A Torah Exchange: Malka Simkovich Responds to Yonatan Adler

I wish to thank Yonatan Adler for taking the time to respond to my review, which expresses two concerns about his work. The first regards his claim that Jews began to observe Torah laws, and treat the Torah as an authoritative text, in the Hasmonean era. This claim, I argue, problematically depends upon the interpretation of an absence of archaeological evidence in preceding eras as significant. Because Adler’s data sets are limited to particular sites in Israel, moreover, they tell us nothing about Jewish life beyond these communities, particularly in communities outside the Land of Israel, where Jews lived and thrived beginning in the early Persian era. As for literary references to Torah observance found in texts that were composed before the Hasmonean era, Adler dismisses such references as polemical or ignores them altogether.

The privileging of archaeological evidence over textual evidence, and the selection of some texts over others as historically reliable, is related to my second concern, which is that Adler examines the development of normative Jewish identity by studying practices to the exclusion of intellectual ideas. A study of these ideas, however, would show more continuity between the Persian and Hellenistic eras than rupture.

As Adler notes, this is not an oversight: his introduction makes clear that he has intentionally selected to focus on social practices rather than intellectual ideas. Still, in a book titled “The Origins of Judaism,” why isn’t Adler interested in ideas? Adler’s title provides the lens through which readers are asked to interpret his evidence, and this lens tells us that the origins of Judaism are best understood through a study of ancient Jewish practices, and not the ideas that many of them were meant to affirm. 

Perhaps our core disagreement, then, regards the same question that confounded Greeks and Romans (and likely Jews themselves) in the ancient world: how does one define a Jew? To probe Judaism’s origins, the Jews, and their Judaism, must be subject to unambiguous definition. While Adler compellingly answers the question, “how did some Judean Jews observe their particular traditions in the Hellenistic era?” I am not sure that he answers the question that his title purports to answer: what made someone a Jew in the ancient world? The answer to this question requires historians to argue for a particular kind of a relationship—and value system—that reveals the interplay between Jewish practices and Jewish ideas.   

I want to thank Adler once again for his meticulous scholarship and for being a thoughtful conversation partner. This response would not be complete without adding that, at a time when Israel is fighting an existential war against those who seek to destroy it, I deeply appreciate Adler’s public statements concerning the historic integrity of the Jewish people and their connection to the land of Israel. It would be far easier for a scholar of his caliber to remain silent.

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