By Andrés Spokoiny
Traditional Judaism has an obsession with self-criticism.
On a personal level, we are instructed to reflect on our sins and repent publicly from them, as in the cheshbon hanefesh (the accounting of the soul) of the High Holidays. The obsession continues on the collective level. The Bible can be construed as a meditation on our failings as a people. Prophets make careers out of pointing out our misdeeds and the Biblical redactor dutifully includes all their (aptly named) Jeremiads. To no avail, though; we keep falling into the same old patterns of misbehavior and turpitude.
Without a doubt, the holiday on which we most poignantly remember our failings as a people is Tisha Be’av, the commemoration of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.
Our sources are unequivocal: the falls of Jerusalem, the losses of our sovereignty, were exclusively our fault. Don’t take my word for it; ask the Bible: “They have grown mighty in the land but not for truth, for they proceed from evil to evil… And they deceive their neighbors and do not speak truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies, they weary themselves committing iniquity” (Jeremiah 9:2–4). For that, says God “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals… I will scatter them among the nations… and I will send the sword after them” (Jeremiah 9:10–15). The book of Lamentations ups the ante: “The iniquity of My people exceeded that of Sodom” (Lamentations 4:6). And, lest we forget after Tisha Be’av, the daily liturgy reminds us that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” The Talmud also provides more details of our misdeeds, among them the one that, by itself, can cause destruction and exile: sin’at chinam (baseless hatred).
Rabbinic sources list different sins as the causes for the two destructions, but together they hint at a pattern. There’s a dire warning on Tisha Be’av, which is backed by historical facts: whenever the Jews have had sovereignty in their land, they have messed up and lost it.
Prior to the 20th century, there have been two brief periods of Jewish sovereignty. Each had a short golden age (around 70 years) after which we sank into infighting, social injustice, moral corruption, and, eventually, destruction and exile. The lawless period of the Judges, is one example of Jews failing at self-rule. David and Solomon mark a brief golden age that is followed by the division of the kingdom in two warring factions, the loss of 70 percent of our people, and the exile of the rest. The marvelous victory of the Maccabees is followed by a time of prosperity, peace, and justice until the children of Queen Salome fight each other for the crown and invite Pompey the Great to intervene on their behalf. Once they had intervened, of course, Pompey’s Rome was not about to walk away.
As general rule, independence brought spiritual paucity and religious perversion. It also brought radical social inequality and injustice. It appears that the social laws of the Torah were forgotten. The prophet Amos decries the “cows of Bashan,” the rich matrons who ate and drank to excess while the simple people starved (Amos 4:1). Isaiah tells us that we “exploit all [our] workers” and “strike with wicked fists” (Isaiah 58:3–4). Paradoxically, in exile – or under foreign rule – our moral and spiritual beacons shine brighter. It was in the desert that we obtained the revelation of the Torah. It was under Babylonian rule that we weaned ourselves from animal sacrifices and developed prayer and learning as the center of Jewish worship. It was under Roman rule that we created the Mishna and under Byzantium the Talmud.
Moses warned us: sovereignty includes an intrinsic danger. “When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have has multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget God” (Deuteronomy 8:12–14). He put us on notice that our sovereignty was contingent on upholding a series of ethical laws and moral principles. And he predicted, rightly, that we would mess it up and lose it – as twice we did.
Israeli documentarist Rino Tzror, in his film “Jews, Third Time” wonders if there’s something intrinsically incompatible between Jews and power. He worries that this time around, too, on our third try, we are going to mess it up. He identifies a series of warning signs that were present in the lead-up to the previous losses of sovereignty: political corruption; poverty and inequality; and religious and political extremism. He compares the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, and the incitement that preceded it (which has gotten much worse since) with the internal strife of Hasmonean times. He matches the tribalism of today with the kind that resulted in the schism of Solomon’s kingdom, when people put their tribal allegiances ahead of the national one. He likens the militant attitude of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus towards the Idumeans and Arameans (who later revolted against Jewish rule) to Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. He also notes that every destruction was preceded by an angry internal debate about “who is a Jew” and “what is Judaism.” Needless to say, he also notes the numerous modern examples of political corruption – from the jailed President Moshe Katzav to the jailed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. (He made his film before the scandals surrounding the current Prime Minister and his family fully came to light.) Tzror doesn’t blame the country or a specific party, but an innate difficulty that Jews seem to have with sovereign power.
I don’t fully agree with Tzror. Yes, Israel, like any country, has problems and failings, but in its short existence it has managed to be – against all odds – an inspiration Jews around the world. The intellectual vibrancy of Israel, with its 12 Nobel Prize winners and its technological prowess, conclusively disproves the “rule” that Jewish creativity is incompatible with political power. Although inequality is high in Israel in comparison to most other OECD members, social indicators are better than those of the U.S. And, for all that, the Israeli army is more powerful than any other in the region. This time we seem to be doing unequivocally better than the previous two times.
But the warning signs that Tzror highlights are there and they are growing more worrisome by the day. We are just now at the 70-year mark – the point at which, historically, Jewish sovereignty starts to crumble. We have never lost our country due to foreign invaders alone. Yes, Babylonians and Romans gave us the coup de grace, but the disintegration of our social fabric, our own mismanagement of our sovereignty, was the real culprit. There are those who think that to solve our issues with power we need more power: an even stronger army, more advanced weaponry, etc. I have nothing against those things; I agree with Imre Kertész (Hungarian Jewish Nobel Prize winner for literature), who said that “I’d rather [see a Jewish] star on a tank than on my chest.” But we’d do well to remember that military power is not really a protection: both Solomon and Alexander Jannaeus had mighty armies, and yet their kingdoms crumbled.
Tisha Be’av is here to remind us that Jewish sovereignty is not a given, that it is contingent not just on our might but on our moral values and our attitude towards one another; on our justice towards neighbor and stranger; on our compassion and care for the needy; on our righteousness and honesty. Tisha Be’av is an enormous warning sign about our uneasy relationship with power – a passionate exhortation to learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid them this time around. Reading the Book of Lamentations, we remember and imagine a world in which Jews have lost sovereignty and power, along with countless lives. Faced with that gruesome prospect, don’t our internal trifles and ugly debates look petty and inconsequential?
No, I don’t agree with Rino Tzror – not only because his description is exaggerated, but because his pessimism is too tempting, too easy. “What can we do,” our history – and his film – seem to suggest, “That’s the way it is. Too bad; we’ll try again in another 2,000 years.” Pessimism is attractive because it eliminates responsibility. But the message of Tisha Be’av is precisely that the responsibility is ours. We can’t disengage; we can’t say that it’s not our business. We’ve been given a new opportunity. It’s on us now. We can break the pattern and make it so that 70 years doesn’t usher in disaster but a new and continuing golden age.
This time we can still prove that the third time’s a charm.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network.