Three Revolutions of July

Lessons of Fall of Second Temple, Bastille Day and July Fourth

Seeds of Freedom: The triumph of the human spirit embodied in the American and French revolutions has its roots, ironically, in the tragedy of the fall of the Second Temple.
getty images
Seeds of Freedom: The triumph of the human spirit embodied in the American and French revolutions has its roots, ironically, in the tragedy of the fall of the Second Temple.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 04, 2012, issue of July 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

If months have personalities — April the cruelest, May the very merry, Adar the time for “increasing joy” — then July is the month of revolution. In this one month we mark the anniversaries of three historic political cataclysms that shook the pillars of human society. On July 4 we celebrate the American Revolution. July 14, Bastille Day, honors the French Revolution. And the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which falls this year on July 28, is observed as the anniversary of the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., 1,942 years ago.

One of these events, the French Revolution, was a triumph of the human spirit that turned into a series of horrors. One, the fall of the Temple, was a horror that led, in important ways, to a triumph of the spirit. The third, the American Revolution, is still a work in progress. Taken together, they stand as a cautionary lesson about the uncertainty of history and the certainty of change.

America’s Fourth of July holiday commemorates the formal ratification by the Continental Congress in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence, announcing the birth of the American republic. It’s been hailed ever since as the dawn of a new age of human freedom. In fact, though, the republic emerged far more quickly than the freedom. It took the Founders only a dozen years after independence to adopt a Constitution and spell out the rules of governance. The rights of individual citizens were tacked on as an afterthought, in a series of amendments, and for generations they remained more a promise than a reality.

The Constitution spoke briefly, in the preamble, of establishing justice, promoting the general welfare and securing liberty “for ourselves and our posterity,” but it took 80 years and a civil war even to begin establishing liberty and justice for all of us. Serious promotion of the general welfare took another 80 years, a great depression and a sweeping New Deal. And as the Supreme Court reminded us on the eve of our 236th birthday, we still haven’t decided what “the general welfare” actually means. The received document, the Constitution, doesn’t spell it out. It gives us the tools and expects us to fill in the blanks. That’s proving more difficult with time, not less so.

The French Revolution is celebrated on July 14 to commemorate the storming of the hated Bastille prison by a revolutionary mob in 1789. France’s revolution followed ours by just 13 years, but it approached its tasks in the opposite order. The revolutionaries spelled out their vision of individual freedom from the get-go, promulgating a formal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen just six weeks after the fighting began. Only later did they turn their attention to defining the structure and rules of governing. What followed was violent anarchy, then a reign of terror, an imperial dictatorship, a restored monarchy and a century and a half of instability and failed republics, until a viable governing system emerged in the Fifth Republic.

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 goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.