Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the New Paradigm

The story is told that Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, "Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!" But Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, "Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim - acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, 'For I desire hesed - loving-kindness - and not sacrifice!'" (Hosea 6:6). Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21.

This story takes place shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which both Rabban Yohanan and Rabbi Joshua witnessed. It is an important text to consider in the ancient (and contemporary) Jewish-Christian disputation. The argument Christian missionaries make is that, lacking a Temple, we Jews have no way of gaining atonement for our sins, and therefore need the atonement which Jesus’ death provides. Rabban Yohanan’s answer says no, the Temple was not the only means of atonement. We don’t need to be sad that we have no Temple -- and therefore by implication we have no need of Jesus either. What we have instead of the Temple is loving-kindness, hesed, which can also be understood as covenant faithfulness. As long as we have hesed -- our hesed to each other -- then we have divine hesed as well, since God is faithful to the divine promises.

We study this text on Shabbat mornings very early in the service, and I think we sometimes fail to realize how revolutionary and important it really is. We don’t really appreciate, I think, the tremendous impact that the destruction of the Temple had for the Jews of that era. It was at least as devastating to them as the Shoah is for us, if not more so. The central religious act of ancient Judaism was the ritual of animal sacrifice in the Temple, which could no longer take place. Not only was the Temple in ruins, but the Romans had built a pagan shrine in its place and forbidden Jews even to approach the Temple Mount. And of course tens of thousands of Jews had been killed and many times that sold into slavery and exile. Imagine if during the Holocaust every Torah scroll in the world had been destroyed, and that it was impossible to replace them -- which would of course mean the end of the Torah reading ritual in every synagogue throughout the world. Perhaps through that thought experiment we may begin to understand the magnitude of what happened in 70 CE.

The destruction of the Temple could well have meant the end of Judaism as a religion. How can a religion continue when its main ritual can no longer be performed? There is no doubt that after 70 CE, some Jews gave up their Jewishness. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that most Palestinian Christians are, ironically, descendants of Jews in the Land of Israel who converted to Christianity at some point during the Roman Empire.

But Judaism did not disappear. What it did is transform itself. From a religion centered around Temple, priesthood and sacrifice it became a religion centered around Torah study, prayer at home and in the synagogue, and gemilut hasadim. From a historical point of view it is accurate to say that Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism are two different, though of course related, religions.

It was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai more than anyone else who made this possible. Some of you may be familiar with the story of how he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin shortly before the destruction of the Temple. He went down to Yavneh, a small city on the coast south of present-day Tel Aviv, and set up a yeshiva there. It is the sages in Yavneh who codified the Mishnah and established the structure of our prayers as they remain to this day. Others fought in vain against the Romans. Rabban Yohanan saw the writing on the wall and began the act of rebuilding even before the destruction had occurred. If not for his foresight and his recognition that Judaism could evolve, Judaism would indeed have vanished from the earth.

Rabban Yohanan realized that the paradigm of Temple and sacrifice was dead. He set about constructing a new paradigm and reminded Rabbi Joshua not to mourn excessively for the old.

The parallel for our generation, it seems to me, is clear. The paradigm of the suburban synagogue-center is dead. It is not working for the majority of Jews except those who are truly Orthodox, who express their opinion by not joining and not paying dues. It is not working even for the majority of our members, who faithfully pay their dues but rarely participate in synagogue activities other than High Holiday services and life cycle events.

Judaism in the United States will survive outside of Orthodoxy only if, like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, we find a new paradigm that is more meaningful than the one we are leaving behind. Deliverance will not come through grieving for the past, nor by trying to recreate it. It will come through hesed.

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