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From Jerusalem to Yavneh

Endings & New Beginnings

Our course finishes, in a sense, where it began. In spite of the Babylonian destruction (586 BCE), the Jewish people refused to exit the stage of history. Instead, they persisted. Small waves of ragtag refugees returned to Jerusalem. They raised the curtain on the drama of the Second Temple period. In 70 CE, Jerusalem was again destroyed. Over and over, Jews fought against the Roman legions until Bar Kochba, the last Jewish general of ancient times, was defeated. In the face of repeated, pummeling defeats, how was rebuilding possible?

In the closing months before Jerusalem's fall, in 68 or 69 CE, it became increasingly clear to both Jews and Romans that the city could not hold out indefinitely against the legions of Vespasian. Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman troops. Cut off from the rest of the country, Jerusalem's citizens faced starvation. Rebel gangs battled amongst themselves for turf. Wealthy homes were looted in a desperate search for food and supplies. Jerusalem stood on the verge of collapse. In those terrible days, knowing full well that he may be branded a traitor by the rebels, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai planned to escape Jerusalem. The already great sage, a Kohen by birth and Pharisaic leader, decided that in order to save Judaism, Jerusalem must be abandoned.

Unfortunately, Josephus does not relate the bold gamble undertaken by Ben Zakkai. Talmudic literature preserves three different traditions (in Gittin 56 a-b, Avot de Rabbi Natan Chptr. 4, Midrash Rabba Eicha 1:34).

With the city under siege, escape became virtually impossible. No living soul could pierce the Roman siege camps. And so, disguised as a corpse, hidden in a coffin, Ben Zakkai was smuggled beyond the walls by his students. Once outside the walls, Ben Zakkai sought audience with Vespasian. Knowing that Jerusalem was already lost, Ben Zakkai requested permission from the soon to be Emperor to establish a seminary with his students at the small, southern town of Yavneh. For Vespasian, Ben Zakkai's request must have seemed irrelevant, even foolish. But Ben Zakkai realized that at Yavneh, far from the centers of conflict, an effort could be mounted to recast Judaism for a new age without the Temple, and without Jerusalem. The re-establishment of the Sanhedrin, as a center for law and teaching, at Yavneh laid the first building blocks for Rabbinic Judaism.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was a tremendous blow to the Jewish people. The Temple represented the link between the God of Israel and the Chosen People. Facing the loss, painful questions were asked about God's justice, compassion, and concern for the Jewish people. Rituals of mourning developed to help people deal with their pain. Still today, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple on the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha B'Av is observed as a national day of mourning. The Talmudic text below relates to the depth of the loss (Baba Batra 60 a-b):

"Our Rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed for the second time large numbers in Israel became ascetics, binding themselves never to eat meat nor to drink wine. Rabbi Joshua got into a conversation with them and said to them: My children, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine? They replied: Shall we eat the flesh which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, but now no longer? He said to them: If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased. They said: That is so, and so we will manage with fruit. R. Joshua replied: We should not eat fruit either because there is no longer an offering of the first fruits. Then we can manage with other fruits (they said). But, R. Joshua went on, we should not drink water because their is no longer a ceremony for the pouring of the water. To this they cold find no answer. R. Joshua said to them, "Come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible because this terrible thing has happened, but to mourn to much is also impossible. We cannot impose on the community a hardship that cannot be endured . . . .

The Sages have thus ordained: A man may stucco his house, but he should leave a little bare. (How much should this be? R. Yosef says: A cubit square; to which R. Hisdai adds that it must be by the door.) A man can prepare a full course banquet, but he should leave out an item or two. (What should this be? R. Papa says: The hors d'ouevre of the salted fish.) A women can put on all of her ornaments but leave off one or two. . . . And whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit seeing its rejoicing, as it is said, "Rejoice wit Jerusalem and be glad for her, all who love her, rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her" (Isa 66:10)

Another legend (Avot De Rabbi Natan 4:5), places Rabbi Joshua in the place of the mourners. Ben Zakkai and Joshua were leaving Jerusalem. As they passed the ruins of the Temple, Joshua was gripped by the fear that with the loss of the Temple, the Jewish people would be unable to continue their dialogue with the Divine. Ben Zakkai reminded him that even if the Temple is but a memory, social justice, and human compassion are also gateways of worship. Ben Zakkai quoted Hosea 6:6 - "For I desire compassion and not sacrifice, and the search for God's truth more than burnt offerings." Rabbi Joshua clearly shared the pain of the ascetics, but he realized, having internalized Ben Zakkai's teaching, that excessive mourning would stifle the Jewish people's growth. Despite the still open wound of defeat and destruction, Joshua, Ben Zakkai, and their colleagues called on the Jewish people to channel their pain into concrete activity. They argued that even if Jerusalem is lost, it may be regained some day. However if the Jewish people are to reach that far-off rebuilding, emphasis must be placed on the "micro" of Jewish life - on family, and community. The Sages sought to refocus Jewish life around three pillars - study of Torah, on a unified ritual of Jewish ritual, and on the prophetic ethical code that offered the arena of human relations as a central dimension of spirituality. In essence, the Rabbis argued that all of creation can be made holy, that every human act can be made sacred. Ben Zakkai and his students were pragmatists. They knew that Jewish survival depended not on grandiose slogans of revolt and restoration, but on a slow process of careful building in the present.

Rabbi Yohanan taught, "If you have a seedling in your hand and they say to you, "Look here comes the Messiah!" Go - and plant the seedling first. Then come out to meet him." (Avot De Rabbi Natan)

Ben Zakkai's practical constructivist approach warned against being distracted by promises of easy hope. Hope and memory are important, but both need be controlled by the daily demands of present responsibilities. Each Jewish home, each community, could be transformed into a focus for religious life. Through the development of the halacha (literally "the way" or "the path"), the behavioral framework for Jewish teaching, the Rabbis sought to offer a set of guidelines that could be carried from community to community, that could be renewed by each generation. The halacha, throughout it's continuing development, focused on actual life situations, not on detached philosophy, as it's foundation stone. A contemporary scholar, one of the greatest examples of the Rabbinic ideal, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik summarized the halachic approach:

"The Halacha is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life. The synagogue does not occupy a central place in Judaism . . . . The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities . . . ." (Halachic Man. pp.94-95)

At Yavneh, the sages began the process of rebuilding. It was there, in the years immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem that the Hebrew Bible, the TANACH, was canonized. Raban Gamliel pioneered the editing and ordering of Jewish communal prayer. Local study halls, Batei Midrash, were established by teachers at Kfar Aziz, Bnei Brak, and Tzippori. At Yavneh, the Sages worked on a popular, mobile Judaism. From the central core at Yavneh, teachers went out to the Jews of the Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. Education, not only for the elites, but primarily for the Jewish masses, became the most important tool in continued Jewish survival and creativity. As the years passed, the Sanhedrin moved from Yavneh to the Galilee. By 200 CE, under the supervision of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the Mishnah was compiled. Representing the recorded discussions and debates of several generations of scholars and students on the meaning of the Torah, the Mishnah formed a foundation for Jewish behavior. Judaism's ability to flourish even after the twin blows of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132-135 CE, lay within the ongoing, vital process of re-interpretation. Nothing was taken for granted. Everything was held up to examination. Throughout the centuries, while empires rose and fell in piles of stone rubble, the Jewish people continued through tragedy and triumph. The Jewish people's greatest monuments were not built of stone, but of parchment, paper, and pen. Each new generation stood on the shoulders of their predecessors in continuing the building of a portable empire that celebrated renewal, recalled past destructions, and clung to the hope of return.

"Rabbi Tarfon used to say: You are not called upon to complete the work, yet neither are you free to evade responsibility." (Pirke Avot 2:21)


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