “growth industries”, the “disrupters”, to use modern business-talk. They kept the Jewish franchise from growing, by depending on Jews as their recruits (too often by inhumane force). Jews remained in the minority — and thus the Jewish people (is that the best way to put it? are the Jews a religion, a people, a nation, a movement?) retain a family-oriented, education-oriented character. They share a common mythos from the Torah, but for the most part do not overly-fixate themselves on that mythos. They developed a strong, worldly pragmatism; but then again, there is a noticible “this-world” focus in the Torah, which stands in contrast to the Greek / Hellenic interest in more ethereal and transcendent realities.

Once the Constantine co-opted it, Catholicism became heavily infected by Greek mythos. That made for a next-worldly, transcendent strain in Catholic culture; sort of a “live for the next world” ideal. By comparison, the Jewish movement largely retained its “live to make good for yourself and for your kids” ideal, make good right here in the present world.

But interestingly . . . once the Renaissance came, the Jews were the merchants and financiers, but not so much the early artists and scientists. By the 19th century, that certainly changed; and the Jews turned out great artists and scientists in bulk in the 20th century.

Nonetheless, Jews were generally not among the leading inventors in the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps that was because most inventors, innovators and “disruptors” have little respect for the wisdom of earlier generations. The Jews survived over many hostile centuries largely because they didn’t want to give up the wisdom of their elders. But hey . . . those inventors and innovators weren’t going to get anywhere without financiers and merchants to actually manufacture and sell their stuff. In the end, the Jews and their respect for learning always seem to find a way to float to the top. And to that I say, kol hakavod!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:41 pm      

  1. Jim, Maybe I’ve just read such different things about the Jews over my lifetime, but I don’t know where to take hold of your post. I also want to be sure you know the following is written with all due respect to you. I admit I may be missing something or misunderstanding something in your post. If so, I’d gladly have you point out my misunderstanding/mistake.

    I am also not sure I’d rely on economists for my information on Jews and why it is they have not done a lot of farming. When one thinks of it, Jesus was known to be a Carpenter, the apostles were fishermen, one was a tax collector; no farmers that I know of. So even the founder of Christianity was not big on farming, most likely due to the desert like land they all lived in.

    In general my learning has always told me that since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, the Jews were the scapegoats of the Christians. I’ve always tho’t the Christians were, for the most part persecuted by the Romans and less so by the Jews, leaving them in a convoluted position when Constantine took over. How were the Christians supposed to be against Rome and its government that had persecuted *them* when now it was Rome who was putting the Christians in power as the official religion? Seems, according to how I’ve always been taught Christians then turned on the Jews as “Christ killers”.

    To simplify: This whole “Christ killers” business then led to a situation in which Jews were denied, for the most part, the ability to make any living at all, except as money lenders. So they were “forced” into money lending – and did very well at it, thank you. (Christians didn’t like the fact that the Jews became so successful at moneylending either; back to “Christ killing” and persecution of Jews down through the centuries (millennia now likely).

    I also think that in the 2nd century a lot of the Christians were *still* Jews and identified themselves as such. If I understand things correctly, it was only in the very late 300s that the various “sects” of Christianity (present day now refers to them, incorrectly I might add, as Gnostics) were totally suppressed; anybody continuing to believe them were persecuted (by Christians) as heretics. And here the real separation of Christians and Jews took place, to my understanding, leading then to basically nothing but persecution for the Jews down thru time. And we are back to “moneylending”.

    As to the “herself” who might be a rabbi in the 2nd century, the tho’t about women in general was that they were barely human and could do little except bear children and take care of the house. I doubt there was a female rabbi anywhere at all.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never tho’t of Christianity (or Islam for that matter) as a “growth industry”, much less that the Christians “recruited” Jews – in what way, I have no idea.

    I find it obvious that the Jews became the merchants and financiers; that was the only thing they were allowed to do in order to *exist*. If the Jews have “turned out great artists and scientists in bulk in the 20th century”, I’d tend to think that that change was *after* Hitler and his “Jewish solution”, when those Jews who survived the holocaust were allowed to live more normal lives.

    I think there *still* is a great deal of prejudice against the Jews. It amazes me how it is possible still to hear *some* conservatives and “financiers” speak derogatorily about the Jews being responsible for all the troubles of the present (entire, generalized) world.

    Lastly, while this is obviously a single, subjective example, I cannot resist it. Some years ago I was traveling to work on a commuter train. A man sat down next to me and started talking to me; somehow he began to berate unmercifully the Jews. I could not believe my ears, nor could I keep myself from doing what I did. I simply said, “I’m Jewish” to see what would happen. Would he apologize? Would he be embarrassed? What would be his response? I soon found out.

    He literally jumped out of his seat next to me, started yelling loudly, pointing at me, drawing the attention of everyone in the car; and with a major dose of swear words he yelled: “She’s a Jew” as if I had some seriously contagious plague that would cause everyone in the surroundings to immediately die. He then almost literally *ran* out of the car. I tho’t to myself: Prejudice against Jews is alive and well. While this took place some “few” years ago, I am of the opinion that similar things happen to Jews even today. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 31, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

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