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This Tisha B’Av, Focus On Jewish Agency, Not Jewish Passivity

My first significant role as a Jewish educator in Tisha B’Av was as a counselor at an Orthodox all-girls camp. Resolved to offer my girls a transformative Tisha B’Av experience, I signed up to help design the programming for our entire camp to make Tisha B’Av meaningful and help my young charges relate emotionally to the day. We put together a kumzits, showed age-appropriate Holocaust movies, and even designed a play in which each of us counselors pretended to be a young Jewish woman from tragic epochs in Jewish history.

By our then-standards, that Tisha B’Av was a success — many of the girls cried and expressed pathos over the suffering of our people.

Many religious Jewish summer camps follow a similar formula for Tisha B’Av: a combination of eliciting emotional responses to Jewish suffering, engaging in spiritual reckoning and helping pass the fast a little bit faster. Open up flyers for upcoming Tisha B’Av programs in our communities, and you will see sessions designed to be “moving”. I’ve been to programs which set up huge dark halls filled with hundreds of candles, each representing a different massacre of Jews, sessions in which participants are asked to think about their own role in contributing to the delay of the redemption, and classes about the horrific questions rabbis received during the holocaust.

As such, for many Jews, Tisha B’Av is one of the most stirring days in our calendar, in which we give free rein to feelings of deep anguish over our historical suffering. We are encouraged to mourn the countless atrocities against our people, framed by crusades, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and culminating in the most horrific death program of all, the Holocaust. Tisha B’Av is the repository for our pain and rage, offering, for many, a takeaway that ‘Bkhol Dor V’dor Omdim Alenu L’halotenu’, that in every generation a new enemy rises up against us to destroy us.

But lately, I have been wondering if this is the right approach for us. After all, in 2019, Jews have a sense of power and agency different from most of the diasporic historical Jews we mourn on Tisha B’Av. In other words, we are living a new reality that demands different moral lessons from our day of national mourning.

Studying the destruction of the Second Temple – through the eyes of the chronicler Josephus and through the interpretation of Talmudic rabbis – paints a very different actuality than the one we usually mourn on this day, and offers a glimpse into a Jewish political reality that has more in common with our own 21st-century challenges.

A key aspect of the events which precipitated the destruction of the Second Temple differs markedly from many diaspora tragedies: These events stemmed not from powerlessness, but from Jewish agency. It was far from an era of passive victimhood.

Studying the fall of Judea and the destruction of the Second Temple can offer a corrective to the way many of us mourn on Tisha B’Av. Though our programs often focus on the final chapters of this story — the Roman army’s breach of Jerusalem’s walls and burning of the Temple — we often forget about the preceding chapters of this tragedy. We forget that our own Jewish actions tangibly exacerbated this very calamity.

The Seeds of Rome’s Rule Over Jerusalem

It was partially due to the civil war between the Hasmonean brothers John Hyrcanus II and Judah Aristobolus II, both vying for the throne, that Jewish sovereignty over Judea came to an end. In 63 BCE, when the quarrel was at its height, the brothers involved the Roman military commander Pompey, who ruled in favor of appointing the weaker John Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus’ opponents rejected Pompey’s decision, giving Pompey a convenient excuse to lay siege to Jerusalem. The siege ended with the slaughter of over 12,000 Jews, with Pompey abolishing Hasmonean independence and making Judea a Roman client state.

Subsequent generations experienced the oppression of Roman imperial rule. Roman rulers engaged in heavy taxation, the enslavement of Jewish populations, and violations of Jewish religious-national sites and rituals, such as entering the Temple’s Holy of Holies or placing imperial statues in Jerusalem. The height of Roman rule also witnessed increasing socioeconomic inequality amongst the Jews, with wealth often correlating with proximity to Roman governance.

Jewish Rebellious Agency and Love of Liberty

In response to this and other factors, popular Jewish animosity grew, together with a desire for Jewish independence. This long process culminated in the “Great Revolt” against the Roman Empire, a rebellion that had popular elements which eventually overtook more moderate voices. The fact that the Jews themselves rebelled against Rome cannot be overstated. A small Jewish province in the Roman Empire dreamt of doing the unimaginable: defeat the might of the Roman legions and gain for itself political and religious sovereignty.

Josephus, the Galilean priest and rebel general who defected and turned historian for the Romans, described Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Temple, calling out to the resisting rebels when the Temple was already in flames in 70 CE. According to Josephus, Titus cried out: “You who from the first, ever since Pompey reduced you by force, never ceased from revolution, and have now ended by declaring open war upon the Romans?” (War VI. 329).

Josephus bust

The 1st-century Roman portrait bust said to be of Josephus, conserved in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark Image by Wikimedia Commons

This utterance symbolizes the freedom-loving and rebellious spirit of the Jewish fighters who did everything to oppose Roman rule. These Jewish fighters were not the Jews of my diasporic imagination, martyrs whose heroism was often exhibited in dying with Jewish conviction or escaping persecution. These men were freedom fighters.

Josephus, a non-unbiased observer who blames much of the Romans’ calamities suffered by the Jews on the actions of the nationalist fighters, describes one of their groups as similar to the Pharisees, “except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master.”(Ant. XVIII.23)

Internal Fighting and Political Folly

While many of us are familiar with the way the Talmudic rabbis interpret the destruction of the Second Temple as one caused by baseless hatred, we tend to be less familiar with the texture of that type of baseless hatred. But a study of that epoch’s history offers examples of warfare between Jewish factions – hatred that both Josephus and the Rabbis believed aided the Jews’ defeat.

According to Josephus, in the time of the Second Temple, there were several religious groups and sects which held competing Jewish ideologies and practices, such as the Sadduccees, Essenes and the Pharisees. The divisions between groups were not only what we today would call religious — many of the divisions were social and political. While moderates among the Jews were open to consider reconciliation with Rome, in order to prevent bloodshed, others sought combat. Notably, one faction of Jews, the Zealots, advocated for rebellion. And even within the Zealots, they were divided in ideology, tactics, and leadership.

Simon the Zealot

Statue of Simon the Zealot by Hermann Schievelbein at the roof of the Helsinki Cathedral. Image by Wikimedia Commons

There are many examples of the damage the Zealots inflicted upon the trajectory of the Jewish rebellion, mainly through their infighting and civil war. The Zealot factions often engaged in premeditated murder, normalizing the elimination of political enemies, even of competing Zealot factions. One group of Zealots was known as the Sicarii because of the small daggers (sicae=dagger and Sicarius=assassin) they carried under their clothes with which to murder their enemies.

Josephus – who, I must note, wrote historical records which were approved by imperial Rome and whose works sometimes reflected different orientations towards Rome – described how the Romans took full advantage of Jewish infighting. He describes how the Roman general (later emperor) Vespasian realized that if he attacked Jerusalem right away, he would provide a common enemy to unite the warring Jewish factions. However, if the Romans were to “sit as distant spectators,” the Jews would do the Romans’ job for them, by weakening themselves through infighting. Vaspasian understood that the Jews were not spending the time becoming stronger against the Romans, engaging in accumulating weapons or building stronger fortifications. Instead, the Jewish fighters “were risking their necks in civil war and dissension and daily enduring miseries that they themselves would inflict on them after defeat, if they advanced to the assault.” (War IV. 375)

Perhaps the most tragic action by the zealot factions involved the deliberate burning of food supplies that could have sustained Jerusalem’s population for years under siege. According to Josephus, Zealot leaders burned Jerusalem’s food supplies, in order to incite a confrontation with the Romans. The Talmudic rabbis argue that there were three wealthy men in Jerusalem who could have sustained the city under siege for twenty-one years. That food, according to the rabbis, was destroyed by the biryonim, the military zealots. The descriptions of the starvation that the residents of Jerusalem experienced during the 140 days of Roman siege assume an added layer of horror in light of this. This was starvation that could have been prevented — civilians, women, elderly people, and children who could have been fed. And it was that hunger and starvation which contributed to the weakened state of the Jewish combatants who lost Jerusalem to the Romans.

Why does this matter today?

The events of the tragic Jewish rebellion that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple are key for our own collective Jewish reckoning in 2019. We would be foolish to ignore the parallels between the way Jewish leaders exercised agency then and today.

This does not mean – let me be absolutely clear – that I am advocating to sanitize the cruelty and evil of the Roman empire against the Jews and to engage in victim-blaming. Titus burned the Temple, filled the streets of Jerusalem with blood and exiled countless of innocents. On Tisha B’Av, we should continue mourning our dead and being unequivocal in pointing fingers to oppressors of Jews, including the Roman occupation of Judea which began in 63BCE, long before the type of sectarianism that contributed to the rebellion’s failure.

But Tisha B’Av is not meant to simply be a repository for our grief and rage. Tisha B’Av is the day in the Jewish calendar in which we engage in national introspection, in the language of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in which we must conduct a “social autopsy” of our national calamities. After all, in the weeks leading to Tisha B’Av, we read in synagogue portions from the prophets’ rebukes highlighting the ways that we contributed to our own demise.

In 2019 this reckoning, I believe, must include a real engagement with the history of the Jews during the second Temple. These Jews – at least, the way Josephus and the Talmudic rabbis have memorialized the leaders and fighters of the Revolt – had a sense of their own agency. They were not powerless. They loved freedom, had a deep national identity and were ready to fight the greatest empire of their time. In many ways, we, 21st century Jews, are their historical heirs.

In Israel we have established a powerful Jewish army, created a vibrant culture with rising loyalty to Jewish nationalism and raised generations of Israeli Jews willing to go up against the world’s opinion.

And as American Jews we have our own type of political power and agency. We feel at home in America, engage in its politics and fight to shape not only our communities’ futures but the trajectory of the republic.

So what lessons must we learn from our Second Temple ancestors? For me, the most salient takeaway from our painful history is to understand that we can become our own worst enemies – our actions can exacerbate historical developments over which we have no control. This means that political folly has consequences, that baseless hatred is not just some cliché phrase but represents the sort of civil warfare that we should be watching for and fighting against. I learn that leadership matters, that having extremists and fundamentalists at the helm of your people most often leads to the death of innocents.

All of these dangers are dangers that are far from foreign to our contemporary existence. Not just our people, but across the globe, we are witnessing a rise in political extremism, unchecked nationalism, and civil infighting.

Our job this Tisha B’Av is to use painful Jewish history to confront – and God willing prevent – our own folly.

Dr. Mijal Bitton is a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Social Scientist of American Jews and the Rosh Kehilla of the Downtown Minyan.

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