The Talmud can be difficult to study because it assumes that its readers will have a broad base of shared knowledge, both religious and political. Without contextual knowledge it can be virtually impossible to understand this terse document, but those same requirements make it difficult to see the text with new eyes.

The thought occurred to me as I considered the appellation ‘Ma’arava’ – a word JRR Tolkien might have translated as ‘Westernesse’, but which is commonly used in the Talmud to refer to the land of Israel. I must have learned this in the fifth or sixth grade, and never considered the name further, other than to make the obvious connection that relative to the Jewish community of Babylon, Israel was to the west.

Then I read an article about assimilation and the Greek-speaking Jewish world in the Jerusalem Post last week. In the article, Haviv Rettig reports on a study by Prof. Doron Mendels of the Hebrew University and Dr. Arye Edrei of Tel Aviv University published in the January issue of The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha.

According to Drs. Mendels and Edrei, the data show that the Rabbinic authority that emerged in latter Mishnaic times, perhaps from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and on from that point, did not extend over the Greek-speaking Jewish world and its population centers in Alexandria, Greece, Rome, Turkey, and lands that would one day be known as France and Spain. These populations spoke Greek and Latin, not the Aramaic of Eastern Judaism, and evidenced the characteristics of Hellenistic culture under Roman rule.

The good doctors go on to explain that these western Jewish populations were to ultimately assimilate in droves into Christianity, and that, by Dr. Mendels guesswork – he freely admits that numbers are hard to come by – at least half of Western Judaism was lost to Christian assimilation.

Why? The answers, say Edrei and Mendels, lie in the language. Eastern Judaism spoke in Hebrew and Aramaic, and shared a canon consisting of the Tanakh as well as a coalescing oral tradition of Mishna in Hebrew, and later, Talmud, in Aramaic. The rich fruits of a 700-year literary fluorescence helped to create a diverse but roughly unified culture out of Asian Jewery , stretching from the land of Israel to the farthest eastern reaches of the Persian Empire.

Western Judaism, by contrast, had none of these. The Septuagint, the writings of Philo and Josephus, books authored in Greek which were later viewed as extra-canonical: these were the sacred texts of Western Judaism. With no translation of the Midrash, Mishna, Gemara, or even Haggada, and with alternate versions of relatively new books like Esther, Western Judaism did not develop the highly formalized halachic system that was to define Judaism for two thousand years. These communities were essentially Biblical communities, relying on the supremacy of the Pentateuch as a religious document rather than the interpretations and restatements of the Law that burst out of Babylon.

Maybe that’s why the Gemara refers to Israel as Ma’arava. The anti-Hellenist stance of the Tana’im is well-documented, and it appears that whatever might be made of figures like Antigonus Ish Socho (one of the zugot, and with a Greek name, no less), neither the rabbis of the Misna nor of the Gemara prioritized reaching the Jewish communities of the West. The rabbis of the period did not translate from Aramaic to Greek, they did not exchange teachers or scholars with Western communities, as the Babylonian and Palestinian Jewish communities did, nor do we see that these Western communities sought the advice or leadership of the rabbis of Babylon and Israel.

Perhaps Ma’arava doesn’t mean the land to the west. Maybe it means “the West.” Perhaps the Babylonian rabbis were just drawing a line and saying that the communities further west were beyond the pale of normative Judaism. Hellenism had taken hold and could not or would not be rooted out. While contact was not quite as limited as it may appear from what has been said so far (the Talmud does report, for instance, about prayer customs in the great synagogue of Alexandria) it appears that Rabbinic Judaism no longer viewed Hellenistic Judaism as an authentic expression of Judaism at all, and indeed, those communities grew ever more marginal to Jewish culture with the continued decline of the Roman Empire.

The article in the JPost goes on to say that while the question of whether this historical analogy might hold today was presented, none of the experts interviewed saw an appropriate application. I was tickled in particular by the words of Dr. Mendels, who explained that today “Rabbinic Judaism has authority over all the Jews in the world. I’m not talking about a specific chief rabbi, but Rabbinic Judaism, with its texts and habits and usages and so on, is central to the whole of Judaism. […] Basically, Rabbinic Judaism, in its various forms, whether Orthodox or Reform, was lacking in the Greek- and Latin-speaking Diaspora”

Maybe the situation isn’t so different. Whatevevr Drs. Mendels and Edrei might think, my sense is that Orthodox Jews do not consider Reform Jews to be heirs to Rabbinic Judaism at all, and that Reform Judaism self-identifies as a non-Halachic movement that looks with disfavor on most of the legal corpus produced by Rabbinic Judaism over the last 2000 years. Perhaps even today, the western extent of Rabbinic Judaism is only to the shores of the eastern seaboard of the US and its Orthodox Jewish population centers. Perhaps even today, when so much of Jewish literature is available in English translation the Western half of Judaism is not a part of the intellectual dialogue of the East.

I hope in the future to write more about Jewish denominationalism, but for now I leave you with a question. Has anyone ever seen an Artscroll Shas in a Conservative or Reform synagogue? (An exemption from answering this question will be granted to all those readers for whom entering such a place is forbidden.)