Halacha's Moment of Truth

By Evelyn Gordon, Hadassah Levy

Judaism has yet to rise to the challenge of a sovereign state.

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In one of the Talmud’s most famous stories, the invading Romans are readying their final blow to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, realizing that defeat is imminent, sneaks out of the city and escapes to the tent of the Roman general Vespasian, who he announces will soon be appointed emperor. When the prophecy comes true shortly thereafter, Vespasian grants ben Zakkai a boon. Yet instead of asking the emperor to spare Jerusalem and its Temple, as might be expected, ben Zakkai pleads for a seemingly marginal coastal town: “Give me Yavneh and its sages!”1 Less known, however, is what many scholars consider an earlier version of this story, found in Lamentations Rabba. In this telling, ben Zakkai does ask for Jerusalem. And when Vespasian refuses, but lets him try again, ben Zakkai still does not ask for Yavneh and its sages; rather, he asks that one of Jerusalem’s gates be left unguarded for several hours, thus enabling the sages of Jerusalem to escape.2
The difference between these two versions reflects the wrenching change that Judaism underwent following the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. and the Jews’ subsequent exile from the Land of Israel. For more than 1,200 years, a Hebrew commonwealth had existed in that land, interrupted only by the relatively brief Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.). For the last 1,000 of those years, Jerusalem had served as the Jews’ political capital, and the Temple as the center of their religious life. Moreover, the Torah was clearly intended for a sovereign people in its own territory: Numerous commandments, such as those connected to the Temple service or agriculture, can be performed only in the Land of Israel. Many others, on issues ranging from commerce to the courts to a prototypical welfare system, are the type of regulation only applicable to, and enforceable by, a sovereign state. Understandably, then, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction, the idea of Judaism’s surviving without sovereignty would have been almost inconceivable. It was likely hard for the author of the version in Lamentations Rabba to imagine a Jewish leader of that time making anything but the requests he cited: first, the survival of Jerusalem, the Jews’ capital city, and second, the survival of the Jews’ politicalleadership. (The sages of Jerusalem for whom ben Zakkai pleaded included the members of the Sanhedrin, a combination legislature/supreme court.)
As time passed, however, it became clear that the Jews faced a lengthy exile. Their rabbinic leaders therefore began a centuries-long project of converting Judaism into a form capable of surviving outside its land. The Temple service was replaced by prayer. Holidays were reinterpreted. A fixed calendar was instituted. Torah study became the supreme value, compensating for all the commandments that could no longer be performed. And the importance of sovereignty was downplayed: For the sake of Jewish survival, the message had to be that sovereignty was not essential so long as rabbinic leadership—“Yavneh and its sages”—remained.
Today, Judaism again confronts a shift of tectonic proportions, although this time in the opposite direction. Just as ben Zakkai and his successors eventually transformed Judaism from a religion of sovereignty into a religion of exile, Judaism must now reconstitute itself as the religion of a sovereign nation—a religion, that is, whose legal code is ready and willing to grapple with the challenges sovereignty poses. How should a Jewish army operate? How should a Jewish state regulate marriage and divorce? What are the rules for acquiring citizenship? How should commerce, agriculture, education, welfare, and the legal system be run? The answers are not obvious. The world has changed too much in the last two millennia for many biblical prescriptions to be applied literally. In addition, even the vast corpus of subsequent halachic development has relatively little to say on many of these issues, and what it does say is often inapplicable to a modern, sovereign state. Yet unless Jewish tradition can help answer these questions, Israel will have no alternative to the wholesale adoption of the secular West’s solutions. And then, there will be nothing “Jewish” about the Jewish state at all.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator on public affairs. Hadassah Levy is website manager for Jewish Ideas Daily.

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