Shmuly Yanklowitz
Shmuly Yanklowitz

Was the Destruction of the Temple good for the Jews? A Tisha B’Av Reflection

Also have trouble crying for the Temple? Why is it that we mourn on Tisha B’Av? Paradoxically, one of the most tragic events in Jewish history (the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash) may also have forced the most generative stimuli that ever propelled the Jewish People forward!

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For centuries the Temple in Jerusalem was the sole center of Jewish life. It was the only way we knew to serve G-d, and yet at an appropriate time in history we needed a fundamental change, and G-d supplied it. The Rambam famously makes the point that the Torah mandate for a Temple with animal sacrifices was not ideal but G-d’s concession to Israel’s needs in an earlier era. Asking the Jews to serve G-d without offering sacrifices and priests as guides would have been like asking the Jews today to serve G-d without prayer and rabbis as guides (Guide for the Perplexed 3:32).

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We cannot simply return to the past or propel a past model into the future. Religion, at its best, is about creative thinking and courageous living in the present. With every paradigm shift (even when that shift leads toward progress) comes some loss—and that’s what we mourn. Concurrent with the destruction of the Temple there was a loss of life and a loss of the Divine Presence in this world. Today, in response, we must strive to actively affirm the value of life and find new ways to bring G-d into the world.

All G-d does is for the good. The destruction of the Temple forced the Jewish people to transition from privileging Judaism’s priestly aspect and leadership to its legal ones, from focusing on the pious to focusing on the intellectual, from concentrated authority to decentralized communal empowerment, and from a parochial approach to peoplehood to a global one. Even the dispersion of our people had a positive side to it: Two thousand years of Diaspora life, admittedly riddled with tragedy, have allowed us to refine our ideas rather than focus on power and state building. Also we were able to gain the wisdom of the encounter with majority and other minority cultures, which has enabled us to be in touch with the downtrodden around the globe (ki gerim hayyinu b’aratzot nokhriyot). Judaism was able to focus on being a sophisticated religion before focusing on developing as a strong nation. Further, we bring a more enlightened notion of the nation-state than we might have held onto had we never left the land of Israel, where we were stuck in a monarchic-theocratic system. We’ve seen how horrific dictatorships have been in modernity. Today the modern state of Israel continues to grow and thrive as a thriving open democracy. And even today, with the all of the religious value and grandeur of our own sovereignty and self determination, there is still religious value (and for some even an imperative) to living in the diaspora.

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We often have trouble embracing sophisticated change in the Jewish community. One major segment of the Jewish community is willing to toss out traditional major systems to rapidly embrace new realities; another major segment of the Jewish community completely resists change. However, we need to face reality: Just look at the politicization of the Western Wall. Could all 13.7-million Jews today really be served by a single Temple?

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We have never been unified as a people (aside from Sinai perhaps) and even when the Temple stood there was great internal fighting between various ideological factions. Perhaps not unlike the Western Wall lately, the Temple, the rabbis taught, had ceased to inspire love and justice and so we needed a new paradigm.

The second Temple, where they engrossed themselves in Torah, Mitzvot, and acts of loving-kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was baseless hatred (sinat chinam) in it. This is to teach you that sinat chinam is equivalent to the three cardinal sins: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. They were evil, but they put their trust in G-d (Yoma 9b).

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To provide some historical context to the destruction of the temple, the tragic rebellion that led to the Second Temple’s destruction was ill-advised at best (based upon messianic fervor) and represented the worst sort of suicidal fanaticism, as Rome had shown for centuries that it would not stop its war making and cruelty until its opponents were annihilated. For example, at the battle of Cannae in 216 BCE, Hannibal of Carthage handed Rome its greatest defeat, killing approximately 60,000 Roman soldiers, and for a decade and a half he continually defeated them on the Italian peninsula, yet he never conquered Rome, and eventually Carthage was completely destroyed by Rome. In 60-61 CE, only a decade before the destruction of our Temple, they crushed the rebellion of the formidable Iceni of East Anglia (modern-day England) led by Boudicca, whose forces  had annihilated a Roman legion and massacred several Roman towns, but were themselves mercilessly cut down when they charged headlong into a disciplined Roman legion.

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At the outset, the Jews took on Rome at the height of its military power, confronted by Rome’s greatest general of the period and his son and future Emperor Titus. The Romans’ incomparable siege weaponry, such as siege towers, ramps, and the ballista, completely overwhelmed the Jews. In 69 CE, Titus breached the walls of Jerusalem, while Jewish generals fought and killed each other as often as they fought the enemy, and spent much effort trying to prevent any Jews from escaping. While the Jews fought fiercely and exacted a heavy toll, they were no match for the Romans. temple - image 7

Whether by accident or deliberately, the Temple burned to the ground on Tisha B’Av. Jewish Zealots, Sicarii, and Nationalists committed suicide by throwing themselves into the fire, stabbing themselves, or having others stab them, while the Pharisees understood that the destruction of the Temple did not equate with the destruction of the Jewish people. Indeed, while 10,000 Jews were taken to Rome and sold as slaves, wealthy Jews joined with others in the community to either buy their freedom or help liberate them from their masters, and we survived this crisis and many others over the centuries since. We should always remember that our object is not suicide; we are not like the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, and we do not possess the military might to take on the great empires and survive. Our greatness lies in the Torah and living by our core values.

After the destruction, from that day forward, the rabbis understood they must look forward and build Jewish learning institutions and not try to replace the Temple of the past. In his great wisdom, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai foresaw the inevitable future and courageously adapted. He escaped from the Roman siege of Jerusalem, abandoning the Temple while it was still standing to negotiate a deal, allowing him to establish a new center of Jewish learning in the city of Yavneh (Gittin 56b). He is our model for courageous Jewish intellectual and spiritual paradigm shifts. He taught us the art of adaptation, that we must chose life over land (even when holy), and that religion often necessitates choosing the pragmatic over the ideal.

With the destruction, the prophets taught us that our people had to move from being transmitters of a parochial, sacrificial religion to practitioners of a universalistic, giving religion (Hoshea 6:6: “For I desire kindness, not a sacrifice.”). Much later, the rabbis taught that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai were walking past the ruined Temple Mount when Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Woe unto us! The Temple, the source of all forgiveness for our sins, has been destroyed.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai replied, “My son, don’t despair. We have another source of atonement, and it is acts of kindness”(Midrash Yelamdeinu).

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Today, we have thousands of diverse synagogues and Jewish organizations around the world; we have been able to do great work in every corner of the earth, not just in Jerusalem. We may not think of Australia as a place with many Jews, but there are more than 80 operating synagogues there. Similarly, we usually consider South America to be a Catholic continent, but there are more than 70 synagogues in Buenos Aires, Argentina, alone. In Hungary, devastated by the Holocaust, there are 26 active synagogues in its capital, Budapest.

The fantasy of returning to one centralized monolithic form of Judaism is not only wishful thinking. It’s also dismissive of two of the most important aspects of modern Jewish life: diversity and adaptability. Further, in any centralized system of authority, abuses of power and limits of transparency and empowerment have proven to be inevitable. The new paradigm that the Temple’s destruction and exile from Israel enabled is one that says, Bring G-d into your hearts and into the wide world every day and in every way; the Temple was a vehicle for this once, now we have so much more. It is natural to long for past models in a world of uncertainty but we must move forward with courage, creativity, and open hearts to build a world of justice, kindness, and holiness where G-d can reside. As the Rambam taught (in the end of his Mishnah Torah), we must be humble and not become consumed with what will be in Messianic times. Rather we must be productive and engage in the real religious imperatives and embrace the responsibilities of today.

A core part of the mitzvah of being mitavel (mourning) is transforming aveilut yashana (old mourning) into aveilut chadasha (new mourning). It’s the move from history to memory and from distance to relevancy of today. Tisha B’Av is a sustained meditation on the profound brokenness of the world. Only through an honest grappling with the depths of oppression and suffering inside and outside of us can we truly understand what’s needed for healing and repair. May we have the courage to sit in the abyss of darkness and then the strength to channel light.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.