Chaim Ingram

To conserve – or to destroy?

Declares the Talmud  (Yoma 9b): the Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam.  Normally this is translated as “causeless hatred”. But no hatred is really without cause, even if only in the – perhaps warped – mind of the hater.   The word chinam actually means “free”.  Sin’at chinam is cancerous hatred that is free-ranging, unfettered, flying everywhere almost oblivious of borders.

We have witnessed of late contentious disputes that have known no boundaries.  Militant American Reform as well as inaptly-named Conservative Jewish leaders, furious with what they see as the Israeli government’s about-turn on Western Wall liberalisation and promotion of mixed-gender worship, have threatened to wage war on Jewish institutions in Israel including hospitals by withholding funds seeking to bring Israel to its knees in order that Israel will conform to their pluralist agenda. In unprecedented developments, left-wing elements in Israel are attempting to bring the newly-elected Israeli government to its knees with their weekly anarchic and savage blockades in the streets of Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Peace is shattered but truth is an equal casualty.  What are we to make of it all? Can we find a pointer towards clarity?

Perhaps we can – by “consulting” the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon..  The greatest test of his wisdom occurs very early on in his career

Two female innkeepers present themselves to the king with two infants, one living and one dead. Both claim the living child as their own.  Solomon’s ‘solution’ is devastatingly simple.  He proposes to take a sword and divide the living child in two.  As he anticipates, the fake mother is only too willing to accept such an outcome as her only concern is that her rival should not have what she herself doesn’t.  The other woman, on the other hand, screams “let her have the child, don’t dare kill him!” “Give her the child!” orders Solomon “for she is the real mother!” (I Kings 3:16-28).

King Solomon teaches us a seminal lesson.  Those who seek to divide and to destroy often have base agendas. Those who have principled and ethical agendas are usually those who seek to preserve – even if it is to their own detriment.

Fast forward a thousand years to the first century CE.  The Jewish world was rife with factionalisation and sectarianism.  In that respect it was not dissimilar to today.  Tragically it led to the most far-reaching devastation in Jewish history prior to the Holocaust – the termination of independent Jewish nationhood in our own land and the destruction of our spiritual centre and powerhouse.

Two of the main groupings at that time were: the religiously-motivated, politically-moderate Perushim (Pharisees) who were prepared to come to a political accommodation with Rome (and were to become the dominant ideological group); and the ultra-nationalist biryonim (zealots) who were prepared to fight to the death to protect Judea from Roman hegemony.

The Talmud (Gittin 56a) relates the hair-raising story of three mega-wealthy Perushim who, during the three-year siege of Jerusalem by Vespasian, pledged to sustain the city’s inhabitants with grain, wine, oil, salt and wood for up to twenty-one years to give time for negotiations with Rome to come to fruition. When the biryonim heard of this, they arose and wantonly burned down all the storehouses of grain and wood in order to force the issue with Rome. It did just that.  Very soon afterwards, Jerusalem was tragically destroyed.

The destructive agenda of the biryonim had calamitous consequences.  The Perushim, on the other hand, were concerned with one thing only – conservation and preservation of the Torah.  Thankfully due to the strategic wisdom of their leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, they succeeded in this. They lost the Temple in Jerusalem but gained a yeshiva and Torah centre in Yavneh which provided the fertile spiritual and intellectual soil for the development of what was to become the Mishna and eventually the Talmud. In short: Rabbi Yochanan saved Judaism for posterity.

I believe the above narratives have provided us with the pointer towards clarity that we needed.

When we see those whose agenda is to destroy what has been conserved for generations, to break down boundaries, to factionalise, to tyrannise, to undermine unity we are right to suspect that their motives are self-serving, their own interests being paramount and not the interests of the Jewish people as a whole.   King Solomon would have called them “fake mothers”. They must have an equal ‘share’ of the ‘baby’ even if by doing so they cause fissure and fracture in the house of Israel.

On the other hand those who put the needs of the community above those of the individual, those who seek to preserve rather than destroy, those who sacrifice material pleasures, time, sleep in order to maintain a constant vigil at the Kotel, our most holy site, those who suffer opprobrium and insult in order to defend sacred traditions, they are true mothers.

Notably King Solomon famously inscribes in his book of Proverbs (Mishlei) his famous maxim: Listen my child to the instruction of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother. 

 The doyen of Biblical commentators, Rashi (1040-1105) relates the word imeikha, “your mother” to the similarly-spelt umateikha, “your nation”, declaring that the “teachings of your mother” refers to the beautiful, sacred and time-honoured motherhood traditions of the nation of Israel.  Such teachings should not only be listened to but dare not be forsaken.

 Dare we forsake that which past generations have lovingly and faithfully conserved? Dare we breach and tear down sacred walls and edifices?  Dare our nation – or parts of it – act with the mutinous lawlessness of the biryonim (even though, ironically, they were on the other extreme wing of the political spectrum to today’s lawless, hate-filled leftist agitators in Israel)?

If so we are simply compounding the nefarious work of our enemies perpetuated at this season two millennia ago.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at