“Israel went into exile only after it became divided into twenty-four sects” (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 29c ) If 24 is the maximum number of Jewish sects before disaster strikes, what is the minimum needed to avoid the danger of ridged conformity?
God does not want the people of Israel to be uniform in belief or behavior. That is why the 613 Mitsvot apply to the collective people of Israel; but not to any specific individual Jew. No Jew can ever do all 613 Mitsvot because some apply to one group and not to another.
Many Mitsvot apply to to the tribe of Levi and not at all to the rest of the tribes. Many Mitsvot apply to the descendants of Aaron and not to the rest of the tribe of Levi. Many of the Mitsvot apply to men and not to women, and some Mitsvot apply only to women and not to men.
It is clear that there have been at least four different groups (women, Levites, priests and non-Levite Jewish men) within the Jewish people ever since Sinai. In addition, in the days of Samuel many Jews desired to have a king to lead them in battle. God agreed to this and even made a covenant with the house of David with several Mitsvot only for the king. Thus there has always been at least 4 or 5 groups within the Jewish people.
But during the 250 years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem, the number of contending sects and parties grew and grew because tolerance of different ways, as well a a commitment to basic civility, were replaced by extremism and “Sinat Khinam”—unrestrained hatred.
We do not know about all the varied parties, but the ones we do know about fall into three major categories; religious ritual groups, political groups and Torah law groups.
Although most Jews venerated the Temple and its priests, not all did. The Sadducees were rooted in the hereditary priestly cast and conservative in their beliefs. They rejected the idea of an evolving oral Torah.
Their rivals the Pharisees, who were the proponents of an oral Torah in addition to the written Torah all Jews accept, wanted all Jews to take upon themselves many more restrictions concerning ritual impurity, kashrut and tithing fruits and grains so that their holiness would equal or exceed that of the priests. They sometimes forced the Sadducees to do things the Pharisees way.
The Qumran community (dead sea scrolls) and the Essenes boycotted the Temple because they felt the Temple priests were corrupt and illegitimate. The Nazarenes were disciples of Jesus Josephson, and while they worshiped at the Temple they didn’t consider it very important.
The Samaritans had their own Temple in Samaria. Their offer to help rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem had been rejected by Ezra, who lead the Jews returning from Babylonia. This led to a nasty split between the two groups that lasts to this very day. The Judeans did not consider the Samaritans to be Gentiles, but many Jews didn’t think they were Jewish either.
The Samaritans did not accept the post Torah biblical books or the Pharisees oral Torah, but they did observe Torah Mitsvot carefully. They also had many non Jewish ancestors, who were resettled in the north by the Assyrians to replace members of the ten tribes who had been exiled. Many of these non Jews married in to the remaining Jewish community.
These six groups, plus the Boethusions, a small split off from the Sadducees, and those followers of John the Baptist who hadn’t joined the Nazarenes, all together made up a minority of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. According to Josephus there were only about 6,000 male Pharisees and about 4,000 male Essenes in the whole land of Israel.
The majority of the people of the land (the Am HaAretz) were just Jews and did not care much about the ongoing debates between the seven religious sects.
The political groups were also a small minority, but because their extremism and unrestrained hatred led to the use of violence, both through the government and against it, their final influence was catastrophic. The Herodians, most of them rooted in the wealthy, the old nobility and the middle and higher levels of the priesthood, supported Jewish cooperation with the Roman authorities. Rabbi Hanina, who was the Deputy High Priest taught, “Pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since but for the fear of it, men would have swallowed one another alive.” (Pirkay Avot 3:2)
Some of the Herodians were responsible for the execution of John the Baptist and Jesus Josephson, who were seen as trouble makers by the establishment types.
The Zealots, who were also called Biryonim, were anti-Roman nationalists and revolutionaries. Many of them were also Pharisees. Indeed, when direct Roman rule was established over Judea in 6 C.E. Zadok the Pharisee urged people not to pay taxes to the Romans.
Another group, the Sicarii, were an even more violence prone group, who assassinated both Romans and pro Roman Jews. Judas Iscariot may have been a Sicarii and a generation later Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s nephew was the head of the Sicarii in the city of Jerusalem.
The Torah law groups were also a minority of the whole population, but since the Scribes were often teachers in the schools for sons of the nobility and the wealthy, and the Sages were voluntary teachers of both the written and the oral Torah in many of the synagogues that taught all comers, they had much more influence then their numbers would indicate.
The Sages, whose disciples started using the term Rabbi in the generation prior to the the destruction of the Temple, were divided into two schools; the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, which differed from each other in more than 400 points of Jewish law.
Yet the two schools of early rabbinic Judaism were very tolerant of each other (unlike today’s conflicts between Yeshivah Rabbis and non-Orthodox Rabbis) except for one incident when the Shammai school forced the Hillel school to follow the Shammai way on 18 points of law.
Two centuries after the destruction of the Temple, when almost all the other various sects and parties of the first century had disappeared, Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel:
“For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. Each said, “The law is according to our views.” Then an echo of a divine voice declared, “Both are the words of the living God, but the law is fixed according to the school of Hillel.” Since both are the words of the living God what entitled the school of Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings?
“Because they were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings and also the rulings of the school of Shammai, and even more, they taught the school of Shammai’s rulings before they taught their own.” (Talmud Eruvin 13b)
The midrashim I have quoted tried to teach these important lessons. First, the religious belief that “both are the words of the living God” might have helped reduce widespread religious rivalry and tension so it must be proclaimed by all religious leaders today.
Second, both religious and political leaders need to embrace the philosophy of not demonizing the “other” and political leaders need to constantly preach that many of the “loyal opposition” will someday convert to our side; as many rabbinic midrashim illustrate. Following these lessons would have reduced the extremist emotional volatility that led to the destructive sin of “Sinat Khinam” the unrestrained hatred that doomed the Second Commonwealth.
These 14 groups (8 religious, 3 political and 3 educational) are only the ones we know something about. There were other groups we know nothing about, so a total of 24 seems reasonable.
The situation in modern Israel today is not that different. In the 2009 election 31 parties ran for, and 12 made it into, Israel’s 18th Knesset. In the 2006 election 12 also made it into the 17th Knesset, which was three less than the 15 parties that entered the 16th Knesset in the 2003 election. The 2015 election produced a Knesset with only 10 parties represented, but that has not led to a calmer and more tolerant society.
Only the universal Jewish recognition that the political and religious extremism of “Sinat Khinam”, and not the Romans, destroyed Jerusalem; and the universal Jewish leadership’s continual condemnation of “Sinat Khinam” can save us today.
As the government report on the murder of Prime Minister Rabin concluded; Avtalyon, (a Greek Roman convert to Judaism) taught: “(Yeshivah) scholars, be careful with your words, lest you deserve a deserved exile to a place of evil (extremist) waters; and your disciples who come after you drink and die, and the Name of God be desecrated.” (Avot 1:11)