Dialogue, deeds, and (not) averting disaster

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on July 26, 2023

For those participating in the project known as Daf Yomi – the daily study of a two-sided page of the Babylonian Talmud, meant to take one through the entire work in seven and a half years – we are currently just about half way through the current cycle, in the midst of Gittin, the talmudic tractate about divorce law. But in the digressive way of the Talmud, Gittin also contains one of the most sustained rabbinic narratives, or series of narratives more or less stitched together, on the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e. and the terrible consequences associated with the conquering of the Land of Israel by the Romans. And by a strange bit of coincidence, participants in Daf Yomi, myself included, have encountered precisely those pages over four days during the “3 weeks,” the subdued and mournful time on the Jewish calendar leading from the 17th of Tammuz, the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached, until the 9th of Av, traditionally marked as the day of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple.

The rabbinic approach tends not to focus on the big historical picture (though they were not unmindful of such concerns) but on questions of theology and causality (why did/how did God allow this to happen) and/or on the individuals (including rabbis) who were caught up in the terrible events. Two very famous story cycles, each with multiple scenes, appear in this passage; I cannot relate all the details of either in the space I have, but want to touch on some key moments in each, and what I see as some thematic connections.

The first (Gittin 55b-56a) is presented as an explanation for all that follows: “Because of [an incident involving persons named] Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.” An unnamed man had a friend named Katmza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. A servant sent to invite Kamtza to a party invited Bar Kamtza instead. When the host discovered his enemy at his banquet, he sought to throw the “interloper” out, and was not appeased when Bar Kamtza offered to pay for his own food, then half the entire meal, then the entire party. A group of rabbis who were also present did not object to the eviction of Bar Kamtza, and this public humiliation so angered him that he went to the Romans, accused the Jews of rebelling, and set in motion events that instigated the siege and destruction.

The second (56a-b) involves a specific rabbi, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, often considered to be one of the “founding fathers” of rabbinic Judaism; this story is a version of why. It begins in the besieged city. At first, due to three wealthy patrons, the people have quite sufficient stores of food and wood for cooking fires to sustain themselves against the siege. Meanwhile, a debate rages: a group called “Biryonei” (meaning something like ruffians; think perhaps a warlord and his forces) vs. the rabbis, the former calling for war against the Romans and the latter for peacemaking. Hoping to goad the people into war, the Biryonei burn the stores, and induce famine. Among the people in the city is Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who is actually the maternal uncle of the head of the Biryonei, Abba Sikra. Uncle and nephew meet in secret and the rabbi challenges the rebel: “How long are you going to do this, killing the people with famine?” Abba Sikra has no answer. At this point, he admits, if he says anything the other Biryonei will kill him. Instead he helps his uncle devise a plan to sneak out of the city in the guise of being dead.

I’ll skip the escape, though suffice it to say that with some risk, it succeeds. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is able to make his way to the Roman camp and even have an audience with Vespasian, the Roman general leading the siege, who is about to be Emperor. Eventually, before leaving to return to reign in Rome, Vespasian grants Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai a request. The rabbi responds, “Give me Yavne and its sages,” and thus the center of rabbinic learning that would lead to the Mishnah, the Talmud, codes of Jewish law and more was born.

There is much more to each of these episodes, and the stories surrounding them. But what I want to highlight is one potential common theme among them: how the characters respond, or fail to respond, to challenging circumstances, how people silence themselves, and the harm that follows. In the story of Bar Kamtza, it is not just what the unnamed host does, but the silence and inaction of the rabbis present that precipitates the tragedy that follows; in fact, the rabbis continue to fail to act by refusing to find a way to either sacrifice a calf from the Emperor that Bar Kamtza has subtly mutilated, or to eliminate Bar Katmza, lest either of those actions be misunderstood. Abba Sikra is supposedly a leader, but in fact he becomes a model of the concept of “riding the tiger” – that is, presuming you can even get on the tiger, how does one possibly get off safely? Instead of continuing to engage in dialogue with the rabbis – let alone the Romans – he (and/or his gang) instead undertake a radical act, putting the entire people in mortal danger. But now he can’t change course and expect to stay alive. What sort of a “leader” is a person who has effectively silenced himself? Finally, the rabbis themselves – the very people for whom Yavne was meant to be, and indeed did serve as, a refuge – eventually ask, why didn’t Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai somehow convince Vespasian to spare Jerusalem? All they can answer is that by this point, “he thought that [Vespasian] would not grant such a significant request” and the chance to save even something lesser would be lost. Earlier rabbinic reticence, among other causes, leaves them realizing their options have been severely curtailed.

“We were punished for our sins” is a problematic theology. And perhaps historic circumstances were such that the expanding Roman Empire would have wanted to subdue a small, weaker province in any case. But it is fair to point out human failures that can lead to horrific outcomes, and to ask what we can learn from them. The rabbinic stories about the destruction and despoiling of the Temple, Jerusalem, and the Land of Israel suggest that one such failure is the failure of communication. On the one side there is precipitous action (ousting and shaming a guest, betraying one’s people to the Emperor, burning the stores of food sustaining the people), bypassing dialogue – or engaging in disingenuous simulations of dialogue – creating mortal danger for the nation. On the other is a failure to speak out against injustice and a fear of taking hard stands, of stepping forward to advocate for the right and the good.

May this Tisha Be’Av, and our commemoration of the destruction of that day, be a goad to us to find the path between these twin dangers.