By: Rabbi Daniel Levine
If you ask a historian why the Second Jewish Commonwealth was destroyed in 70 CE they will tell you that an encroaching and superior Roman army wanted control of Jerusalem as a strategic center in their wider conquest of the area.
Jewish tradition, however, tells of a different story.
The Talmud tells of multiple Jewish sectarian groups vying for power and control within Jerusalem. When the Romans began their siege, these ideological groups were in such stark opposition in regards to how to proceed – that one of the more radical groups decided they would burn down the food stores – forcing the Jerusalem populace into a deadly war.
The Second Jewish Commonwealth and temple was destroyed, Jewish tradition concludes, because of the sheer hatred that different Jewish groups had for one another.
We are in the midst of the most polarizing political sphere in recent memory. This election isn’t about policy and law – at least not in the minds of most voters – rather it seems that each side is prognosticating the end of our country as we know it should their opponents emerge victorious.
I noted in a past article that political polling has been highlighting a seeming political paradox. Fewer Americans in the past decade identify with a specific political group – yet partisan behavior is proliferating throughout politics. One probable answer is that while people may have ceased positively identifying with a political group, they have increased their opposition to the other political group.
Our identities are becoming increasingly wrapped up in what we are against, what we hate, than virtually anything else.
As the temple was aflame and chaos ensued, a Rabbi named Yohanan ben Zakai managed to sneak out of the city eventually, according to this talmudic myth, finding himself in front of the emperor of Rome.
“Give me Yavne and its sages!” Yohanan implored the hegemon.
Allow me to recreate Judaism in the image of Yavne. An academy where ideological disputes are solved by conversation, not unilateral action against the other. Allow me to ensure that the deterioration of ideological dispute never again reaches the point where the community is fractured and the temple (whether literal or metaphorical) is destroyed.
There’s a long standing debate centered around politics from the pulpit. On the one hand most Rabbis don’t want to alienate anyone based on political views. And, while the split between Jewish denominations is becoming increasingly reflective of a parallel political divide, having synagogues be divided by the politics of their Rabbi only serves to increasingly sever the wider Jewish community. Yet, as others point out, there are times when Jewish values and ideas seemingly demand a political stance. Many on this side of the debate would argue that the rituals and prayers in synagogue mean little if they aren’t backed up by calls to action.
But I want to suggest a middle road. We don’t need Judaism and Jewish leaders to be partisan but we need them to be political. Our country is looking like Jerusalem in the wake of the temple’s destruction and we best not wait until everything is destroyed before we start trying to put back the pieces.
Instead rabbis need to show their communities the immense wisdom that Judaism has to offer in this realm. Wisdom forged from experience and failure. Wisdom forged from a multi-thousand year tradition that was frequently faced with existential challenges (often internal) but nevertheless succeeded.
We need to highlight Hillel and Shamai who disagreed over an array of issues from sociology to philosophy – yet still remained a single community by continuing to marry from the other’s academy. We need to highlight Rabbi Yohanan who, after getting into a heated argument with his study partner Reish Lakish that destroyed their friendship built over years of debate, cried out about the loss of the ability to find truth in a world where civil ideological dispute is lost. We need to highlight virtually the entire Jewish tradition that allows for, no – encourages, rigorous debate yet simultaneously demands that we constantly recognize that what unites us is of far greater importance than that which divides.
Two days ago the past president of the UC Irvine college Republican chapter, a devoutly religious Catholic and staunch Trump supporter, asked if he could send me – a liberal in both the religious and political sense of the term – a draft of his law school admissions essay. Confused, I read through it and quickly understood. The crux of his essay centers around a series of conversations with me about abortion – and ended with him discussing the legacy of Hillel and Shamai (which I brought up over the course of these arguments) – and how he hopes to embody these virtues in his political career.
Now is the time, not for Judaism and Jewish leaders to shy away from the public sphere, but to help fix it. Judaism need not be partisan but it must be political.