Divided, the Jewish people stand tall – OpEd – Eurasia Review
A 2017 Israeli poll found that politicians are the most widely recognized culprits for deep divisions in Israeli society, according to 75% of Israeli Jewish respondents, and 67% said ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their religious establishment were also to blame. Today, after 5 years and 4 elections, the divisions have worsened.
In the State of Israel, where millions of Jews live together in a small geographical area, there are, and always have been, a dozen (sometimes more than 15) Jewish political parties.
Doesn’t a community as divided and fragmented as Israel currently is risk disintegrating or being destroyed by its enemies? According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 29c,) “Rabbi Yochanan said that Israel did not go into exile until there were ‘twenty-four (dividing) sects'”.
This means that some divisions (less than two dozen) are normal and necessary; but too much division (more than two dozen) is destructive.
Just as every human body is a total unit divided into many different parts (organs, bones, personality types, etc.), social, political, and religious bodies are also made up of many different religious, social, and political parts.
So, while Judaism and the Jewish people have always been one religion and one nation; their uniqueness has always been the sum of many different parts.
In biblical times, the people of Israel were divided into three or four distinct groups based on the number of Mitzvot (religious duties) they were expected to perform.
First, the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into the Levites, who were responsible for running the Temple in Jerusalem, and the remaining eleven tribes; with more Mitzvot applying to the Levites than the rest of Israel.
Second, the tribe of Levy was divided into the clan of Kohanim, who were responsible for the ritual offerings of the Temple service; and the other clans that were just regular Temple Levites, the Cohanim being responsible for doing far more Mitzvot than even the Levites.
Third, all of the Israelites were divided by sex; with many more Mitzvot applying to men than to women.
Although the Temple in Jerusalem has not existed for more than nineteen centuries, vestiges of these distinctions still exist in Orthodox synagogues, where there is a fixed order of four distinct hereditary categories in which Jews are called to read the Torah.
First Cohanim, second Levites, third Jewish men in general and fourth; Jewish woman, who are not called to read the Torah at all.
In Conservative synagogues, there are only the first three categories, and in Reform temples where tribal and gender equality are emphasized, there is only one category: Jews.
The new groups, parties and sects within the Jewish people in the post-biblical period were no longer tribal and inherited. They were geographical and cultural, that is, the Hellenistic Jews and the Israeli Jews; religious, that is to say scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and politicians; Herodians, Zealots and Sicarians anti-Roman revolutionaries and disciples of sages/rabbis.
In medieval times, diversity among new groups was small and limited primarily to geography; Sephardim and Ashkenazim and, for some, to philosophy; Karaites, Kabbalists and Talmudists.
However, Ashkenazim in the modern era are divided into several religious sects: Hasidim, Anti-Hassidim, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Revival, and other smaller groups.
So, is Rabbi Yohanan’s warning that Israel did not go into exile until there were “twenty-four deceitful sects” still valid today? Yes and no.
Some divisions are normal and necessary, especially in the area of religion. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The maxim of civil government being opposed to that of religion, where its true form is: ‘Divided we stand, united we fall.’ But when religions become political, extreme and intolerant division is destructive.
As we have seen, since the time of the descendants of Jacob, Israel has been divided into twelve tribes. Since the time of the descendants of Aaron, the tribe of Levy has been separated from other tribes.
Some time after the Maccabees, the Essenes and Pharisees separated (Pharisee means separatist) from the Sadduces and by the first century there were over a dozen distinct religious and political parties in Israel.
But even so, there was no need for fragmentation and destruction. The sin that caused the destruction of Jerusalem was that political and religious extremism led to boundless and limitless hatred.
As Eichah Rabbah 1:33 teaches, “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things that existed in her: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed. …But why was the Second Temple destroyed, since at that time people were involved in study, mitzvot and acts of kindness? Because at that time there was an insane hatred among the Jewish people. This teaches that senseless hatred is as powerful an evil as idolatry, immorality and bloodshed combined!
What kind of hatred and intolerance was there? After the disaster, our sages said (note that all these things were done only by some Jews): Jerusalem was only destroyed because of:
its laws were based on the strict letter of the Torah and not interpreted by ways of mercy and kindness,
morning and evening prayers have been abolished.
school-aged children who have not attended school.
people who were not ashamed (of their hatred) towards each other.
no distinction was made between young and old.
one has not warned or warned (not to hate) the other.
much of scholarship and learning was looked down upon.
there were no longer any men of hope and faith in her midst.
(Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, citing Shabbat 119b, Yoma 9b, Tosefta Menahot 13:22, Yalkut Shimoni Isaiah 394, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 15:11)
Or as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who was there) remarked in the account of Kamza and Bar Kamza,
“Thanks to the strict scruples of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas, our homeland was destroyed, our
The temple burned down and we ourselves were exiled from our land. (Gittin 55b-56a)
The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) records that Rabbi Hanina said, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants did not blame one another. The Israelites of this generation kept their faces lowered and did not reproach one another. Rabbi Hanina does not mention any specific action that was so reprehensible that it condemned the city.
It may have been something like the decision of some ultra-Orthodox rabbis to declare the conversions of thousands of Jews null and void, proclaiming the radical innovation of “retroactive nullification” of thousands of Orthodox conversions that have held in Israel in previous years. The sad reality is that most other rabbis in Israel have not publicly blamed these fanatics for violating the Torah commandments to love converts and not oppress them in any way.
So it was not just the variety of parties and sects that doomed Jerusalem in the first century. It was the “unrestrained hatred” resulting from the strict, uncompromising, overly self-righteous intolerance of most parties that condemned Jerusalem.
This is why our sages have decreed that a special blessing should be pronounced when we see a very large population of Jews, which, due to their large numbers, must include more sects of Jews than we ourselves usually associate: the opinion of each (Jew) is different from the other, just as the face of each (Jew) is different from the other. (Berachot 58a)
The problem was not that they differed from each other. The problem was that some of them hated each other with a hatred that was unrestrained by their teachers, and unfettered by the leaders who were close to them. Although the teaching of this blessing was too late to save Jerusalem and its Holy Temple, our sages learned a very important lesson from this bitter experience.
This lesson and this blessing must be relearned by all Jewish political and religious leaders today, so that Jerusalem will not be destroyed again.