The Talmud (BT Gittin 55b-56a) records a fascinating but very relevant debate between the Rabbinic leaders and Rabbi Zechaiah b. Abkulas. It occurred in 66 BCE when Judea was under Roman control. Bar Kamza, a Jew, felt slighted by Judea’s Rabbinic and political leadership and was determined to avenge this insult. He thus informed Emperor Nero that the Jews were not loyal subjects and as proof he proposed that Nero send a calf to be sacrificed as a gift offering in the Temple. Bar Kamza delivered the calf but not before he had made a slight cut on its lip that the Jews regarded as a blemish but not the Romans.
The Rabbis immediately understood what had transpired and were faced with a dilemma: whether to refuse the animal thereby spurning the royal gift o to sacrifice it in violation of Jewish practice. They were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government, but Rabbi Zechariah contended that people will now believe that blemished animals can be bought as an offering in the Temple. The Rabbis then considered killing Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Zechariah protested, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
The Rabbis, immobilized by “Zechariah’s dilemma,” neither sacrificed the calf nor executed Bar Kamza who then reported the Rabbis’ rejection of the royal gift. The Emperor’s ire at the perceived slap in the face set into motion a series of events leading to the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple and countless Jewish casualties. The Talmud’s footnote to this story is the lament, “through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
Was Rabbi Zechariah correct? Did the Rabbis exhibit a failure of nerve in not following the path of least existence? Was it wise to insist upon upholding the highest moral and ritual standards regardless of the cost?
Our world has not changed much since two thousand years ago. We Jews have a modern State of Israel but we still find ourselves between doing the “right” thing and doing the practical thing.
Sometimes when I read of Jews and even Israelis supporting the Palestinians at all cost, as one reads about in the new book, Catch the Jew, I think of Rabbi Zechariah.
These staunch defenders of Jewish morality are latter day successors of Zechariah; it is a counterpart of the lose-lose dilemma in which Bar Kamza placed Judea’s leadership of his day. Do we engage the enemy with force necessary to succeed and to survive? Or should our first concern be avoiding any possibility of collateral damage? Does Hamas’ immoral actions give us the freedom to pursue a war in a manner that compromises our own moral standards?
The Talmud bemoans that two millennia ago the Rabbis and the leadership of Judea paid a dear price by allowing themselves to be swayed by Zechariah’s insistence that our moral and ritual principles must be upheld regardless of the consequences.
The Tradition ultimately rejected Zechariah’s argument. The Rabbis certainly believed that life was sacred and that bloodshed violated God’s will – but there are exceptions. If a rodef ( a pursuer) threatens your life, you must do what is necessary to save yourself. Self-defense is not merely a valid response – it is a required moral response.
Similarly a nation threatened by a neighboring pursuer has a moral right to take needed action to defend its people. Thus in 1967 when Israel was threatened by the alliance of Egypt and Syria, it took pre-emptive action – that assured the successful culmination of the Six Day War
In contrast in 1973 when there were again clear signs that Egypt and Syria were preparing to attack Israel, the government heeded the warnings from Washington to hold fire until attacked. The failure to preempt hostilities led to great losses in the early days of the Yom Kippur War. There was actually a period when it seemed that Israel would be defeated with all the horrible consequences that would have inevitably followed.
We are now at the end of the Nine Days, the period between the beginning of the month of Av and the Fast of Tisha b’Av, the day set aside millennia ago to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the loss of Jewish hegemony over Eretz Yisrael with its enormous loss of lives.
When we gather tomorrow night to observe the Fast we will lament not only past tragedies in our history but also the ongoing tragedy Middle East violence. And although the Palestinian issue has not diminished we find ourselves atremble at the notion of a stronger, more determined Iran.
What shall we make of the recent negotiations with Iran? Should we follow AIPAC’s dire warning and fight against its approval by Congress? Should we follow J-Street’s counsel and celebrate this “victory”. Do we have peace or merely “peace in our time?”
I am no expert on the Middle-East but I know something about Rabbi Zechaiah b. Abkulas. And let me tell you: he was bad news for the Jewish people. You see, he had could not possibly have the right answer because he was addressing the wrong question. He thought the leadership should play by a certain set of rules. But those were not Roman rules.
And now, as Jews who care about the State of Israel, we find ourselves asked to play by a certain set of rules, but whose rules are they? Obama’s rules? Russia’s rules? The U.N.’s rules?
Let me tell you what I think. Israel has to work the real problem it faces, not the one summoned up by over-anxious politicians and other Cassandras. So let’s start with the facts:
Iran is going to get a nuclear bomb sooner or later. It just is. It’s too big and too arrogant and too ornery not to.
(2) Israel is going to have to defend itself from the bomb but a more pressing question will be the proxy wars it has to fight with Hezbollah and Hamas.
(3) Therefore, I respectfully disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has refused to accept US gifts of security materials in order to placate the Israelis. I think this is standing on ceremony and not helpful. “Take the weapons, Mr. Netanyahu. Take the systems. Take anything you can.”
(4) In short, Israel is going to have to tough it out and she needs our support. If I thought we could somehow turn the Obama administration away from its present course I would entertain this possibility.
But I don’t and so my pragmatism kicks in.
Writing this week in Haaretz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie says it better than anyone else: My suggestion is that American Jews proclaim their profound misgivings about this deal, indicate their regret that it will be approved, and then demand a package of political, economic, and military aid to compensate Israel for the tremendous risks that she will face. Perhaps this package will include a new security umbrella for Israel, or membership in NATO, or a protocol for what action the U.S. will take to counter Iranian subversion throughout the Middle East. It should include a long list of weapons systems as well as political understandings about support in the United Nations and elsewhere. It should be ambitious and far-reaching, put forward on behalf of a faithful ally that does not always agree with America, but that stands with America and requires her support, especially now.
As we remember the tragedies of the past and confront the sad realities of the present, may we never lose sight of Isaiah’s great hope that the day will come when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and none shall wage war any more. It’s an age old dream, but woe unto us if we lose faith in human efforts to help make that dream come true. But also woe unto those who support Israel who forget that the problem before that is containing an malevolent Iran. There are many ways to do so, and this is just getting started.