The Price of Rabbinic Myopia

I am haunted by Rabbi Zekhariah ben Avqulos.

R. Zekharia is not a very well known figure in the Talmud. His name hardly appears in all of rabbinic literature. Nevertheless, his impact upon Jewish history was massive.

R. Zekharia is best known for his role in the finale of the (in)famous tale of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza (Gittin 56a). According to the story, Bar Qamtza travelled to Rome and claimed to the Emperor Nero that the Jews were revolting against him. To verify this claim, Nero tested the Jews by sending a sacrificial animal to be offered up on his behalf in the Temple in Jerusalem. If the Jews sacrificed the animal, it was a sign that they remained loyal and if not, their refusal would be a declaration of war against Rome.

The situation, however, was not so simple. Bar Qamtza, owing to deep resentment at a slight he he had received at the hands of the rabbis was intent upon proving the Jews to be in rebellion, and thereby to have his revenge upon them. He achieved this by splitting the lip of the animal. This rendered it blemished, and hence unfit to be sacrificed. His choice of blemish was ingenious. As the Talmud notes, while such an imperfection disqualified the animal according to Jewish Law, it did not disqualify it according to pagan practice. Bar Qamtza reasoned that the Jews would refuse to offer the sacrifice for reasons which Nero would take to be unsatisfactory at best and disingenuous at worst. Roman retaliation would be assured, and Bar Qamtza’s lust for vengeance satisfied.

Upon receiving the animal and quickly realizing how Bar Qamtza had maneuvered them into a corner; the Sages expressed their determination to offer the animal in any case in order to avert the Emperor’s vindictive and destructive reaction. (After all, we’re dealing with Nero!) Only one man stood against them, Rabbi Zekharia b. Avqulos. Eloquently, he countered each and every argument marshalled in favor of offering the animal. The crux of his argument was that no other considerations may prevent the precise implementation of an established halakhic ruling. In a word, ‘Let the Law bore through the mountain!’ (Yiqov Ha-Din et HaHar). And so, the animal was not offered. Rome attacked and the rest is history.

Looking back on these events, the second century scholar R. Yohanan ruefully observed that R. Zekharia b. Avqulos’ conduct destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary and exiled us among the nations!’

What was wrong with the position of R. Zekharia’s actions? Rashi suggests that he should have allowed the Sages to put Bar Qamtza to death as a traitor. Others offer that the Sages should have sacrificed the calf in question, despite its blemish, out of considerations of Piquah Nefesh; viz. to save the lives of those myriads that would die in the inevitable war should the animal not be offered. In either case, R. Yohanan was convinced that R. Zekharia erred on two counts. First, he failed (or refused) to take into consideration the larger implications of the situation being addressed. Second, he obstinately prevented the implementation of legitimate halakhic responses to a difficult, even untenable, situation. Instead, he held on tenaciously to a narrow, literalist and unimaginative ‘strict constructionist’ approach. For his error (and that of the Sages who gave in to him), concluded R. Johanan, the Jewish People paid (and are still paying) a terrible price.

I have noted in this space that January’s election results drove home the fact that the Jewish population of the State of Israel wants to be Jewish, qualitatively Jewish. This, unparalleled development, lay behind the electoral achievements of Ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi and, to a not insignificant degree, those of Yesh Atid. Many of us hoped that the rabbinate, religious services, Jewish study, and the Chief Rabbinate would be restructured and the Torah made accessible to the entire country. For the people of faith among us, it seemed nothing less than miraculous that such a state of affairs obtained.

Now, tragically and painfully, it appears that all of the promise of those heady days in late January and early February is being trampled by small-minded, sectorial politicians. The restructuring of religious services is being sacrificed on the altar of petty party politics and pique. The vision of a Chief Rabbi and Rabbinate that share the Zionist ethos along with a commitment to the entire Jewish people, both secular and observant, is under vicious attack. In both cases, those responsible are scholars who are nothing less than the spiritual descendants of R. Zakharia b. Avqulos.

All of these, scholars and politicians alike, have obviously forgotten the lessons of Jewish History, and the penalty for religious myopia. They have also forgotten that the final Halakhah almost always accords with the opinion of R. Johanan.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.
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