Making Transition: Lessons from our History (December 22, 2017)

As the Roman legions closed in on the doomed capital city of Jerusalem, the Jews within its walls fought not only against their military enemy but bitterly and violently against each other.  In the years leading up to the Temple’s destruction in the year 70, Jewish zealots, anxious at all costs to save the Temple, took up arms against their fellow Jews and were known to order the execution of anyone who opposed their plans to fight to the death against their Roman enemies.

The more moderate group – the Pharisees – strove desperately to restrain them, some of the Pharisee leaders already thinking of new ways to carry on their religion if the Temple should go down.

In the end, after the Romans stormed the city and orchestrated a massacre against the citizens of Jerusalem, they destroyed the Temple.  And thus the thousand year tradition of priests and sacrifices and rites and offerings being the centerpiece of the Jewish religion was over, literally overnight.  And now what?

Our TBS Life theme for the year is Transition.  It is said: The only constant in life is change. Each of us, whether or not we are aware of it, will go through some sort of personal or family transition this year. As a society and a world, we know change of some sort will inevitably come over the next 12 months.  And as a congregation we already know the transition we will face this coming summer.

I began with the story of the destruction of the 2nd Temple because it is

perhaps the most radical change that Judaism has ever experienced.  How did we survive? Who made it through and who didn’t? I have chosen just a few slices of Jewish life from this time in hope of helping each of us think more deeply about how we ourselves get through transition successfully and whole.

The Jewish leaders of the late 2nd Temple era mainly fell into one of two groups – groups that fought bitterly with each other over their approach to Jewish leadership.  These groups were called the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducees were mainly from the wealthy, governing class.  They were landowners, tied to the high priesthood and the Temple. They believed that the only word of God was the Tanach, the Bible.  Anything that couldn’t be drawn directly and literally from a bible text could not be considered Jewishly valid.

The Pharisees were leaders and teachers who were largely from the working class.  They believed in a Judaism that was accessible to the masses and supported education for the common man.  And they did not believe that Judaism was only limited to what was written directly in the Tanach.  They believed that they as Jewish leaders and teachers could expand on the biblical text, coming up with new meanings that were relevant to the people of the modern time.  And that these new teachings were also from God because God gave the leading rabbis authority and they were inspired by a knowledge of and love for God’s Torah.  These Pharisees were far more popular than the elitist and more religiously hardline Sadducees.

One example of difference between them is found in the festival of Shavuot – the holiday that comes seven weeks after Passover and which we and many Reform synagogues observe with Confirmation.  The Torah speaks of Shavuot only as an agricultural holiday – tied to the land of Israel.  The Sadducees, being landowners, supported this strict view of the holiday – it is purely a feast to celebrate the harvesting of their land in Israel.

The Pharisees expanded the idea of what Shavuot is – they began to see Shavuot also as a celebration of the giving of the Torah – the anniversary of God and the Israelite people connecting directly and forming an eternal relationship with one another.  With this new meaning, Shavuot was accessible to all – not only to those who could celebrate a harvest and not only for those who lived in the land of Israel.  It was a widespread celebration of Jewish learning and of God’s love for us.

So what happened after Jerusalem and the Temple fell and Jews were scattered beyond the borders of Israel?  The Sadducees quickly died out – no land, no Temple, no popular support, there was nothing left for them to hang their Judaism on. The Sadducees, who focused narrowly on retaining the past, who adhered strictly to the letter of the written Torah and not on its higher spiritual intent, could not make it through the radical change that resulted from the loss of Temple and land.

The Pharisees’ approach to Judaism – open, evolving with the times, filled with ideas that took popular hold among the masses – lived on.  The Pharisees became what we call “The Rabbis” – the early sages of our people whose discussions, debates, and decisions go into the Talmud, the basis for the Judaism that we think of today.

Another story from this time – there is a story that comes to us in Talmud about the final months of Jerusalem’s hold against the Romans in the year 70.  I began by sharing that the Jews in the city were fighting not only against the Romans but between Jewish factions within the city itself.  The Biryonim were the Jewish extreme militants who believed in fighting the Romans to the death – in their zeal, they killed fellow Jews who were not onboard with their cause.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was a more moderate Pharisee who could see the writing on the wall.  He understood that the Jews would not win – that ultimately the Romans would destroy the city and the Temple. He understood that although the physical centerpiece of Judaism did not have long to survive, that there was a greater message to Judaism that could and should still live on.  But it would take great Jewish minds, working and learning together, to figure out how to do this.  And they would need to do it somewhere other than the doomed Jerusalem.  In order to secure a place of learning and debate and planning for a Jewish future, ben Zakkai knew that he would need the assistance of Roman powers – but how could he get out of the city? The zealous Biryonim would kill anyone trying to get out to make contact with the Romans.  The Talmudic story goes that Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students spread word that ben Zakkai was very sick and, later, that he had died.  And, carrying him in a coffin, saying they needed to take him out for burial, they were able to sneak him out of the city.

Ben Zakkai then went to meet with the Roman general Vespasian, a Roman leader who he had met with in the past.  ‘Peace be unto you, O King!” He said to the general.

Vespasian asked him, “Why do you call me King – I am not the King.”

Ben Zakkai responded:  “Our prophets foretold that the Temple would only fall to a King so I know that you will become the Emperor of Rome.  And as a man of such high and honored stature, I would like to make a request to you for me and my people.  I would like to secure the town of Yavneh as a place of study for the scholars of my people and I would like the lives preserved of our greatest minds such as Rabbi Gamliel.”

Vespasian replied, “If it is true what you have foretold, that I become Emperor, you may have Yavneh and your scholars.”

Soon after, Vespasian did become Emperor, Jerusalem and the Temple along with many Jews were decimated, and Yavneh was established as the new center of Jewish life and learning – Judaism moving from a tradition of rites and sacrifices and a central holy place, to one of learning, of personal and communal connection to God through study and prayer and Jewish practice at home and in the synagogue.

It took Ben Zakkai thinking outside the box – by going inside the box – to bring Judaism through a devastating transition.  It took him and others of that generation and their disciples, to believe that there was something greater to Judaism than even the Temple and even Jerusalem and even their sacred and cherished homeland of Israel.  That their heritage of Torah and their relationship with God and the obligations God gave them to act with ethics and compassion and holiness was all worth preserving in whatever form they could manage to maintain it out in the world.

I need to also to mention the Rabbi who Ben Zakkai mentioned in his conversation with Vespasian:  Rabban Gamliel.  I have led a whole study session here on this fascinating man and his life story – the leader who brought Judaism successfully from a Temple-based system to a Judaism more in line with how we know it today.  Under his leadership was established the Jewish calendar, determining which books would be in the Jewish bible, creating a centralized Jewish authority, and making the decisions of the school of Rabbi Hillel the official Jewish interpretations on Jewish practice and ethics.  I can’t even imagine the extreme pressures on him – a man who had to take on this role because he was born into an esteemed rabbinic family.  Gamliel certainly felt the weight of all Jewish history and future generations on his head. He knew that for Judaism to succeed out in the greater world, Jewish practice and observance would have to be uniform and – to this end – he became extremely domineering in his leadership style.  Rabbi Joshua – who disagreed with a number of Rabban Gamliel’s rulings – ended up on the receiving end of his wrath multiple times.  On one occasion, Gamliel found out that Joshua had taught that the evening service was optional.  Gamliel and the rabbinic leaders had determined that it was obligatory.  Gamliel singled Joshua out in the academy, made him rise, forced him to announce that he had taught the incorrect opinion, and then made him continue to stand as Gamliel taught, kind of like being sent to stand in the corner with a dunce’s cap.  Finally all the sages in the room could not stand to witness this humiliation anymore and they yelled, “Stop! Stop!”

Gamliel was then removed from his post.  We learn that this action prompted him to go through a period of teshuvah – of self-reflection and change.  He softened and became more humble and so they gave him back his leadership position.  Apparently he was much better behaved after that point.

What do we take from these examples from a time of great crisis and change for our people?  We learn that being narrowly focused and short-sighted does not work to get you through transition.  There is a certain amount of flexibility required – that successful transition requires you to expand your notions of how the world works and perhaps expand your own sense of self.  Being open-minded and in touch with the needs of others, as the Pharisees did, can help you weather storms.

We learn that sometimes you need to think outside the box as Yochanan ben Zakkai.  Rather than cling to an idea to the death, you might need to come to terms with change and be creative as to how you might meet your big, overall goals in a very different and perhaps unexpected way.

We learn that while strong leadership can be helpful during transition, bringing stability to the mix – it must be offered with compassion and respect.  People’s humanity cannot be forgotten or diminished by the desire to bring organization to a group.

Transition happens: We learn from our history that while it is natural to grieve what is lost, we make change best when we enter our new reality with new perspectives, creative ideas, an open mind, compassion and respect. May we all make our journey from strength to strength within a life that is always changing.