Lessons in Political Humility from the Talmud’s Tale of the Temple’s Destruction

A historian answering the question of why the Second Temple was destroyed might cite changes within the Roman empire itself, religious and political conflict among the Judeans, and even anti-Semitic unrest in Egypt. By contrast, the Talmud presents a much narrower explanation, imbued with its own theological notions about history. The Israeli general and strategist Gershon Hacohen examines this passage in search of political wisdom:

The aggadot [rabbinic legends] about the destruction begin with a general statement: “Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Blessed is the man who is always wary.” With these opening words, Rabbi Yoḥanan offered an interpretive key to the aggadot. Without going into details, a basic idea is presented in the [tale of two men, named] of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa, that posits that Jerusalem was destroyed because of an error in an invitation to a party that resulted in an undesirable person attending it. The unwanted guest ended up being thrown out in disgrace. But how is it that connected to the destruction of Jerusalem?

The story illustrates the way minor events—the kinds of everyday trifles that experts do not generally regard as worthy of attention—can spin out of control and have unforeseen consequences. These kinds of factors can erode a strategic situation assessment, allowing the situation it was designed to control to descend into chaos.

The upheavals in the Middle East initially dubbed the “Arab Spring” help to clarify the strategic outlook put forward by the sages. In December 2010, in a small, unknown town in southern Tunisia, Muhammad Bouazizi set himself alight after the police destroyed the illegal vegetable stand that was his livelihood. [Like the tale of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa, stories such as Bouazizi’s] make it easier to explain how great events can begin with small matters that gather steam and lead to tremendous upheaval. The problem with such events is that they usually remain minor, and it is only a unique and random concatenation of circumstances that turns one rather than another into a catalyst for wide turmoil.

From this observation, Hacohen goes on to apply some talmudic wisdom to the coronavirus pandemic:

[I]n light of the global reach of the [COVID-19] crisis, with its full economic and social repercussions, it is worth returning humbly to the simple truth taught by the sages: situations can spin out of control, and not every solution is in our hands. This is not just a theological maxim. When the leaders and citizens of a country take into account the full complexity of a reality and acknowledge that, when it comes to worldwide social and economic phenomena, not everything is under their control, they can bring to view what is happening differently. . . . By recalibrating expectations in this way, the state—as a governmental system—forswears its image as the citizens’ Rock of Salvation.

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: Arab Spring, Coronavirus, Grand Strategy, Second Temple, Talmud

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter