Lessons from the Biryonim; Avoid Another Tisha B’Av

Kotel-Leonard Grunstein

It has been a long time since we seriously worried about an impending existential threat. I grew up in a time when there was a very real concern about nuclear annihilation in the 1950’s and 60’s. I remember well the air raid drills in elementary school.

In 1967, we all felt overwhelming trepidation until we heard the joyous news of the miraculous victory of Israel over its enemies, who sought its destruction in the Six-Day War. In 1973, we prayed with fervor for Israel to survive the Yom Kippur War and felt an enormous sense of relief when Israel once again triumphed.

Who would have thought we would face a new crisis in 2020? The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the concomitant economic downturn are painful enough; but now, as we sit in our homes, we are witness on television and online to pointless violence, often by bands of masked and helmeted individuals. This is not about peaceful marches and protests, which are protected free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is about criminal acts, like murder, assault, battery, arson and looting that are committed with impunity; even law enforcement officers are attacked, without apparent consequences. Instead of responding with appropriate measures designed to enforce and restore respect for the rule of law, some local government officials appear to ignore or condone the violence to drive their own agenda in an election year.

The Federal Government is offering local officials help; but some are refusing to accept it for what appear to be ideological, partisan or other absurd reasons. Didn’t they study history and haven’t they learned the lessons from the not too dissimilar circumstances in the past, when lawlessness was permitted to thrive unchallenged by an effective government response? Are they so blinded by hate of the President and partisanship that they are willing to gamble with the lives of innocent people and children, who have suffered as a result of local government inaction?

The explosive mixture of unrestrained and blatant criminal activities and partisan politics is dreadful. I fear the consequences of an inevitable reaction. Gun sales are at record levels and there is a feeling of unrest and insecurity that is palpable. It is particularly concerning, because absent a resolute legal response, there is the very real possibility that the villainous fringes of society may actually achieve their goal of undermining our society.

The situation is all too reminiscent of far-left Spartacists in pre-war Berlin and their calculated lawlessness and violence, intended to subvert trust in the erstwhile Weimar republic. The failure of Weimar to quell the violence undermined its credibility. This triggered an overreaction by the far-right, which deployed roving vigilante paramilitary bands, known as the Freikorps, in a war for dominance, in the streets of Germany. At the time, Germany was in the midst of a depression, with staggering unemployment and hyperinflation. Neither side won. Instead, a fringe group, billing itself as the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) managed to take control of Germany. It campaigned on a racist agenda targeting the Jews for elimination, a political program promising a restoration of order and national pride and a socialist economic program to put everyone back to work. It was an evil government that started World War II and perpetrated the Holocaust.

It is important to recognize, that chaotic situations usually produce unpredictable results. In physics we learned that for every action there is a reaction and nature abhors a vacuum. Thus, revolution engenders counter-revolution. However, in human affairs, the reaction is not usually an equal and opposite one; it is often an over-reaction.

Chaos is an opportunity for ruthless power hungry demagogues to undermine trust in government and swoop in to take advantage of the fluid situation to serve their own selfish interests. However, despite their lurid fantasies of revolution, destruction of existing civilization and remaking it in their own image, the result is often very different. More often than not, unforeseen and catastrophic consequences ensue, yielding a dystopian nightmare, instead of utopian fantasy. Untold suffering is usually caused to the vast majority of innocent law-abiding citizens and their children. They are the real victims of these kinds of riotous circumstances, with much to lose and little to gain, no matter who emerges in charge. So it was in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and continues in Communist China and Venezuela; the ordinary citizen suffers, while the demagogues, vying for power and treasure, play with their lives.

Reform and evolutionary change are another matter entirely. It is a much saner alternative that has a proven track record of success. Don’t be misled; the peaceful civil rights and women’s rights movements did transform our society. This does not mean there cannot be further improvements. The noble goal of continuously seeking to improve everyone’s quality of life in this country is a central feature of our society.

History is replete with lessons about how destructive a determined fringe political group with a ruthless armed force can be. The Talmud[i] records the nefarious actions taken by the Zealots in Jerusalem and their paramilitary arm, the Biryonim. They terrorized Jerusalem during the long siege by the Romans and doomed it by burning the food-stocks and causing starvation; all in an effort to prevent any compromise and negotiated settlement with the Romans. Once the violence was unleashed, even their own leaders were powerless to restrain them, because they feared for their own lives.

The resemblance to the current state of affairs is uncanny. This is why maintaining respect for the rule of law is so critical, so that things don’t spin out of control.

Jewish law and custom elevates this principle to a community mandate in a variety of circumstances. Thus, Jeremiah[ii] enjoined the exiles in Babylon to seek and pray for the welfare of the city in which they resided, so that they too would share in its peace and prosperity. Ezra[iii] expressed a similar sentiment in requiring the community pray for the life of the king and his sons. The Talmud[iv] had no illusions about the selfish motives of the Persian government in allowing Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple. This, though, did not detract from the requirement to be gracious and demonstrate our gratitude, as a community.

The Mishna[v] and Talmud[vi] require that a person pray for the welfare of the government. Absent this vital function in the society, there would be anarchy and, as the Mishna notes so vividly, people would swallow each other alive. Blessing governmental leaders and praying for their welfare is a customary part of the Sabbath prayer service[vii]. This is a non-partisan matter. It makes no difference who serves in the office of the President at the time or how many members voted for the person; the congregation joins in the prayer by answering amen.

Inflexible self-righteousness can also be an extremely destructive force in society. The Talmud[viii] reports that the Roman Caesar sought to offer a sacrifice in the Second Temple, as a test, to see if the sacrifice would, in fact, be brought and thereby honor the Roman Caesar and his government. The Talmud goes on to relate how Bar Kamtza (of the notorious incident of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza) artfully blemished the animal, in a manner that was not problematical under Roman ritual; but was calculated to prevent its sacrifice under the Halacha. His object was to subvert the relationship between Rome and the Jewish people, because of his personal grievance with and animus towards the Jewish establishment. The Sages considered the matter and thought to consummate the sacrifice, despite the blemish, so as to maintain peace with the Roman overlords. However, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, one of the Sages, protested that the expediency might be misconstrued by the people. As a result of his protestations, the Sages did not intervene and the sacrifice was aborted. The Talmudic text concludes with a resounding criticism of the overly virtuous pronouncements of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas. While he didn’t intend to slight the Roman Emperor, the effect was the same; the Emperor’s good will gesture was rejected. The Talmud notes this was the precipitating cause for the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile. Imagine had the dictates of extreme piety been rejected and, instead, practical considerations prevailed. Might the entire course of history have been different?

Doctrinaire uncompromising idealism is no substitute for sober judgment. It is unfortunate that some dogmatic progressives are just unable to compromise. They view other good people’s opinions, which don’t precisely align with their sacred principles as an anathema and reflexively demonize them for having a different weltanschauung. Never mind that without compromise, it is nearly impossible to accomplish anything useful and enduring, which requires the input and agreement of others. They would rather just feel good, by identifying with like-minded people and presumptuously assuming their virtuous nobility, while loudly condemning everyone else.

This is an example of the ‘Sinat Chinam’ that was one of the preeminent causes of the destruction of the Second Temple in the Talmud[ix]. The Hebrew words are often loosely translated as baseless hatred, although that definition may not do justice to the import of the term. Gratuitous may be a more accurate way of defining the word ‘Chinam’. It adds a layer of nuance because, although hate may have some basis, it is hardly ever fully justified, necessary or appropriate. Gratuitous hatred serves no genuine purpose. It’s reckless and the unintended consequences may be catastrophic[x]. It also engenders the kind of divisiveness that is enjoined by the Bible[xi], as interpreted by Resh Lakish in the Talmud[xii].

The Talmud[xiii] also views publicly shaming another, which by extension would include its modern incarnation the cancel culture, as wholly unethical and reprehensible; and it excoriates anyone who does so. As Rabbi Yonasan Eybeshitz[xiv] so eloquently points out as to Biblical Joseph and his brothers[xv], instead of sitting together, speaking and remonstrating with each other and eventually making some sort of peace with one another, they refrained from talking and listening to each other. In essence, like so many today, they demonized each other. It was tragic then and it is every bit as unfortunate when it occurs today. Moreover, as the Talmud[xvi] so poignantly concludes, it was this kind of sordid behavior that was one of the major causes of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile.

The Mishna[xvii] records Hillel’s sage counsel not to separate from the community, rely just on your own judgment or ever be judgmental about another person. To put this in perspective, the Talmud[xviii] exquisitely records that despite the profound and fundamental disagreements between members of the Schools of Hillel and Shamai, they did not refrain from marrying into one another’s families. There’s one big tent, which accommodates so many different points of views. Indeed, the School of Hillel was known to present the opinion of Shammai before discussing their own view. The credibility earned by this kind of a balanced approach was incomparable. Is it any wonder that the Talmud[xix] extols this kind of approach? Indeed, suspecting someone because they held different points of view or acted differently was a source of the separation among people that doomed the Second Temple[xx] .

It appears this non-constructive attitude continues to dog us even today. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. It matters not that the person does this out of a sense of extreme piety or socially righteous indignation. The result is the same; it undermines the social cohesion of society and brings civilization to ruin.

Tisha B’Av is a date associated with tragedies of epic proportions, such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples[xxi]. In this regard, it should be noted that one of the most destructive periods in modern human history, beginning with World War I[xxii] and ending with World War II[xxiii] and the Holocaust, were ushered in on Tisha B’Av.

As we fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av, we should be mindful of these cogent lessons of the past, which can inform how we appreciate and react to what is occurring in the present. Hopefully and with G-d’s help, we can avoid another Tisha B’Av. May we be blessed to see the ultimate redemption soon and in our time.

[i] BT Gittin 56a.

[ii] Jeremiah 29:7.

[iii] Ezra 6:10.

[iv] BT Rosh Hashanah 4a and Rashi commentary thereon.

[v] Avot 3:2.

[vi] BT Avodah Zara 4a and see the Meiri commentary thereon, which notes that a person is obligated to do so.

[vii] See Kol Bo 20:29 and Sefer Abudraham, at the end of Dinei  Kriat HaTorah (in the Bar Ilan Responsa Project edition), as well as, the reference on page 94 (of the Warsaw edition-1878)

[viii] BT Gittin 56a.

[ix] BT Yoma 9b and JT Yoma 1:1 (at page 4b).

[x] See, for example, BT Gittin 55b-56a and Maharsha commentary thereon, as well as, Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 5, Chiddushe Aggadot on Gittin. See also Eicha Rabbah 4:3. See also

[xi] Deuteronomy 14:1.

[xii] BT Yevamot 13b.

[xiii] BT Bava Metzia 59a.

[xiv] An 18th Century Talmudic and Halachic authority, in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on Genesis, Parshat Vayeshav (Verse 37:4), at page 73.

[xv] Genesis 37:4.

[xvi] See BT Yoma 9b, Gittin 55b-56a, and Shabbos 119b.

[xvii] Avot 2:4.

[xviii] JT Kiddushin 1:1 (at page 4a) and Yevamot 1:6 (at page 8b).

[xix] BT Eruvin 13b, which praises Beit Hillel for this kind of approach. See also BT Shabbos 63a, where Resh Lakish notes that G-d listens when two scholars listen to each other. Rashi (on this Talmudic text) explains that they learn from and understand each other. The Shelah (Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Shaar HaOtiyot, Chaver Tov 5) notes that through this collaborative process, they both gain understanding and knowledge of the matter under discussion.

[xx] See, for example, Haemek Davar commentary on the Bible, Introduction to Genesis 3.

[xxi] BT Ta’anit 29a.

[xxii] On August 1-2, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia, which was the 9th-10th of Av that year.

[xxiii] Many argue that WW II was, in effect, the continuation of WW I; and, thus, the horrors of the Holocaust might also be traced back to Tisha B’Av.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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