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It’s not for nothing that the Chinese communist leader Chou En-lai, asked by Richard Nixon in 1972 what he thought of the French Revolution, answered, “It’s too early to tell.” (Some witnesses say Chou thought he was discussing the students’ uprising of 1968).
The destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem isn’t usually discussed as a revolution, much less a triumph of the human spirit. A seminal, defining moment in Jewish collective memory, looming nearly as large as the Exodus from Egypt, it was above all a blood-soaked defeat. It spelled the end of Jewish national sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the beginning of two millennia of homelessness and powerlessness. The anniversary on the Ninth of Av is observed each year as a day of fasting and mourning for what was lost.
What’s often forgotten is that the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple contained the seeds of a blessing. It allowed the transformation of Judaism from a priestly sacrificial cult, tied to a specific hilltop in Jerusalem, into a religious culture rooted in the ethical interaction of the individual and the community. Generations of scholars, responding to the destruction, sat together to reimagine the legal code of an agrarian kingdom as a moral code that could be lived in many places and times.
The reimagining began with a received document, the Torah. But it was handed on, in the Talmud and afterward, as a series of debates, arguments and counterarguments that has continued through the centuries. And because the debate never ended, Judaism was able to survive, a living, evolving system of ideas and actions, ultimately resting not on a hilltop altar but within each individual. In a sense, God lost his home atop Mount Moriah and came to dwell within the human soul.
Through its daughter-faiths, Christianity and Islam, Judaism spread its spirit around the globe to embrace half of humanity. Ultimately, one could argue, they planted the seeds of the modern ethic of individual responsibility, individual sovereignty and human dignity. But Judaism itself survived intact because of the living code of law.
The revolutions of July have been pored over endlessly, each in its own way, and yielded up countless lessons. This year, though, the most important lesson may be this: Ideas, even the most sublime of them, thrive best when they are embodied in law. And law survives only when it is allowed to live, grow and evolve.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com