In the State of Israel, where millions of Jews live together in one small geographic area, there are, and have always been, a dozen (sometimes 15-20) Jewish political parties.
Is a community as divided and fragmented as Israel currently is, not in danger of disintegrating or being destroyed by its enemies? According to Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 29c,) “Rabbi Yohanan said that Israel did not go into exile until there were “twenty-four sects [kitot] of minim.”
This means that some divisions (less than two dozen) are normal and necessary; but too much division (more than two dozen) is destructive.
Just as every human body is a total unity divided into many different physical parts (organs, bones, types of cells etc.); social, political and religious bodies are also made up of many different ideological parties based on religious, social and political values.
Thus, while Judaism and the Jewish People have always been one religion and one nation; their one wholeness has always been the sum of many different interconnected parts.
In Biblical days, the People of Israel were divided into three or four distinct groups based on the number of Mitsvot they were subject to.
First, the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into Levites, who were responsible for running the Temple in Jerusalem, and the remaining eleven tribes; with more Mitsvot applying to the Levites than the rest of Israel.
Second, the tribe of Levy was divided into the clan of Kohanim, who were responsible for the Temple service ritual offerings; and the other clans who were just regular Temple Levites, with the Kohanim being subject to many more Mitsvot than even the Levites.
Third, all Israelites were divided by gender; with many more Mitsvot applying to men than women.
Although the Jerusalem Temple has not existed for more than nineteen centuries, remnants of these distinctions still do exist in Orthodox Synagogues, where there is a fixed order of four distinct hereditary categories in which Jews are called up to read Torah
First Kohanim, second Levites, third Jewish men in general and fourth; Jewish woman, who are not called up to read Torah at all.
In Conservative Synagogues there are only the first three categories, and in Reform Temples where tribal and gender equality is stressed there is only one category: Jews.
The new groups, parties and sects within the Jewish People in the post Biblical period were no longer tribal and inherited. They were geographical and cultural i.e. Hellenistic Jews and Israeli Jews; religious i.e. Scribes Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and political; Herodians, Zealot and Sicari anti-Roman revolutionaries and disciples of the sages/rabbis.
In Medieval times diversity among new groups was reduced and constricted primarily to geography; Sephardim and Ashkenazim and to some extant to philosophy; Karaites, Kabbalists and Talmudists.
However, the Ashkenazim in the modern age are divided into several religious sects: Hassidim, Anti-hasidim, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and other smaller groups.
So, is the warning of Rabbi Yohanan that Israel did not go into exile until there were “twenty-four sects [kitot] of minim.” still valid today? Yes and no.
Some divisions are normal and necessary; but extreme and intolerant division is destructive. As we have seen, from the time of Jacob’s descendants Israel has been divide into twelve tribes. From the time of Aaron descendants, the tribe of Levy has been separated from the other tribes.
From some time after the Maccabbees the Essenes and the Pharisees separated (Pharisee means separatist) from the Sadduces and by the first century there were over a dozen separate parties in Israel.
But even so there did not have to be fragmentation and destruction. The sin that caused the destruction of Jerusalem was the political and religious extremism that led to unrestricted, unlimited hate.
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which existed in it: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. …But why was the Second Temple destroyed, since at that time people were involved in study, mitzvot, and deeds of kindness? Because at that time there was senseless hatred among the Jewish people. This teaches that senseless hatred is as powerful an evil as idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined! (Eichah Rabbah 1:33)
What kind of hatred and intolerance was there?
After the disaster our sages said (note that all of these things were done only by some Jews): Jerusalem was destroyed only because: her laws were based on the strict letter of the Torah and not interpreted by ways of mercy and kindness,
there were school age children who remained untaught,
people who did not feel shame (at their hatred) toward one another,
no distinction was drawn between the young and the old,
one did not warn or admonish (against hating each) other,
much of scholarship and learning were despised,
there were no longer men of hope and faith in her midst.
(Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, citing Shabbat 119b, Yoma 9b, Tosefta Menahot 13:22, Yalkut Shimoni Isaiah 394, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 15:11)
Or as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who was there) remarked in the account of Kamza and Bar Kamza,
“Through the strict scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas our home was destroyed, our
Temple burnt and we ourselves were exiled from our land.” (Gittin 55b-56a)
Thus, it was not the variety of parties and sects that doomed Jerusalem in the first century. It was the ‘senseless hatred’ resulting from the strict, uncompromising, overly self-righteous, intolerance of many of the political and religious parties that doomed Jerusalem.
May it not happen again.