Daniel Raphael Silverstein
Rabbi, educator, meditation teacher and MC/poet.

The Three Weeks, Part II: The Talmud’s Take

As mentioned in Part I, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was a traumatic paradigm shift for our people, and presented difficult questions: who and what were we now, how would we express ourselves in the world? Then, as now, our people was divided into many factions. We who are Jews today are descended from one faction, the Pharisees, whom eventually won the battle to define what Judaism would become in a post-Temple world. From them emerged something that eventually became Rabbinic Judaism – Judaism based on the Mishna and Talmud – which preserved our people’s integrity throughout a remarkably challenging exile, and which survives to this day.

The “official” rabbinic narrative of the Temple’s loss is found in the Talmud, in Tractate Gittin (on pages 55b-57a). As is often the case in our canon, the talmudic rabbis tell a remarkably post-modern tale of how we lost our home, offering disparate perspectives and leaving ample space for contradictory readings. The text is long and rich, and space permits that I offer some interpretations of just three short but important segments. The context of the story is war at its most brutal – occupation, siege and eventual massacre by the mighty and often cruel Roman Army.

Towards the end of the famous tale of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, we are introduced to Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, an apparent paragon of talmudic virtue, who is obeyed unquestioningly by his peers. Rabbi Zechariah’s defining trait is that he always has a learned objection up his sleeve, ready to shoot down every suggestion. Very impressive, but also very destructive, especially when the issue in hand is how to save the Temple, the Commonwealth, and our people from a most real and pressing threat. The text is merciless in condemning him, and in placing the responsibility for our national disaster squarely on his shoulders:

Rabbi Yochanan remarked: the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas destroyed our House, burnt our Temple and exiled us from our land.

The Talmud’s portrayal of Rabbi Zechariah is a self-critique of the rabbis’ tendency to lapse into intellectual acuity untempered by worldly pragmatism. The rabbinic authors are reminding us that if our intellectual diligence becomes divorced from the reality we inhabit, it is not a virtue but a parody of one.

Fascinatingly, Rabbi Zechariah frames his overly scrupulous legal arguments not in absolute terms of an objective right and wrong, but in terms of what “they” – an undefined entity – will say. We may be familiar with Rabbi Zechariah’s methodology and logic, in our inner, familial, communal or national lives, where we sometimes face doubting voices concerned about what “they” might say about every choice we make. The Talmud is challenging us to stand up to those voices, warning us that if we pay too much attention to what “they” might think, we may paralyze ourselves and become complicit in our own destruction.

This trait surfaces again in the behavior of the Baryoni, the Jewish militia who oppose any negotiations with the Romans, and who rule Jerusalem by force. The Baryoni are so adamant in their dedication to military conflict with Rome that they burn the city’s vast store houses of wheat and barley, thereby destroying the possibility of withstanding a siege and causing an acute famine. This desperate situation prompts Rabbi Yohanan to take the initiative, and he secretly arranges to meet with Abba Sikra (the head of the Baryoni, who happens to be his nephew) to discuss a plan. Abba Sikra candidly confesses to his uncle that he cannot control his own men, and that if he tries to restrain them, they will simply kill him and carry on as before.

This is a powerful insight into fanaticism as it may manifest in our internal lives, in interpersonal relations or in geopolitics. Whenever we are unquestioningly dedicated to something, there is the danger of self-destructive behavior, such as refusing to see or acknowledge essential information. And yet, for all their zealotry, the Baryoni are not above the same vain concern as Rabbi Zechariah for what “they” might say about them. It seems that fanaticism, despite pretenses to the contrary, coexists quite comfortably with narcissism. Their vanity proves to be the Baryoni‘s Achilles’ heel, and Rabbi Yohanan uses it to escape the city and meet with Vespasian, the Roman General charged with destroying Jerusalem, who becomes Emperor in the midst of our tale.

Rabbi Yohanan is gifted a precious audience with this most powerful man, and he is even granted the miraculous ability to predict Vespasian’s imminent promotion, thereby greatly impressing him and winning his commitment to fulfill a single request. His shocking choice to request, “Yavneh and its sages” – and to let Jerusalem and the Temple burn – is perhaps the most controversial moment in all of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi Yohanan is overtly turning his back on Temple-centered Judaism, not to mention hundreds of thousands of his fellow Jews who will be killed by the Roman onslaught. The Talmud cites Rabbi Akiva as criticizing him in the strongest possible terms, quoting Isaiah: “He turns the wise backwards, and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25).

However, the text goes on to explain: Rabbi Yohanan thought that if he requested that Jerusalem be saved, Vespasian would not only reject that request, but also deny him any further one, thereby wasting his opportunity to save anyone or anything at all. The text is ambivalent – are we supposed to agree with Rabbi Akiva, or accept this explanation? Rabbi Akiva represents a reasonable position that is easy to empathize with, especially as he is uniquely revered by the talmudic rabbis as a champion of Torah (see Menachot 29b, Kiddushin 66b, Bechorot 58a). However, our text goes on to remind us that he is ultimately found to be mistaken in his political choices, and the Jewish People pays a steep price for his error. Rabbi Akiva wrongly thinks Bar Kochba is the Messiah, and supports his revolt against the Romans, which ended in abject defeat, culminating in the bloody slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews at Betar.

And as for Rabbi Yohanan, what are we to make of his earlier condemnation of Rabbi Zechariah? Was he trying to shift the blame to relieve his own sense of guilt for not trying to save his people or the Temple? And why does he ask for “Yavneh and its sages” – a backwards little seaside town and a few people who happen to share his worldview? Does he really think that his tiny group of rabbis will be able to transform Judaism into something that can survive in a post-Temple world?

Incredibly, whether he thought so or not, that remnant succeeded in creating a Judaism that not only survived, but positively flourished and contributed significantly to humanity’s evolution over the next two millennia. But the rabbinic narrative of Gittin is far from triumphalist. Even as Rabbi Yohanan’s foresight and creativity are celebrated, the text reminds us that the Judaism which he saved and created was merely a tiny fragment of something far, far greater.

The Talmud is telling us, in other words, that even the Talmud doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, in its portrayal of Rabbi Zechariah and his obedient colleagues, it is warning us that it may sometimes be easy to confuse talmudic genius for destructive idiocy. The Talmud does not want us to forget: there was something greater, once, which Rabbinic Judaism is but a pale reflection of. As mentioned above, we Jews are only the descendents of one faction, the Pharisees, who comprised our people during the Second Commonwealth. We survived the loss of the Temple, but at the cost of a large part of our very selves. In the next and final part of the blog, I will discuss some of the more urgent implications of the Talmud’s teachings for Jews living in todays post-modern world.

[This article benefited from the insights of Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute on the text in Tractate Gittin.]

About the Author
Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a rabbi, educator, meditation teacher and MC/poet. He lives in Israel with his family, where he directs Applied Jewish Spirituality, an online portal which makes the transformative spiritual wisdom of our tradition accessible to all who seek it.