Even in des­per­ate times we never gave up hope

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


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:

“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).

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.

Weshould­not­giveup.Butweshould not give up on giv­ing up ei­ther. Rabbi Zarum is dean of the Lon­don School of Jewish Stud­ies

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