King Josiah is, by far, the most underrated king of Judah, and he does have a strong connection to Simchat Torah. In Last week's log I mentioned the Simchat Torah connection, but I'd like to expand on the implications of both, the traditional and the historical explanations for the holiday.
The traditional explanation is that we received the Torah on Shavuot ("Hag Matan Torahteinu") but our ancestors had to study it first to fully embrace it - hence the "Rejoicing" in the Torah at the end of Sukkot. The tradition contains many core values of Judaism and it is worth exploring them.
To begin with, the implication is that until we knew what we were signing on, we did not fully embrace it. It implies a healthy skepticism even in the face of the Revelation. This is skepticism that has kept the Jewish people searching and pushing at the boundaries of knowledge for most of recorded history. The idea of questioning everything is part of the Jewish way of learning. And so with the Torah. We knew it came from God and it was a Covenant between God and the People. We needed, however, to look at the "fine print", so to speak, to fully rejoice in the Torah and by extension in our relationship with God.
The other core value deeply embeded in this tradition, and related to what I mentioned in the prior paragraph, is the centrality of studying in Jewish tradition. THis value is so central, that the Talmud mentions that each community needs to have a school with a teacher every 20 students. But if the city is divided by a river, the community needs to have two schools, obe on each side of the river to make sure that in case of flooding, children will still be able to study.
Now, expanding on the historical explanation. The Northern kingdom of Israel ("The Ten Tribes") was defeated and occupied by Assyria in the year 720 BCE. The traditional explanation is that the ten tribes were exiled and became "lost", to return to the fold at the time of the Messiah. Historically, however, there is strong evidence that many of the refugees from Israel moved to their southern neighbor of Judah, with which they shared a tradition of kinship and religious ties. During the centuries that Judah and Israel functioned as separate entities, traditions evolved in different directions. The Northern tribes saw the center of their workship at Mount Gerizim, near the modern city of Nablus, and they had built there a Temple very similar to Solomon's Temple. The Judahites in the south worshiped, of course, in Jerusalem. The common history of the Israelites also had variation in the North and the South.
When the refugees came flooding into Judah, it naturally created some frictions and conflict because of the differing interpretations. For a century those tensions remained. And then Josiah son of Amon became king. During his rule (649-609 BCE) he instituted major religious reforms. The Bible says that during his rule, a book was discovered in the Temple during remodeling. This book, most scholars believe, was Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy has been studied extensively and mnost scholars believe that it is the product of more than one author or tradition. In the XIX Century, Biblical scholars spoke of the "Elohist source", the "Yahwist source" and "The Redactor", believing that there were two traditions incorporated in the text by a redactor who tried to keep the text consisten (and often failing). Today's analysis of Deuteronomy is a bit more complex but essentially retains the belief that it relfects at least two differing traditions brought together. It is but a short leap to believe that Josiah was trying to bring together the traditions of the Judahites and the Ten Tribes in order to stregthen his kingdom. This seems to be confirmed by a mention in the Book of Kings that Josiah "sent teachers to the villages of Judah to teach Torah (The book of Deuteronomy)". He used Education as a unifying force to bring together the people of the kingdom.
According to the Bible, Josiah read the newly discovered book right after the eight day of the Gathering of the Harvest (Sukkot). Hence, according to historians, the celebration of Simchat Torah. From this perspective, Simchat Torah is a celebration of the rededication to the Torah as a way to reconnect the Judahites and their northern brothers and sisters. Josiah becomes, in this perspective, the most forward-looking king of Judah, a Stateman and a scholar. A king whose stature rises, in my opinion, above all the others.
I like both, the Traditional and the Historical explanations, because they tell me different things about where I come from, and because both emphasize the importance of studying and learning...