Forgotten hero of Tisha BAv enabled Judaism to survive exile

As the nation of Israel approaches the end of its fifth decade and the prospect of peace opens up, we can begin to say with greater and greater confidence that Judaism has survived its exile.

The time has come, on Tisha B'Av, to speak about the people who made this possible. This column highlights a forgotten man, perhaps more aptly described as the hero of Tisha B'Av: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

The catastrophe of destruction could easily have terminated both the Jewish people and their religion through mass defection and spiritual despair.

Yet an emerging Jewish leadership, soon to be called the rabbis, developed a program that would enable Jews to answer their religious calling — and that, in fact, would save them.

Only a leadership that deeply shared its people's lives and struggles, demonstrating great imagination and boldness, could have accomplished this miracle. Yochanan ben Zakkai deserves particular credit for combining these qualities to save the day.

The Talmud teaches — with tongue gently in cheek — that Yochanan was the least of the 80 leading pupils of the Elder Hillel.

This is a refreshing contrast with today, when the leading rabbis' followers feel confident to tell us they are the greatest of their generation — or that they even assume messianic stature.

I think what the Talmud meant is that a prewar observer would not necessarily have detected Yochanan's potential. Nonetheless, he rose to the occasion.

Like most Israelites, Yochanan apparently supported the great rebellion of 66-70 C.E. Yet he came to see that the bitter civil war spelled defeat in the face of Rome's overwhelming might.

His first insight was this: As sacred as Jerusalem was and as central as the Temple was, Judaism transcended any particular location or institution. He determined not to "go down with the ship," but to provide a setting and a saving remnant that would enable Jewish life to go on.

Because Yochanan had shared the Jews' fate in besieged Jerusalem, his striving to carry on signaled his loyalty. Smuggled out of the embattled city, he made contact with the Roman leaders, securing their permission to settle in Yavneh with a group of refugee rabbis. There, he established an academy and a study center to guide the community through Jewish law.

Rabban Yochanan and his colleagues taught that God had not abandoned the Jewish people (as is the Christian claim), nor had God been mastered by the Roman gods (as is the Roman claim).

God, however, had become more "hidden," or was no longer available through the sacramental Holy Temple, the rabbis maintained. This was a divine call to the Jewish people to take more responsibility in the covenant. When God is hidden, then the people must be trained to detect the divine presence everywhere.

Thus, learning and teaching became the key religious enterprise. And if God no longer spoke through prophets and priestly oracles, then people should speak to God through prayer, and discern what God asked of them by studying Torah, the past record of divine revelation and communication.

Further, the power of learning Torah is such that when one studies the laws of a particular sacrifice, it is as if the student actually brought that sacrifice.

These interpretations meant that the people of Israel could live on without the Temple. Yet in a profound affirmation of continuity, Yochanan established customs and prayers that kept the memory of the Temple alive and vivid.

For example, on Sukkot, the lulav and etrog (palm fronds and citron) — previously carried only in Jerusalem — were to be brought and waved everywhere that Jews lived, in memory of the Temple. Also, Yochanan insisted that the Temple's old sacramental powers — expressed in the ordeal of the sotah, the wife suspected of infidelity and in the ceremony of the broken-neck calf — were no longer effective.

The oral Torah was expanded enormously through the Talmud. Yet Yochanan rejected the amnesia and rootlessness that follows outright dismissal of the past.

Instead, he made a dynamic Jewish focus out of desire for a return to Jerusalem. The vision of restoring and rebuilding the Holy Temple kept Judaism on its path as a future-oriented, hope-oriented religion throughout the exile.

Yochanan had a wide variety of pupils who expanded and articulated the Talmudic tradition. Some were radical followers of messianism while others were skeptical of these claims. Some were active in the later armed revolt against Rome; others insisted that only submission would preserve Jewish existence.

There is some evidence that Yochanan later "exiled" himself from Yavneh when his leadership policies outran his generation's ability to absorb the drastic changes that were testing Judaism to its limits.

Yochanan's life is told by the rabbis in the Talmud as a paradigm of how to respond to catastrophe. As Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner has shown, this story should be read as an interpretative narrative, a theology of Jewish survival, not as literal history.

The lessons of Yochanan's life are powerful. Historic leadership should: 1) share the life experience of its people; 2) create newly needed institutions and ideas with vision and boldness; 3) bring the past with it holistically and faithfully; 4) be ready to stretch people to the limit while encouraging and nurturing a wide range of viewpoints and policies; 5) and bring a variety of people into leadership roles and train them to be serious leaders without taking themselves too seriously.

The new era of Jewish history now unfolding will need no less.