Commentary Magazine

The Pharisaic Tradition Today:
Excuse or Inspiration?

Scholarship, both Jewish and Christian, has done much during the last one hundred years to restore the reputation of the Pharisees. It is generally conceded now that the New Testament references to this sect were penned in the heat of controversy, and that the brief account given of them by the contemporary historian Flavius Josephus is not to be taken at face value, since it suffers from that historian’s compulsion to fit Jewish religious ideas into the pattern of Hellenistic-Roman schools of thought.

Though no one denies that there were hypocrites among the Pharisees—the Talmud itself says as much—the pendulum has swung the other way and it has now become fashionable to credit their sect with all that is of value and permanence in traditional Judaism. Jewish writers like Abraham Geiger and Jacob Z. Lauterbach, and Christian writers like George Foot Moore and R. Travers Herford have represented the Pharisees as the party of religious progress. Opposed to the priestly monopoly on the interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees stressed scholarship to the exclusion of caste. In contrast to the Sadducean effort to keep religion within the narrow confines of the Written Law, the Pharisees infused the whole of life with religious idealism and insisted that the Written Law must be supplemented by the Oral.

Thus areas of life for which the earlier legislators could make no provision were subjected to the rule of law by the Pharisees. Thus also could moral progress be made, for the literal meaning of the Biblical text had to give way before the more enlightened and humane interpretations of the Oral Law. The old rough and retaliatory justice, “an eye for an eye,” for example, was understood in terms of monetary compensation for injuries inflicted, while the patria potestas, permitting the stoning of a rebellious son (Deut. 21:18ff), was hedged around with so many restrictive minutiae that a later rabbinic generation found it impossible to believe that it had ever been put into operation at all.

Above all, by espousing synagogal worship, with its non-sacrificial and lay character, in contrast—though not in open opposition—to the priestly pomp and circumstance of Temple worship, the Pharisees, and they alone, are to be credited with the survival of Judaism after the destruction of Temple and state had invalidated the very basis of the Sadducean approach. Indeed, so firmly was the Pharisaic position established that at various times in Jewish history when sects arose who sought to go back to the plain and literal meaning of the Scriptures—thus bypassing the Oral Law—they were considered heretics and innovators, while the Pharisees stood forth as guardians of the authentic Revelation.

So thorough has this revaluation of the Pharisees been that even the deviationists from rabbinic Judaism insist nowadays on seeing themselves as the modern heirs of Pharisaism. It used to be quite different. In 17th-century Amsterdam, when the ex-Marrano Uriel da Costa refused to submit to the rabbinical regimen and thus came into conflict with the rabbinical authorities, he found it quite natural to invoke a New Testament characterization of the Pharisees in order to hurl abuse upon his opponents. Again, when Reform Judaism established its beachhead on American soil in the 1820’s (in Charleston, S. C), some of its pronouncements took the form of conscious disaffiliation with the whole tradition of Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism. The same happened in England in the 1840’s. But today all this has changed and Reform Judaism, for one (Conservative Judaism as well), likes to see itself right at the heart of the Pharisaic tradition. After all, it is said, does not modern Reform endeavor to adapt the old faith to modern needs, very much as the Pharisees adapted Biblical religion to the needs of their own times? Does not the Orthodox quasi-deification of the 16th-century code, Shulchan Aruch, smack much more of the Sadducees’ unbending attitude towards the Written Law than of the Pharisees’ courage in coming to terms with changed conditions? Add to this the loose application of such epithets as “democratic” and “popular” to the Pharisaic phenomenon, and it becomes rather easy to combine enthusiasm for the Pharisees with attachment to the American Way of Life. Hence, while at one time Reform tended to ignore the post-Biblical developments of Judaism, attempting to take up where the Prophets left off, the modern teacher of Reform is likely to echo the words of the Anglo-Jewish preacher Morris Joseph, that Pharisaism, “far from setting a term to the growth of Judaism, in reality is the guarantee of its continuous evolution. It makes provision for that adaptation to environment which is the essential condition of development and life.”



All this is undoubtedly true. But so also is another aspect of Pharisaism which is seldom attended to outside the academy and the scholar’s study. In the first place, the conscientious scholar will point to the considerable gaps that still remain in our knowledge of ancient Jewish sects in general, and of the Pharisees in particular. Recent controversies about the meaning and the provenance of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls leave us in no doubt as to the more or less hypothetical nature of any statement made about the early sectarian divisions in Judaism. However, we do know that the Pharisees, in spite of their reputation for being the “popular” party, aimed to set up a religious élite. In fact, the very name “Pharisees” in all likelihood means “those who have separated themselves [from the rest of the people].”

From the perspective of history, we are justified in holding the Pharisees responsible for religious progress and evolution. But in the context of their actual lives, and of the time and place they lived, the Pharisees represent those Jews who made the ritual laws more stringent for themselves, and became more particular and meticulous in the observance of the laws governing diet and Levitical purity than they thought the ordinary Jew had to be.

Vis-à-vis the priestly aristocracy, the Pharisees undoubtedly appear as democratic levelers. But we must not overlook the fact that the Pharisees developed an “aristocracy” of their own. Few expressions could be more contemptuous than those which the Pharisees employed in talking about the man who fell short of their standards of religious practice and learning—the am ha-aretz, or ignoramus, boor. Apart from warning their followers against marriage with the am ha-aretz, this bitter scorn could lead to such exclamations as the one recorded in the Talmud (b. Pesahim 49b) by Rabbi Eleazar: “It is permitted to stab an am ha-aretz on a Day of Atonement which coincides with the Sabbath.” The hatred was mutual. The famous Rabbi Akiba, who obtained his education late in life, could reminisce about the days when he was an am ha-aretz, and when he was in the habit of saying: “Would that I had a scholar here, so that I could bite him like an ass!” (ibid.).

No doubt, the bark was fiercer than the bite. The very fact that Akiba could rise from the ranks of the am ha-aretz into the class of the scholars would lead us to expect that membership in this aristocracy of piety and learning, unlike in that of the Sadducean priesthood, was not restricted. Indeed, we even find the following sentiment in the Talmud: “Be careful with the sons of the am ha-aretz, for Torah may proceed from them!” (b. Sanhedrin 96a). Nevertheless, if we are to judge from the self-imposed legislation of the Pharisaic “brotherhoods” that has come down to us from rabbinic sources—leaving aside the question currently sub judice: whether the “Damascus Fragment” and the “Manual of Discipline” of Dead Sea Scroll fame are to be brought into relation with a Pharisaic group or not—the Pharisees must have been a rather exclusive set. And if “Pharisee” does mean “Separatist,” then it is not at all unlikely that the word was first used opprobriously in the mouth of an opponent.



These things are as true—though not quite so well known—as that other aspect of the Pharisees which has of late given them the reputation of having been a popular, democratic mass movement dedicated to religious progress and evolution.

It is, in truth, a curious paradox that the Separatists should have won over the people as a whole, that their interpretation of the Law should have gained virtually universal acceptance, and that the very stringency of ritual observance that they adopted as a “badge” of their exclusivism should have become, in the course of the generations, the norm of Jewish piety for everyone alike.

But the paradox lies only on the surface. Psychologically it is not hard to understand. If we jump across the centuries, we find the same psychology at work today. How many people belonging to exclusive golf and country clubs would really care for golf and for club membership if it were not so difficult to obtain, if it were not so exclusive? It is, in fact, exclusiveness itself that challenges the outsider to struggle to get in.

The Jews living at the time of the Pharisees seem to have worked on some such assumption. And not only the Jews of Palestine! From Hellenistic Jewish circles we have the so-called Letter of Aristeas, dated variously between 200 b.c.e. and post-33 c.e. While the Letter is a pseudo-historical work purporting to describe the origin of the Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, it contains much else besides. The book is particularly emphatic on the point of Jewish separatism. It glories in the dietary laws by which “we have been distinctly separated from the rest of mankind”; and it is grateful to the Lawgiver (Moses) who “fenced us around with impregnable ramparts and walls of iron, that we might not mingle at all with any of the other nations.” Yet withal, modern scholars have no trouble detecting in this tract one of the many propaganda attempts to convert Greek-speaking Gentiles to Judaism (cf. Robert H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times, p. 225).

Far from soft-pedaling Jewish separatism and particularism, the Hellenistic Jewish writers emphasized them in their propaganda—even though the very existence of such propaganda literature was evidence enough of the universalistic Jewish “out-reach.” They must have been guided by experience in what they were doing. Perhaps they even took a leaf out of the book of the Hellenistic mystery cults which, in spite of all “mystery,” must have constantly been on the lookout for new initiates, and which possibly just because of their mystery-making and secretiveness were never lacking in new applicants.

It may well be that this is also one of the reasons why so many thinkers and philosophers coming from an irreligious background today find spiritual shelter with that branch of Christianity which makes the greatest demands on them, both physically and intellectually, the Roman Catholic Church, and why they eschew liberal Protestantism or Unitarianism.

All these parallels may, or may not, be apposite. The fact remains that, while on the surface the Pharisaic phenomenon presents the paradox of having become a popular religion in spite of its inherent exclusive-ness, a psychological approach would see its popularity as a result of that exclusiveness.

Both the popularity and the exclusiveness of Pharisaism ought to be borne in mind when we try to identify a modern religious movement in Judaism as being in the Pharisaic tradition. To equate Pharisaism with religious “democracy” pure and simple means, on the one hand, to be untrue to the historical facts and, on the other, to deprive oneself of a very useful mechanism in the revitalization of modern religious life.

Pharisaism and its successor, rabbinic Judaism, were at the opposite pole from abolishing the differences between scholar and ignoramus, between observance and laxity in observance, and from regarding the lowest common denominator of religious knowledge and practice as the norm of their “democratic” religion.

The distinction between scholar and am ha-aretz was maintained with the utmost rigor right up to modern times. Its redeeming quality was that elevation into the ranks of the scholars was facilitated by an elaborate system of free education. Poverty was never regarded as barring one from the Pharisaic “aristocracy.” Yet, while not so provided in theory, the practical exigencies of life occasionally made it impossible for large sections of Jewry to lift themselves out of the depths of am ha-aratzuth.

This was particularly so in 17th- and 18th-century Poland—with the result that the far more educated Jews of Lithuania began to look down on their Polish brethren with all the haughtiness which the proud academician could muster for the humble am ha-aretz. Out of this friction Hasidism was born, that movement which has aptly been described as the “revolt of the am ha-aretz” who refused to be denied his share in the God of Israel. The intellectual element of religion receded, overshadowed by the emotional appeal, and serving the Lord in gladness took the place of arid Talmudic scholasticism.

But in true Hegelian fashion, there was brought forth out of the thesis of Talmudism and the antithesis of Hasidism the synthesis of Habad Hasidism. Inscribing on its banner the words hochmah (wisdom), binah (insight), and da’ath (knowledge), this offshoot of the Hasidic “revolt” restored the intellectual element to its customary exalted position in the Jewish scheme of things.



It is only when we come to very recent times that the old clear-cut distinctions tend to get blurred—particularly so on the American scene. Here the predominantly Protestant environment, with its insistence on the “priesthood of all believers,” reminded the Jew that in origin at least this ideal was his own. Since Judaism recognizes no intermediary between man and God, since it has no consecrated hierarchy, and since, technically, every ordinary Jew, in the company of at least nine others, can conduct formal public worship, Judaism could fit into the American pattern so well that Jews began to think of Judaism as the “democratic” religion par excellence.

In this connection it is worth pointing out that the “priesthood of all believers,” Hebraic though it be in origin, is an ideal easier to attain under Protestantism. After all, Protestantism does not, like Judaism, judge a purely intellectual exercise like legal study as equal in value and significance to the observance of all the rest of the commandments. It does not, in its theology, share the synagogue’s insistence on “works.”

In Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism, where “works” and study do figure strongly, it is difficult to escape the creation of a religio-intellectual élite, and an emphasis on the difference between scholar and am ha-aretz. Yet it was precisely this dichotomy, rooted in the very raison d’être of Pharisaism, which was sacrificed to the dominant American culture pattern in the process of Jewish assimilation.

Though the parties involved may have hardly been conscious of this particular aspect of their struggle, it would seem that the last time the problem of the Pharisaic paradox was faced on American soil was during the third quarter of the 19th century, in the fierce controversies between Rabbis David Einhorn and Isaac M. Wise. Both of them were exponents of Reform Judaism, and while Einhorn was the more radical of the two, and Wise the champion of moderation, even the reforms sanctioned by the latter must have seemed revolutionary departures from tradition by contrast with what Reform Judaism became in its European birthplace.

From one point of view, the dispute between Einhorn and Wise can be regarded as reflecting the religious radicalism of the American East, represented by Einhorn, in opposition to the moderation of the Midwest, where Wise had his headquarters. And yet it was primarily a struggle between personalities and deep convictions. Einhorn did not see Reform as a popular mass movement. He was quite content, and he said as much, to have Reform appeal to the intellectual elite brought up on German Kultur and Enlightenment. He was not concerned about its effect on the remainder of Jewry. Wise, however, saw Reform as the American Judaism, on the platform of which American Jews of all backgrounds were ultimately to unite. Since the unity of Israel was Wise’s prime object, he was always willing to compromise, and conviction may on occasion have played a lesser role in his case than expediency.

The issue at stake was basically this: is Reform Judaism to be the faith of a religious avant-garde and an intellectual élite, or is it to be the religion of the “people,” giving approval to whatever departures from tradition may have become necessary, yet never going to logical extremes in disturbing the status quo? The paradox of Pharisaism was here broken up into its two apparently contradictory constituents, its exclusivism and its popularity, and each became the battle-cry of an opposing faction.

It was inevitable that Wise’s view would prevail in the long run. Einhorn’s Reform was too heavily German in accent. He even insisted on the German language as a sine qua non of Reform Judaism. Wise, in contrast, never tired of preaching the “Americanization” of the synagogue, and the realities of American Jewish life were in his favor.

But it took about half a century for the implications of Wise’s victory to be fully realized; and it is not until very recently that we find American Reform preening itself on its appearance as a popular mass movement. The late Rabbi Solomon Goldman once quipped that Reform had now substituted a public relations department for the “Mission of Israel.” This was not quite true, but Goldman caught the spirit of many of the changes and innovations in recent Reform thought and practice. The questionnaire has become a competitor of theology, and the hand raised in blessing might on occasion look like the “glad hand.” (While this transformation of Reform has provoked the inevitable opposition, it is curious, to say the least, that the splinter groups which take exception to Reform’s espousal of ritual and the “folk” element should fight their battle not in the name of David Einhorn but of Isaac M. Wise, the moderate Reformer and enthusiastic champion of the “people’s” Judaism.)



We are back where we started. Modern Judaism, claiming to be the heir of the Pharisees, glorying in the “democracy” of the synagogue, is yet totally oblivious of that side of Pharisaism which, appearing “snobbish” on the surface, nevertheless provided the subtle appeal that attracted the mass of people.

The problem of the relevance of Pharisaism is complex, for its example also offers dangers. Modern religion has no room for the “holier-than-thou” attitude to which a misguided Pharisaism might lead. There is a certain arbitrariness in setting up standards for a Jew to meet in order to be considered a “better” Jew than he was—and there is a concomitant danger that he will then not only consider himself better than he was, but better than his fellow Jews are. All this at a time when Jews still have to be disabused of the notion that the place where they buy their meat can serve as an index of their “Jewishness,” irrespective of their religious convictions or moral conduct.

We also lack the fundamentalist belief in the divine inspiration of every word of the Bible which enabled previous generations to exclude the subjective element, and to bow in humble submission to the “objective” will of God as manifested in the letter of the traditional codes.

For all these reasons one might deny the relevance of Pharisaism to modern Jewish life, and give up the somewhat hollow boast that we are the “heirs of the Pharisees.” But on the other hand, it can be argued that such a divorce from Pharisaism would ultimately deprive Judaism of any incentive it might give to its adherents to spiritual growth and endeavor. After all, Judaism, being what it is, remains irreconcilable with a sancta simplicitas; it is still true to say that the educated Jew realizes more of the inherent potentialities of Judaism than the ignorant one. And to that extent, at least, the educated man will be a “better” Jew.

We cannot get away from the Pharisaic dichotomy of scholar and am ha-aretz. If this be denied, then the am ha-aretz may become not only the norm but, in the end, the ideal, too. When this happens, Judaism will undoubtedly be popular, but it will also eventually lose whatever thinking people may be born into its midst.

In communities where facilities for adult education are made available to everyone, there would be nothing contrary to our basic democratic convictions in giving the intellectual élite its due recognition, and in fostering the formation of an “aristocracy” of learning that would be learned though never in actual practice exclusive. In filling positions of community leadership, we could help to raise standards all around by sharing just a little in the ancient Pharisees’ suspicion of the am ha-aretz.

As for religious observance, we shall have to be broadminded enough to allow the individual to experiment according to his own needs and grow at his own pace. There will have to be lanes and byways, to borrow Franz Rosenzweig’s metaphor, rather than the one common highway on which Jews walked in the past. But those lanes and byways will all lead in the same general direction. To do more, not less or nothing at all, will be the Pharisaic criterion of “betterment.” But it will be betterment measured by personal growth rather than by comparison with others. The Jew who observes more commandments than his fellow will not thereby be considered a “better” Jew. But the Jew who tries, the Jew who grapples with these problems as they present themselves to him, will be a better Jew than the one who does not even care to try. That such growth in personal Jewish living will have to be envisaged in terms of “standards,” rather than of “laws”—to use Jacob B. Agus’s apt terminology—should need no further elaboration here. Indeed, standards which one is striving to meet may very well present the better incentive and the greater challenge than laws to the observance of which one is a priori obligated, and which carry the ominous implication of “All or Nothing.”



The secret of the ancient Pharisees’ success in winning over a whole people lay in their refusal to accept the lowest common denominator as the norm and the ideal. It lay in the very difficulty of the challenge they presented.

The ancient Pharisees were undoubtedly “tradition-directed” in the contemporary sociological sense. Yet the problems they pose cut across all sociological lines and categories. The struggle between Einhorn and Wise can, for example, be described, if one so desires, as a contest between “inner-directed” and “other-directed” religious character types. But to these three categories, Pharisaism, as a spiritual force and as a historical phenomenon, has added a fourth: that of “upper-directedness.” To cultivate this kind of religious character should be the preoccupation of all those who claim to be the modern “heirs of the Pharisees.”


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