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

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform