Did restrictive and unwelcoming attitudes towards converts doom the Temple?

The major cause of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple was sinat heenam; unrestrained hatred and intolerance of those who differed from ‘us’ in politics or religion. Jews can easily understand how unrestrained hatred and intolerance of those who differed in politics or religion can occur if we look at Israel and the US today.

Our Rabbis wanted Jews to live in peace with both different kinds of Jews, and non-Jews who lived around them, so in later generations they portrayed some of the enemy’s top generals in positive terms. They taught that Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who exiled the ten northern tribes, and Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian general who destroyed the First Temple, had converted to Judaism in their later years.

Indeed, the sages even taught that some descendants of Haman had converted to Judaism and that their descendants ended up teaching Torah in the orthodox town of Bnei Berak.

And they were not the only ones. According to the Talmud (Gitten 57b) “Descendants of Sisera (a Canaanite general) taught children in Jerusalem, and descendants of Sennacherib gave public lectures on Torah. Who were they? Shemaya and Avtalyon.” These two sages were the predecessors of Hillel and Shammai.

Not only may our present enemies someday provide converts who will be supporters of Torah in the future, but spurning any potential converts now may provide us with future anti-Semites. A midrash in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) teaches that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each in turn refused to accept Timna the sister of Lotan as a convert. Because the patriarchs pushed away a potential convert, their descendants suffered greatly at the hands of Timna’s descendants; the Amalekites. May those rabbis who make things hard for would be converts learn from this.

Everyone knows the very important mitzvah to: “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” (Leviticus 19: 18). But few know that thousands of Rabbi Akiba’s students died, because they failed to follow an equally important mitzvah that appears just 15 verses later: “‘When a foreigner (Ger) resides among you in your land, do not mistreat him. The foreigner residing among you (a Ger Toshav) must be treated like your native-born (Jew). Love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-4)

The Babylonian Talmud states: “Rabbi Akiba had 12,000 pairs of disciples, who died between Pesach and Shavuot because they didn’t treat each other with respect.” (Yevamot 62b) A variation of this story in Tanhuma claims the number of students who died was 300.

Did Akiba’s students die because they disrespect their fellow students whose parents were converts to Judaism, and those converts whose conversion process they judged negatively?

Rav Sherira Gaon, the tenth century leader of the Babylonian Talmudic Academy in Pumbedita, explained that Akiba’s students did not die in a literal plague, but in a “shamda,” a government-sponsored persecution, (shamda appears in the Spanish versions of Yevamot 62b).

By being very suspicious, restrictive and unwelcoming of almost all converts converted by unorthodox rabbis; these overly strict students alienated thousands of Gentile families, who felt that Jews were clannish, exclusive, and looked down on all non-Jews. So these thousands of non-Jews who would have opposed the shamda because it would hurt one of their own family members; instead supported it.

Rabbi Akiba’s students should have known that the full name of their great teacher was Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer: Rabbi Akiba son of Yosef the convert. As it is stated in Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Seder HaDorot that Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.

Although most of the Talmudic sages are referred to as X ben Y; Rabbi Akiba is never quoted by his full name: Akiba ben Yosef HaGer. Perhaps Rabbi Akiba’s students did not know Rabbi Akiba’s father was a convert because there is a tradition that one should not bring up a convert’s non-Jewish past.

This did not mean that you should not be proud of the many people who become Jewish, and whose descendants enrich the Jewish people for generations to come. It meant only that you are not to refer to a convert’s past in a negative way, or to think that a person born to Jewish parents was a better Jew, than a Jew who had no, or only some, Jewish genes.

A modern midrash states that those students of Rabbi Akiba that died; died of a strange mysterious disease. And, even stranger, no one other than some of Rabbi Akiba’s students were dying of this disease.

The epidemic started during Hanukah, when Rabbi Yohanan ben Tortha, a Roman who had converted to Judaism, openly opposed Rabbi Akiba’s support for Bar Kochbah’s revolt, saying: ‘Akiba, grass will l grow in your cheeks (above your grave, and the Messiah) will still not have come!’(Eikhah Rabbah II:4).

The disease was unlike any other disease that people died from. Some soldiers said the disease was some kind of Roman secret weapon. A form of black magic. Most people felt it was just bad luck. But Rabbi Akiba knew better. He knew that it is always easy to blame bad fortune on other people when things do not go the way you want them to go.

And while that is sometimes the case, those who are wise also know that they have to look within their own conscious and within their own soul to see if they themselves did not play a role in what was happening.

Rabbi Akiba appointed his sharpest disciple, Rabbi Meir to investigate the situation; and Rabbi Meir discovered that those of Rabbi Akiba’s students who had died, did not respect each other.

Those students who did not leave their Yeshivahs to wage war against the Romans disrespected those who did. Those who refused to withdraw from their battle positions when their leaders said to abandon one village in order go to protect another village, disrespected those who did withdraw. Those who were more pious disrespected those who were less pious.

And Rabbi Meir found that all of those who had died in the mysterious epidemic, had expressed negative opinions about Jewish converts to Judaism. or the descendants of converts to Judaism, especially Greeks and Romans, like Rabbi Yohanan ben Tortha, who felt the disease was Rabbi Akiba’s fault for supporting Bar Kochbah’s revolt.

Rabbi Meir was shocked to learn that many of Rabbi Akiba’s students disrespected each other. Rabbi Akiba had always taught his disciples that one of the most important principles in the Torah was, “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”

Indeed, many of Akiba’s students used to sing a song when they sat around a campfire in the spring and summer, that proclaims: “Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ is a major principle in the Torah.”

This principle applied not just to all of your neighbors, but also to your fellow students, the people you work with, and everyone else you know, whether Jew or Non-Jew.

Plus, there is another specific Mitsvah that says, “Love the stranger as much as you love yourself.” and this applies to non-Jews who become Jewish because they decided to convert to Judaism.

How sad it was then for Rabbi Meir, who himself was a descendant of converts to Judaism, to learn that many of the students of Akiba’s students had transgressed Rabbi Akiba’s teachings.

Perhaps they did not know because there was a tradition that one should not bring up a convert’s non-Jewish past. This did not mean that you should not be proud of the many people who became Jewish and whose descendants enriched the Jewish people for generations to come.

It meant you were not to refer to a convert’s past in a negative way, or think that a person born to Jewish parents was a better Jew than a Jew who had few of no Jewish genes.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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