The first seven centuries of the Common Era were a period of intensive legal creativity that produced the religious-cultural formation now designated “classical rabbinic Judaism.” Rabbinic Judaism was a Torah-centered phenomenon predicated on the notion that Israel's relationship with her god is mediated through the covenant and its normative program as articulated in rabbinic halakhah. The current chapter explores the ideology of Torah that lies at the heart of classical rabbinic Judaism as reflected in explicit statements about the nature, scope, authority, and purpose of the Torah; the textual practices that characterize rabbinic halakhic (legal) writings; and rabbinic divine law discourse set against competing divine law discourses in late antiquity. We begin with a brief account of the emergence of rabbinic Judaism and the general contours and character of its legal literature in Roman and Byzantine era Palestine and in Sasanian Persia before turning to the ideology of Torah attested in this literature.
TORAH'S EMPIRE: THE EMERGENCE OF RABBINIC JUDAISM
The Great Revolt against Rome (66–73 CE) decimated the political and cultural institutions of Jewish life in Roman Palestine and transformed its social fabric. With the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the cessation of the sacrificial service, priests played an increasingly marginal role in the life of the community. Prophets and kings disappeared as well as the sects known from the Second Temple period (see Chapter 2 of this volume). Like any other Roman provincial society, political power and legal authority were concentrated in the hands of the Roman governor, his staff and representatives, and the local city councils. Judges appointed by the Romans ruled according to an ad hoc mixture of Greco-Roman, eastern, and local law. In the cities and large villages, many Jews took on the religious, cultural, and social norms of their Greco-Roman neighbors.
In this postwar landscape, the rabbinic movement, an apparently fissile network of small disciple circles that bore some relationship to pre-70 scribes and Pharisees, preserved and developed a Torah-centered Judaism in the post-destruction period. Involuted and peripheral, it did not quickly gain ascendancy even when its main contours were in place. The rabbinic movement gradually exerted influence in the third century, perhaps as a result of the patronage of the Patriarch, the chief representative of the Jews to the Romans.