10 questions with Malka Simkovich

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Malka Simkovich is the author of Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism (The Jewish Publication Society, 2018).

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your book, Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories That Shaped Early Judaism?

Thanks for reaching out to me! I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew hailing from Philadelphia, but currently living in Chicago with my husband Aaron and our four kids, ages 4 to 14 (by way of Boston, where we lived for ten years before moving here six years ago).

Malka Simkovich and her family in Memphis, Thanksgiving, 2018. Credit: Malka Simkovich.

Being “Orthodox” means different things in different faiths, but when I speak of Orthodox Judaism, I refer to Jews who observe Jewish law as it was developed in the rabbinic period (c.70–c.600 CE) and as it evolved over the following centuries.  

As a Modern Orthodox Jewish  woman, I believe in an ever-evolving tradition which can (and should) accommodate changing sensitivities, particularly when it comes to women’s roles in religious leadership and education. But I also observe core practices such as the Sabbath and dietary laws, and maintain a firm belief in God and the covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel.

I am grateful that, as a married woman raising children in the United States, my husband and I can send our children to secular colleges where they will learn whatever subjects they want—and hopefully at the same time remain connected to their Jewish heritage and express their commitment to their faith by observing halakha, Jewish law.

In addition to raising four children, I work at a Catholic graduate school in Chicago called Catholic Theological Union, where I am the Chair of Jewish Studies and the Director of the school’s Catholic-Jewish Studies program. It can be a bit of a challenge to be the only Jew on campus, but also an incredible privilege which I do not take for granted.

My most recent book, Discovering Second Temple Literature, has both a Jewish and non-Jewish audience in mind. I’m hoping that this book will invite its readers to have a fuller and more complex understanding of the formation of early Judaism, in all of its varieties.

In doing so, I hope that my readers will appreciate the fact that, from the time that “Judaism” was becoming an “ism,” Jews were not simply forced to walk a tightrope between being observant Jews and being good citizens who studied Greek philosophy, science, mathematics, and other fields.

Instead, many Jews embraced this tightrope. This was the line they wanted to walk.

Most Jews in the Greco-Roman world were not insular, shutting out the world around them, or alternatively, totally assimilated in Hellenistic life. Most Jews chose to maintain this balance, and took pride in doing so.

This is particularly relevant today since I’ve noticed that antisemitic accusations usually build on one of two images of the Nefarious Jew: either this Jew is the insulated, xenophobic Jew who refuses to integrate into broader society, or this Jew is the assimilated “suit” working to control the media and banks behind the scenes.

These are both accusations which are resurfacing today, but which also circulated among Greeks and Romans in ancient times. And yet, most Jews fit neither of these profiles; nor did they fit these profiles in the Greco-Roman period.

My book will hopefully serve to undermine these caricatures.

How did your mother nurture your thirst for knowledge?

My mother was a teacher at heart who emanated joy. She was a music teacher who played the piano, accordion, flute, and cello, and she had a great gift with languages.

My mom loved all of her students, but her greatest joy was raising her six kids.

Everything my mother did, she did with incredible gratitude and love, and with a big, mega-watt smile. Every person was a potential friend, someone she wanted to know.

She taught me that every single experience was an experience worth learning from. As a kid, I took gymnastics lessons, sewing lessons, piano lessons, ballet lessons, swimming lessons, and more—and she did this for all six of us, never once complaining about how many times she got in and out of the car every day. She considered it a privilege to be able to give me access to so many worlds of knowledge.

On Sundays, she would take us to the Art Museum, the Please Touch Museum, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, Philadelphia’s Old City, and elsewhere.

Now that I have four children of my own, I’m in awe of my mother’s energy and motivation to show us the world. Most of my Sundays these days are spent doing errands or shopping, or doing simple activities with my kids, like the library! As an adult, I realize that the greatest lesson my mother taught me was that there is learning to be enjoyed from everything, and a special light in every person that can serve to inspire.

My mother died when I was 22 years old, in a car accident on the way to my apartment in Boston, to see my 1-month old baby. I think about her every day, and hope that a little part of my mother’s legacy can be found in my book.

Malka Simkovich with her mother, Naomi Zeiger, 1994. Credit: Malka Simkovich.

What is your relationship with faith?

As I noted above, I am a modern Orthodox Jew. Many people don’t know that within Orthodox Judaism, there is a diverse range of practice, particularly when it comes to how women participate in the community, and the degree to which people expose themselves to secular environments.

As an Orthodox Jew, I observe practices that Jews over the past 2,400 years or so have practiced, and in doing so, clearly identify myself as Jewish. For instance, my husband Aaron and I keep Shabbat, the Sabbath, by going to synagogue, and we have festive meals every week which we often share with friends and family.  We also keep dietary laws, and send our children to Jewish schools, where they take classes on Bible and Jewish law.

But if you passed me in the supermarket, you probably would not know that I am an Orthodox Jew, because I don’t wear any particularly “Jewish” garb, besides being relatively covered (I wear shirts with sleeves, and skirts or loose pants).

Many people think that Orthodox Jews are men with black hats and robes, and women with long dresses and wigs. And while this description accurately describe some kinds of Orthodox Jews, there is actually a wide variety in dress, lifestyle, and education within Orthodox communities.

What is Second Temple Judaism? Was there a common Judaism during this time period?

Second Temple Judaism begins just after the Babylonian exile, which ended in around 538 BCE, after the Persians conquered the Babylonian empire and allowed the Jews who had been forced into exile following the destruction of the First Temple to return to Judea.

The construction of the second Temple was completed in about 515 BCE, and it fell in the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 70 CE.

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Some scholars speak of a Common Judaism during this period, which means that, even though Jews were living all over the world by the 3rd century BCE and established synagogues within their own communities well before the Second Temple fell, there was nevertheless a kind of cohesiveness which psychologically bound Jews to one another.

The three main identifying elements of Jewish practice which all virtually observant Jews kept is the observance of the Sabbath, dietary laws, and circumcision of sons.

But there were other extremely important practices which virtually all Jews kept as well, regardless of where they lived. Among these practices was the regular reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue (in fact, the synagogue only became a place for regular, normative prayer in the later rabbinic period).

Regular reading of the Hebrew Scriptures in synagogues soon gave way to active interpretation of the Scriptures, and so one of the genres of Jewish writing that we find early on in the Second Temple period is fascinating biblical interpretation on the part of Jewish writers who wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and in Greek.

Another element of Common Judaism is a particular devotion to Judea and to the Jerusalem Temple. We have significant evidence that even Jews who never visited Judea, or ever intended to move to Judea, felt a sacred connection to the region and expressed this connection with financial support.

I should add that there are some major misconceptions in some Christian communities about what would have comprised “Common Judaism” at this time.

When I ask my students, “What do you think all Jews kept that was very important to them in the late Second Temple period?” Inevitably, at least one of my students answers, “purity laws”

This is not actually the case.

Malka Simkovich lecturing at the Sixth Street Synagogue in New York City, December 2018. Credit: Malka Simkovich.

While the New Testament does portray the Jerusalem community of Jews as extremely committed to (and perhaps even inappropriately obsessed with) purity laws, we do not have strong evidence that this was at the foundational core of Judaism and Jewish thought as it was practiced among all Jews. I would also venture to say that the New Testament overstates the importance of purity laws within Judea itself.

Finally, I’ll take this opportunity to add that Second Temple Judaism was not sectarian. While there were sects, and these sects are mentioned in the New Testament because they comprise the Jewish communities with which Jesus directly interacted, the vast majority of Jews in the late Second Temple period were not members of a sect.

Depicting Second Temple Judaism as sectarian plays into a broader anti-Jewish trope that Judaism was in a general decline and had become increasingly broken and fractured by the first century CE.

How does this time period enable us to better understand Rabbinic Judaism today?

So much of what lies at the heart of rabbinic Judaism, which technically begins after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE came into form in the Second Temple period. This is especially the case when we think about the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the rich history of biblical interpretation known as Midrash.

Midrash comprises the homiletical, non-legal material produced by the rabbis which includes their interpretations of the Scriptures. Many midrashim (plural for midrash) were written down beginning in the second century, but are actually very ancient, and precede the rabbinic period. So you might find a tradition in the 2nd century BCE text known as Jubilees, and a parallel tradition preserved in the 5th century rabbinic compilation of midrash known as Genesis Rabbah. Even the late first century CE historian Josephus preserves stories about the biblical patriarchs in his Antiquities of the Jews which resurface in rabbinic midrash.

This all suggests that the rabbis were not working in a vacuum, but picking up on a continuous but evolving exegetical tradition.

The same is somewhat true for rabbinic legal material. The first rabbinic code of law, the Mishnah, was written down in 200 CE. This code of law comprises the beginning of what we call the Oral Tradition, and the Mishnah would give rise to two commentaries, the Jerusalem Talmud, edited in around the 4th century CE, and the Babylonian Talmud, edited in around the 6th and 7th centuries.

But many legal traditions recorded in these collections have their origins in the Second Temple period, if not earlier, and so we find some fascinating allusions to Jewish practice in Second Temple sources which actually do not originate from the Hebrew Scriptures.  

And yet, the rabbis were incredibly innovative in a variety of ways, particularly when it comes to their theological and cosmological orientation. This is an academic field unto itself, but I’ll close by saying that knowing Second Temple literature throws the ways that the rabbis are both inheriting and innovating Jewish tradition into sharp relief.

Why is it a mistake to view Second Temple Judaism an in-between stage?

Many Jews think of the Bible as reflective of a self-enclosed time period, and think of rabbinic texts as reflective of a later self-enclosed time period. During these “periods,” authoritative Jewish texts were formed, which comprise what Jews refer to as the Written Law (the Hebrew Bible), and the Oral Law (the Mishnah and the two Talmuds).

All together, these texts comprise a collection which observant Jews view as guides for how to worship God, how to behave towards others, and more generally, how to appreciate their relationship with God in light of their ancient covenantal relationship.

But this structure makes no room for the Second Temple period.

While some of the late books of the Hebrew Bible were written in the first half of the Second Temple period, Jews tend not to view this period on its own terms. Instead, they jump from the “end” of the Hebrew Bible to the beginning of the rabbinic period, essentially skipping over about six hundred years, and treating this time as theologically insignificant.

What ends up happening is that late biblical figures such as Ezra are treated as “proto-rabbinic” scribal figures, even though Ezra lived about 500 years before the rabbinic period began.

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Two other problems arise from this approach: one is that by ignoring the Second Temple period, we fail to appreciate that at its founding, the Jewish religion made space for Jews to express loyalty to Judea and Jewish tradition, and also benefit from all of the wonderful aspects of broader society.

The second problem is that we fail to properly contextualize the rabbinic period and therefore lose sense of how profound the accomplishments of the rabbis were.

In essence, by skipping over the Second Temple period, we misread the biblical period, lack a full understanding of the formation of Judaism and Jewish identity, and we fail to properly understand rabbinic thought and innovation.

Many Christians, on the other hand, view this period in different but equally problematic ways, dismissing this period as one of continual decline for the Jewish people, as a time period which is only valuable in that it gets us to the early Christian period, but that this was essentially a time when Jews were “bleeding out” the ethical teachings of the prophets.

Unfortunately, both Jews and Christians are mostly unaware of the incredibly vast and diverse documents that Jews at this time wrote, attesting to a rich literary tradition which invited Jews to creatively express themselves.

By the fourth century CE, both the Church Fathers and the Rabbis more narrowly defined the modes of religious expression so that, while one does find intellectual sophistication and exegetical depth in 4th century Jewish and Christian literature, one does not find the same variety in literary genre and explicit embrace of aspects of Greco-Roman culture. This kind of freedom gave rise to exceptionally diverse literature and thinking.  

When did a Jewish scriptural canon first form? What are the main differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament?

I will begin by saying that some of my Catholic students respectfully tend to differentiate between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, recognizing that by saying the “Old Testament,” they imply a few key points: (1) that there is a New Testament; (2) that the identity, and by extension, the value, of the Old Testament is only discerned in its relation to the New Testament; and (3) that this Testament is Old at its core—that is, antiquated, and destined to be superseded by the progressive and redemptive teachings of the New Testament.

Sensitive to these implications, many of my students are careful to say “Hebrew Bible.”

But I remind these students that the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are actually not the same thing.

First of all, in the Catholic Tradition, the Old Testament includes the books of the Apocrypha, texts which were written primarily in Greek by pious Jews in the Second Temple period, which were later preserved in the first authoritative translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, the Septuagint.

Second, the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible preserve their books in a different order. Most significantly, the Hebrew Bible closes with post-exilic books which are the latest in the Bible, and which focus on the period of restoration in Judea following the Persian’s permitting the exiled Judeans to return to their homeland. The Old Testament, however, does not close with chronologically late material, but with the collection of the Minor Prophets, which ends with Malachi.

Malachi’s closing words are, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). Closing the Old Testament with this message is an elegant way to transition into the opening of Matthew’s Gospel, which lists Jesus’s lineage.

In other words, the Old Testament’s order makes a theological argument which does not exist in the Hebrew Bible.

Who were Agnes and Margaret Smith, and how do they figure into what we know about Second Temple Judaism?

Agnes and Margaret were identical twin Presbyterian sisters who came from a wealthy Scottish family, and whose husbands died at early ages, giving the sisters the mobility to explore their passions, which included biblical history and archaeology.

While I do not address it thoroughly in my book, Agnes was actually responsible for recovering (or more accurately, galvanizing the public dissemination of) what’s known as the Syriac Sinaiticus, a fourth century CE codex of the New Testament’s four Gospels, written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that was spoken by early Christians.

Both sisters were autodidacts—that is, they taught themselves an enormous amount through reading and independent study—but by the end of their lives, were widely respected as great scholars. This is particularly the case for Agnes, who received numerous honorary doctorates in her later years.

Agnes Lewis Smith, by John Peddie. This work is in the public domain in the United States and other areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or less.

In 1896, on one of their trips to Cairo, the sisters purchased a tiny fragment in Hebrew from an antiques seller. They figured that the fragment looked genuine, but did not know what larger text it came from, and whether it was a significant find.

Upon their return to Cambridge, they brought the fragment to a man widely respected for his expertise in rabbinic literature: Solomon Schechter, a Hungarian Jewish scholar and Reader of Rabbinics at Cambridge. Schechter immediately identified the piece as part of the ancient text known as Ben Sira (or Sirach, or alternatively, Ecclesiasticus).

This was a huge find, since the text had only been transmitted in Greek, but rabbinic texts cite the text in Hebrew.

There was something larger at stake here, and that is the question of whether speakers of Hebrew, that is, Jews living in Second Temple and rabbinic times, possessed the intellect, breadth, and sophistication to produce a text like this.

Schechter had long claimed that Ben Sira was originally written in Hebrew, but he didn’t have the manuscript evidence to prove it. Until one day, out of the blue, he was holding evidence in his hand that would combat what he felt was anti-Semitic scholarly claims that Ben Sira must have been written by an educated Greek speaking Jew, rather than one of those backwards, barbaric, Hebrew speaking Judeans.

Schechter ended up embarking on a journey to Cairo to see for himself whether he could find the rest of the manuscript. What he ended up finding was an ancient storehouse of about a quarter million texts and fragments deposited in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo.

This store of literary treasures is now called the Cairo Genizah, and it is probably the most important depository of Jewish texts ever discovered, in that it preserves about a thousand years’ worth of Jewish documents, from around the 9th century through the 19th century, from Jews who lived not only in Cairo, but in regions of Europe as well.

It is thus the greatest window into medieval Jewish history that we have. And it’s all thanks to Agnes Smith Lewis.

What is the oldest manuscript or fragment you have personally handled?

Sadly, I have not been able to work with a lot of manuscripts hands-on. The Cairo Genizah is now mostly at stored at the University of Cambridge, and the Dead Sea Scrolls are under the possession of the Israel Antiquities Authority (although I’ve seen all of those that are on display at the Israel Museum).

Most of the sites of ancient Jewish communities, moreover, particularly those of Antioch and Alexandria, are no longer safe to visit. I was really hoping to visit the site of the Cairo Genizah, in the old city of Cairo, but  began writing the book in the Fall of 2014, when there was a significant unrest in the region.

Thankfully, I have been very fortunate to have at my fingertips incredible online resources with photographs of ancient manuscripts that allow one to zoom all the way in on images with excellent quality.

I’ve made particular use of the digitized collections  of the Cairo Genizah, which are available on the Cambridge Digital Library web site (https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/genizah/1) and the Dead Sea Scrolls site (https://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/?locale=en_US), which is the product of a collaboration between the Israel Antiquities Authority and Google.

How do you hope your book will affect the way people perceive the historical narrative of the Jewish people?

One of the biggest misconceptions about early Jewish history is that after the Babylonian period, Jews returned to Judea and became increasingly legalistic and obsessed with ritual.

Some biblical scholars perpetuate this myth by reading into prophetic texts conflicts between priests and prophets, with priests being the power-hungry cultic leaders who were obsessed with ritual mainly because keeping the people committed to ritual increased their political power, and with prophets being the ethical and moral voices who were shunned by the people and became marginal in society, and often ended up in exile.

Within this false binary, the assumption is that the priesthood became increasingly important in Judean society, and that by the end of the Second Temple period, Judaism was led by its priests, while its moral compass, the prophetic voice, was largely gone, eradicated by the people themselves, and that the priests ultimately created a religious culture that was obsessively particularist, insular, and legalistic. 

This sets up Jesus well to come and “save the day” in the early first century, reminding the people of the importance of ethical behavior and universal social concern.

And yet, this binary, and the historical realities which it suggests, is utterly false.

Assuming that prophetic texts which preach ethical behavior come from the social margins, and a context in which the people oppressed the prophets who uttered these texts, is actually circular.

In other words, once we assume that there was a clash between prophets and priests, we read it back into scriptural texts. But many prophetic texts which preach ethical behavior were written by prophets who lived among the people, and who had political and religious power.

Actually, the remarkable thing about the Jewish scriptures is that they are so vulnerable. Yes, the prophets do critique their own communities: but not necessarily because this community has oppressed and abandoned and abused these prophets, but because the prophets are deeply committed to, and have a profound love for, their community.

This vulnerability is, as far as I know, a unique trait when it comes to the Jewish scriptures, and unfortunately, also opens up Jewish tradition—and Jews themselves—to criticism, and often to anti-Semitism.

I hope that my book will undermine these false conceptions of Jewish history, and in doing so, will invite both Jewish and non-Jewish readers to appreciate the richness and complexity of Jewish tradition.

If you could go back in time to solve an outstanding research question about Second Temple Judaism, where and when would you go?

What a fun question!

I would probably visit a Jewish family living in Alexandria in 50 CE, on Friday night, the Sabbath eve. I would observe this family as they went to synagogue services (if they did), and perhaps join them for a Shabbat meal.

So much of our analysis of early Judaism is connected to the space of Judea, and we often presume that “authentic Judaism” was always equivalent to the Judaism of the Land of Israel. And while it is true that, besides for a brief period following the first Crusade, Jews have always lived in the Land of Israel, and Judeans in the late Second Temple period and in the early rabbinic period viewed themselves as leaders of the global population, and in turn, tens of thousands of Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world supported the Jerusalem Temple financially.

And yet, we must be careful not to assume that Jews who did not live in Judea were not “authentic” Jews, or were less educated Jews and more assimilated than Judean Jews.

I would therefore ask this Alexandrian Jewish family to tell me more about how they practice their Judaism, interpret their scriptures, and view themselves as diasporan Jews.

I would ask them whether they have encountered charges from their friends and neighbors concerning dual loyalty to the Roman empire and to the Jerusalem Temple, and if they answer yes, would ask them how they have responded to these charges.

I would be most interested in hearing what aspects of Judaism make these Jews especially proud.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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