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Our Zoroastrian Moment

The great contemporary scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith once remarked that the omnipresent substructure of human thought lies in the human capacity to make comparisons.  In ancient Sumer, scribes crafted intricate similes.  In classical Greece philosophers discussed and employed the critical tools of analogy and metaphor.  And following the European Enlightenment, university professors made their contribution by inventing the field we know today as "comparative religion."  From the field's earliest days, Zoroastrianism—the ancient dualistic religion of Iran, whose adherents worshiped Ahura Mazda ("Lord Wisdom") and his heavenly hosts and battled the evil Angra Mainyu ("Foul Spirit") and his demonic minions—has played a central role in the way the modern academy has studied the religions of the world.

Relevant Links
From Zoroastrian Iran to Islam  Shaul Shaked, Variorum. Judaism and Christianity weren’t the only religions to have had their “Zoroastrian moments.”
Thus Spake Zarathustra  Friedrich Nietzsche, Penguin. In which Zarathustra—in English, following the Greek, Zoroaster—becomes the vehicle for popularizing Nietzsche’s defining pronouncement that “God is dead.”
The Talmud's Iranian Context  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. Zoroastrianism’s dualist view of the world put it at odds with monotheism. But in its moralism, Zoroastrianism was—well, sort of Jewish.

The existence of Zoroastrianism was known in the West for centuries.  The religious figure Zoroaster and the Persian religion appeared in classical Greek sources; Zoroastrianism, in the persons of the magi, even made a cameo appearance in the New Testament.  But, as of the beginning of the Enlightenment, neither Zoroastrianism's sacred texts nor the practices and beliefs of Zoroastrians actually living in Iran and the Indian subcontinent were known to Western tradition.  Thus, Zoroastrianism was surrounded by an aura of mystery.  It was seen as a quintessential "natural" religion, evidence that a spontaneous religious apprehension of the world was common to all human beings.  Its delicious concoction of the known and the unknown sparked the imaginations of European scholars—including the 18th-century Orientalist Thomas Hyde, whose efforts brought increased numbers of Zoroastrian texts to the West—and of 19th-century philosophers and poets from Nietzsche to Wordsworth. 

Religious scholars like Hyde were moved by the pressing need they felt to locate Zoroastrianism within the salvation history of Christianity.  Soon, however, Christian apologetics gave way to a more detached critique as intellectual heavyweights like Voltaire joined the discussion.  Indeed, Voltaire pointed to the autonomy of Zoroastrianism and its distance from the Christian tradition as evidence that the church did not have a monopoly on divine truth.  In this way, the existence of Zoroastrianism functioned as an important piece of the dialogue of secularization, the process that led to the modern critical study of comparative religions.

Jews had their own "Zoroastrian moment" during the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  There were solid academic reasons for the "enlightened" Jewish scholars known as maskilim to familiarize themselves with the research on Persian language, culture, and religion that was then emerging from the great European universities.  One reason was the importance of the so-called "Persian Period," a critical epoch in Jewish history.  Following the conquest of the Near East by the Persian ruler Cyrus in the 6th century B.C.E., Jews living in the land of Israel and in exile in Mesopotamia came under a Persian dominion that lasted for centuries.  Except for a brief interlude following the conquests by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.E., Babylonian Jews were subjects of successive Iranian dynasties that together made up more than a millennium. 

A number of important books of the Bible were written during this period.  They reflect the Persian context, which appears most explicitly in the strange and rich tapestry that is the Scroll of Esther.  Moreover, the central work in the Jewish canon, the Babylonian Talmud, was produced in a location close to the ruling Iranian dynasty's winter capital of Ctesiphon; it contains many Persian "loanwords" and numerous references to Iranian kings, Zoroastrian religious leaders, and aspects of cultural and religious life in Iranian-ruled Mesopotamia. 

In addition, major Jewish beliefs that seem to have developed largely in post-biblical times, such as those concerning the afterlife, angelology, and the Messiah, bear striking resemblances to ancient ideas found in Zoroastrianism. 

All these connections encouraged Jewish scholars to learn Persian, read Zoroastrian texts, and engage in a sustained comparative endeavor.  Their project engaged some of the most prominent figures of the era.  The Hungarian maskil Alexander Kohut, who (among his other accomplishments) edited and vastly expanded the classic 11th-century talmudic dictionary, the Arukh, and filled it with Persian etymologies, was fascinated by the world of Zoroastrian angelology and demonology and charted many correspondences between the Persian system and its Jewish counterpart.

But some of the most interesting Jewish writing on Zoroastrianism occurred on the fault line between Jewish apologists and anti-Orthodox crusaders.  The Austrian talmudist Isaac Hirsch Weiss was drawn to parallels between Zoroastrianism and the Talmud; he listed a number of critical areas in which, he argued, the rabbis had adopted Persian practices.  Just as interesting, in other places Weiss claimed to have found signs of resistance—instances in which rabbis established practices specifically as a means of precluding certain "Persianisms" in practice and interpretation.  Perhaps the most radical and colorful character involved in the exploration of Zoroastrianism was a sharp-tongued Galician maskil named Joshua Heschel Schorr.  Like Voltaire, Schorr wanted to reform his religion radically by subjecting it to the rules of logic and a rationalistic approach.  Unlike the early modern Christians who treated Zoroastrianism, however, Schorr did not see in the ancient Iranian tradition an admirable "natural" religion or otherwise sagacious philosophical system.  In Schorr's orientalism, the Zoroastrian "Bible," or Avesta, was filled with strange and preposterous superstitions.  Any parallel he found between the Avesta and the Bible or Talmud was a sign of corruption in the latter and a reason for excision and reform.

In the 20th century, Jewish scholars continued to work on Zoroastrianism from a comparative perspective—but no longer with the same sense of theological urgency.  Along with their Christian colleagues, Jewish academics came to operate within a more "objective" context, which had moved on to other battles and had a concern with Zoroastrianism that was ostensibly free of direct theological concerns.  Nevertheless, now as then, there is no escaping the broader implications of research, even when it is conducted in the ivory tower of academic religious studies.  Every comparison contains the seeds of judgment; every comparative act has the potential to become an explosive affair.

Shai Secunda is a Mandel fellow at the Scholion Center for Interdisciplinary Jewish Research, and a lecturer in the Talmud department at Hebrew University.  He blogs at the Talmud Blog, which he founded and now co-edits.

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Jacob Silver on May 7, 2012 at 8:30 am (Reply)
Jews were heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism early in our history. During the Babylonian conquest and captivity, which was, more particularly, the conquest of the Chaldeans, and the subsequent living or our leadership with the Chaldean in Babylonia, we discovered Zoroastrianism, which was the then religion of the Chaldeans. From the Chaldeans and their Zoroastrianism, we learned the seven day week, the basis of our Shabbat observance, and the flood story, which we incorporated in Bereshit (Genesis). Our Torah begins with the seven day week and also prescribes Shabbat. We should respect Zoroastrianism as the precursor to our system of observances.
QLineOrientalist on May 7, 2012 at 9:48 am (Reply)
Thanks for this wonderful piece. I only wish it had included a "for further reading" section.
Tim Upham on May 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm (Reply)
Zoroastrian Persia had a profound effect on both Judaism and Christianity. When you go through the Israel Museum, you see artifacts of ossuary boxes, where skeletal remains were placed after the body decomposed. This was a tradition that was borrowed from Zoroastrianism. It went differently from the Jewish tradition, where the entire body was to decompose in the ground, and is still practiced today. In Christianity, the Three Wise Men were Zoroastrian magis, or priests who were astrologers and interpreter of dreams. That is the reason why they were following the Star of Bethlehem; and the magis believed that Ahura Madza, the good god of light, would send a messiah to be born during the darkest days of winter to a virgin who conceived after bathing in a lake. Also, at Nowruz, or the Zoroastrian Persian New Year, they color eggs, to represent the grass and flowers of spring. This was the start of egg coloring for Easter; and now eggs are essential for the celebration of Nowruz, Easter, and Pesach, with eggs being one of the seven sacred foods for Pesach. So both Judaism and Christianity have very strong Zoroastrian moments. The followers of Zoroastrianism today live in northwestern Iran and Mumbai, India. But the orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta is Zoroastrian and has done a lot of charity work for Israel, so the strong Zoroastrian moment continues.
QLineOrientalist on May 7, 2012 at 3:24 pm (Reply)
The Chaldeans were not Zoroastrian. It is even a vexed question whether Cyrus, who gave the Jews their liberty, was actually Zoroastrian. A more accurate view is that he was Mazdayasna--a worshipper of Ahura Mazda, also the prime diety in Zoroastrianism. (Zoroastrianism was a reform of Mazdayasnism.) The seven day week and the Sabbath were Chaldean principles, and scholarship traces much of the Creation story to Chaldean sources. This does not necessary imply that these things were learned under their captivity: These ideas permeated the culture of the region and existed in one form or another in many of the civilizations there. In any case, they have nothing to do with ancient Iranian religion.
Antiquarian on May 7, 2012 at 10:15 pm (Reply)
The Sabbath did not come from Zoroastrian influence. Neither was it a Chaldean custom. Among ancient Mesopotamian cultures, the monthly cycle of the moon was important to priests, and evil influences stemming from the moon and other gods might afflict the king, especially on certain seventh days, such as the 28th day, but also on the 19th day and some other days as well, either in a seven-day cycle or not, unless he practiced some taboos, which were shared with some temple priests. But this related solely to them, were negative and minor in character, and were not connected to the Supreme Being or Creation, nor were they a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt, as stated in the Torah, and so they did not amount to the Sabbath practices as such. In addition, it appears that the "week" governing these rules was loosely counted; not every seventh day drew the same taboos, and the "week" might even number nine or ten days, depending on the reckoning of priests or even the portion of the month. In any case, these Babylonian practices were negative in character and did not act to unify an entire society in positive observances and meanings, unlike the Jewish practice (as the article on "Sabbath" in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia puts it, "But Hebrew institutions are often in direct antagonism to similar ones among the Assyro-Babylonians. The seventh days in the Babylonian scheme were days of ill omen. The prophets of the Exile laid especial emphasis on the fact that the Sabbath is a day of joy"). At the time of Moses, long before the Babylonian Exile or even the rise of Zoroastrianism (which is usually said to have occurred in the 7th century BCE, but may possibly have arisen as early as the 10th century BCE, still well after Sinai) the sabbath institution was prescribed as a novel and distinctive practice that applied to the whole of the newly created Jewish people. This radical innovation marked the entire people out from other peoples and was, therefore, the opposite of an assimilatory device. It remained a distinctive practice and a symbolic indication of their Sinai heritage even when the Jews went into exile in Babylonia. On this, see not only the Jewish Encyclopedia article already mentioned but also the more recent articles on "Sabbath" in the Encyclopedia Judaica, part of which was written by Moses Gaster, the famous folklorist, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Similarly, it has long been known that the flood story was widespread in Mesopotamia from earliest times, and was no doubt believed in throughout Canaan even before the time of the Exodus and in Persia before Zoroastrianism arose. Our earliest literary evidence for it comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, in a Babylonian cuneiform text from around 2,100 BCE.
Farokh Mehr on February 10, 2013 at 10:22 pm (Reply)
Zoroaster, was more of philosopher and a teacher.
He rose to fight the priesthood of his time which had divided people into various religions (Sun, Moon, Fire worship), cast systems, making wars, etc.
By observing nature, he concluded that all beings were created by the same God of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda). He proposed that all of these Gods were in essence from the same God and have to respected, but not worshiped and fought over. He believed that people were the helpers of Ahura Mazada and not his slave and were placed here to create a better world.
He invited people to perform self-cleansing of their thoughts, through self-meditation by Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds and to follow the mother nature “Asha”, the righteousness. These were the principles of his belief.
He observed that within each person there is good and bad and those two forces are always at war and that transpired to the good and bad in the world. So he believed that if he could change his enemy to think like him, then his enemy would be his friend.
He believed if all people were to be good, there would be a heaven on earth and otherwise they would create the hell on earth. Later, this idea of heaven/hell became the foundation of the imaginary heaven and hell adopted by major religions.
He believed that good and wise people would reappear in various time and lead people to better life; which later became the reincarnation of messiah and so forth. He was more of realistic person, but unfortunately, later his words/thoughts took to the myth by various magi’s and priest of the time.
Through the school of thought that Zoroaster had presented, Persians had high toleration of other religions and cultures and respected them. They thought that people have to be free to practice their belief and Gods, knowing that we are all the same and all Gods lead to the same supreme God. The Persian believed that everyone is equal and there shall not be slavery of other humans. So they were big in anti-slavery in those days. Thus the Persian kings freed Jews and rebuild their temples, 2500 years ago and gave people freedom of religion, freedom of race, equality of men and women, paid their works and never took any slaves, etc.
The fall of Persia, was due to the fact that the Zoroastrian Priesthood later brought back most things that Zoroaster had come to remove, specially the cast system. The cast system created by the priesthood gave rise to many cults and religions, and eventually Islam shaped and took Persia down.
Now how much of the original Zoroastrian school of thought has influenced Judaism, I cannot tell, since I am a Zoroastrian and not Jewish.
I have been to various Jewish functions and see certain similarities. I am sure this goes both ways and all good things and cheerful things are adopted by all good cultures.
I am sure that we have mixed through marriages and other means for the past 2500 years and there is lots of commonality, both in religious ceremonies and cultural matters.
To peace, tolerance and wellbeing of all humanity.

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