“A Temple destroyed; a people re-born”
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 6th August 2005
We usher in today the month of Menachem Av, and the nine days of more intense mourning for the destruction of our Temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE.
The loss of the Temple meant more than the surrender of a central sanctuary. It was the symbol of religion in a sea of paganism. It was a national and spiritual focus, providing a sense of intense pride, identity, cohesion and centralised authority to the inhabitants of an occupied country. It stood therefore as a most imposing and immoveable challenge to Rome’s supremacy. As long as the Temple stood, Jewish heads were held high. The Romans may have occupied the ground of Judea, but they could never claim the allegiance of a nation still ruled by its divine king, One whose residence was still intact and imposing, still attracting pilgrims from all over the Diaspora, still attracting would-be converts and pious gentiles.
And the city that garlanded it, Jerusalem, was the very aorta of the Jewish collective heart and national emotion. As Philo of Alexandria expressed it, ‘Jerusalem is not only the metropolis of the single country of Judea, but of most other countries also.’ For the Roman author, Pliny, Jerusalem was the most famous city not only of Judea but of the entire East.
It was the hub of intellectual life, with its countless academies a magnet for the greatest scholars of the Jewish world. Its dense population also made it the main focus of economic life. ‘Here the cream of the artisans and craftsmen of the country gathered – weavers, potters, perfumers. The Temple alone needed many hands skilled in the building trades and crafts. The city attracted merchants and business men from far and near’ (H.H.Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, p.262).
The Romans realised full well that their own pretensions to the position of Cosmocrator, the world power would never be fulfilled as long as this most talented, stubborn, dependent-minded, fearless, spiritually and morally highly disciplined, nation still retained their national superstructure, their national hierarchy and spiritual leadership. They did not need any further excuse, therefore, for setting about dismantling all that by sheer brute force, though they must have known, in their heart of hearts, that ideas, emotions and spiritual allegiance can never be totally eradicated. Like branches that are trimmed, they re-grow with added vitality and bear even riper fruits.
The Talmudic account of the destruction of the Temple, attributing it exclusively to the bitter rivalry of two Jerusalemite men, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, one of whom became an informer to the Romans, nevertheless contains more than a grain of truth. It supports the notion that the Romans were only waiting for the slimmest of excuses for destroying every vestige of the Jews’ national and spiritual centre, the source of their independent spirit, their confidence, their pride, their defiance and their smug indifference to Rome’s greatest military exploits and cultural achievements. Historians trace the uprising to the heavy-handed treatment of the Jews by successive procurators, who sent in their soldiers to put down a series of riots and clashes between the Jewish and non-Jewish, Graeco-Syrian, inhabitants of some of the main cities, not only in Judea but also in Caesaria.
Whatever the reason or reasons for the great uprising against Rome, wherein, according to Josephus, some one million one hundred thousand Jews were butchered and 97, 000 taken as captives, the Talmud is not far wrong in its indication that Rome did not really require any valid reason or any flimsy excuse for its invasion and sack of Jerusalem and burning of the Temple. That was always Rome’s main objective from the moment it began to appreciate that it would never be hailed as the military conqueror of the world as long as the great citadel and fortifications of Jerusalem remained impenetrable, and its nation unbowed. Rome could not live with the thought that, while she may have been hailed as the principle military power, Jerusalem’s spiritual appeal was so much more impressive. The reports of tens of thousands of Roman citizens embracing monotheism, and Jewish practices in particular, was also sending shudders through the Senate.
They realised that Jews were a nation that had to be crushed and destroyed root and branch if all that Rome stood for – namely adoration of the physical, the artistic and the material – was not to be supplanted and swept into oblivion before the whirlwind of the spiritual, and if Rome’s class hierarchies were to survive the dangerous heresies, of equality before God and the democratic spirit, that underpinned Judaism and Jewish life.
So the Temple had to go, Jews had to go, and Judaism had to go. In reality, not even one of those objectives was fully achieved. Yes, the Temple was destroyed. But it was resurrected within just a few years. Not physically, but spiritually, in the way that Jews knew best; and the way the Romans feared the worst. In the cities of the Galilee, in particular, countless citadels of Jewish learning were established, countless Temples-in-miniature, or synagogues, countless scholars, sages and rabbis, heirs of the High Priests and priests of the sanctuary. The nation became invigorated with a spiritual vitality, that more than rivalled that which had characterised the worship at the Temple. Instead of being mere passive spectators of the ritual at the great metropolis, every Jewish child, in every town and village, was given an intense Jewish education, and with it, an opportunity to rise to the dizziest heights of rabbinic scholarship, which brought with it fame, influence and leadership – albeit just a tincture of poverty!
So the spiritual Temple survived, Jews survived, and Judaism certainly survived. And they are all here today to tell their story and to reminisce about the bad old days when there was a world power called Rome, and where so many people all over the world spoke Latin.
And as part of our story, we should not fail to mention the fact that, whereas about 6 million people speak Hebrew today, as a modern language, inspiring a modern culture, Latin is consigned almost to oblivion, as a literary or ecclesiastical relic of a bygone age.
So as we approach the Nine Days, and recall the tragic loss of our ancient Temple and the accompanying devastation, we should also pay tribute to the resilience of our nation, the eternity of our faith and the unquenchability of our spirit:
Kein yovdu kol oyvekha Hashem, v’ohavav k’tzeit hasemesh bigvurato –
‘So may all Thine enemies perish, but those that love You
shall be like the rising of the sun in all its brilliance.’