Commentary Magazine


The Last Pharisee, by Joshua Podro

A 1st-Century Sage
The Last Pharisee: The Life and Times of Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananyah.
by Joshua Podro.
Vallentine, Mitchell (London). 128 pp. 16 shillings.

 

How did Judaism manage to survive after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple? From what sources did it derive strength to create new forms of meaningful Jewish existence in a world dominated by imperial Rome? Among the several answers that have been suggested to this still fascinating historical problem, the one with perhaps most appeal to the modern reader emphasizes the role of a strong central personality.

Joshua Podro considers the 1st-century rabbi Joshua ben Hananyah (whom he rather fancifully designates as “the last Pharisee”) to have been the man who provided the necessary leadership in this crucial period. Out of numerous sayings, observations, reports, and later legendary accounts, spread over the vast expanse of Talmudic literature, Mr. Podro has attempted a reconstruction of the life and times of his hero. There is movement and drama in the story, and there are enough well-known contemporaries—Gentile rulers and Jewish sages—to provide a vivid background. We learn of Patriarch Gamaliel’s attempts to suppress Joshua’s dissenting teachings and enforce unity of scholarly opinion; of Joshua’s journey to Rome to avert a threatened persecution of Jews; of a Roman plan to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem; and of Joshua’s valiant opposition to legislation that tended to isolate Israel from the surrounding Gentile world.

Yet the common standards of historical scholarship had to be relaxed in order to present Joshua as a central figure of his time. Mr. Podro’s suggestion (which others have also made) of a meeting in Rome between Joshua and Flavius Josephus cannot be verified; a Roman plan to reconstruct the temple in Joshua’s time is based on a flimsy conjecture; and the records of the debate concerning the possible dangers of the contract with Gentile society contain no reference to Joshua’s participation—though it was the School of Hillel, to which Joshua belonged, which objected to the isolationist measures. Mr. Podro makes liberal use of such phrases as “almost certainly” and “may have been” to protect himself, but there is too much “perhapsing” and “may-being” to establish his book, finally, as a reliable biographical account.

Besides, Joshua’s worldly accomplishments seem overemphasized. The author claims he was “a competent Greek scholar,” “conversant with several languages,” and “‘an astronomer”—all of which makes sense only if reduced to size. Nor does Joshua’s broadminded humaneness make him “the great representative of a universalist Judaism . . . in which room could be found for all humanity.” Rather, his liberal tendencies gain significance only if they are viewed against the background of Israel’s religious separateness, and its gradual withdrawal from active participation in world history—a trend Joshua did not alter.

Even if we were to accept most of Mr. Podro’s claims as correct, at no point did Joshua stand alone. More than a modern reader might expect, he was a member of his school—a disciple of his master and a master of the following generation of sages. The academy, the community of scholars, whose attitudes, activities, and teachings formed a closely knit unit, was the force which was working toward a reconstruction and preservation of Torah. Even the great individual master, even a non-conformist like Joshua, was a member of the school. Mr. Podro is aware of this and quotes profusely from Hillel, Johanan ben Zakkai, and Akiba; but his preconceived aim stands in the way of an objective use of his material.

And what about the great question, so admirably expressed in Robert Graves’s foreword, the question of how Israel maintained its existence in a world from which it grew more and more estranged as the generations succeeded each other? Some will find the explanation in the socio-economic conditions of late antiquity and of medieval society. Others will find their answer in the pages of the Talmud, where the wise men of many generations meet in a common task—patiently to penetrate the meaning of the Word entrusted to human care. Among the men engaged in such pursuit was Rabbi Joshua ben Hananyah.

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