Even in desperate times we never gave up hope

Behind the Three Weeks of Mourning for the Temple lies a story of spiritual resilience

By Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, July 20, 2014
The Roman Destruction of the Second Temple by Francesco Hayez (painted 1867)

The Roman Destruction of the Second Temple by Francesco Hayez (painted 1867)

We never give up. No matter what is done to us, however horrific, demeaning or undermining, we struggle on. Hope surely is at the heart of Jewish survival. And yet, after the Second Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago, there was a moment when some Jews thought it really was not worth continuing. More surprising is that they included a rabbi and the Talmud unequivocally recorded his opinion:S

"Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha said: Since the day the Wicked Kingdom came to power, which issues cruel decrees against us and forbids us from observing the Torah its commands, banning circumcision and more… we ought to take it upon ourselves to no longer marry or have children, and to let the seed of Abraham our father come to an end. However, let Israel go their way: it is better that they should err in ignorance rather than on purpose" (Baba Batra 60b).

I remember how shocked I was when I first read these words. Rabbi Yishamel argues, very forcefully, that the extreme nature of the Roman persecutions of early 2nd century Israel had made the practice of Judaism untenable. And on top of this, the Temple, with all its thousands of rituals, the most tangible manifestation of our intimacy with God, was no more. He is effectively saying, 'Why bother carrying on if we cannot live our traditions? Let's just dwindle naturally.' Remarkably, he ends by saying that the only reason not to impose such a rule is that people would defy it anyway.

Rabbi Yishmael was a major authority of his day, so why was so he willing to simply give up? His teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua argued differently. He wanted us to weather these persecutions and to remember the Temple in a controlled way. When you do up your house, leave a bit unplastered; when you have a celebratory feast, leave out a course; and when you wear jewellery, do not put it all on in one go. Though his approach was adopted, the Talmud still presents Rabbi Yishmael's fatalist path after Rabbi Yehoshua's, and gives it standing by concluding the chapter with it. To appreciate Rabbi Yishmael's extreme view, we need look at his origins:

"Rabbi Yehoshua once visited the great city of Rome where he heard of a wondrous Jewish child who was imprisoned. He stood at the prison gates and began to recite a verse from Isaiah which the boy completed... Rabbi Yehoshua was sure this boy would become a great teacher so he went to extraordinary length to have him bailed out for a large sum. The boy did become a great teacher in Israel and his name was Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha" (Talmud, Gittin 58a).

Some say the situation is so dire we cannot afford to have a conscience

Clearly, Rabbi Yishmael had no love for the Romans. They had separated him from his family and enslaved him in Rome, and if it had not been for Rabbi Yehoshua's intervention, he might have rotted and died there. Worse still was what happened to his children:

"It is said that the son and the daughter of Rabbi Yishmael were carried off and sold separately to two different masters. When the masters met, they both boasted of their attractive slaves and decided to have them married and share their children. The boy and girl were put in a bedroom together. They sat apart, each thinking to themselves, 'I am from a priestly Jewish caste, how can I marry a common slave?' Both cried all night. At dawn, when they finally recognised each other, they wept in each other's arms until their souls departed" (ibid).

Rabbi Yishmael's childhood and children were stolen from him. True, he had survived and thrived, but at a fatal cost. The temptation to despair in the face of impossible odds is not unworthy. I would suggest his personal experiences had made him susceptible to such fatalism.

Time and again we face threats to our very existence. Israel's survival is challenged to this day. You only have to read the headlines. So Rabbi Yishmael's plea continues to haunt us. Why not just give up?

It could be argued that worldwide Jewish assimilation statistics are due to people who have had enough and do not want to shoulder the painful burden of Jewish survival. Some Israelis emigrate in search of a quiet life. By allowing Rabbi Yishmael's view to be heard, the Talmud is teaching us to understand this tendency to concede. And it is asking us to not dismiss it outright. We should hear Rabbi Yishmael's pain, we must feel his broken heart. Though his view was not adopted, it must not be ignored or forgotten.

Maybe all this implies that in our desperate desire to survive we too cannot ignore the cost to our Judaism. Constant battling hardens us, it makes us less willing to question ourselves. It can make us monolithic in our focus, deaf to nuance and impervious to critique.

Some say the situation is so dire that we cannot afford to have a conscience, we cannot admit doubt, and we cannot dare to ask: is it all really worth it? But Rabbi Yishmael did. And his story and opinion still challenge us in this historic period between the two fast days (the 17th of Tammuz and Tishah b'Av) that bookend the sad three-week period we are in right now.

We should not give up. But we should not give up on giving up either.

Rabbi Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies

Last updated: 4:45pm, July 20 2014