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from "The Virtual Public Square," by Alan Jacobs, The New Atlantis, Spring 2009

[T]he Babylonian captivity of the Israelites produced social and, yes, technological developments that permanently altered Judaism—that, one might say, made Judaism as a way of life separate from the cult of the Temple in Jerusalem. For it was in that captivity that the synagogue developed—the place for reading and interpreting Torah—and along with it the scribal system by which the debates of the rabbis were recorded, organized, displayed, and passed down to future generations in what we now call the Talmud. And when the Israelites were given the opportunity to return from exile and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple, many—among them some leading rabbis and their devoutest students—chose to stay in Babylon. They had come to prefer the new social structures they had made, and the new technologies formed to sustain those structures.

For those of us residing in the American Babylon, this sounds suspiciously like a parable; but it’s important to see that those who chose to stay behind were often neither frivolous nor culpably assimilated into Babylonian life. Moreover, wise historians doubt whether Judaism could have survived its ultimate diaspora were it not for the cultural forms originally built in that captivity.