Friday, 6 July 2018

Responding to the Romans at the Walls - And Other Matters

We are marking, this time of year, the destruction of the great Temples that were at the heart of our faith for thousands of years, and the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70CE especially. Our commemoration of the 9th Av is on Saturday night 21st September. Do please book, do please come.

We have a remarkable record of the time - written by one of the most brilliant and enigmatic figures in our history. Yosef Ben Matityahu was head of the Israelite forces in the Galil before surrendering or defecting and becoming - as Josephus Flavius - the greatest Roman historian of the period. Quite how he felt about his former fellow Jews is disputed. But the story he tells in his heartbreaking Wars of the Jews is one of anything other than inevitable destruction. Time and time again options are put forward for peaceful solutions and rejected by the zealot guardians of the ancient city. An Roman intermediary - Nicanor - makes his way towards the walled Jerusalem to negotiate - he is shot at, injured by a dart. Later, once the siege is set the zealot defenders of Jerusalem burn the food stores to urge the defenders into greater acts of military valour. Josephus laments the decision - the stores could have been used to keep residents alive, instead, he relates, they are reduced to eating dung and grass.

In one of the Talmudic narratives of destruction Yochanan Ben Zakkai fakes his own death to be spirited from the city to negotiate for some element of survival. And we do, despite everything survive. But - do we survive through our obstinacy or through our compromise. Almost 2,000 years later the lessons are still unclear. Ben Zakkai berates himself for his own negotiation - feeling himself too soft. But surely continued obstinacy in the face of greater military might would have been futile.

To stick, or to twist? It’s the great conundrum of Jewish survival, from times ancient to modern. Do we become stronger through gentle adaption even to oppressive overlords or through meeting opposition with opposition?

Is Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz ghetto who negotiated and attempted to win Nazi favour for the ghetto he sought to protect, less or more of a hero than Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt who fought tooth and nail rather than accept Nazi awfulness? They both, of course, died.

Even in realms entirely free of the awfulness of the destructions of our history this ‘stick or twist’ conundrum remains. “Rabbi, I don’t really do Shabbat, is that OK?” Do I respond with accommodation or strength - “Yes of course, and we will still love you.” Or “Not really, you lose the sacred connection with your people, faith and creator, and even a quality of life that Shabbat fosters?”

The answer, of course, is that neither polarity can be correct all the time. We need to know when to respond one way, when the other. To meet force with force will ensure mutual destruction at worst, and partial destruction at best. To accommodate the errant trains us to care less about the matters that must be defended. It was Shimon Peres who said, that "When you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn't think about.”

Amen to that.

Shabbat shalom

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