Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lessons in Dialogue and Destruction

How and where we remember in Jewish textual tradition is often as important as what we remember. The narrative inventory of the memory of the Destruction of the Second Temple demonstrates this principal while offering a two-part lesson in how we might best respond to communal tension and crisis today. 

Some of the most vivid images of the cruelty of war – from Homer through Stephen Crane to YouTube – appear in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Gittin. The context of the Destruction of the Second Temple is clear: Gittin generally analyzes the laws of divorce, and its litany of narratives describing the moments before, during, and after 70 C.E. mark the dissolution and redefinition of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine. 

This is a bitter and very public divorce colored by narratives of Jerusalem fallen from its place as a golden wonder of the ancient world to become a pile of rubble and bones, a starving people eating itself alive while blood rises in the streets. Throughout the telling of this mythic documentation of disaster, our rabbinic narrators ask what went wrong and why. 

Answers to these questions abound, but viewed as a cluster there are no definitive answers to any question at all. Is it chronic flouting of religious law and abuse of political power that drives the division between people and God? Is it assimilation? Sexual transgression? Senseless hatred? The divinely mandated destiny of Rome to rise and fall with Jerusalem serving merely as a pawn in the game? A cruel manifestation of the 
promise of prophets from Moses to Jeremiah foretelling such an end (and beginning) for the nation? 

No one knows for sure, but everyone has an opinion – and this is the first half of the two-part lesson in Gittin: humility. It is not only better, but indeed essential to preserve multiple narratives for documentation of and reflection upon crisis – because ultimately no single story or perception can explain it fully. 

The second lesson is about dialogue. As rabbinic texts always do, Gittin presents the rabbis as tellers and listeners at the same time. They hear the Hebrew Bible, folk wisdom, liturgy, Jewish law, human nature, Greco-Roman culture, and most of all each other whenever they stake an interpretive claim. The rabbinic chain of tradition is expressed primarily as dialogue, and dialogue means not only the communal humility to 
share multiple opinions, not only the communal ability to hear difference, but also the communal strength to preserve in the same unwieldy bundle both dissent and popular opinion. 

Take Gittin 56a-b as an example of these lessons. After years of the Roman army besieging Jerusalem from the outside and zealots or biryoni’im besieging it from within – they refuse all negotiation or compromise with the enemy to the point of destroying the food and other resources a trapped city depends upon in order to ensure a final battle – Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai concludes that he may be able to "save a little" by feigning 
death, escaping the city, and asking Vespasian in a wild, wonderful, heartbreaking conversation if only the beit midrash at Yavneh, the family of Rabban Gamaliel, and the doctors to cure the ethereal Rabbi Zadok might survive the conflict. 

Rabbi Akiba is a key commentator embedded in the story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and the siege, living about a century after the Fall. The peripatetic Akiba interjects critique of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: Why did he fold to the zealots?, he asks. Why did he wait to take action? What really went wrong? 

These are the same questions we are meant to ask as well, but Akiba as our messenger offers an ironic twist to our concerns: According to rabbinic legend it is Akiba himself who lends his power and charisma to Bar Kohba, a messianic pretender freedom fighter whose failed rebellion against the Romans quashes whatever remnant of Jewish life remains in Jerusalem after the debacle of two generations before. Indeed, faced with a similar set of issues and having chosen a different tact, Akiba manages to save in proportion to his times not even the “little” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai has previously protected for his own generation. And that is some “”little” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai saves – more than enough to ensure the survival of the very rabbinic system that produces everything Rabbi Akiba eventually calls his own. 

So in this dialogue of destruction, everyone is right and everyone is wrong. A cacophony of voices wants to share as many of these viewpoints as it can. 

Leadership in Jewish communal life, which faces the chronic pull of mind-numbing zealotry on the left and right, amongst secular and religious dialectics of power; learn from sages in the story of the Destruction, how shaping communal opinion and memory requires deep humility and dialogue. Shouting down or editing out our fellows not only weakens the ability of strong opinions to survive, but also limits the collective’s ability to think and remember beyond itself. 

I’m not averse to strong opinions. I couldn’t even count how many strong opinions I have about important issues if you asked me about them. But without taking a political stand in this forum on the crisis in Israel or halakha or the economies of Jewish life or gender or the environment or so much more, I believe that if we consider the primary set of spokespeople for Jewish communal life and policy, it’s all too often the same chorus of loud voices quite sure of themselves, quite proud of themselves, quite closed off from anyone who has a different opinion. And in presidential election season in the U.S., it is easy to see that this trend is fully engaged by the wider world as well. 

Yet in the Jewish community or any community with reasonably well protected freedoms of expression, lack of humility and lack of dialogue simply means that countless people who should be hearing and caring about issues lose the patience to listen to the overly proud and loud, let alone to care about what they are saying. 

Look to the wisdom of a tradition that balances difference in narrative and understanding during crisis to learn how a collective best preserves and learns from its own voices. Now many centuries old, it’s a system of depth and honesty that makes our own voices sound very small. 

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