“As a historian, there is no history without texts, without some kind of data. … Otherwise, history is just what contemporaries remember,” Yaakov Elman said.
Elman is a professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University and an associate at the Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies. His lecture at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy was called “Geopolitics and Tolerance: Iran, the Magi and Jews.”
Elman’s research disproved the opinion that the Jews in Babylonia, or southern Iraq, were intellectually and physically separated from the dominant culture. Babylonia was a cosmopolitan center; its citizens took care to preserve intellectual history, like the Sumerian language.
“History extends as far as our text extends,” Elman said.
Throughout his presentation, he referenced a number of respected ancient rabbis and Jewish scholars.
Elman used part of Isaiah 43:6, “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth,” to demonstrate the careful attention given to texts. In context, the sons and daughters represent two different groups of Jews, those living under Babylonian rule and those living under Roman rule.
In Babylonian Jewish culture, sons were comfortable in the homes of both their mothers and their wives, but daughters were uncomfortable in the homes of their mothers-in-law, where they were treated like servants or second-class citizens. Therefore, the Jews living in Babylon recognized their good fortune as “sons” and lamented the plight of the “daughters” in the Roman Empire.
The Jews in Babylon existed under Persian rule for approximately 1,200 years during the Sassanian period. Any Talmudic references to Persian law are referring to Sassanian law.
The empire was religiously diverse, including Jews, Hindus, Nazarenes and Manicheans, among other groups. After his assertion of power in 539 B.C., Cyrus the Great gave all uprooted immigrants, including the Jews, the opportunity to return to their homelands. At one point, the empire was the largest in the world.
By the time of the Sassanian era, however, Egypt was no longer an ally of the empire, and the Roman Empire proved to be a competitor in terms of size and strength. Egypt instead provided a great deal of material to the Roman Empire, as opposed to a country like Iran, of which only 15 percent is agricultural. Babylonia was the “breadbasket” of the Sassanian Empire. However, it was poorly protected and at risk for Roman invasion.
The Jews were a significant minority in an important province. The Persian kings then worked to pacify their Jewish populations as a security initiative; they didn’t want the Jews to side with the Romans should they manage to invade.
Stories written by Jews in sources like the Talmud offer a favorable impression of Persian rule; the civil government protected them.
“I am not saying that these are literally true stories,” Elman said. “It doesn’t matter. These are the stories the Jews told about their kings, about the Persian kings; so therefore, you have a really good idea of what they felt about them.”
Jews adopted some aspects of the dominant culture; they spoke the Middle Persian language, for instance. Their belief system was influenced somewhat by Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in Persia.
“Rabbis had to respond to challenges from their laity and from other religions,” Elman said. “This was a period, a time and a place, in which pretty much everybody talked to everybody.
“This was an open society,” Elman continued, explaining that religious leaders might not have liked the acceptance prescribed by community norms but tolerated it nonetheless, engaging in debate with Zoroastrians and Manicheans alike.
“What’s the lesson for us for today? Not to rely on ideals,” Elman said. “You’ve got to rely on practicality. You’ve got to make it worthwhile for people to be tolerant.”
Yaakov Elman is Professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University and an
associate of Harvard's Center for Jewish Studies. He has authored or
edited eight books, and written dozens of articles on rabbinic
intellectual history, Jewish biblical exegesis, and nineteenth century
Hasidic thought. For the last decade he has devoted himself to studying
the intersection of Babylonian Jewish and Middle Persian cultures and
religions. The result has been a revolutionary view of the interaction
of Rabbinic Judaism with the Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism of the early
Sasanian period (200-500 CE). He is currently working on a tandem
intellectual history of Sasanian rabbinic and Zoroastrian thought.