Sermon: Yom Kippur 5780 – Lessons from the Fall of Jerusalem

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 9 October 2019

I am not, as a rule, prone to hyperbole; I try to resist being overly dramatic.
But something is going wrong.
Something is fractured, or at least fracturing, in our society.
Things are breaking that will not easily be rebuilt.

It reaches beyond the boundaries of any one political party, or any particular issue.  Rather, it feels as though some of the fundamental building blocks of a cohesive, reasonable society are at stake.
A member of the Alyth family who until earlier this year sat in parliament for over fifty years described an atmosphere unlike anything he had ever experienced.  The closest he could remember to it was the Suez crisis.  And our conversation was six months ago – itself a calmer, more gentle age: before prorogations and Supreme Court rulings, party purges self-consciously modelled on those of Augustus and accusations of treachery and surrender.

Whatever our personal politics, we know that we live in fragile times.
But we also know that we are not the first generation of Jews to do so.  On many occasions in the past our ancestors have looked around and seen what we see – fracture, febrile politics, anger on the streets, division, a sense of threat – and they too have wondered what was going wrong and how to respond.

Among them were the very first generations of Rabbis.  Those who lived through what was, until the twentieth century, the greatest of all Jewish upheavals – the end of the second Temple period.  Their experience would be catastrophic – internal division and rebellion leading to the complete reordering of their society, to the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  Ultimately this would lead to renewal, to the reinvention of Judaism, and thus to the tradition that we live today.  Yet still running through rabbinic literature is the pain, the trauma of their collective experience and its lessons, never forgotten.

A couple of months ago, on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, I shared in passing from the bimah a few of the Sages’ reflections on the roots of this destruction.  The voices of second century rabbis looking back at their experience. In the weeks that have passed I have not been able to shake these ideas off; to shake off their insight.  When you explore what they read into the fracturing of their society it is telling how many of the behaviours that they warn about we are now reliving:

So, for example, the reflection of Rabbi Yitzchak on those events in the first century CE.  He said the following:
“Jerusalem was destroyed only bishvil she’hushvu katan v’gadol – because they equated the small and the big (the minor and the distinguished)”.

Whether it be economics, or the law, or climate change, or vaccinations, our society has done the same; somehow we have created a culture in which having real expertise in that about which you speak is no longer privileged.  Hushvu katan v’gadol.

This is not merely good old fashioned English anti-intellectualism, but a fundamental devaluation of learning; the idea, if it can be called an idea, that ignorance is somehow as good as, better then knowledge; that this is somehow a statement of radical equality.  We live in a time when anyone can say that they know more about a particular area than any expert, be they scientist, doctor, lawyer, trade negotiator, thinker – no matter how eminent, no matter how respected in their field.

Thus it can be the case that just over the last few weeks, commentators can say that they know more about the law than the most senior panel of judges in the land; a cabinet minister with no experience in the field can know more about health planning than a consultant neurologist deeply involved in NHS preparations; the views of Nobel prize winning scientists on science can be rejected by a politician, literally as ‘the opposite of true’.  And, of course, all the evidence on climate change can be resisted and rejected by politicians around the world for whom it is still politically expedient to do so.

We live in a society in which not just rejection but resentment of learning is somehow acceptable, fashionable even.
As Rav Yehuda put it in his explanation:
“Jerusalem was destroyed only bishvil she-bizu bah talmidei chachamim – within it they despised, they demeaned people of scholarship.”

This phenomenon is just one part of a broader devaluing of truth, of evidence based decision making.  We live in an age – as I lamented this time last year, and how little, and how much has changed in 13 months – of fake news and alternative facts; junk science, tribal epistemology, truth decay, conspiracy theories.

Again, this is something warned about by the rabbis as fundamentally threatening to the existence of a stable society.
For Rava said:
“Jerusalem was destroyed bishvil she’pasku mimenah anshei amanah – because people of truth had disappeared from it.”

This warning has a greater insight hidden within.
Not only the decline of truth, but the disappearance of anshei amanah, of people of truth.  One of the newer crises of our political time is to watch good people stepping away from leadership because they fear for their safety, because there is no longer space for them to serve in parties driven to extremes; because they despair, as of their ability to make an impact.

If this parliament is ‘broken’, how much worse will the next be without them?  Without them, who will ask the difficult questions?  Challenge, criticism, probing is so fundamental to a healthy discourse.   Without it, untruths, mistakes, illegalities, ulterior motives go unchallenged.
Rabbi Chaninah observed:
“Jerusalem was destroyed bishvil she’lo hochichu zeh et zeh – they did not admonish one another”.

Their society crumbled because they had lost the ability to challenge, to rebuke, to criticise one another, to correct each other’s behaviour – rather, he continues, “kavshu p’neihem ba-karka – they buried their faces in the ground.”

This, now, is a feature of our society.  The radio presenter James O’Brien has become something of a phenomenon simply by asking people – ordinary people who phone into his show – to justify their positions.
As he has observed in a recent book, “the fact that they rarely manage to do so is not testament to any particular talents on my part.  It is a simple reflection that hardly anyone is asked to explain their opinions these days: to outline not just what they believe but why.”

This is a systemic problem.
“Almost everywhere”, he goes on, “blatant lies are offered up as ‘balance’ to demonstrable truths; exaggerations and embellishments are allowed in the interests of ‘impartiality’  and any attempt to correct misleading statements is decried as evidence of an unspecified but deeply suspect ‘agenda’”

All of this is happening with no sense of sadness, of regret.  They – and we – should be ashamed, yet the concept of shame has disappeared.  As Rabbi Deborah spoke about on Shabbat Shuvah morning, the idea of regret, remorse, apology has been replaced with holding one’s line, doubling down.
In yet another echo for today, the Sage Ulla warned us: “Jerusalem was destroyed mipnei she’lo hayah lahem boshet panim zeh mi-zeh – they had no shame for one another”

How can an anti-racist party grow within it anti-Jewish racism and those who lead it seem to feel no shame?
How can we – in the most important decision of my lifetime – be taken down a path which all the evidence suggests will, at best, be damaging, and those who knowingly lead us there feel no shame?
How can our discourse be allowed to contain lies, the incendiary rhetoric of division, and those responsible for the very health of our democracy feel no shame?
And yet, Lo hayah lahem boshet panim zeh mi-zeh.

The most famous of all the explanations for the destruction of Jerusalem found in the Talmud is the following:
Mikdash sheini… mipnei ma charav?   Mipnei she’haytah bo sinat chinam – The Second Temple, why was it destroyed?  Because there was within it sinat chinam – gratuitous, unjustified hatred.”

The Chafetz Chaim, Yisrael Meir Kagan, the nineteenth/twentieth century rabbi and ethicist who wrote extensively on our use of words, commented that the reference is not to hatred that one keeps locked up in one’s heart, but to its expression through language.  Rabbi Laura, on second day Rosh Hashanah, spoke about our tradition’s acute sensitivity to the power of words, words being used deliberately to inflame, to divide, to dismiss.  Today it happens at the centre of our democracy and cascades throughout our society.  We have seen this year a further, tragic coarsening of our discourse.

Just the day before yesterday a group – including some Alyth members, and indeed some of my rabbinic colleagues – motivated, whatever we think of their methods, by genuine concern for the world, were dismissed by the most powerful person in the land as ‘uncooperative crusties’, ‘importunate nose-ringed protesters’.

The impact such language has on our society is devastating, encouraging polarisation and our inability to hear one another.  And, not just metaphorically.  A lot of neurological evidence suggests that encountering anger and aggression affects our ability to listen.  Literally.  The effect of feeling threatened causes physiological response in the ear and brain that tunes out calm voices, and hijacks our rational selves.

And, of course, it makes us miserable.  As the comedian David Baddiel so pithily put it.  We experience the ‘injection of extreme joylessness’

Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis tell us, by the equation of knowledge with ignorance, by pushing out truth and those who speak it, by failure to challenge wrongdoing, by lack of shame, by fruitless hatred.  The rabbis in their reflections remind us what is fundamental in a society.

They do not do so to cause us despair.  They, let us remember, rebuilt a whole form of religious life.  Rather, their words should encourage us, as Rabbi Colin did through Abraham on Rosh Hashanah morning, to take a journey into ourselves, into our inner worlds, to reflect on who and what we are.

This period each year is our reminder.  A reminder that we matter, a reminder that we can impact on the world, in small ways and large.

Rabbi Hannah began this season on Erev Rosh Hashanah by reminding us that we, each of us, have the power and the responsibility to stand in the breach, to hold these forces at bay.  She quoted the powerful idea from Midrash Tanchuma that even if there is only one righteous person among us, on the merit of that person the whole world can stand – for as Proverbs states ‘a righteous person is the foundation of the world’.

It is our task, each of us, to be that person.  Today, in our time, that means to privilege learning, to speak the truth, to value honest conversation.  To commit not to put our heads in the sand; to continue to rebuke; to not give in to sinat chinam.

We need to do this for our own sense of dignity.  And we need to do so in order to be dugma’ot – examples – of a different way of being.

Examples especially to our children.  Each of the hundreds and hundreds of young people in our education and youth programmes must seek to be that person too through whom the world stands.  Every one of them must go into the world knowing that they represent a set of different values; that they carry our expectation that they will not fall into those behaviours, that they will seek to stand apart, to behave differently, to be different.

For that is our task.  To be different.  It is the eternal Jewish task.  Asked by God, at a time when all around were lawless and brutal, to be a ‘Light unto the nations’.  It is a fundamental idea that we can be different and by our difference we can affect those around us.

Ultimately, if we live in a time of sinat chinam, of fruitless hatred, must find it in ourselves to do the opposite.  The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate era Palestine, and father of religious Zionism, Rav Kook – wrote in his work Orot HaKodesh – lights of holiness:  “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to sinat chinam, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with ahavat chinam – with gratuitous love.” That, now, is our role to play.

In truth, no Romans are going to besiege our cities.  If our places of worship are ruined it will be from lack of investment not from armies bringing destruction.
But note what the rabbis did.  They did not simply blame Rome for the fall of Jerusalem.  They did not say this was all the fault of others – of the power out there.

They understood that the source of societal decline is not external but internal – within us; how we are with one another. And so, too, is the source of hope for society.
People and institutions which care about kindness and decency and truth can make a difference.
Places where people come together not with anger but with joy, not with hatred but with love, can make a difference.
We can make a difference.

To quote Rav Kook:  We can rebuild ourselves, and we can rebuild the world with us.


* The rabbinic reflections on the destruction of Jerusalem are taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b, with the exception of the text on ‘sinat chinam’, which is found in Yoma 9b