“Because the Talmud had to serve a Diaspora which had no state apparatus to enforce its decrees, it had to develop laws as duties of the heart instead of fears of the state” Max DiMont, The Indestructible Jews
When I refer to Jews as a virus, I don’t mean this in an an insulting way, but as a civilizational virus in the sense of epigenetics, the act to constantly “inform” other cultures throughout history. As I wrote last essay, leading up to the Renaissance period, Jews were busily “coding” the Talmud, updating it and getting it to apply to modern conditions.
As a parallel to biology, a virus does pretty much the same thing, constantly “re-coding” DNA and engineering it “on the fly” in such a way that it constantly interacts with DNA of other species and provides necessary information for both evolving and speciating. As Max DiMont points out in The Indestructible Jews, prior to the Renaissance, Jews went through a furious process of re-working the Talmud over a process of several generations.
In Babylon, two very basic “codes” or language forms had come into direct contact with each other. Both were very basic and easy to communicate, but the Jewish “code” based on alphabetic text, became the code that dominated the process of linking together not only the culture in Babylon, but the emerging culture in Persia, Greece, and Rome. As traders and experts in law and commerce, the Jews became the embodiment of their own code. The biblical story of their beginnings, wandering in the desert forty years, indicates that they were specially prepared for this type of evolution.
For example, when the Islamic empire rose to power, the Jews had become accustomed to patterns of development in the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Acting as cultural outsiders, DiMont writes:
“The Jews did what came naturally. The fired the old scriptwriters and hired a new set of specialists. Instead of rejecting the Muslim civilization, they accepted it. Instead of keeping themselves apart, they integrated. Instead of becoming parochialized fossils, they joined the new swinging society as sustaining members….Instead of declining, the Jews multiplied. Instead of atrophying, the Talmud expanded…This unheard-of period of freedom took them not to the brink of extinction but to a Golden Age of creativity”.
Israel had been forced to wander in the desert forty years after leaving Egypt. In that process, unlike the origins of other cultures, they had to learn how to rely on the law which was given to them without regard to their surrounding environment. By “hardwiring” their law and literally carrying their culture with them, they were able to move to any area and re-adapt, as DiMont shows, leaving the basic “DNA(Torah)” intact, while furiously re-writing code that served as extensions of that Torah, developing processes or rules(Hillel) that allowed them reasoning processes enabling them to quickly throw away unnecessary or “junk DNA”, yet retaining it for future reference in their Talmudic records as patterns and conclusions. As DiMont points out, they were able to take the Greek mathematics and philosophy, integrate it with developing ideas of Islam, which came from conquest of other cultures, and develop empowering technologies applying math and philosophy to the emerging ‘real world”.
Within the Islam empire, the Jews rose to independen power as “Exilarchs”, allowed to form their own culture within a culture, later challenged by a group known as Saboras. It was the Saboras, facing a Mishna that had been closed, a Gemara that was closed, and a closed Torah, unavailable for “re-coding”, developed the Talmud as a combination of the Mishna and Gemara, in terms of civilizations, the Jews were becoming the ‘genetric engineers” in each succession.
The Saboras gave themselves the judicial title of “Gaon(your eminence)”.
“Their great historic achievement lay in transforming the Talmud into a symbolic substitute for a religious state for a non-existent geographic state.”
Compared to the development in organisms, this might be compared to the development of “self awareness”, in which an organism becomes aware of its identity apart from other opranisms, and begins to develop processes of behavior justifying that difference.
“In sessions similar to the Sanhedrin of ancient days and to the United States Supreme Court today, they took existing Talmudic law, and by a series of ‘constitutional’ reinterpretations enlarged narrower views into lofty concepts. These decisions, which affected criminal, civil, and commercial law, were not made part of the Talmud itself, but became part of Talmudic ‘constitutional law’.
Concepts developing under the Gaons, wrote DiMont, sounded remarkably similar to twentieth century law in regard to labor.
“A working man’s salary could not be cut be cause of absence due to illness, nor could his tools be taken as security against a loan. The Talmud also set limits upon working hours and protected the rights of guilds to set a wage scale….Talmudic law also claimed that ownership depended on labor and moral right rather than occupancy and conquest. It held that occupancy had to be justified by rightful claim….Though private property was sacrosanct, it had to yield at times to moral and human rights.”
The Gaons became the standard of law worldwide. Jews from all over asked questions in regard to law. The idea of “constitutional” interpretations by specialists appealed greatly to many cultures. This, writes DiMont, caused
“the Gaons to realize that the Diaspora was assuming international function s, and that the Talmud was the vehicle for an invisible government in exile. Aware now that they were international jurists, the Gaons began elaborating their answers and citing precedents with brilliant displays of scholarship that dazzled the as yet backward Jews of Europe. The new ‘Oral law’ developed by the Gaons was disseminated throughout he Diaspora via a unique courier service tat became known as the Responsa…”
Not only were the Jews the civilizational “DNA” but now had developed a kind of “nervous system” for transmission of specific messages to various parts of the world. Within the rise and fall of empires spreading worldwide through war and conquest, the Jews were forming legal concepts of labor, trade, and “constitutional” concepts involving and shaping all legal systems. Where the “DNA” had spread, a new “organism” began to emerge.
In time, the Gaons would recognize the value of trade and commerce as the process by which the Jews would rise to meet new challenges. As the Torah denied the charge of interest or usury from anyone, the Gaons said that interest would not be charged to Jews, but would be charged to others. In time the Christians, seeing the profits from money-lending, would charge interest to all and call it “banking”.