Judaism after the Temple

Coping with destruction and building for the future.

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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.

Akiba supported the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-136) and even believed that Bar Kochba himself would be the Messiah. In one famous vignette in the Talmud, Akiba is walking with a group of his colleagues near the ruins of the Temple. The group witnesses a fox running over the desolated Holy of Holies. While his companions cry, Rabbi Akiba laughs. The other sages balk at his reaction, but he explains: "Now that I have seen the prophesies of destruction fulfilled, I believe that the prophesies of redemption will be as well" (Makkot 24b).

For Akiba, the promise of redemption is very real--and, indeed, lurking right around the corner. The paradigm of destruction followed by Messianic redemption was deep-seated in rabbinic thought. Their expectations were molded by the experience of the destruction of the First Temple, which led to the  Babylonian exile but was swiftly followed by a return to Israel and the building of the Second Temple. Some historians suggest that the supporters of Bar Kochba were anxiously anticipating Bar Kochba’s victory to lead to such a restoration.

However, Akiba's support for the rebellion is judged foolhardy by the majority of sages. In response to Akiba's belief in the Messiah's nearing, one colleague scoffs: "Akiba, grass will grow out of your jawbones [out of your grave], and he will still not have come." (Lamentations Rabbah 2:5 & Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit 4:8). Lamentations Rabbah briefly records Rabbi Akiba's optimism, but the narrator swiftly crushes this spirit by brutally recounting the story of the defeat of the revolt, as well as criticizing Bar Kochba.

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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.