Abstract of Nelson, David W. “Responses to the Destruction of the Second Temple in the Tannaitic Midrashim.”

Nelson, David W.  “Responses to the Destruction of the Second Temple in the Tannaitic Midrashim.”  PhD  New York University, 1991. [Israel/Second Temple/Herod/Destruction]

Abstract:  The goal of this study was to investigate early rabbinic responses to the destruction of the Temple. Most previous research had either focused exclusively on halakhic texts or had used rabbinic texts without regard to their form or to the era of their redaction. In the former case the judgement was made that the rigid and formulaic style of halakhic texts would make them a limited source of attitudinal or theological responses; in the latter case, the failure to discriminate among earlier and later texts rendered the results unreliable for determining early responses. For these reasons this study focuses on the tannaitic midrashim.

A thorough reading of Mekhilta De-R. Ishmael, Sifra, Sifrei Bemidbar, Sifrei Zuta, Sifrei Devarim, and Mekhilta De-R. Shimon b. Yohai produced 67 response texts of which approximately 2/3 were aggadic and 1/3 were halakhic.

Analysis of responses by document revealed only minor differences in emphasis and focus among them. Most texts agreed that the destruction was divine punishment for Israel’s sin, but the notion that it was perpetrated by enemies of Israel, without divine involvement, was also present. Significant claims were made that punishment indicated God’s love, and not rejection. Theological responses also included the perception of divine empathy, with God as Israel’s co-victim in persecution, and the shift of the locus of the divine presence from a geographically oriented one (the Temple) to a behaviorally oriented one (God is found wherever Jews participate in religious life). Attitudinally, although some texts stress the importance of the Temple, cult, and priesthood, numerous attempts are made retroactively to devalue these institutions. This trend was interpreted as a result of cognitive dissonance and an endeavor to ease the pain of loss. In the realm of religious practice most texts preserve a sense of stability, either by pointing to practices unaffected by the destruction or by proposing religious behaviors that can substitute for the cult and its various social and religious functions.

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