Monday, June 28, 2010

1st Century Spin Doctors

Tomorrow is Shiva Assur B’Tammuz, a fast day which commemorates the day four Roman legions breached the city walls of Yerushalayim. It begins a three-week period of mourning for the destruction of Yerushalayim, ending on Tisha B’Av, the day on which the Bais HaMikdash fell.

It is traditionally held that Yerushalayim fell to the Romans because of sinas chinim, hatred between Jews. For once, the traditional explanation is right. The Jews of Yerushalayim were split into numerous political factions, all of whom were fighting with one another. Although the citizens of Yerushalayim were initially able to repel the legionnaires, the fighting between the factions took a heavy toll. Supplies were needed to withstand the siege were destroyed and fighters who could have been used to repel the Romans were instead killed defending territory from rival factions. Even at the very end, when the Romans had taken all of Yerushalayim and the last of the Jewish fighters were desperately defending the Beis HaMikdash from legionnaires in the neighboring Antonia Fortress, the three factions holding the Beis HaMikdash each held distinct areas and fought each other at the same time they tried to hold off the Romans.

The basic outline of this history is well known in the frum world. What’s interesting is the spin it’s given. For one thing, the fighters are presented as impetuous, almost evil people as compared to the pacifist Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, but that’s to be expected given that the version of events recorded in the gemara was written by people with the same values as Rabbi Yochanan. More interesting is that the cause of the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash is seen as metaphysical. Yerushalayim didn’t fall because of the practical consequences of sinas chinim: that Jewish factions were fighting among themselves, weakening each other and eroding their collective ability to stand up to the Roman legions. Rather, Jewish people were hating each other and creating a miasma of sin that hung over the nation, therefore as a punishment Hashem sent the Romans to destroy the Beis HaMikdash.

Why was a metaphysical explanation hung on what would seem to be a mundane progression of events? Why the unnecessary metaphysical spin on the idea of sinas chinim, when the simple interpretation that intra-Jewish hatred and fighting destroyed the ability to resist the Romans is adequate?

I think that the spin given to the fall of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash was both a response to the political reality in which the Jews at the time of the gemara lived and an attempt to maintain Hashem’s stature after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.

Were the story to enter Jewish mythos as one of military defeat, it might inspire other Jews to attempt an armed rebellion against Rome. After all, Yerushalayim’s defenders failed because they were divided! If we stand together, maybe we can beat back the Roman conquerors! To the Rabbis concerned with preserving Jewish traditions and maintaining social order, this was unacceptable. A revolt would (and several times did) bring the might of the Roman Empire down on Judea. There was little hope of Jewish rebels defeating the Roman legions, and a very real chance that rebellion would bring harsh sanctions from Rome. Far better to vilify the fighters of Yerushalayim as thugs and to present the battle as one that they were divinely decreed to lose because Hashem was punishing the Jewish people for sinas chinim.

Perhaps even more important than maintaining social order was explaining how the Romans could have destroyed Hashem’s house on earth. Framing the incident as a military defeat would mean acknowledging that the pagan Romans defeated the holy followers of the One True God and destroyed His city and His temple. Better to present the fighters as undeserving thugs who would not have merited Hashem’s help. Even more, the idea that Hashem used the Romans to punish the Jewish people for the sin of sinas chinim implies that not only didn’t the pagans defy Hashem and defeat His fighters, but that Hashem is so great and powerful that Rome, the most powerful empire in the world, exists only to be used as Hashem’s tool for chastising His chosen people.

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