Judaism and Religious Freedom in the Rabbinic Period (70 CE – 1000 CE)

The start of the rabbinic era witnessed the total collapse of Jewish sovereignty. Jewish political autonomy had gradually been winnowed by Roman rule since the 2nd century BCE, but with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, any vestiges of Jewish independence disappeared for the next nineteen centuries. Of the major Jewish sects in the Temple era, only the Pharisees (and, depending on one’s reading of the situation at the time, Christians) had the resources to survive and thrive in a post-Temple era. The Pharisees, the immediate forerunners of the rabbis, did not reject the Temple and its sacrifices, but they were not Temple-centered like the Sadduccean elite. Pharisaic Judaism, because of its more portable nature, would therefore persevere even if the Temple lay in ruins. Unlike the Zealots, the Pharisees were willing to make temporizing bargains with the Romans, exchanging any claim to political authority for the preservation of religious autonomy.

No matter how much the people yearned for Zion, Judaism would now be a diaspora religion. From this new situation, new approaches to religious liberty would surface. Two significant developments emerged in the rabbinic narratives of religious liberty. First, the rabbis reversed the biblical tolerance regarding gentile idolatry. Idolatry became for them universally prohibited, without, however, any expectation that the whole world would in turn immediately become monotheistic. Of course, they had no legal mechanism or political remedy to stamp out what they considered gentile idolatry, but the absence of practical application did not hinder them from using Jewish law, halakha, to outline how Jews should approach gentile religious practice. For example, one of the Talmudic texts below forbids conducting business with gentiles three days prior to their festivals. The reason for this prohibition is that any financial gain would aid their idolatrous practices and increase their gratitude toward their gods.

A second central development at this time, and perhaps the most important for later Jewish thought about religious liberty, was the rabbinic creation of the seven Noahide laws. How could the rabbis determine the moral standing and, by extension, the religious liberty, of gentiles, who stood outside of the covenant? For those who were not obligated by Mosaic law, what measure could the rabbis employ to determine which communities were just and therefore deserving of tolerance? The seven laws settled upon by the rabbis (and enumerated in several passages in this document) are considered to be a part of natural reason, thus needing no revelation. They form the Jewish understanding of natural law, a type of reasoning that permitted the rabbis, emerging from a particular revelation, to consider gentiles moral equals imbued with the same level of inherent dignity as themselves. Noahide law required neither that gentiles have a revealed law nor that they acknowledge the God of Israel, but only that they abide by these minimum moral standards.

In the absence of Jewish political authority, these laws were strictly theoretical, did not have policy implications, and could have not been implemented. Thus, rabbinic accounts of the Noahide—that is, humanity per se—were aggadic, not halakhic, underpinned by moral reasoning rather than practical law. These laws represent the strong universalist strand in Jewish moral and legal thinking about how to live with others, how to assess a community’s moral status (that is to say, its proximity to the Noahide ideal), and how to grant political legitimacy to those whose religious cult is deemed idolatrous.

One other trend in the rabbinic era merits particular attention as it appears in several texts below. The rabbis, like other religious authorities, were concerned about boundary maintenance, that is, how to deal with internal and external deviance: how far does the religious liberty of heretics (minim), apostates (meshumadim), and monotheists who were not part of the Sinaitic covenant (Christians) extend? What rights do they possess? The concern with the boundaries of Judaism—primarily, the question of who is a Jew—is a persistent theme in the many Jewish voices on religious liberty.
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