The answer to the question, “Why was Jerusalem destroyed?” is seemingly simple: because of its revolts. A small country cannot withstand an empire.
In the days of the First Temple, Babylon occupied the ancient Near East, including the Judean Kingdom. By the end of the Second Temple era, the Roman Empire had conquered much of the world, including the small Hasmonean Kingdom. Why were the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE destroyed? Because the Jews rebelled against these huge empires, which brutally suppressed any revolt against them. Bar Kochba’s revolt 65 years after the Second Temple’s destruction failed, and Betar, the last standing fortress of that revolt, fell for the same reason. These are the simple historic facts.
The rabbis of the Talmudic Era, however, were not satisfied with such explanations. History was not their concern; they wished to apply a religious, ethical, and educational meaning to these events, so they supplied their own answers.
One of the most famous is: The First Temple was destroyed for three reasons: idolatry, incest, and bloodshed. The Second Temple fell because of baseless hatred among the Jews. Hence they taught that hatred is equal to the above three serious offenses. This explanation introduces God into the story. The temple’s destruction is God’s punishment. The Book of Lamentations, which deals with reward and punishment, well expresses this religious explanation.
Take God out of this equation
Another explanation, less famous but equally important, does not involve God, and puts the blame on mere foolishness. The Talmud demonstrates by the amazing miniature story about Kamza and Bar Kamza (BT Gittin 55b) and the stupid banality of baseless hatred.
Jerusalem was destroyed because of a mistake of a servant who invited the wrong guest to a dinner party. The unwillingness of the host to honor the unwanted guest and the fact that the community leaders who were present did not intervene caused Bar Kamza to tell the emperor; petty halakhic concerns prevented a solution that might have saved Jerusalem from being destroyed. This masterfully woven legend shows that the destruction could have been prevented at every stage, had not the characters been stubborn and petty.
There are two stories nearby that section of the Talmud (BT Gittin 57a) which are even shorter and sharper: “Through a cock and a hen, Tur Malka was destroyed.” It was the custom that when a bride and bridegroom were being escorted, a cock and a hen were carried before them, as if to say, “Be fruitful and multiply like fowls.” One day a band of Roman soldiers passed by and took the animals from them, so the Jews fell on them and beat them. So they went and reported to the emperor that the Jews were rebelling, and he marched against them.”
The second story says: “Through the shaft of a litter, Betar was destroyed.” It was the custom to plant a cedar tree when a boy was born, and to plant a pine tree when a girl was born. When they married, the tree was cut down and a canopy made of the branches. One day, the daughter of the emperor was passing when the shaft of her litter broke, so they lopped branches off a cedar tree and brought it to her. The Jews thereupon fell upon them and beat them. They reported to the emperor that the Jews were rebelling, and he marched against them.”
The lesson of these stories is more humanistic and political than religious. Human beings can cause destruction by outbursts of anger, fanaticism, and stupidity. The escalation at the beginning of the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza resulted from personal selfish rivalries. In the two other stories, it was a paradox that caused stupid reactions. It was precisely the fanatical concern for Jewish tradition and honor that crushed the society. Self-restraint and renunciation could have prevented destruction.
These stories have an actual meaning for Jewish society in our days. A people that encourages fanaticism and hatred dooms itself to being destroyed. A society that intensifies arguments and turns small or big differences between its parts into fundamental issues tears itself apart. Our ancient and new history teaches us that fanaticism and internal wars lead to destruction, whereas respect, renunciation, and self-restraint may build the Third Temple.