Thoughts to Ponder 113

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Shavuoth,

Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakai and the “portable fatherland”

In a fascinating narrative in the Talmudic tractate of Gitin (56b), we are told that Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakai, outstanding leader of the Jewish people in the days in which the Roman Empire invaded the land of Israel, was confronted with a question of life and death.  Vespasian, who would soon become the new Roman emperor, had brought the Jews to total exhaustion after years of intensive battles. Jerushalayim had fallen, people were dying, there was nothing to eat and complete despair had overtaken the Jewish community. At any moment the (second) Temple would be destroyed.  There was no way that the Jews could rid themselves   of the enemy and there was only one question left. To surrender and save whatever remained to be saved or to fight until the death without any hope or future.

Rabbi Jochanan, no doubt a “moderate”, made a crucial decision which would save Judaism for all centuries and signal a great message to all future Jews. He asked to see Vespasian.  His nephew Aba Sikra suggested that  his disciples  smuggle him in a coffin out of the besieged city of Jerushalayim and bring him to the soon to become emperor. And so he did. When asked why he came to see Vespasian, Rabbi Jochanan responded that the Jews were willing to surrender but that they made it conditional on one major matter: “Give me Yavne and its sages”   ( The city of Yavne was known to be the home of many influential sages, center of Jewish learning and the seat of an outstanding Beth Din (rabbinical court))

This seemed to be a minor request and Vespasian, seeing no harm in such a humble petition, agreed. Little did he know that this agreement ultimately led to the Jews outliving the Romans for thousands of years. Neither did those Jews who opposed this capitulation to Rome realize that Rabbi Jochanan’s agreement with Vespasian was not a sign of weakness but in fact a heroic deed resulting in a splendid victory.

What Rabbi Jochanan understood was that the issue of Jewish survival was not dependant on the possession of the land of Israel and therefore on an army but rather on an identity, an ideology and consequently on a school of thought. While in the case of other nations, the possession of a country would be crucial and without it there would be no chance for survival, in the case of the Jewish people this would not be true. Although Rabbi Jochanan did not deny the centrality of the land of Israel, he knew that it would be possible for Jews to continue to be a people without a land.

It would be dangerous and far from ideal, it would cause unparalleled harm and bring the Jewish people to the edge of its survival capacity but if needed, it would work.

However it required a most unconventional move which would turn the Jewish people on its head. It required the creation of what Heinrich Heine called a “portable fatherland”. This “land” was to be created from the very components of which the old covenant with God was made: the Torah. It would allow the Jewish people to carry this portable country into the lands of exile in the form of the biblical text.

Rabbi Jochanan realized that it was not the land of Israel which had given birth to the Torah but that the Torah had given birth to the uniqueness of the land. In fact it was not so much the love of the land which motivated the Jews to stay Jews but it was the ongoing love affair, one of the greatest of all time, with a single text.   

Still, it was not just the plain text which would accomplish this goal, it was the encounter with the biblical text which would keep the Jews alive in exile. It was a constant dialogue with this text which would transform the Jews into an eternal people. It was the permanent interpretation of the text which would guarantee Israel’s capacity to overcome all of its enemies. As long as the Jews kept studying this text, the Jewish people would not die.

But it meant more. It also required that Jews throughout all the generations would enter into conversation with the great sages of the past. They would argue with them as if they were alive and sitting at their feet in the great Talmudic academies studying this text. Landless and powerless they would inhabit a mental universe whose horizons in space and time would be vaster than the sum total of their enemies’ empires. It was this realization which made Rabbi Jochanan “surrender” to Vespasian. He knew well that it would lead to an unprecedented victory which would outlive the Roman empire and ultimately bring the Jews back to Israel. It was for this reason that he uttered his historic words: “Give me Yavne and its sages”. By receiving this concession from Vespasian, he had not only safeguarded the Torah and its sages but above all the people of Israel. By laying the foundations of the portable land of the Jews, he in fact had guaranteed their glorious future.

Still, Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakai realized that that was not all. It would not just be the encounter with the text which would lead to Israel’s survival but above all the translation of the text and its encounter in day to day life. Unlike the great academies of Greece it was not the theoretical study which the sages of Yavne would make prevail. Rabbi Jochanan fully understood that Greek philosophy would only reach a limited elite body of students. Even more important was the realization that philosophy was truth thought but not truth lived. By giving the sages of Yavne the opportunity to continue to study and teach, Rabbi Jochanan knew that for truth to stay truth they would make sure that what they taught was not only to be taught but above all to be lived. They would make sure that “ought” was to become “is”. The integrity of the sages of Yavne guaranteed that Jews would never succumb to moral bankruptcy as in the case of the Greeks and others who “taught ethics and law but did not deliver”. It was not philosophy which they taught but life, not faith taught but faith lived. Or as Franz Rozenzweig so aptly said: It is in the deed that one really hears, it is in the performance of a religious act that one becomes a man of faith.

Shavuoth is therefore not just the celebration of the giving of the Torah many thousands of years ago, but also the commemoration of Rabbi Jochanan’s heroic deed. His surrender turned out to be a victory which brought Jews back home nearly two thousand years later. But simultaneously he sent a message to all the inhabitants of the land in our own generation. It is not the land or its army which is the real weapon against our enemies. But it is the “portable fatherland”.

Moadim le’simcha.

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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