BMCR 2005.09.46

Surviving Sacrilege. Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity

, Surviving sacrilege : cultural persistence in Jewish antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. viii, 193 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0674017080. $39.95.

In antiquity the Jewish people were famous for their vigilant preservation of what they had inherited from the past. Several ancient authors marked this phenomenon as a significant trait that distinguished them from all other peoples. Indeed, Jewish people successfully faced the challenge of preserving their religious traditions in a world largely not under their control but ruled by the Babylonian and the Persian Empires, the Hellenistic kingdoms, and (since the present study is limited to the period between the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and that of the Second by the Romans in 70 C.E.) finally the Roman Empire. How Jewish culture managed to survive under these circumstances is the main topic of this book. The study explores the struggle for cultural survival of ancient Judaism, their efforts to preserve religious traditions and the tactics that early Jewish culture employed to sustain itself in the face of intractable, sometimes hostile realities.

The author, Steven Weitzman, Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, has taught and done research in various fields, encompassing the Hebrew Bible and the religious and literary creativity it inspired in post-biblical Judaism. The substantial introduction clearly reflects Weitzman’s research interests. In the author’s eyes the cultural survival of ancient Judaism is based on ritual continuity. Although he considers as questionable the historical accuracy of Jewish ritual continuity, he accepts the latter as the primary factor that has built the mindset of the Jews in antiquity, their commitments and aspirations, and, from a sociological standpoint, their self-image.

Relying on Michel de Certeau’s “arts of the weak”1 Weitzman presents the idea that the Jews developed tactics of survival to compensate for their lack of political power. Weitzman calls this strategy the “art of cultural persistence”, which, in his opinion, encompasses three main tactics of operation in the absence of power: 1. appeasement and symbiosis; 2. resistance; 3. flight, concealment and deflection.

The study stresses that imagination had an enormous significance for the cultural survival of the early Jews. Weitzman points out that imagination was not a way of running away from reality but a way of handling reality. It helped Jews to reinterpret the past and adapt history to present political circumstances. Another important strategy was the Jewish adoption of cultural elements belonging to those who had the political control. What is generally understood as “assimilation” is, in Weitzman’s interpretation, just another strategy of survival: Jews always made use of the opportunities provided by the foreign rulers to keep their own culture alive. In the eight chapters that constitute the book Weitzman shows that most of these strategies were based on preexisting cultural material, namely biblical stories and Jewish ritual. Most of the chapters follow a chronological order in addressing these cultural elements.

In the first chapter Weitzman points out that biblical narrative tells us little about how the cultic tradition of preexilic Judah survived the Babylonian conquest and the destruction of the First Temple historically, but that it does reveal something of how later Jews reinterpreted the time of the Babylonian conquest and exile by imagining that some of the contents of the destroyed Temple had survived this catastrophe. The later Jews further imagined, that the survival of those contents had helped the Jews of the Babylonian time to survive the crisis. The author demonstrates how narratives like Ezra (Temple Vessels), the hidden Ark story and 1 Esdras reinterpreted reality in ways that suggested the Temple had survived in some way. This strategy was used by the Jewish people throughout antiquity. Weitzman supports this thesis in the following chapters, where he examines historical incidents in which the strategies mentioned above were used.

In chapter 2 Weitzman analyzes the books of Maccabees, along with a look at the book of Judith. With their rebellion the Maccabees used the second category of tactics for cultural survival, resistance. The later narratives about this rebellion, however, used other tactics, such as a characterization of the Seleucids as either totally evil on the one hand, or capable of piety on the other. The friendly interpretation of Seleucid rule in 2 Macc. legitimated the policy of Hyrkanus. Weitzman proposes that the narratives prove the Jewish ability to reconceptualize a sacrilegious enemy as a pious supporter. Weitzman further shows that Jewish narrators of this time also supported resistance by encouraging their readers to pretend to be perfectly subjected people —as a kind of double agents— with the aim to strike —like Judith— when the right time has come.

In chapter 3 the author demonstrates that one of the factors which allowed the Jews to sustain their traditions under Caligula’s rule was having friends in the right places. This chapter draws heavily on The Embassy to Gaius by Philo, who thought that the most effective way of keeping Jewish tradition alive was to cooperate with the Roman rule and count on the emperor’s justice. Weitzman shows how Philo argues that supporting the Jewish tradition is part of the Roman mos maiorum. Philo uses exempla from the emperor’s own family to argue that a violation of Jewish tradition would also be a violation of Roman tradition.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Temple of Jerusalem and its presentation in Jewish and pagan literature. Weitzman describes the “rhetoric of absence” used by Jewish (and also pagan) authors to describe the Temple, a rhetoric which enforced the already existing fascination with the Jewish sanctuary. Using the Greco-Roman literary practice of ekphrasis, the Jewish authors describe the Temple as an absolutely beautiful sight worthy of preservation. When it comes to the most important place of the site —in this time the hidden interior of the Temple— the author does not go on with the description but leaves the reader to his imagination. Weitzman assumes that this literary tactic was used as a way to protect the sanctuary, because it was believed that the Temple had a greater chance of being left intact, if it was perceived by the Romans as an aesthetic treasure.

Chapter 5 discusses the practice of cultic relocation. The importance of imagination is emphasized once more: it made a relocation of the Temple possible, either by creating a likeness (e.g. building another Temple such as the one in Leontopolis or founding religious communities as in Qumran) or by imitating aspects of the Temple design in synagogues. Another form of cultic relocation to which Weitzman refers was the idea of the apocryphal 4 Ezra: this book claims that though the Temple on earth had been destroyed, its heavenly prototype still existed. According to the author, the idea of ritual continuity by preserving cultic objects mentioned above was also adopted in Roman times. He thoroughly deals with the example of the Copper Scroll, one of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which recounts the hiding of a large treasure, including cultic vessels. Weitzman considers it most probable that these vessels were cultic objects from the Jerusalem Temple. He suggests that the reason for hiding them was not only to protect them from falling into Roman hands but also to preserve Jewish cultic continuity.

Chapter 6 deals with how Jews used religion in military contexts. Referring to biblical history, where God often defeated enemies far more powerful than Israel, the Jews relied on the fact that divine support was stronger than the Roman military forces. Based on Michael Adas’ study of modern peasant insurrections, Prophets of Rebellion 2, Weitzman argues that the Jews used magic-like practices (such as prayer, pre-battle rituals, talismans and chants) to ensure the help of God and to stimulate the enthusiasm of their own forces. As an evidence of the Jewish reliance on divine power, Weitzman presents the War Scroll. The major advice for a tactic given in this scroll is to rely on the power of God and on the angelic warriors. In the books of the Maccabees Weitzman also finds many examples where prayer and ritual, as well as the reliance on God and the remembrance of his deeds, were used in a magic-like way.

Chapter 7 suggests some examples, handed down by Josephus and some biblical and apocryphal narratives, of voluntary deaths of Jews for the law. Weitzman believes that this way of presenting Jewish suicide imitates the Roman tradition of the Noble Death. This mingling of Jewish and Roman tradition is a further tactic of cultural survival. It suggests that Jews share the ideals of Roman heroes and this strategy makes the Jewish people valuable and less strange to the Romans.

Chapter 8, which is at once a historical outlook and a kind of conclusion, indicates how Jews created new ways of “cultural persistence” after the destruction of the Second Temple. These ways were not connected to the temple-building, but to an imaginary idea of the Temple or to other elements of Jewish culture like the Sabbath, circumcision and Thora study. Weitzman stresses that members of the Jewish culture once more used their imagination to adapt themselves to the new reality. For Weitzman “Art of persistence” —as he points out at the end— is “the ability to maneuver between the real and the imagined, to respond to and operate within the constraints of reality but also to transcend them” (p. 161).

The book ends with a short but sufficient index. The scholarly documentation, presented as endnotes before the index, is not extensive and provides only bibliographical references. But it is up-to-date, and it sets forth the bases of Weitzman’s research accurately.

As in every scholarly research, some aspects of this study have questionable dimensions. In this case one can cite one major and one minor problem. The major problem is that, although Weitzman is aware of archeological data and results, he does not integrate them into his study. He may be right in stating that such evidence can prove only the persistence of a particular practice or institution but tells nothing about the struggle and the strategies used for cultural survival. Nevertheless, archeological records are important testimonia that can make various significant contributions to a research regarding cultural survival.

The minor problem is that sometimes one is not able to see the relevance of certain discussions to the main topic of the book. But after all, Weitzman does always consistently come back to the overarching questions of his study.

All in all the present book reads very fluently and argues compellingly. The Jewish ways of “Surviving Sacrilege” are presented in a very convincing way and illustrated by many examples that make Weitzman’s argument vivid and easy to follow. Even one who would not concur with Weitzman’s main thesis will find this book most readable.


1. Cf. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley 1984. In this study Certeau explores how the weak create options for themselves in circumstances they do not control.

2. Cf. Michael Adas, Prophets of Rebellion: Millenarian Movements against the European Colonial Order, Chapel Hill 1979.