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The Babylonian Talmud relates the dramatic story of Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai’s escape from the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. Before the Romans breach the walls of the city, Ben Zakkai abandons the spiritual and governmental capital of the Judean state, even while the Temple is still standing. He foresees the fall of Jerusalem, and so he has himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin. Through flattery, and by humbling himself before the Roman general, he is able to negotiate a deal, allowing him to establish a new center of learning in the city of Yavneh (Gittin 56b).
The historical veracity of this tale is questionable, but the talmudic narrative encapsulates an important shift in the political and religious life of the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple. The story of the founding of Yavneh represents the birth of rabbinic Judaism, a way of life focused on Torah and Jewish law, rather than Temple worship or political sovereignty.
From a distance of 2,000 years, it appears that this shift in priorities enabled the spiritual wealth of Israel to become migratory, based on Torah study, not on the location of an altar or a King’s palace–Jerusalem to Yavneh, to the North of Israel, to Babylonia, and finally throughout the Diaspora. Were the rabbis willing to remodel the former Jewish kingdom into a wandering people unified only by a shared text? Were they enthusiastic about this shift, which empowered scholar over priest and King? Or was the founding of Yavneh a contingency plan, meant to preserve Jewish identity during the years of Roman rule, always awaiting a return to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel?
The stories told in the Talmud and Midrash offer a window into the rabbis’ perspectives, many of whom were already living comfortably in the Diaspora at a distance of hundreds of years from the Temple’s destruction.
The Bar Kochba Rebellion
If the story of the founding of Yavneh suggests that the rabbis were content to leave the institutions of Statehood and Temple in the past, the figure of Rabbi Akiba–who lived two generations after Ben Zakkai–complicates this narrative.
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