Sunday, August 10, 2008


Tisha B'Av Blogging

The question is often raised (I guess this is parallel to the "why should Christians be mad at whomever killed Jesus? after all, without the death of Jesus how would Christianity even exist?" question in Christianity) "why should we lament the destruction(s) of the Temple(s)? after all without the Temple(s) being destroyed, we wouldn't have Rabbinical Judaism as we know and love it". Indeed, some argue that the evolution from a national cult to a universalistic religion was necessary, even if it meant the destruction of the Temple, for Israel to fulfill its role as the "light unto the nations". Some have even gone so far as to argue that, to have "Israel re-enter history" (i.e. as a state) before Moshiach comes (and hence "history" ends) is to betray the role of the Jewish people as "a light unto the nations" and a "holy people" (n.b. the Hebraic distinction between "am", "people", and "goy", nation).

So why do we mourn the destruction of the Temple? As with all things destruction of the Temple related, we must turn to Gittim 55bf and the story of Kamsah and Bar Kamsah (why, btw, is the destruction blamed on Kamsah and Bar Kamsah, when Kamsah isn't even really involved?), which explains how the Temple was destroyed due to senseless hatred (note there are other opinions than those expressed in the link as to why the First Temple was destroyed. Even reading Jeremiah, the issue seems not sexual immorality and such things but rather the need of the land to make up for missed Sabbatical years and the failure of people to ask "where is the Lord?", i.e. the issue was environmental and economic immorality coupled with, literally, self-righteousness).

However, the Talmud itself, while discussing the issue of senseless hatred actually blames the destruction of the Temple on something else, "The humility of R. Zekharya ben Avkolus", or more precisely, "the scrupulousness of R. Zekharya b. Avkolus" (also remember "too humble is half proud"). The Temple wasn't (just) destroyed due to senseless hatred, but due to, at every step of the way, from Bar Kamsah not letting well enough alone (maybe that's why he wasn't liked? nu? maybe the hatred against him was senseless, but a minor dislike wouldn't have been? I imagine Bar Kamsah to be a well meaning, and fwiw very rich, chap who is a bit awkward in his social manner ... maybe a bit of an Aspie. nu? maybe the issue is accepting people as they are and not letting one's discomfort with their quirks devolve into hatred) to the horrendous sin of ommission of the Rabbis in not raising an objection to the treatment of Bar Kamsah to Bar Kamsah's desire for revenge (maybe people sensed this demon inside of him and reacted to it -- which reactions are always self-fulfilling prophecies?) to the very actions of R. Zekharya b. Avkolus, who's very strictness in attempting to maintain the sacrificial cult led to its destruction.

So the reason we mourn the destruction of the Temple, in spite of its "good fruit" is not only to demonstrate that we do not believe the ends justify the means, but also because of how senseless that destruction was. Perhaps the Temple was destroyed because not only did we not need it anymore in our spiritual evolution away from sacrifice and toward Rabbinnic Judaism (and ultimately, hopefully, toward Moshiach consciousness), but the Temple had become an active distraction from that goal.

If R. Zekharya b. Avkolus would have demonstrated a certain amount of tact and thinking about the needs of others (including the need to maintain peace), he would have maybe let the sacrificial offering be sacrificed -- turning a blind eye to the flaw. And that would have demonstrated that we could still have the Temple yet also expand as Jews. OTOH, what instead was demonstrated was that we could not both maintain the sacrificial system and see matters of Tahor and Tamei on their face (c.f. Erubim 13b for this usage). Nu? The sacrificial system had to go.

At first the sacrificial system encouraged spiritual growth. But when it became a distraction, the synagogue had to be destroyed. And we mourn the senselessness of it -- that system didn't have to be a distrction: it could have been everyone getting together for a BBQ and thus praising God with our Fellowship. And when we can demonstrate that a sacrificial system will no longer be a distraction -- that is when Moshiach will come and we can rebuild the Mishkan. When we truly can return to the Lord, in the words of Eicha, than the Lord shall return to us.


OTOH, perhaps R. Yochanan is merely diverting the blame, given his problems with Lashon Ha-rah (e.g. his comments to Reish Lakish in Baba Metzia 84a). BTW -- the legends around R. Yochanan are interesting -- he is pictured as extremely attactive (enough to turn straight men gay and so that the most expensive prostitutes would pay twice their rate to sleep with him). Is this a legend based in fact or a kind of code about something else entirely? Yochanan means "the grace of God", doesn't it? Is the Sod in the legends about R. Yochanan some critical commentary on the doctrine that later Christians would call "irrestible grace"? If so, what is the critique here? And how does this relate to it being "irrestible grace" that blames the destruction of the Temple on "scrupulousness" whilst said grace speaks a fatal Lashon Harah of someone who has turned away from the low-life of his past in order to turn to God?

Meanwhile, it is perhaps a bit ironic that while we Jews, normally thought of as having a law-based religion, blame the destruction of the Temple on a too strict observance of the law (following the letter of the law and not its spirit to use a cliche), while the Christians (pace certain Protestant notions of a "pre-Catholic" Church), whose religion is typically conceived (if you'll pardon the unintended pun) of as being based on "faith" and "grace", fairly quickly established a religion with its own priesthood, Temple (the Vatican), sacrificial system, etc. There is less irony here than one might think, though. While we tend to think of Jesus as representing the "Prophetic" tradition of Judaism (especially in his preaching), he actually, in meeting the sinners where they were (c.f. the commandment of the priest to make "house calls" to visit suspected lepers where they are), is more of the Priestly tradition -- nu? it should be so suprising that the self-appointed heirs to the Great Assembly and hence the Prophets should develop a religion emphasizing following the laws but also which also critiques following the laws in an empty manner, whilst the heir to a Priestly tradition of direct outreach to sinners should be the "god" of a religion that tried to establish a New Jerusalem on the banks of the Tiber?

Great post, and the allusions to the fabulous stories about R. Jochanan were great too (definitely one of my favourite sages). I think the Jesus dying / Temple being destroyed comparison is a little bit off, though; in Christianity, Jesus NEEDS to die in order for everything to work out, whereas the Temple system seemed to be okay on its own. The sages' rationalisations after the fact sound a bit hollow, don't they? I mean the good was found in the new situation, but I think it was clearly thought to be a change for the worse...
It still is found, at least in theory, to be a change for the worse, at least in certain circles (although how much worse is a matter of some debate -- people may pray for the restoration of the Temple, but what do they mean? and how much do they really want it?).

Another interesting thing to consider is that Judaism was already "evolving" in the direction in which we know it today even before the First Temple was destroyed (well, depending on how you interpret the tone, purpose and date of Deuteronomy) ... so how much "after the fact" are the sage's rationalizations? Certainly they were made after the fact, but they may have deeper roots.

A lot of the literature about the Temple, from Deuteronomy to the all consuming discussion of the Temple cultus by sages who lived well after the destruction of the Temple, seems to be of the (to turn around Shakespeare) "I've come not to bury the Temple but to praise it" variety. The relationship in Jewish rhetoric, from the Sages to the present day, between a "good riddance" attitude toward the Temple and an extreme nostalgia seems very complex, don't it?


As to the subject of Christianity vs. Judaism -- what I find somewhat fascinating is the degree to which both Christians and Jews swallow certain lines of rhetoric about that split (primarily from Christian sources ... in some cases from Christian sources trying to justify the split between Judaism in Christianity ... in some cases from Protestant sources trying to justify their own religious outlook) hook, line and sinker. While much of the rhetoric of the Gospels and the Epistles is a critique of Jewish legalism and the Priestly Code, pace the Protestant Reformers, it seems that Christianity become Catholic (with its own Priesthood and everything) as soon as it became Christian -- and even before it developed a true unity of doctrine, there was a "communion".

OTOH, in spite of the continued and obsessive nostalgia about the Temple cult and its associated purity rules in Rabbinic Judaism (that became re-aligned as rules to keep the community of Jews together in the face of many threats to our community's existence as a living and distinctive community), there is always, in Judaism, an underlying "sod" (pun intended) that is a critique of the Temple cult ... although we are warned not to go too far into the sod of the garden, lest we end up offering "strange" fire and undergo spiritual, if not physical, death.

The rhetoric of the split (btw ... note that this discussion is from masochet Gittim -- on divorces! -- the idea is that perhaps it is we Jews that have split away from God?) is that we Jews are the "legalistic" ones whilst "Christianity is about the spirit, not the letter of the law -- as in the former is life, but the latter is death". Yet, you have Christianity maintaining a system of purity (at least for priests ... and an encouragement of chastity far beyond that imagined in Judaism -- which tends to be "earthy" about such things), sacrifices, etc. and in Judaism a lot of aggadic literature that seems to have a message that "scrupulousness" about the law can be, in fact, problematic (nu? it makes it an idol?).


I'm sure the "experts" have a better understanding of all this complexity than I do, though ...
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