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Why We Fast: To Learn the Dangers of Jewish Division

by Jeremy Rosen

On the Seventeenth of Tammuz, we began the period known as the Three Weeks that culminate in the fast of the Ninth of Av (this coming Wednesday night). After Yom Kippur, it is the most significant of our fasts. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed twice, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE. And sadly, we brought the catastrophes upon ourselves through political and ethical failures.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the First Jewish Kingdom was a mess; the second Commonwealth was an even bigger one.

There was a period, 2,400 years ago under the Persian empire, when Jewish life in Babylon and the reconstituted Judean state were stable. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great passed by Judea and went on to Babylon. Alexander, like Cyrus, did not care about what gods his subjects worshiped. After Alexander died, things went rapidly downhill. His empire was carved up among his generals. The Judean state found itself caught between the rival Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria.

In the absence of a king, the Judean High Priest was recognized as the head of the community. Money and politics could buy the High Priesthood. The priests became a wealthy aristocracy. They built circuses, theaters, and held nude Greek-style athletic games. The rabbis, loyal to the law, were more nationalist and concerned with the poor as well as the rich. These two groups became, over time, the rival Sadducees (family of Zadok) and Pharisees (Separatists).

In 200 BCE, Ptolemy of Egypt had control over Judea in what was a golden period. Under him, Judeans established a large community in Alexandria. He was responsible for having the Torah translated into Greek. But, in 198 BCE, Judea fell to the Seleucids. Rival priests competed, bribed, and schemed to become High Priests.

This state of shifting alliances went on until Antiochus IV of Syria — in 168 BCE — decided to crush Judean culture and independence. The first step was to defile the Temple. That was where the Hanukkah story began. Resistance to Greek culture and Syrian oppression was initiated by a country priest, Matityahu. His son Judah (who took the name Maccabee, the Hammerer, but whose dynasty was known as the Hasmoneans) led a revolt, and in 165 BCE, managed to wrest the Temple from the Syrian Greeks — although the Syrians held the citadel in Jerusalem. For Judah, this was a limited victory of opportunism. Internal divisions among the Syrians hindered their campaigns. In 162 BCE, Syrian general Nicanor attacked with a major army. Judah, in desperation, sent emissaries to Rome to ask for protection. This is how Rome came to see Judea as its protectorate. It was too late to help Judah. In 160 BCE, he was killed in battle. Rome would not officially recognize independent Judea until 139 BCE.

Judah’s brother, Jonathan, took over. But he was soon assassinated by priestly rivals. Simon, his son (141-135 BCE), was the first of the Maccabees to become a king as well as High Priest. But he too was assassinated — by his own son-in-law! His son, John Hyrcanus (135-104 BCE) was a fighting man. Although he initially lost to the Syrians, eventually he expanded Judean territory to its maximum extent since Solomon. He also indulged a passion for forcibly converting non-Jews.

His son, Judah Aristobulus, was a nasty piece of work. He jailed his mother. He killed some of his brothers. Thankfully he died after a year and his wife Salome (Shlomzion) took over. She freed the family and restored peace. But then she made a bad mistake. She married Aristobulus’ brother Alexander Yannai and, unfortunately, handed him the throne. He was another warmonger who also hated the rabbis whom he either killed or exiled — all except for the top one, Simon Ben Shetach, who happened to be Salome’s brother. In Yannai’s day many Judeans, fed up with corruption and Yannai’s paganism, fled Jerusalem and established the communities we now know as the Dead Sea sects. Yannai died in 76 BCE.

Salome came back to power. She made peace with the surrounding powers and restored rabbinic authority. She ruled till 67 BCE. But then she made her (second) big mistake — to trust her two sons, Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, to run the country after her.

This ushered in an unparalleled period of infighting, corruption, incompetence, and murder. It was so bad that the Roman Pompey had to intervene to restore order. He conquered Jerusalem (63 BCE) and installed Hyrcanus. But when his back was turned, brother Aristobulus got hold of him and castrated him so that he couldn’t be the High Priest. Ptolemy kicked out Aristonolus and appointed Hyrcanus ruler to compensate together with an Idumean forced convert, Antipater, to act as caretaker. When Antipater died, his son Herod, who had cultivated the Roman aristocracy, took over.

Herod was not a nice guy, and he hated rabbis too. Even so, the Talmud credited him for rebuilding the Temple. It is his wall that we can still see today. He was the last strong ruler of Judea. After he died, in 4 BCE, his incompetent son could not hack it. Rome was forced to send in procurators, with absolute power, to deal with the religious and political chaos.

The leadership in Judea was split into rival camps and religious sects all competing with each other. Some wanted to fight the Romans, others wanted to negotiate. Rome finally decided it had enough. It was worried the chaos would spread. Vespasian and his son, Titus, destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (70 CE) and ravaged the land. After the conquest, the Judean population was decimated and exiled. A remnant was left under Herod’s sons, the Agrippas. But this was the death knell of Judean independence. Yet the nationalists did not give up. The Bar Cochba Revolution against Rome 60 years later was put down harshly and cruelly by Hadrian, and he scattered the Jews around the Roman empire. Fortunately, the Persian community survived and thrived.

If you count political success as a criterion, we were no “Light Unto the Nations.” But then all the powers and civilizations who came afterwards also fell apart through infighting and bad decisions. We did not bring the world to perfection. But neither did those who claimed they would do a better job. It is only our spiritual and intellectual legacies that live on. And if we have survived thousands of years of exile to regain our homeland, we certainly cannot put it down to anything other than a miracle.

I love history. But we never seem to learn from it. That is why we still fast.

The article was published in the Algemeiner on July 26, 2020. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.