This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
-By Shoshana Rosa
As a child in elementary school, I remember my teachers speaking about a Judaism from temple times that was unified in its Torah learning and service to G-d. Their only enemies were the non-Jews who threatened to destroy them. As I got older, though, a new image began to emerge: a time period that didn't exist in harmony but was, in fact, full of people who had broken away from the classic Torah from Sinai group.
One of Judaism's more famous drop outs were, of course, the Christians. The early Christians emerged around 1 century BCE, one hundred years after several other ancient Jewish sects that existed during the second temple era. The largest among these old groups were the Pharisees (also known as the Ultra Orthodox Jews) and their break off group the Sadducees.
When archaeologists discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert Qumran near the Dead Sea (hence the name), people were stunned at the wealth of information that had just become available.The discovery, made in 1946, was one year before the establishment of Israel. Diggers, aided by desert Bedouins, found 972 documents in 11 different caves in the sparse desert area.
Their findings filled in a lot of historical gaps dating back to the 2nd century BCE, the time when the second Beit Hamikdash stood. The tattered documents were initially analyzed by non-Jewish scholars who studied the scrolls from a proto Christian perspective. Therefore, the Essenes, the ancient Jewish sect to whom the scrolls belonged, began to take the form of some early, vague version of Christianity. Thanks to Ultra Orthodox scholars like Professor Lawrence Schiffman from Brandeis University, we were later offered a more Judaic glance at the scrolls. Schiffman sheds light on the scrolls' contents based off his knowledge of the Torah as well as the antique writings of the Pharisees. He also said, "In order for young scholars to better understand the Essenes, they need to familiarize themselves with the context of the temple time period." For instance, although the proto Christian view was that the Essenes were pro celibacy, Professor Lawrence disagrees, "If you look at the time period objectively, imagining Jews as wanting to abstain from raising families is quite a stretch." We're a growing nation!
As one of the major sects in ancient times, albeit a smaller one, it seems that the Essenes agreed with the other two sects on the importance of the Torah remaining the central focus in the community. However, their personal take on the text itself as well as their obedience to its holy guidelines differed from the Orthodox group's stance. Where the Pharisees follow Toras Moshe (the oral and written law as we received it from Moshe in the desert), this small desert tribe believed in separation from this world so as to ascend to higher realms of holiness. The Saducees believed in following the written guidelines in the Bible only. In retrospect, it's easier to see that any group which chose to veer off the path of truth, no matter how strong they felt about their own convictions, eventually fell away. Today, the Essenes and Sadducees are little more than a fascinating history lesson.
In a fit of irony, I also noted that before the scrolls were discovered, it was universally accepted that Jews, at least during second temple Judea, were historically considered a close knit society. Perhaps that's just my elementary wistfulness talking. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Josephus Flavius, new testament gospel and rabbinic texts as well as Greek and Roman sources all write similar views on the diversity and machlokes (arguing) that went on between groups like the Pharisses and Saducees. The Dead Sea Scrolls simply confirm, even while offering its own take on how to serve G-d, that there were sparks flying as people stood their ground in heated debate thousands of years ago.
It doesn't seem like much has changed since then. We're still a nation of opinionated people.