Debunking Myths

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January 1, 2002
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By Jonathan Krasner

Uuiz the typical Hebrew school child on Jewish history and one will likely discover that the boundary between history and myth is murky indeed. I’m not only referring to the concept of myth in its broadest sense, as foundation story or belief that embodies some kind of visionary ideal. I’m also talking about garden-variety half-truths, exaggerations, and wishful fantasies – consciously or unconsciously fabricated – that are uncritically accepted by many who generally consider themselves to be critical thinkers. I present some of the most prevalent Jewish myths, ripe for the iconoclasts:

Myth #1: The story of Abraham smashing the idols is in the Torah.
Genesis is virtually silent about Abraham’s early years. Nor does it tell us the reason why God chose him. An early version of the idols story is found in the Book of Jubilees (2nd century B.C.E.) 12:12-14. The fully embellished story was included in Sefer Hayashar (12th century C.E.) and Ma’aseh Abraham (date uncertain).

Myth #2: The Israelites deported by the Assyrians are the “Ten Lost Tribes,” and their “descendants” can be found today in far-flung Jewish communities.
According to Assyrian records, 27,290 Israelites were deported after Samaria fell to Sargon II in 722 B.C.E. Peoples the world over have claimed descent from these tribes. There were not, in fact, ten distinct tribes in Israel at the time of Sargon the Assyrian, and the exiles were lost only in the sense that they were absorbed wherever they were transplanted. Probably only a few of the descendants of the Israelite exiles remained true to the God and the land of Israel and managed, nearly a century and a half later, to join with the exiles of Judah.

Myth #3: Jewish women in late antiquity, hemmed in by rabbinic patriarchy, played no role in public religious life.

Material evidence from Diaspora communities suggests a more fluid social environment than talmudic descriptions. For example, inscriptions tell us that in many communities women served as heads of synagogues and were often among their financial benefactors. Significantly, there is no evidence for the physical separation of men and women in the ancient synagogue. Even the rabbinic world was hardly monolithic. While some are quick to quote Rabbi Eliezer’s dictum, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her nonsense,” they often omit Ben Azzai’s conflicting pronouncement, in the same passage, that a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah (B.T. Sotah 20a).

Myth #4: Jewish life in Eretz Israel came to an end (and the Diaspora began) with the destruction of the Second Temple.
While the destruction of the Second Temple was a key event in Jewish history, it did not bring about the Dispersion. From the 3rd century B.C.E. on, more Jews resided outside of Eretz Israel than within its boundaries. Nor did the destruction signal an end to Jewish life in Palestine. Rabbinic culture flourished until the 5th century, culminating in the editing of the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud.

Myth #5: The vast majority of Jews in Spain departed in 1492 rather than undergo forced conversion to Christianity.
Perhaps 40,000 Jews left Spain, while the vast majority accepted conversion. Some who remained became crypto-Jews (Marranos), while many other converts appear to have been sincere. There is also no evidence that Christopher Columbus was a crypto-Jew, although, at least five of his crew mates were most likely of Jewish extraction, including his interpreter, Louis de Torres.

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Jonathan Krasner is a doctoral candidate in American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chairman of the History Department at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston.

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