Let history not repeat itself. Witnessing the scenes in the week of Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem as Israel tears itself apart over the Judicial reform debate this week my mind is wanders back to what happened in this very same city almost two millennia ago. In the year 68 CE the Roman army had paused outside the walls of Jerusalem for almost two years as a bitter power-struggled ensued back in Rome.
Instead of using the fortuitous two years to organize their defense and unite, the Jews had been absorbed in self-destructive internecine warfare. Many the casualties inflicted in Jerusalem between the spring of 68 CE and 70 CE were Jews killed at the hand of other Jews. Not only were they [the Jews] unable to agree on a joint defense plan before the siege, but they persisted in fighting one another and thus seriously undermined the military strength of the Jews and eased the Romans task.
This inner strife was in sharp contrast to the heady days of victory marking the beginning of the revolt when the Judeans began minting coins. At that time the majority of Jews in Jerusalem, regardless of which sect they identified with, had backed, or had pretended to back, the total-war philosophy of the “Fourth Philosophy” Zealots.
The Zealot groups were the militant activist wing of the Pharisee faction. These Zealots are sometimes referred to as “the Fourth Philosophy,” after Josephus’s description, and comprised disparate groups. One such group in Jerusalem and Masada was the extremist Sicarii (literally “dagger men”), an urban terrorist group who assassinated their (mainly Jewish) opponents in broad daylight with concealed short daggers and then escaped in the ensuing chaos. They killed their opponents for both ideological and economic reasons. The Fourth Philosophy had various leaders, such as John of Gischala (Gush Chalav), Elazar ben Simon, and Simon bar Giora. The name Zealots (Kana’im) possibly derives from the zealousness exhibited by Phineas (Pinchas), the grandson of Aaron who “was zealous (kinei) for his God” (Numbers 25:13). The Zealots did not put stock in assessments of the relative military strengths of the Jews and the Romans. Rather, they believed that God would come to their aid if they launched a righteous war against the Romans as God had come to the aid of Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and Judah the Maccabee, also against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Zealots believed that they would be worthy of God’s help only if they acted and did not rely on miracles alone to save them and the Jewish people. Their primary belief, according to Josephus, was that God, and not the Romans, ruled them.
The various Zealot groups assassinated all the initial Jewish leadership and proceeded to divide Jerusalem into five personal fiefdoms, with each Zealot commander claiming to be the leader of the revolt. Several politically disparate groups fought bitterly for control of these five areas, burning parts of the city and destroying food supplies in the process. The result was pandemonium and chaos.
An additional logistical problem lay in the fact that at the beginning of the revolt Jerusalem was full of Passover pilgrims, by some estimates close to a million people. With so many people in Jerusalem resources quickly became scarce. In the New Town (between the second and third walls) more than half a million of the pilgrims, trapped inside the city, were forced to live in tents. The Zealot factions, however, were far too intent on fighting each other for supremacy to pay heed to the Romans outside the walls or the worsening situation within. On the one side was a motley host, torn by dissension and bloody strife, and led by rival self-appointed chieftains lusting for power, and on the other a highly organized fighting machine, devotedly loyal to a tried, cool-headed leader, sole and unquestioned commander-in-chief, and a notable strategist.
The contemporary (and sometimes problematic and controversial) historian Josephus placed the blame for the war on the intransigence of the Roman procurators and the rash irresponsibility of the fanatic Zealots. He claimed that their messianic and nationalistic fervor dragged the Jews into a hopeless struggle that they undertook to defend the rest of Jewish society. This disastrous war culminated with the destruction of the Temple. As Josephus (Josephus, Wars 6: 8) grimly wrote:
They poured into the alleys, sword in hand, massacring indiscriminately all whom they met, and burned the houses with all who had taken refuge inside. During their raids, as they entered houses for loot, they found whole families dead and rooms full of victims of starvation; horrified by such sights, they retired empty-handed. Yet pity for those who had thus perished was matched by no such feeling for the living, but running through everyone they met, they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the entire city with gore, so that many fires were quenched by the blood of the slain.
Jerusalem was now desolate, the walls in ruins. Of all of Herod’s outstanding buildings, only part of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount (now known as the Western Wall or the Kotel) and the tower near the present Jaffa Gate were left exposed to show later generations how a proud and mighty city had been humbled by Rome. (The eastern wall of the Temple platform was also left exposed and, in fact, the entire platform including its subterranean tunnels have remained to this day.) The Sages (Tosefta, Menachot 13:22) have many explanations for the fall of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, most of which focus on the internal “causeless hatred” (Sinat Hinam) and the lack of unity among the various Jewish groups in the besieged city:
Why were they [the Jews] exiled? Because they…hated one another, thus teaching us that hatred of one’s fellow is weightier before God than idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.
Let us hope that we can learn from our bloody history and not allow Sinat Hinam (“causeless hatred”) to divide and destroy us again. Let us focus on the thoughts of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, A.I. Kook, and focus on what we have in common and practice Ahavat Hinam (“causeless love”) for each other and together ensure the continued survival of our homeland.
The above contains excerpts from my book: Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt (Koren: 2021)