From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 3rd Edition

From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 3rd Edition

Shaye Cohen's third edition of his work about Jewish life from the Maccabees to the Mishnah is most valuable as an overview. Oddly enough, he offers the most poignant critiques in his third edition preface, writing that sometimes he "speaks about "jews"… where [he] would now be more careful and write "Judeans" " (xi). He goes so far as to say that if he were to rewrite the book, "there would be no end" (xi).

It is divided into eight chapters. Chapter One discusses important terms for historians studying this period and provides a succinct summary of the exile to the formation of the Talmud Bavli. Chapter Two engages with the relationship between Jews and gentiles through the major rebellions and wars, Hellenistic cultural influence upon Jews, and social spheres of interaction. Chapter Three presents the Jewish religious praxis and belief. Following, he disseminates the Jewish communal institutions. Chapter Five moves closer towards addressing Christianity through discussion of the sectarian and normative Judaism. Chapter Six explores the development of the Jewish canon and how the developments impacted the transition to Rabbinic Judaism. Chapter Seven, thus, explores how Rabbinic Judaism emerged. Finally, Chapter Eight, the new addition to his work, argues that limited interactions between Jewish and Christian communities contributed more a "parting of ways" than any major event that caused a rift.

One challenge Cohen faces is the focus on history and theology therein. As a historian, Cohen recognizes his limitations. It is for this reason, though, that I greatly appreciate his work. He is capable of producing an entry level book that demonstrates proper historical analysis of theological and life developments. Even as a Third Edition, his analysis is still important because it allows students and lay people to engage with trends in scholarship. I do, though, wish there were more footnotes. While there is an appendix of suggestions for further reading, the inexperienced person may find difficulty in actually exploring specific areas of interest from his work. Perhaps footnotes with chapter or page references would correct this minor issue and help people to further explore scholarship.

A greater issue with his work is that, although it is valuable as a basic entry level work into ancient Judea, there is some out of date information. This is problematic because the information is implicitly scholarly consensus. Essentially, inexperienced or uncritical readers will not recognize certain elements and begin to assume that they are relevant to current scholarly trends. I turn to two examples to demonstrate. First, as mentioned previously, Cohen consistently references "Jews" rather than "Judeans". Realistically, most readers will not read the Third Edition Preface in which Cohen explicitly notes that he should have used the term "Judean". So the average reader will likely follow after the book and continues using the term "Jew" when "Judean" is a far more accurate term. Secondly, his discussion of the Zadokite priests is outdated, as his historical presentation assumes their existence as a historical reality. In the recent monograph entitled Priestly Rule: Polemic and Biblical Interpretation in Ezekiel 44 (De Gruyter, 2015), Nathan MacDonald's analysis of various texts connected to Zadok validates the current trend of skepticism surrounding the existence of a historical group of the Sons of Zadok or Zadokite priesthood. Succinctly put, "the fact that we find no other references to the sons of Zadok means that we lack the evidence for the Zadokites of scholarly theory, a distinguishable group of priests that claimed physical descent from Zadok" (MacDonald 2015, 145; see also Alice Hunt, Missing Priests: The Zadokites in Tradition and History, 2006). The two previous example are representative of smaller details that the inexperienced reader could take to be scholarly consensus.

With regard to the newest addition, Chapter Eight on the parting of ways of Jews and Christians, it is a valuable contribution as it makes available Cohen's recent argument from his 2013 chapter about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the 1st century CE (Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, edited by Hershel Shanks, 2013). Overall, that is the greatest benefit of the Third Edition.

Especially for introductory courses on Judaism, Cohen's work is an excellent addition. With the exception of more nuanced details, the framework which he provides allows readers to engage with ancient Judaism on its own terms from a historical perspective.

Original review posted at The Biblical Review.


Review: From the Maccabees to the Mishnah

Shaye J. D. Cohen is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University—one of the oldest and most distinguished professorships of Jewish studies in the United States. Prior to Harvard, Cohen was the Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, as well as the Dean of the Graduate School and Shenkman Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Cohen has written numerous scholarly articles and authored several important books, which include, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, and Uncertainties (University of California Press, 2001), Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism (University of California Press, 2005), and perhaps his most widely known book, now in its third edition and the subject of the present review, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Westminster John Knox, 2014).

From the Maccabees to the Mishnah is a calculated exploration into the history and development of Judaism between roughly164 BCE to 300 CE. It is here that Cohen carefully guides readers through a variegated landscape of transition, both before and after the rise of Christianity. However, Cohen does far more here than provide a mere historical survey of Judaism and its development into the rabbinic period. Rather, Cohen seeks to usher readers into the very heart of the social, cultural, and religious environment of Judaism as it was shaped and molded by the world and events around it.

Those familiar with the two previous editions of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah should welcome the revisions made to this third edition. Cohen has revised and updated the content for clarity and usability, and updated/added footnotes as needed. However, the most significant contribution to this third edition is the addition of a new chapter, titled, “Ways That Parted: Jews, Christians, and Jewish Christians (ca. 100-150).” This new chapter is a shortened and revised version of an essay Cohen wrote, “In Between: Jewish-Christians and the Curse of the Heretics,” in Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, edited by Hershel Shanks.

The strength of this volume are many, but the weaknesses are equally as numerous. For many readers, the approach to the topic brought by Cohen will be a breath of fresh air. He is lucid and judicious in his treatment of the period and its development, and the scope of material covered therein is well-organized, easily understandable, and presented with clarity. However, Cohen writes from a predominantly liberal Jewish perspective and his presuppositions can be seen on almost every page—especially the material on canonization and its implications. Still, apart from the content proper, the “Suggestions for Further Reading” section that has been included at the end of the book is alone worth the price of admission.

For some readers, Cohen’s approach and perspective will be value-added to their library even if they disagree with many of his conclusions. Others will find it to be rubbish. I am of the former persuasion. I found much of Cohen’s material extremely helpful and I appreciate the enduring nature of his work. But, like any book, this was only realized after understanding and evaluating the presuppositions therein. If you are looking for an informative guide into the social, cultural, and religious development of the Judaism underlying the New Testament, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J. D. Cohen is indispensable. Read it closely and carefully, and interact with it rigorously. It comes highly recommended!

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.


Product Information

Title: From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Third Edition - eBook
By: Shaye Cohen
Format: DRM Protected ePub
Vendor: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication Date: 2014
ISBN: 9781611645484
ISBN-13: 9781611645484
Stock No: WW76904EB


Description

This is the third edition of Shaye J. D. Cohen's important and seminal work on the history and development of Judaism between 164 BCE to 300 CE. Cohen's synthesis of religion, literature, and history offers deep insight into the nature of Judaism at this key period, including the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the function of Jewish religion in the larger community, and the development of normative Judaism and other Jewish sects. Cohen offers students more than just history, but an understanding of the social and cultural context of Judaism as it developed into the formative period of rabbinic Judaism. This new edition includes a brand-new chapter on the parting of ways between Jews and Christians in the second century CE. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah remains the clearest introduction to the era that shaped Judaism and provided the context for early Christianity.


Preface to the Third Edition

I remain grateful to Westminster John Knox Press for keeping this book in print over many years and for giving me yet another opportunity to revise it and update it. I have rewritten sentences and paragraphs here and there, hoping to enhance clarity and remove errors. I have added some references in footnotes. Most important, I have added the entire chapter 8, which is devoted to the parting of the ways between Jews and Christians in the second century of our era. This chapter is a shortened and revised version of my In Between: Jewish-Christians and the Curse of the Heretics, in Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, edited by Hershel Shanks (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2013), 207–36. Readers who enjoy that chapter should seek out the volume from which it is extracted.

If I were to begin to rewrite this book, there would be no end. In particular, I would be much more careful in my use of the terms Judaism and Christianity. For the historian, Judaism and Christianity exist only insofar as they describe the beliefs and practices, institutions and attitudes, politics and communities of people. For the historian (as opposed to the theologian or philosopher or preacher), Judaism and Christianity are not theological abstractions. Judaism is what Jews do Christianity is what Christians do. Large chunks of this book would need to be rewritten to reflect this perspective, but I must be content with the little bit of rewriting that I was able to accomplish. Similarly, sometimes I speak about Jews, especially in my historical survey in chapter 1, where I would now be more careful and write Judeans.

In spite of its changes and improvements, this third edition (with the exception of chapter 8) remains substantially the same as the previous two. Readers who liked those two editions will, I hope, like this one as well readers who found something to criticize in the earlier editions will no doubt succeed in doing so here as well.

PS: When I wrote the codicil to the preface of the second edition, I earnestly hoped that I would not need to do so for the third. But alas, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues on its anti-Israel course. It has now (20 June 2014) voted to divest from three American companies that it claims are aiding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. What makes the vote so disturbing is its obsession with Israel and Israel’s sins. It is one thing to say that Israel has not treated the Palestinians compassionately or wisely. This is obviously true. But it is quite another to condemn Israel alone when there is so much malfeasance and evil behavior all around the Near East. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) threatens only Israel with divestment, ignoring the wrongs committed by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, wrongs committed against their own people as well as against Israelis. The Middle East is ablaze with war, civil war, rebellion, and oppression human rights are abused aplenty in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, just to mention four egregious examples in fact, the concept of human rights is all but unknown in the region. Israel is in a legal state of war with many of its neighbors many of its Palestinian subjects support Hamas and Hezbollah, which have each declared, publicly and unambiguously, that they intend to see Israel destroyed. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), oblivious to all this, criticizes Israel alone for its faults. Protestations of fairness and justice ring hollow when Israel is held to a standard that no other country in the region is held to and when so much evil and suffering in the region are ignored. With this vote the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has chosen to align itself with Israel’s enemies.

I have no complaint against WJK Press. My complaint is directed solely against WJK’s parent body, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose anti-Israel policies I condemn.


Historical Background

The Maccabees liberated Judea from oppression by the Syrian kings, restored religious freedom, and regained political independence for the Jewish people. To be adequately appreciated these achievements must be seen against the background of the times.

The Hellenization of Palestine. After the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c., Judea was subject for four centuries to the great powers that ruled the Near East: Persia, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt, and finally the Seleucid kings of Syria beginning c. 200 b.c. With the exception of the Seleucid King antiochus iv epiphanes (175 – 164 b.c.) and his successors, none of Judea's pagan overlords interfered seriously with the practice of the Jewish religion their policy had been that of subjection and tribute in temporal affairs, freedom in spiritual affairs. Antiochus IV, however, attempted to unify his domains, and especially Palestine, by imposing upon all his subjects the practice of Hellenistic religion. This included the worship of Zeus and other gods of the Greek pantheon, as well as the king himself as the visible manifestation of Zeus (the name "Epiphanes" meaning "the god manifest").

In its civil and cultural aspects Hellenism was nothing new to the Jews. Hellenization of Palestine had been in progress under both Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings since the era of Alexander. By the time of Antiochus IV, however, serious tensions had come to exist among the Jews between the liberal factions, enthusiastic about Hellenistic culture, and the conservative factions, suspicious of Hellenistic culture and antagonistic to Hellenistic religion. Between 175 and 174 b.c. Jason (the brother of the legitimate high priest Onias III), a leader of the pro-Hellenist faction among the Jews, offered Antiochus IV, in return for the office of high priest, a large sum of money and a promise of cooperation with his policy of Hellenization of Judea. Having been recognized as high priest by Antiochus IV, Jason immediately initiated an active policy of Hellenization. He established a gymnasium in Jerusalem and encouraged Greek sports and fashions (1 Mc 1.13 – 15 2 Mc 4.10 – 15). Three years later a rival, Menelaus, managed to outbid Jason for the office of high priest and began to sell the Temple vessels. When the legitimate high priest Onias III protested, Menelaus had him assassinated (2 Mc 4.23 – 36). In 169 b.c., with the connivance of Menelaus, Antiochus IV pillaged the Temple. When it became apparent that the religious Jews would not submit voluntarily to Hellenization, Antiochus IV decided to use force. A Syrian army under Apollonius looted and partially destroyed Jerusalem. A Syrian garrison was installed in 167 b.c. in a newly built citadel called the Akra, located on the hill west of the Temple. Antiochus IV then began a systematic persecution of the Jews aimed at destroying the Jewish faith and substituting Hellenistic religion in its place. Regular sacrifices in the Temple were suspended Jews were no longer permitted to observe the Sabbath and the traditional feasts it became a crime to possess a copy of the Law or to circumcise Jewish children. Pagan altars were set up throughout the land, and Jews who refused to sacrifice swine's flesh upon these altars were liable to death. In December 167 b.c., the cult of Olympian Zeus was instituted in the Temple, an altar to Zeus was erected, and Jews were compelled to take part in the pagan feasts. A systematic religious persecution of the Jews was in full progress (1 Mc 1.43 – 67 2 Mc 6.1 – 11).

The Outbreak of the Maccabean Wars. Israelite response to Antiochus's program of enforced Hellenization and the suppression of the Jewish faith was threefold. Those enthusiastic about Hellenism apostatized. Some through fear of torture and death unwillingly complied and forsook the faith of their fathers. Others, however, defied the persecutors and either died for their faith or went into hiding (2 Mc 6.8 – 11).

Meanwhile, in the hill towns and in the desert resistance smoldered, awaiting only a spark to ignite active rebellion. In the little town of Modin, in the foothills northwest of Jerusalem, sometime in late 167 b.c. the spark was struck. The King's officers came to Modin and urged the old priest Mathathias and his five sons to be the first to offer sacrifice on the pagan altar. Mathathias refused vehemently, but while he was still speaking, another Jew approached the altar to sacrifice and abjure his faith. Inflamed with righteous anger, Mathathias slew the man on the spot turned and killed the King's men tore down the pagan altar and then fled to the hills with his sons, where they were joined by the hasidaeans and others who refused to accept Hellenization. In a short time the nucleus of a guerrilla army had taken form. Shortly afterward, having confided the leadership of the resistance to his third son, Judas Maccabee (1 Mc 1.66), Mathathias died.


Review: In Defense of the Bible

It would be safe to say that the world is growing increasingly hostile towards a biblical worldview. The once prominent influence of Christianity has taken a cultural backseat to the rise of a post-Christian society, and the effects therein can be seen almost everywhere. For the sake of modernity, this cultural shift has largely encouraged an undue stance of skepticism towards the Bible. It is here that In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder provides the reader with a much-needed reevaluation of the current challenges facing the sacred Scriptures.

Despite the onslaught of negative opinion concerning the Bible, the contributors of this volume remain firmly persuaded with the faith of the Church in the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture. This conviction is stated rather unashamedly in the introduction. In Defense of the Bible is divided into three major sections: (1) Philosophical and Methodological Challenges, (2) Textual and Historical Challenges, and (3) Ethical, Scientific, and Theological Challenges. Each of these sections are strategically pointed at specific challenges that have arisen against the Bible. These challenges are largely variegated in nature, but Cowan and Wilder have done justice to the subtitle in their attempt to provide a comprehensive apologetic.

Depending on the particular interest of the reader, I found that the content of the chapters amid the three major sections mentioned above can vary as much as the challenges they address. For example, if your interests are more easily perked by the philosophical and methodological issues, the opening four chapters will be a goldmine of useful information. However, if these issues are not of immediate importance or interest, regardless of the content therein, the reader is likely to find the treatment to be satisfactory but not overly helpful. I was among the latter group in the opening chapters of the book, although the chapter on higher criticism by Charles L. Quarles was easily one of the most helpful chapters in the book.

The second section of the book is where I found the most benefit. It is here that the reader is exposed to some of the most substantial challenges to the Bible. The other challenges tackled in the book are important, but largely irrelevant if the text of the Bible is unsustainable. This is also where much of the modern challenge today is being directed, and directed quite strategically. Both the Old Testament and the New are thoroughly addressed, and the contributors to this section are all qualified voices amid the larger academic dialog. The chapter by Daniel B. Wallace is worth admission alone. The same could easily be said for the chapters by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Paul D. Wegner, and Paul W. Barnett, but Wallace’s chapter will be noteworthy for anyone familiar with the frequent challenges administered by Bart D. Ehrman and others.

The challenges that are addressed in this volume show no sign of decelerating anytime soon. It is in the best interest of Christians everywhere to be familiar with these challenges, both ready and equipped to provide a defense for the hope that is within them. Thus, In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder is a book that I could not recommend more enthusiastically! It will both strengthen your confidence and encourage your faith!

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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  • Title: WJK Hebrew Bible Background Collection (2 vols.)
  • Publisher: Westminster John Knox
  • Volumes: 2
  • Pages: 770
  • Resource Type: Monographs
  • Topic: Bible Background

Resources Included

Benefits of Logos Edition

In the Logos edition, these volumes are enhanced by an incredible set of digital research tools. Important terms link to dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a wealth of other resources in your digital library. Perform powerful searches to find exactly what you’re looking for. Take the discussion with you using tablet and mobile apps. With Logos Bible Software, the most efficient and comprehensive research tools are in one place, so you get the most out of your study.

From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Third Edition

  • Author: Shaye J. D. Cohen
  • Edition: Third
  • Publisher: Westminster John Knox
  • Publication Date: 2014
  • Pages: 318

This is the third edition of Shaye J. D. Cohen's important and seminal work on the history and development of Judaism between 164 BCE to 300 CE. Cohen's synthesis of religion, literature, and history offers deep insight into the nature of Judaism at this key period, including the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the function of Jewish religion in the larger community, and the development of normative Judaism and other Jewish sects. Cohen offers students more than just history, but an understanding of the social and cultural context of Judaism as it developed into the formative period of rabbinic Judaism. This new edition includes a brand-new chapter on the parting of ways between Jews and Christians in the second century CE. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah remains the clearest introduction to the era that shaped Judaism and provided the context for early Christianity.

—Lee Levine, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History and Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Shaye J. D. Cohen is the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. One of the foremost experts on Jewish history and culture, he is the author of several books, including The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties and Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism.

Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East

  • Author: Christopher B. Hays
  • Publisher: Westminster John Knox
  • Publication Date: 2014
  • Pages: 452

This study considers the historical, cultural, and literary significance of some of the most important Ancient Near East (ANE) texts that illuminate the Hebrew Bible. Christopher B. Hays provides primary texts from the Ancient Near East with a comparison to literature of the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate how Israel's Scriptures not only draw from these ancient contexts but also reshape them in a unique way.

Hays offers a brief introduction to comparative studies, then lays out examples from various literary genres that shed light on particular biblical texts. Texts about ANE law collections, treaties, theological histories, prophecies, ritual texts, oracles, prayers, hymns, laments, edicts, and instructions are compared to corresponding literature in the Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings of the Hebrew Bible. The book includes summaries and reflection questions to help instructors and students identify key points for comparison. By considering the literary and historical context of other literature, students will come away with a better understanding of the historical, literary, and theological depth of the Hebrew Bible.

—Mark S. Smith, Skirball Chair of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, New York University

Christopher B. Hays is the D. Wilson Moore Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah.


The Presbyterians and I – By Shaye J.D. Cohen

On June 20 of this year the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that (allegedly) aid the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I, a liberal traditional Jew (is there really such a thing?), condemn the Presbyterian vote — all the while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank also pains me.

My business relationship with the PCUSA goes back to the 1980s. Wayne Meeks, a distinguished professor of early Christian studies at Yale, invited me to contribute a volume to a series under his editorship, The Library of Early Christianity, published by Westminster Press. (Westminster Press subsequently merged with John Knox Press and changed its name to Westminster John Knox Press, or WJK.) At the time I was a young and relatively unknown professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Wayne wanted a “Jewish background to the New Testament” sort of book, but I wound up writing a “Jewish foreground to the New Testament” sort of book. Entitled From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, it was published by Westminster Press in 1987 and has remained in print ever since. A second edition was published in 2006, and a third edition is scheduled to appear this autumn. In 1987 I knew that Westminster Press was a Christian publisher but I did not pay much attention to its precise pedigree. It turns out that it was and is the publishing arm of the PCUSA. (PCUSA is a mainline liberal Protestant Christian denomination its overwhelmingly white membership has declined in recent years and now numbers about 1.75 million. It should not be confused with other Presbyterian denominations, including the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA. )

When I revised From the Maccabees to the Mishnah for its second edition in 2006, I appended the following paragraph to the preface:

The first edition of this book was published by the Westminster Press in 1987 in the Library of Early Christianity series, edited by Wayne Meeks. I was delighted then to be associated with a Presbyterian publishing house. It is one of the blessings of America that a Presbyterian publisher would commission a Jew to write a book on early Judaism for a series oriented to students of the New Testament. This never happened in the old country. Eighteen years later I am grateful to Westminster John Knox Press for publishing this second edition and remain grateful to the press for its courtesies to me over the years. I am no longer happy, however, to be associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the parent body of WJK, because I am deeply pained by the recent anti-Israel turn in its policies. The fact that WJK is editorially and fiscally independent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affords small consolation by publishing this book with WJK, I am associating myself perforce with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an organization whose anti-Israel policies I condemn and distrust.

What made me so angry? At its general meeting in 2003 the PCUSA passed a long resolution calling upon Israel to “end the occupation now.” The resolution made some half-hearted attempts to show balance and even-handedness, but the overall tone was unmistakably anti-Israel. The statement presented Zionism as part and parcel of European colonialism in the near east and denounced Israeli intransigence and expansionism. It either omitted or downplayed the sins of the Arabs (e.g., the invasion of the state of Israel in 1948) and the Palestinians (e.g., repeated attacks against Israeli civilians). The PCUSA depicted Israel as the source of the problem and demanded that Israel be the source of the solution. That is the gist of the resolution of 2003.

The vote of 2014 builds on that 2003 resolution but puts teeth into it by having the Church divest from three companies that (allegedly) enable Israel to maintain its occupation of the West Bank. The new resolution softens the blow by incorporating into its language some of the text of a pro-Israel resolution that had been brought to the floor, namely that the Church supports Israel’s right to exist within internationally recognized borders, that the Church supports a two-state solution, that the Church calls upon all parties to desist from violence, that the Church loves the Jews, etc. Softened or not, this resolution was no less anti-Israel than was the previous one. In response, the preface to the third edition of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, scheduled for publication in autumn of this year, will contain the following paragraph:

When I wrote the codicil to the preface of the second edition, I earnestly hoped that I would not need to do so for the third. But alas, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues on its anti-Israel course. It has now (20 June 2014) voted to divest from three American companies that it claims are aiding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. What makes the vote so disturbing is its obsession with Israel and Israel’s sins. It is one thing to say that Israel has not treated the Palestinians compassionately or wisely. This is obviously true. But it is quite another to condemn Israel alone when there is so much malfeasance and evil behavior all around the Near East. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) threatens only Israel with divestment, ignoring the wrongs committed by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, wrongs committed against their own people as well as against Israelis. The Middle East is ablaze with war, civil war, rebellion, and oppression human rights are abused aplenty in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, just to mention four egregious examples in fact the concept of “human rights” is all but unknown in the region. Israel is in a legal state of war with many of its neighbors many of its Palestinian subjects support Hamas and Hezbollah, which have each declared, publicly and unambiguously, that they intend to see Israel destroyed. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), oblivious to all this, criticizes Israel alone for its faults. Protestations of fairness and justice ring hollow when Israel is held to a standard that no other country in the region is held to, and when so much evil and suffering in the region are ignored. With this vote the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has chosen to align itself with Israel’s enemies. I have no complaint against WJK Press. My complaint is directed solely against WJK’s parent body, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose anti-Israel policies I condemn.

I’ll give WJK credit for one thing — neither last time nor this has anyone from the staff tried to convince me to remove or tone down my critique of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Detail of Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishna, 2nd ed., Westminster John Knox, 2006.

But now, if truth be told, the handwringing begins. I deplore the Presbyterians’ monomaniacal focus on Israel and its sins, but I confess that I agree with them — in part. Israel has given the Palestinians precious little incentive to want to accept the Jewish state. I am fully aware that the Palestinians too have given the Israelis precious little incentive to want to accept a Palestinian state. Yet every Arab house destroyed by the IDF, every olive tree uprooted, every village divided in two by the separation barrier or cut off from its neighbors by road blocks — each of these is for me as a Jew a source of angst and embarrassment. These acts are wrong morally and they are foolish politically — they do not aid Israel’s cause in the world. Every time Benjamin Netanyahu or one of his minions announces the construction or expansion of a Jewish settlement on the West Bank or in east Jerusalem, I cringe in disbelief. He just doesn’t get it. He does not realize what a public relations disaster he is committing: he is showing the world, voluntarily, without compulsion or necessity, that the Palestinians are right when they accuse Israel of boundless expansionism. This is also a moral disaster: is Israel prepared to allow the Palestinians to live normal lives? Is it, or is it not, prepared to recognize that the Palestinians too — I emphasize, too — have the right to live in that land? Israel says it does, but its actions belie her words. The Presbyterians do have a point … Israel has sinned.

I can condemn specific Israeli actions but I cannot condemn Israel as a country because as a Jew Israel is mine even though I do not live there. I visit there regularly, I have many friends there, I know the bus routes of Jerusalem far better than I know the bus routes of Boston (where I live), but my life is not their life. Israel is surrounded by enemies. Terrorism is not the paranoid fantasy of right-wingers: in Israel it is real. The stakes are so high, the potential consequences of miscalculation so catastrophic that I understand the mindset of many Israelis. Block out the Palestinians from view and live. Every day that Israelis live something approximating a normal life is a victory. What will be tomorrow, ten years from now, fifty years from now, who knows?

I oppose divestment, even the modest divestment promoted by the PCUSA. Those who crafted the Presbyterian Church resolution — having been tutored by activists from the Jewish Voice for Peace — carefully state that they do not advocate divestment from Israel tout court: “This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.” It would be uncharitable of me to question the sincerity of either of these fine organizations but, charitable or no, I can lament their naiveté. They think that a distinction can be drawn between divestment from companies that aid the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and divestment from companies that aid (or simply work in) Israel in general. I disagree this is a distinction without a difference. Certainly the media are incapable of making this distinction, and as soon as people hear the words “divestment” and “occupation” joined together they assume that Israel is the target, plain and simple. Israel’s enemies make no distinction between one kind of divestment and another. They applaud equally any and all boycotts of, divestments from, and sanctions of Israel. Any condemnation of Israel is fine with them. For Israel’s enemies the occupied territories include not just east Jerusalem, Jenin, and Ramallah, but also west Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Ra’anana, so presumably any company doing any business anywhere with Israel is, or will be, a target for divestment.

Indeed, the logic of the Presbyterian resolution leads inexorably to total divestment from Israel, because it leads inexorably to the delegitimation of Israel itself. According to the resolutions of both 2003 and 2014, Israel is primarily to blame for the ongoing crisis. This thesis is spelled out in detail in a pamphlet “Zionism Unsettled” produced under the aegis of the PCUSA and offered for sale on its website until a few days ago when it was removed. (The text of the pamphlet can be readily found online.) This pamphlet resurrects the “Zionism is racism” canard, depicts Zionism as a branch of European colonialism, and understands Zionism to be the implementation of “Old Testament” theology (which, from a Christian perspective, is obviously a bad thing.) True, the Presbyterian Church did say, while “Zionism Unsettled” was still on its website, that the pamphlet does not represent the view of the PCUSA the website explained that “Zionism Unsettled” was a report to the Church, but was not of or by the Church. Once again, a very fine distinction. When the Presbyterian Church realized that this distinction could not be maintained it pulled the pamphlet. It is easy to predict that in two years’ time at its next convention, unless there is dramatic progress towards peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the PCUSA will condemn Israel again, broaden divestment from Israel, and perhaps even endorse a one-state solution. The rhetorical justification for these moves is already in place.

So I harshly condemn the PCUSA for its targeting of Israel, for its anti-Israel rhetoric, and for adopting a course that, barring the unforeseen, will culminate in an out and out delegitimation of Israel and divestment from it. But I also acknowledge — I who am a liberal traditional Jew, a lover and supporter of Israel, a member of a modern Orthodox synagogue in which we pray every week for the welfare of the State of Israel and its soldiers — that Israel has behaved foolishly and brutally in its treatment of the Palestinians of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. (And of course I recognize that the Palestinians have behaved poorly in their not very neighborly relations with Israel.) I condemn the vote of the PCUSA. I will not agree with anyone who delegitimates Israel or questions its right to exist, but I confess that the actions of Israel that arouse the ire of the PCUSA cause me dismay and anguish.

I write these words in the aftermath of several gruesome murders in Israel. It is hard to say which is more horrible — the murder of three innocent Israeli yeshiva students by (one assumes) Palestinian extremists or the murder of an innocent Arab teenager by Israeli extremists. The extremists on both sides seem to be on the ascendant. Hamas is shooting rockets into Israel and Israel is conducting air strikes on Gaza and has begun a major ground assault. In this environment, the actions of the PCUSA in June 2014 pale in significance: who cares about divestment from three American companies when Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other? Let us all hope that this spate of violence will blow over sooner rather than later. At some point it will stop — and then what? We will be back where we were a few weeks ago before the murders. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will continue as before, if not become worse. Exactly how will that help Israel get to what should be her goal: finding a modus vivendi with the Palestinians? I denounce the PCUSA for unfairly condeming Israel, but I am not blind to Israel’s failings. I desperately hope that Israeli leaders will begin to act in a way that demonstrates that they are prepared to accept the inevitable: the Palestinians, no less than the Israelis, are there to stay.


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