Jewish Thought and History

Punishment, Progress, Or Impossibility? Three Medieval Accounts of Exile

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Michael Weiner

For nearly two millennia, Jewish life has been defined by the experience of living in exile, often referred to as the diaspora. This Greek word literally means “dispersion, scattering,” based on the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 28:25 (“thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth”). Wrapped up in this multifarious concept are a number of related historical events and conditions: the destruction of the Temple, the loss of political sovereignty, and this dispersion among the kingdoms of foreign nations. While diasporic life brought obvious political, social, and economic changes to Jews, it also brought a new and difficult theological problem with which to grapple. Jews now needed to unpack the fraught theological meaning of their current subjugated, non-autonomous state in (mostly) unfriendly lands and link that meaning to their understanding of Jewish nationhood and the arc of Jewish history.

Jews were spurred on in this task of articulating a coherent national-religious identity amidst statelessness by the rise and growth of the nascent “Jesus movement” (later, Christianity), which rapidly gained adherents throughout the Roman Empire and became the official state religion in the early 300s CE. That this happened during the same three centuries in which the Temple was destroyed and communal life in Israel utterly devastated under Roman rule, gave rise to difficult religious questions. The blatant simultaneity of Judaism’s political fall with the rise of Christendom, whose adherents claimed to be the new people of God with a New Covenant that fulfilled and superseded the Hebrew Bible, gave Christians a powerful argument and forced Jews to account for their lowly sociopolitical state.

The popular literature of the Church Fathers and later medieval preaching frequently seized on the reality of Jewish exile as demonstrable evidence that God had rejected the Jewish people, middah keneged middah (measure for measure), for their rejection of Jesus. The Christian scholar Origen, active in the early 200s CE, wrote in his apologetic work Against Celsus, “We may see how after the advent of Jesus the Jews have been entirely forsaken, and retain none of their traditionally sacred possessions, nor even a hint of the divine presence among them… for what nation is an exile from their own metropolis, and from the place sacred to the worship of their fathers, save the Jews alone” (Book 2, Chapter 8)? Later, Augustine elaborated on this claim in what would become known as the “doctrine of witness” in his supremely influential work, The City of God, writing that the Jews “suffered a more wretched devastation at the hands of the Romans, and were utterly uprooted from their kingdom… they were dispersed all over the world… and thus by evidence of their own scriptures, they bear witness for us that we have not fabricated the prophecies about Christ” (Book 18, Chapter 46).

From the 13th century onward, Western European Christendom grew in political strength and missionary activity. As Christian power grew in Spain and France, the Church blessed efforts by the Dominican Order to missionize the Jews, forcing them to attend sermons and financing the publication of polemics. Robert Chazan writes that in response, for the first time ever, Jews began to compose their own anti-Christian polemics en masse, in order to “blunt the pressures exerted by a powerful Christian majority society and to reinforce Jewish commitment,”[1] as well as to “maintain the identity of a beleaguered Jewish minority” (20). Two important representative works of this genre, both from 12th century Spain, are Sefer he-Berit, by R. Joseph Kimhi (father of Radak) and Milhamot Hashem, by the little-known Jacob ben Reuben. Both spend a considerable amount of time rebutting the Christian claim of “Jewish hopelessness… as evidence of divine rejection” (Chazan 185). At the very beginning of his book, written as a dialogue between a Christian and Jew, Kimhi has the Christian protagonist say: “you… lack belief and deeds and power and kingship. You have lost everything” (ibid., 184), demonstrating the centrality of this line of argument in disputational contexts.

How, then, did the Jews respond? The most straightforward way to rebut the idea that Jewish exile validates Christian dogma is to simply acknowledge that exile is a result of sin—just not the sin Christians are thinking of! Classical Jewish literature is replete with this claim, from the text of the festival Musaf Amidah that begins, “because of our sins we were exiled from our land,” to Talmudic passages like the one in Yoma 9b that attribute the destruction of the First and Second Temples to a host of different sins. This rabbinic sentiment is itself based on numerous biblical passages, like Leviticus Chapter 26, which asserts that national disobedience to Israel’s covenant with God (26:15) will result in exile from its land: “I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you” (ibid., 33).

This approach rebuts the claim that Jews do not suffer because they aren’t good Christians: they suffer because they aren’t good Jews! The early 12th-century scholar Rabbi Meir bar Simon of Narbonne makes this exact argument in his polemical work Milhemet Mitzvah, emphasizing that the prolonged Jewish exile is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy, and that “just as the punishments have materialized, so too will the eventual redemption” (Chazan 198). To blunt the bitterness of this harsh internal critique, both Rabbi Meir and Ramban, in his Sefer ha-Geulah, cite the verse in Deuteronomy: “For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers” (4:31), reassuring their readers that exile and subjugation, however long, cannot supplant the promises of God and do not support Christian claims to chosenness. This mode of argumentation grants the sorry political state of Jewry, and even chalks it up to sin, but finds proof from and comfort in the Bible itself, which says that exile is temporary and redemption guaranteed.

However simple and textually grounded it may be, this argument does not tell the whole story of Jewish polemical responses. Jews might have variously been bothered by the harsh personal opprobrium of such a defense, which assumes that collective Jewish sinfulness has endured for over 1,000 years, or its lack of explanation for Christian triumph. After all, even if Jews must suffer, why should that mean their enemies must prosper? Such reservations leave room for another explanation for the exile, offered by Ramban as an aside during the 13th-century Disputation of Barcelona with Pablo Christiani: “then I serve my creator in your domain, in exile and in suffering and in subjugation and in the contumely of the nations—who regularly revile me, my reward will be great, for I perform a sacrifice to God with my body. For this I shall merit the world to come more and more” (Chazan 211). Hyam Maccoby notes that Ramban is basing himself on the teaching in Pirkei Avot, “According to the pain is the reward” (5:23).

In the Kuzari, Judah Halevi strengthens this argument, cleverly pointing out that even Christians themselves agree that serving God amidst suffering and lowliness is the greatest form of devotion:

Humility and meekness are evidently nearer to the Divine Influence than glory and eminence… Christians do not glory in kings, heroes and rich people, but in those who followed Jesus all the time, before His faith had taken firm root among them. They… suffered disgrace and slaughter for the sake of their belief. These are the people in whom they glory, whose ministers they revere, and in whose names they build churches… In these, their humility and martyrdom do they glory; not in the princes who boasted of their wealth and power, but rather in those clad in rags and fed scantily on barley bread (4:22).

This argument goes beyond marking exile merely as punishment and instead makes the ambitious positive claim that greater rewards are in store for those who keep the faith under conditions of humility and powerlessness than under sovereignty and wealth. The Christian trope of supersessionism—in which political inequalities between Church and Synagogue reflect religious ones-is utterly inverted, and Christian belief itself is marshaled to show that weakness before man is a catalyst for pious submission before God, fundamentally shifting our understanding of the purpose of exile.

The final line of argumentation I want to discuss is not scriptural or theological, but imaginative. Instead of accepting Christian claims about Jewish powerlessness, some Jews steadfastly insisted that even now, there are some Jews in some region of the world somewhere that still do have power. The medieval legends told about such Jews, often understood to be the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, reflect that not all Jews were content to accept traditional explanations for exile and loss of autonomy, and desired the comfort of knowing that Jews still rule somewhere, somehow.

In one case[2], the 14th-century Spanish Rabbi Shlomo Halevi converted to Christianity, and his student Yehoshua Halorki wrote a letter to him attempting to bring him back into the fold by rebutting arguments for Christianity. He includes a telling passage insisting that Jewish subjugation under Christendom doesn’t prove anything because, after all, “the members of the ten tribes continued to conduct an independent life and were not dominated by any foreign power”[3] (Benmelech 197).

In a polemical work written by the 16th-century German Jewish convert to Christianity, Anthonius Margarita, he writes that the Jews “comfort themselves with the 10 tribes that the king of Assyria drove out and led back to Assyria and placed in the city Chalo/Chouor by the stream Goson and in the city Modai, as you find in Kings. It is a great wonder to me why they hope these 10 tribes, called the Red Jews, will come and redeem them. They also have little Hebrew and German booklets in which they write many lies and fairy tales about these 10 tribes. They also write about a stream named Sabbathion, which stream is so wild and wave-tossed during the week that no one can cross it – only on the Sabbath is the water calm. And these Red Jews dwell in the midst of these waters” (cited in Walton 107).[4]

Other examples abound. The writings of Eldad ha-Dani, a 9th-century Jewish merchant who traveled throughout Europe claiming to be the member of a Jewish community in East Africa that descended from the Ten Lost Tribes, were widely read, discussed, and accepted by many. A medieval Jewish folktale about the origins of the piyut Akdamut tells that during a period of dangerous Christian antisemitism, R. Meir of Worms traveled across the Sambatyon River on Shabbat to meet with an other-worldly Jewish community beyond the river, some of whom he sent back to Worms to defeat an antisemitic priest through mystical incantations and invocations of God’s name.

Taken in total, these medieval Jewish arguments against the supersessionist triumphalism of Christian apologists and preachers had two purposes: one theological, the other psychological. In their apologetical works and debates with Christians, Jewish thinkers and rabbis sought to deter conversion to Christianity, while also giving Jews—even devout ones—the faith and hope to continue living as Jews, no matter how difficult and precarious their social and economic conditions might be. Each argument has to be evaluated along these dual axes of meaning, responding both to intellectual arguments about the meaning of Scripture and the divinely-orchestrated progression of Jewish history, as well as emotional ones about the fear that perhaps God had abandoned us in our exile.

With the return of Jewish sovereignty in the last century, Christian supersessionist arguments have become far less convincing, to Jews and Christians alike. Already by 1956, in a public address on Yom ha-Atzma’ut later published under the title Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik declared that “the arguments of Christian theologians to the effect that the Holy One has taken away from the Community of Israel its rights to the Land of Israel, and that all of the biblical promises relating to Zion and Jerusalem now refer in an allegorical sense to Christianity and the Christian Church, were all publicly shown to be false, baseless contentions by the establishment of the State of Israel.”

In their stead, new questions have arisen, about how Jews should wield their political power, how to balance national security with pursuing peace, and the proper place of religion, private and public, in a Jewish state. And yet, with all of these changes, I would argue that medieval perspectives on the purpose of exile remain compelling sources of wisdom in approaching this new stage of Jewish sovereignty. From Rabbi Meir bar Simon of Narbonne, we learn that sin can have difficult consequences. Those clamoring to create a medinat halachah and start rebuilding the Temple today would do well to consider that perhaps we are not yet worthy of these blessings, and should work to improve ourselves within before altering geopolitical realities without. From the Ramban and Judah Halevi, we are reminded of the greatness of serving God in the midst of suffering. Even with sovereignty restored, the state of Israel and its soldiers and citizens have come face to face with the threat of extinction more than once and face the trauma of war with disturbing regularity. The attempt to make meaning out of ongoing national suffering did not end in 1948 or 1967 and, sadly, continues to this day. And finally, from medieval Jewish folktales and lore about the lost 10 tribes and their kingdom beyond the Sambatyon, we may remember to never take our sovereignty and power for granted. The Jews telling these stories could not accept that all Jews around the world were subject to foreign powers. For them, the pride of autonomy and self-rule was such an essential part of Judaism that it simply had to exist, in some form or another. It would be valuable for American Jews (myself included) to ask themselves whether they feel the same way and if so, what that might demand of us.

In all three cases, we can see strands of continuity between the modern political and theological problems of sovereignty and medieval reflection on exile. As long as sin, suffering, and national pride continue to exist, looking back at ancient thinking on Jewish nationhood and history will continue to bear fruit.


[1]Robert Chazan, Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Christendom (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 18.

[2] I’d like to thank Dr. Chaviva Levin for bringing many of the sources in this section to my attention.

[3] Moti Benmelech, “Back to the Future: The Ten Tribes and Messianic Hopes in Jewish Society during the Early Modern Age,” in Peoples of the Apocalypse: Eschatological Beliefs and Political Scenarios, eds. Wolfram Brandes et al. (De Gruyter, 2016).

[4] Michael Walton, Anthonius Margaritha and the Jewish Faith: Jewish Life and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Wayne State University Press, 2012).