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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Jews, Their Languages, Their Diasporas, and Anti-Semitism For 3000 Years: Part 2


                  Be Sure To Read the First Installment Before This One


From roughly 1500 to 600 B.C.E. --- that initial date more or less accepted by most (not all) scholars as the start of the Jewish religion and people --- the dominant language for those 900 years --- was Hebrew, one of the original Semitic languages, only for it to decline in daily usage except among the aristocratic elite Priesthood after about 500 B.C.E.  It was Aramaic that became the dominant vernacular language spoken by most Jews in that ancient land. Aramaic itself was the closest to Hebrew in the Semitic-family of languages. What caused the change in language-usage? 

Most likely the Babylonian Exile in 597, when the Chaldeans (Babylonians) conquered Jerusalem and deported the elite Jews to their own homeland (roughly Syria and Iraq these days): elite, here, meaning at that date not just the Priesthood, but the Jewish professionals, top bureaucrats, skilled craftsmen, military leaders, and the wealthy.  Soon afterward, the poorer, less educated Jews who remained in Judah (as it was called) were overwhelmed by famine and eventually limitless despair . . . or so most historians of ancient Judaism argue, but not all of them.  In the upshot, most of them disappeared leaving only a few thousands in the Jewish homeland. 


For the most part, they were treated decently by the Babylonians (Chaldeans) while they tried to explain to themselves what had happened to cause their downfall and exile.  Their joint understanding that emerged fairly soon: the Jewish people --- who had been exiled two centuries or so earlier by Assyrians as well --- had drifted away from their covenant with Yahweh and their moral obligations to him.  So they set out to reinvigorate Judaism, insisting that the Jewish people must carefully follow Mosaic laws and cultural practices. 

Similarly, the intellectuals and priest should finish the writings in the age-old Torah (Bible) and, according to hand-me-down information, did finish it in exile.Eventually, rescue from the Babylonian exile did emerge.  In 539 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, sent his powerful military to conquer all of Mesopotamia in 539, after which he freed the Jews in captivity to return to their homeland                    



Cyrus the Great, who freed the Jews in Babylonian captivity, was followed by other Emperors of the mighty Persian Empire, with its conquests of most of the Saudi Peninsula and Egypt.  It was in Greece that the Persians they failed to expand their empire.  For nearly a half-century, the Greeks and Persians fought off-and-on warfare (492-449 B.C.E.), and not once did the Persians prevail. Eventually, most of the Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander and his Greek military.  That was in the late 4th century B.C.E. 

The Greek empire extended from Greece and Egypt into India in Alexander's reign.  After he died (356 born-322 B.C.E. dead), the empire splintered into three parts, each ruled by Greek generals.  Essentially, it became a large geographical area of diverse city-states, based on the Greek model, with one exception: the Seleucid Empire, established in Syria and the rest of the Levant by one of Alexander's commanders.  Based in what is now Syria, the new Greek empire  extended its powers and Hellenizing influences northward and southward into Egypt and eventually across Persia and into India.  It also controlled Judea. 

It was there that the Maccabean family began the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid's empire's efforts to force the Jews to follow Greek law and worship Greek gods.  That was in the 160's B.C.E.  Eventually the Jews regained control of their area and began to conquer surrounding pagan areas.  


What did remain of Greek influence all over the Mediterranean region and the Middle East was the Greek language and culture: architecture, art, science, philosophy, and athletics. 

The educated elites all over the Near and Far Middle East, including Egypt, were amazed at Greek achievements and tried to imitate them in their own city-states.  Greek itself as a language spread among all the educated peoples in those huge regions.  Even educated Romans were also enamored of Greek culture.

There was one exception to all this: the Jews in ancient Israel. 

Their vision of the universe and their religious Monolithic God and his Mosaic laws brought them into growing conflict with their Greek rulers and for that matter Greek-speaking masses all over the Meditteranean world. The Greeks, you see, had never confronted such a people. 

In particular, Jews rejected polytheism, rejected homosexual relations, criticized Greek emphasis on the body and athletics, and found Greek education and philosophy largely at odds with the Jews' own intellectual, spiritual, moral, and legal beliefs and laws.  The Greek conquerors were astounded.  Not only had they never before met a people who were monotheistic, but who emphasized that all existence in the world and its continuation was created and underpinned by an infinite, invisible, all-powerful, all-caring God. 

To the far more scientific, philosophical Greeks, proud of their intellectual and artistic heritage, the existence of such a perfect Being who created humans in his own image --- and who would eventually provide peace in the world and salvation for all good people at some unclear future point --- was not just strange, but totally incomprehensible. For the Greeks, their numerous gods were created by humans in their image and they comingled all the time, even sexually.

Then, too, the Greeks couldn't understand why the Jews clung so heartily to their Torah (Bible). It was after all an ancient text, and why any human community would follow its beliefs and rules for living a good life --- including ultimately peace and justice and social responsibility for the weak and poor (all Jewish laws and rules for a righteous behavior that Jewish Prophets repeatedly claimed the Jews didn't live up to) --- collided on about every one of these standards with the dominant beliefs and rules of the Greeks and their ways of life.


Many Jews did try to adopt aspects of the great Greek philosophical and scientific innovations while struggling mentally to find ways to reconcile those Greek-wonders with Judaism as a religion. This cultural intermixing was especially alluring to the Jews who lived outside the boundaries of ancient Israel --- about 30-40% of the total 7 million Jews in the Greek- and later Roman-Empires. Hence the Torah (Bible), to explain it to the Roman Latin-speaking peoples and the Greek-speakers all over the Mediterranean world (including among Roman aristocrats and intellectuals), was translated by a large group of both Jewish and Greek scholars and priests into Greek in the 3rd and 2nd centuries. Similarly, later on, the New Testament was written from the start in Greek --- the universal language in the Mediterranean world.

Did any of the efforts by many Jewish intellectuals and rabbis to reconcile both alluring Greek culture and Judaism as a religion and way of life help much to overcome their huge differences?

No, not much at all. The differences were too significant. To clarify the biggest intellectual and religious gulfs at the time:

· The Greeks thought that their remarkable innovations led to growing intellectual enlightenment, the highest level of civilization in their views. They had a powerful sense of their destiny and believed that their culture was ordained to become the universal culture of all humanity.

· By contrast, the Jews clung to a very different vision of the world and humanity.

They believed that a world that was united by the shared belief in one God and adhering to one absolute standard of moral values demanded by God ― including respect for life, peace, justice, and social responsibility for the weak and poor ― was the ultimate destiny of the human race. The surer the Jews held to their shared vision on these scores, the surer --- despite all their disastrous past and future travails --- they continued, rightly or wrongly, to believe that they were God's specifically chosen people to bring this message to all humans everywhere.

In different terms, the best explanation of the huge gulf between Greek-speakers (not just Greek peoples) and Jews in the ancient world is found in this small paragraph that appears in the work of a great historian of the ancient Mediterranean world (Michael Grant, at Cambridge University):

   · "The Jews proved not only unassimilated, but unassimilable, and... the demonstration that this was so proved one of the most significant turning-points in Greek history, owing to the gigantic influence exerted throughout subsequent ages by their[the Jews] religion." From "Alexander to Cleopatra" (p. 75),

   · As another scholar noted on this crucial difference, (drawing on Grant and others), "Judaism, with its intractable beliefs and bizarre practices, begins to stand out as an open challenge to the concept of Hellenistic world supremacy. For the generally tolerant Greeks, this challenge becomes more and more intolerable. It is only a matter of time before open conflict will arise."


In 60's B.C.E., Rome took control of Syria and conquered Jerusalem, establishing Roman rule there through Jewish collaborators . . . which rule, of course, after numerous wars started by Jewish rebellions, lasted 200 years until the Romans were crazed with fury. And so, in In the 2nd century C.E., Roman militaries -- tired of Jewish stubbornness and uprisings --- killed off about 580,000 Jews with their heavily supported Legions, plus destroyed 50 fortified towns and 985 villages. (The source for these figures is Cassius Dio, a prominent Roman historian who was born in Greece shortly after the Roman rampage. Large numbers of Jews --- doubling the deaths --- died of famine or disease; and numerous Jews still alive were sold into slavery

Thus began the largest Diaspora ever of surviving Jews out of their homeland. Most of the destruction occurred in Judea. That's where most of the Jews had lived. Those who hid and eventually emerged or sneaked back into Judea were now a minority. Otherwise surviving Jews found refuge in the rest of the Roman Empire, not least in Italy but also in Egypt (where a couple of hundred thousand Jews already lived) and more and more in safe areas (they hoped) in central and eastern Europe.




Yiddish was strictly spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, and not by Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain and Portugal who expelled in the 1490s. Until then, Spain had the largest Jewish community in all of Europe.)With the expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, Yiddish was developed and spread quickly among the Jews in the Balkans, the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, and Czarist Russia. At base a German derivation, the language drew about 3/4 of its vocabulary from various German dialects.

The rest of Yiddish words were taken from the Hebrew bible and local European areas where Ashkenazi lived. Its origins seems to start in the 10th or 11th centuries in order for Jews who engaged in long-land exports and imports to have a common language.

Note finally that Yiddish, like any language --- say, Chinese or Arabic --- could be converted in writing into any other language with a large vocabulary. The use of shared phonetics is crucial here.Hence Yiddish could be written in Europe in Hebrew or in the Roman Alphabet or Slavic native languages where Jews lived.

The Holocaust brought an end to the use of Yiddish in Central and Eastern Europe. Those still living in fairly large numbers in Russia ---but nowhere else in the former Soviet regime, where they were all essentially murdered by Nazi Germans and pro-Nazi Europeans --- had already abandoned Yiddish in the Communist era except among some scholars.  Those who emigrated to Israel had to learn Hebrew.


What, then, did Sephardic Jews speak as a common language?

To be continued