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.

Read more at BESA Center

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


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy