In English the book is titled Lamentations because its five chapters lament the destruction of Jerusalem and its holy Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. As a poetic composition, Lamentations is not that different from the Sumerian lament for the destruction c.2004 B.C.E. of Ur:
“For the gods have abandoned us, like migrating birds they have gone. Ur is destroyed, bitter is its lament. The country’s blood now fills its holes like hot bronze in a mold. Bodies dissolve like fat in the sun. Our temple is destroyed. Smoke lies on our city like a shroud, blood flows like a river lamenting men and women. sadness abounds. Ur is no more.”
Then 2-3 generations later both Ur and Jerusalem with their temples were rebuilt and everything was normal again.
But with the second destruction of Jerusalem and its holy Temple in 70 C.E. the Hebrew name of the book, Eicha, became prescient. Eicha in Hebrew means How: How did this destruction come about? How come it happened? How come God made it or let it happen? How should we respond to what happened?
Multiple answers to all these questions are found in various places in the Talmud and especially in Midrash Eicha Rabbah. I offer a taste of our sages wisdom on these vital questions.
Josephus answered the first question with a major political and military history of events during and leading up to the war. The Jewish War was preserved in Greek by Christians, but its Aramaic version was not preserved by Jews.
It relates in terrible detail the shameful internecine violence that occurred prior to and during the revolt.
Our sages were not that interested in the sordid details. The Talmud simply teaches that “the First Temple was destroyed because of three evils; idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. But the Second Temple was destroyed at a time when people occupied themselves with Torah, Mitsvoth, and Tsadakah.
“Yet unfettered hatred prevailed. This should teach us that unrestrained hatred is deemed as evil as the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed all together.” (Yoma 9b)
In addition to the unrestrained hatred of the political and religious zealots there were those who stood by quietly and failed to censure those within their own community who preached intolerance and practiced vandalism and character assassination.
They also contributed to the destruction according to Rabbi Hanina: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants did not reprove one another. Israel in that generation kept their faces looking down to the ground and did not reprove one another.” (Shabbat 119b)
Rabbi Hanina doesn’t mention any one specific action that was so reprehensible that it doomed the city. Rather its doom was sealed by a widespread pattern of eagerness to reprove others and an unwillingness to reprove the extremists within one’s own camp.
I think it may have been something like the recent decision of a few ultra-Orthodox Rabbis to declare null and void the conversions of thousands of Jews, (by proclaiming the radical innovation of a ‘retroactive annulment’ of thousand of orthodox conversions) that took place in Israel in previous years.
The sad fact is that most Haredi Rabbis in Israel failed to publicly reprove these zealots for violating the Torah’s commandments to both love converts; and not in any way oppress them.
Why would any of the tens of thousands of Russian non-Jews who, like Ruth. moved to Israel with their Jewish family, want to identify with a people whose religious leaders passively abide such a disgraceful action? Who can tell what the consequences of this repulsive act will be in determining the loyalty of future generations of Israelis?
A midrash (Me’am Lo’ez : Ruth) relates that when Naomi discouraged her daughter-in-law Orpha from returning with Naomi to Judah, Orpha stayed in Moab, remarried, and had children. Among her descendants was the great warrior Goliath, who had to be killed by David, the descendant of Ruth the famous convert who did go with Naomi.
If Naomi hadn’t discouraged Orpha, her descendent Goliath would have been fighting on the Jewish side; not on the other side.
The major reason there was so much unrestrained hate in first century Judea was the division of the Jewish community into a large number of political and religious parties.
“Israel went into exile only after it became divided into twenty-four sects” (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 29c) One would think that the views of the various socio-economic groups within the Jewish population in Eretz Israel could be served by 4-5 political parties, and a similar number of religious denominations.
To attain any number close to two dozen sects and parties requires lots of narrow minded groups, that continually split up over their small differences, and will not compromise or accept diversity within the Jewish community.
According to Torah law God does not want the people of Israel to be uniform in behavior. That is why the 613 Mitsvot apply to the collective people of Israel but not to every individual Jew.
No Jew can ever do all 613 Mitsvot because some apply to one group and not to another. Many Mitsvot apply to to the tribe of Levi and not to any of the other tribes.
Many of the Mitsvot apply to the descendants of Aaron and not to the rest of the tribe of Levi.
Many of the Mitsvot apply to men and not to women, and a few Mitsvot apply to women and not to men.
Thus it is clear that there have been at least four different groups (women, Levites, priests and non-Levite Jewish men) within the Jewish people ever since Sinai.
In addition, in the days of Samuel many Jews desired to have a king to lead them in battle. God agreed to this and even made a covenant with the house of David and there are several Mitsvot that only apply to the king.
Thus, there has always been at least 4 or 5 groups within the Jewish people. But during the 250 years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple, the number of contending sects and parties grew and grew because tolerance of different ways, as well a a commitment to basic civility, were replaced by extremism and unrestrained hatred.
We do not know about all the varied parties, but the ones we do know about fall into three major categories; religious ritual groups, political groups and Torah law groups.
Although most Jews venerated the Temple and its priests, not all did. The Qumran community (dead sea scrolls) and the Essenes boycotted the Temple because they felt the Temple priests were corrupt and illegitimate.
The Nazarenes were disciples of Jesus Josephson, and while they worshiped at the Temple they didn’t consider it very important.
The Sadducees were rooted in the hereditary priestly cast and conservative in their beliefs. They rejected the idea of an evolving oral Torah.
Their rivals the Pharisees, were proponents of an oral Torah in addition to the written Torah all Jews accepted. They wanted all Jews to take upon themselves many extra restrictions concerning ritual impurity, kashrut and tithing fruits and grains so that their holiness would equal or exceed that of the priests. They sometimes forced the Sadducees to do things their way.
The Samaritans had their own Temple in Samaria. Their offer to help rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem had been rejected by Ezra, who lead those Jews returning from Babylonia. This led to a nasty split between the two groups. The Judeans did not consider the Samaritans to be Gentiles, but many Jews didn’t think they were Jewish either.
The Samaritans did not accept the post Torah biblical books or the Pharisees oral Torah, but they did observe Torah Mitsvot carefully.
They also had many non Jewish ancestors, who were resettled in the north by the Assyrians to replace members of the ten tribes who had been exiled. Many of these non Jews married in to the remaining Jewish community.
These six groups, plus the Boethusions, a small split off from the Sadducees, and those followers of John the Baptist who hadn’t joined the Nazarenes, all together made up a minority of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
According to Josephus there were only about 6,000 Pharisees and about 4,000 Essenes in the whole land of Israel. The majority of the people of the land (the Am HaAretz) were just Jews and did not care much about the ongoing debates between the seven religious sects.
The political groups were also a small minority, but because their extremism and unrestrained hatred led to the use of violence, both through the government and against it, their final influence was catastrophic.
The Herodians, most of them rooted in the wealthy, the old nobility and the middle and higher levels of the priesthood, supported Jewish cooperation with the Roman authorities.
Rabbi Hanina, who was the Deputy High Priest taught, “Pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since but for the fear of it, men would have swallowed one another alive.” (Pirkay Avot 3:2)
Some of the Herodians were responsible for the execution of John the Baptist and Jesus Josephson, who were seen as trouble makers by the establishment types.
The Zealots, also called Biryonim, were anti-Roman nationalists and revolutionaries. Many of them were also Pharisees. Indeed, when direct Roman rule was established over Judea in 6 C.E. Zadok the Pharisee urged people not to pay taxes to the Romans.
Another group, the Sicarii, were a more violence prone group, who assassinated both Romans and pro Roman Jews. Judas Iscariot may have been a Sicarii and a generation later Yohanan ben Zakkai’s nephew was the head of the Sicarii in the city of Jerusalem.
Even after the destruction of Jerusalem self righteous political and religious zealots believed that since their cause was true. and they themselves were sincere, they could defy and even destroy the whole Roman Empire.
Midrash Eicha Rabbah II, 2, 4 reports that, “There were two brothers in Kefar Haruba who did not allow any Roman to pass there but they killed him. They said, “The conclusion of the whole matter is that we must take Hadrian’s crown and set it on our own head.”
By killing every Roman passing by they became terrorists and served the Rabbis as examples as of outrageous hutzpah coupled with a lack of trust in God’s redemption for “It is good to wait patiently until rescue comes from the Lord.” (Lam. 3:26)
The Bar Kochba revolt resulted in a disastrous defeat; a persecution of Torah scholars; and eliminated any chance that the Romans would allow the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Hanina said: The Community of Israel spoke before the Holy One, “ In the past I terrorized others. Now it’s turned on me.” (Midrash Eicha Rabbah II, 1, 1)
The Torah law groups were also a minority of the whole population. But since the Scribes were often teachers in the schools for sons of the nobility and the wealthy, and the Sages were voluntary teachers of both the written and the oral Torah in many of the synagogues that taught all comers, they had much more influence then their numbers would indicate.
The Sages, whose disciples started using the term Rabbi in the generation prior to the the destruction of the Temple, were divided into two schools; the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, which differed from each other in more than 400 points of Jewish law.
The two schools were very tolerant of each other, except for one incident when the Shammai school forced the Hillel school to follow the Shammai way on 18 points of law.
Two centuries after the destruction of the Temple, when almost all the other various sects and parties of the first century had disappeared, Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.
Each said, “The law is according to our views.” Then an echo of a divine voice declared, “Both are the words of the living God, but the law is fixed according to the school of Hillel.”
Since both are the words of the living God what entitled the school of Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings and also the rulings of the school of Shammai, and even more,
they taught the school of Shammai’s rulings before they taught their own.” (Talmud Eruvin 13b)
If only Haredi and Reform Rabbis today followed this path.
These 14 groups (8 religious, 3 political and 3 educational) are only the ones we know something about. There were other groups we know nothing about, so a total of 24 seems reasonable.
The situation in modern Israel is not that different. In the 2009 election 31 parties ran for, and 12 made it into, Israel’s 18th Knesset. In the 2006 election 12 also made it into the 17th Knesset, which was three less than the 15 parties that entered the 16th Knesset in the 2003 election.
Why does a country of eight million people need so many parties? And how come some Jews slander other Jews by calling them traitors or Nazis? And how come so many religious leaders remain silent when this happens?
Those who do not learn from history will condemn themselves, and others, to revisit disaster.