Francesco Hayez, ‘Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem,’ 1867.Wikipedia
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The Real Lesson of Tisha B’Av

The holiday frequently brings sermons about Jewish unity, but the story of the destruction of the Temple offers a very different message

Yoav Schaefer and Jacob Samuel Abolafia
July 31, 2017
Francesco Hayez, 'Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem,' 1867.Wikipedia

Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, comes this year at a particularly fraught moment for the Jewish people. The only surviving architectural element of the Temple, its western restraining wall, has become a site of contention both between different religious movements and between world Jewry and the Israeli government. At such moments, there is a strong temptation to appeal, as the U.S. ambassador to Israel recently did, to the idea of Jewish unity—“that nobody ever has to win” if we all work together and respect one another.

An appeal to solidarity has particular power on Tisha B’Av, a day that is often connected, at least in the American Jewish imagination, to the sin of sinat hinam—senseless hatred. The tradition of connecting the destruction of the Temple with needless enmity between Jews has an ancient pedigree. In the Babylonion Talmud (Yoma 9b), the rabbis suggest that the Second Temple was destroyed due to senseless hatred, and elsewhere (Gittin 56a) they provide an example of that hatred through a story of two rivals whose discord led, indirectly, to the Roman invasion: The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa—a friend of Kamsa’s hates Bar Kamsa, and insults him to the point where he turns to the Romans—has a neat pedagogical clarity, which partially explains why contemporary Jews turn to it again and again in their sermons, school lessons, and camp activities.

It’s not clear, however, that this focus on sinat hinam takes the right political lessons from the story of Tisha B’Av. A closer look at that same Talmudic passage suggests that the lesson of Tisha B’Av is not about mending divisions within the Jewish community. It’s about the danger of failing to stand up for a set of values—even at the cost of intracommunity strife.

The very next paragraphs in the Talmud recount the rabbinic reaction to Bar Kamsa’s actions: “The sages thought to kill [Bar Kamsa] so that he would not go and speak [to the Romans],” but ultimately they did nothing. Rabbi Yochanan (other versions say Rabbi Yossi) says it was this act of “humility” that “destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The Talmud is not shy in assigning blame for the destruction: It happens because of the unwillingness, or inability, of the rabbis to challenge the actions of their fellow Jews.

The Babylonian Talmud was redacted some 500 years after the events described in this story, but the outlines of the rabbinic account agree in large part with the version of events related by Flavius Josephus, who was present outside the walls of the city on the 9th of Av. Despite his later reputation as a Jewish quisling, Josephus was and remains the most reliable witness to the siege and loss of Jerusalem. The heroes, in Josephus’s story, are the leaders who take a stand against those whom Josephus calls “the so-called Zealots” (he prefers to use the Greek word lestes, meaning “thug” or “pirate”).

One of the turning points in Josephus’s narrative is the stirring speech one such leader, the High Priest Ananus, makes against the Zealots. “O bitter tyranny that we are under! But why do I complain of the tyrants? Was it not you [the people of Jerusalem], and your sufferance of [the Zealots], that have nourished them?” The actions Ananus describes the Zealots as committing—the forceful monopoly over the sacred spaces of Jerusalem, the pillaging of houses and the wanton destruction of property—have a distinctly modern ring, as does the striking language Josephus chooses to use for the two parties. The Zealots are “tyrants,” and what is at stake, Ananus argues, is nothing less than the “political liberty” of the Jewish people.

Josephus later describes Ananus as “equal-minded, freedom-loving, and a pursuer of democracy.” Of course, these words didn’t mean exactly the same thing to Josephus that they do in modern usage, but they ring clearly enough to give the contemporary reader pause. Even more alarming is a verdict Josephus delivers twice: It was the defeat of Ananus and his party that doomed the city. The victory of zealotry over equal respect (Greek: isotimia) and tyranny over democracy was not, in Josephus’s opinion, inevitable. Nor was it the outcome of unhealthy rancor or an excess of ill feeling. It was not even due to the external pressure of Roman imperialism. It was a question of Jewish politics. While Ananus defended democracy, the idea of a government that works in the interest of all, there was hope. But once the self-interested and reckless politics of the Zealots prevailed, the destruction of Jerusalem could not be prevented.

The historical lesson of the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, as evidenced by Josephus and the Rabbis, is not about the value of Jewish unity but about its limitations. Whatever the merits of Jewish unity, it should not come at the expense of addressing the real issues that divide our community. Nor should it be given priority over the security and well-being of the Jewish people. This is the thrust of Josephus’ and the Rabbis’ warning that ceding power to those in the community who are unconcerned with the political consequences of their theological or ideological commitments can end in catastrophe.

Of course, political unity can be valuable at times. This is particularly true in times of crisis, when Jews from across political and religious divides come together to pursue shared interests or goals, as was the case in response to the Damascus Blood Libel in 1840—perhaps the first instance of international Jewish collective action—and the reaction to the plight of Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and ’70s, to name two prominent examples. While solidarity may at times be useful as a means for furthering certain shared goals, it is another thing entirely to consider it as an end unto itself. Jewish unity is most necessary when the threat is external to the community, but the appeal to unity when the threat is internal—as it was in the case of the Zealots—is not only misguided and irresponsible; it is fraught with danger.

The appeal to Jewish unity is often made by those who would seek to silence dissenting voices within our community. But history teaches us that such efforts are inherently self-defeating, since attempts to impose political conformity upon a community, far from creating consensus and harmony, tend to backfire. Moreover, the enforcers of unity ignore the fact of political and religious pluralism within the Jewish community. Jews are and have always been deeply divided around issues of politics and religion, and not for no reason. Jewish history, and particularly the history we commemorate on Tisha B’Av, is the history of competing factions struggling, sometimes violently, to shape the identity and future of the Jewish people. The appeal to Jewish unity, therefore, often entails a nostalgic longing for an imagined past of religious and political homogeneity. But that past is a historical fabrication, one easily employed in the service of ideological ends.

The lesson of Tisha B’Av may not point to the value of unity but to its perils. The fast reminds us what happens when the forces that stand against political freedom and equal respect are appeased rather than defeated. When unity trumps sensibility, the consequences may be disastrous.

Jacob Abolafia is a PhD Candidate in Political Theory at Harvard. Yoav Schaefer studies Jewish Philosophy at Tel Aviv University.