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Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”
3. The Roman-Jewish Wars
Our sources for the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second centuries are more substantial than those of earlier periods, primarily because the importance of developments in this tiny region of the middle east extended far beyond its borders into the heart of the Empire itself. From the Jewish perspective, the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple represented a collapse of Jewish nationhood that represented a dramatic interruption in the very cosmos. Rabbi Eleazar (no relation to the Eleazar of the 1st century) teaches, “from the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron separates the Jewish people from their Father in Heaven” (Talmud: Berakhot 32b). From the Roman perspective, this tiny country on the Mediterranean coast represented a perennial irritant, rebelling with the slightest provocation and draining military and administrative resources for centuries. Thus the Roman-Jewish wars received more historical attention, however biased, than any other period in Jewish history.
The principal Jewish source for the era is the Talmud, a massive and sprawling document that took centuries to compose, editing the oral teachings of Rabbis who lived well before the beginning of the Common Era and codified in its present form in the third century (the Jerusalem, or Palestinian Talmud) and the fifth century (the Babylonian Talmud). The scope and content of the Talmud will be discussed later in this work, but for our purposes at this point it is sufficient to note that the Talmud’s concern with history is principally religious in nature. Extracting historical data from the Talmud requires careful reading, often at odds with the intent of the authors of a given passage, who were more occupied with the transmission of ethical and spiritual truth than accurate historical data. Consider, for example, the Talmudic locus classicus on the causes of the destruction of the Temple (Gittin 55b-56a):Rabbi Yohanan said…the destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa in this way. A certain man had a friend named Kamtsa and an enemy named Bar Kamtsa. He once threw a party and said to his servant, “go summon Kamtsa.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtsa [by mistake]. When the host found him at the party he said, “…what are you doing here? Get out!” Bar Kamtsa replied, “since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The host refused. Bar Kamtsa said, “then let me pay for half the cost of the party.” The host refused. “Let me pay for the whole party.” The host refused, and threw him out. Bar Kamtsa said, “since the Rabbis were sitting there and did nothing, this shows that they agreed with the host. I will go to the state and malign them.” He went and said to the Emperor, “the Jews are rebelling against you!” The Emperor asked, “how can this be proved?” Bar Kamtsa said, “send them an offering and see whether they will accept it as a sacrifice.” The Emperor sent Bar Kamtsa with a fine calf. While on the way, Bar Kamtsa inflicted a wound on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place that constitutes a blemish for a sacrifice for Jews but not for others. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order to avoid offending the state, but Rabbi Zekharyah ben Avkulas objected, saying “people will say that blemished animals are accepted as sacrifices.” The Rabbis then proposed that Bar Kamtsa be killed to remove the threat he represented, but Rabbi Zekharyah ben Avkulas said, “is it a capital crime to inflict a wound on a consecrated animal?” Rabbi Yohanan then noted, “Rabbi Zekahyah ben Avkulas’ attention to detail facilitated the destruction of our House, the burning of our Temple, and our exile from our land.
This passage continues with more geopolitical and regional political information, but for the composers of the Talmud, the underlying cause of the first Roman-Jewish war had nothing to do with taxation or national oppression. The real cause of the destruction of the second Temple was in fact “baseless hatred” (sinat hinam), exemplified by the cruel treatment of Bar Kamtsa and his outsized demand for revenge. Also implicated are the Rabbis (the Talmud, like the Hebrew Scriptures in general, rarely fails to miss an opportunity for scathing self-criticism), first for ignoring the insult to Bar Kamtsa, and then later for their inability to see past the immediate ritual detail to the larger national implications of Bar Kamtsa’s plot. For the Rabbis (Rabbi Yohanan in particular), this historical analysis is ultimately the most important takeaway message from the first Roman-Jewish war, and in fact Rabbi Yohanan’s interpretation conforms closely to the general nature of internal Jewish sectarian politics as well as the general tenor of Roman-Jewish relations. It remains relevant even if, for example, the entire story of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa is entirely fictional.
From the Roman side, our principal source is the prolific and complex figure of Flavius Josephus, a Jew who initially participated in fighting against the Romans. Among his extensive literary achievements is an autobiography, a longish history of the Jews entitled Jewish Antiquities, and a major work on the first Roman-Jewish war, easily the most important contemporary source on the topic. Unfortunately, Josephus’ historical work presents many problems of interpretation, especially because only his Greek-language version has survived. Josephus also composed a version in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Jews of that era (more on this language later). The Greek version was certainly written for his Roman patrons and the wider population of the Empire, and it is difficult to imagine how he might have phrased things for a more parochial Jewish readership in the land of Israel. His relationship with the Jewish population was certainly compromised by his defection to the Romans, especially given the particulars of his capture: surrounded by hostile forces, Josephus proposed a Masada-style mass suicide, but so engineered it that he would survive and then surrender. His decision has been characterized as treasonous, or at the very least a type of Pharisaic accommodation to overwhelming force, but at the very least it colors his depiction of the conflict as a whole.
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With the decline of the Hasmonean kingdom in the first century BCE, the land of Israel came under the sway of the powerful Roman Empire. By 37 BCE the Romans ruled Israel directly through Herod, a descendant of the Idumean people whose conversion to Judaism was considered highly suspect by the Pharisees. Herod attempted to legitimize his rule by marrying a Hasmonean princess named Mariamne (Miriam), but later had her executed as part of a highly dysfunctional family dynamic that would satisfy the most jaded 21st century reality TV fan. A controversial and powerful ruler, among his more lasting contribution to Jewish history are major renovations to the Temple and construction of impressive palaces.
Herod’s building campaign required extensive taxation, a burden on the Jewish population whose impact was felt decades after his death in 4 CE. Israel was divided among Herod’s sons, and then further downgraded to the status of a mere province of the Roman Empire. Tensions increased under the rule of Emperor Caligula (reigned 37-41 CE), particularly in the Jewish diaspora in Egypt, as Jews bristled under the imposition of civic requirements that directly assaulted their religious sensibilities. Roman officials could not seem to understand that the Jews, with their intense monotheism and high aversion to physical representations of worship, would refuse to bow down to statues of the Emperor and the like. Such acts of overt obeisance and fealty were anathema to the Jews, even though Romans considered them simply markers of good citizenship, like standing for the national anthem at a sporting event today. Classical literature, both Greek and Latin, is rife with references to the supposed misanthropy of the Jews, invariably the result of basic misunderstandings of Jewish culture. Circumcision and the dietary laws were seen as exclusionary and clannish, the Sabbath laws were interpreted as inherent laziness and sloth, and so on. The Weltanschauung of the Jews was diametrically opposed to that of the Romans, and there seemed to be no way to mediate this conflict.
Judea erupted in open revolt in the year 66. According to Josephus, the flashpoint occurred in the coastal city of Caesaria, where Roman officials tolerated an open display of idol worship in front of a Jewish synagogue. In Jerusalem, a Temple official named Eleazar formally ceased prayers on behalf of the Roman Empire, prompting a swift and brutal reaction from the Romans, which in turn ignited a larger outbreak led by the zealots, who overran the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. Many of the leaders of this early revolt came from a group known as the sicarii (“knife-men,” from the latin term for dagger), a splinter group of Zealots.
The rebels enjoyed early successes, including a remarkable victory over the Romans at Bet Holon, but the endgame was inevitably in favor of the Romans. The Emperor Nero appointed his general Vespasian to manage the conflict, whose strategy apparently included a profound understanding of Jewish rebel behavior. Vespasian intentionally ignored Jerusalem for the initial period of the war, allowing the Jewish rebels to engage in brutal and violent internecine struggles that eroded their strength without Roman interference. Vespasian and his son Titus conquered the Galilee region in the north, and then slowly made their way down the Mediterranean coast, leaving Jerusalem for last. Vespasian did not complete the task, as Rome was thrown in turmoil by the suicide of Nero and a succession of brief-lived emperors. In 69 Vespasian was proclaimed ruler of the Roman Empire, and he left Titus to crush the remnants of the Jewish rebellion.
Vespasian’s invitation to Rome had important reverberations in Jewish history. The Talmud describes Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s foresight in the context of the rebellion, as well as shedding light on the nature of Pharisee-Zealot relations. Convinced that the rebellion was doomed, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai sought to negotiate with Vespasian and create a kind of intellectual Noah’s ark, ultimately preserving the spiritual heritage of Judaism. The Zealots, however, refused to allow him to leave the city, suspecting that he would betray their cause. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his students request permission from the rebels to remove his coffin for burial, but the rebels remained suspicious. Permission was granted, but only after the rebel guards drove iron bars through the top of the coffin to prove that he was in fact deceased. Amazingly, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai survived, and emerged from his coffin outside the city walls to meet with Vespasian. The Rabbi surprised Vespasian with the accurate prediction that he would become Emperor, and in gratitude Vespasian granted Rabbi Yohanan his three requests.
“Give me Yavneh and its Sages,” asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, a fateful statement that would ensure nothing less than the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Vespasian agreed to allow the Rabbis to congregate unmolested in the coastal city of Yavneh. Vespasian also spared the descendants of Rabban Gamilel and allowed a physician to treat Rabbi Tsadok. Unwittingly, Vespasian’s promise to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai would ultimately allow the Jews to outlive the Roman Empire itself. Jerusalem would fall, and Vespasian would have his victory, but Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s triumph was still greater.
Jerusalem succumbed to Titus’ forces shortly thereafter. The Temple was destroyed, an event that has been commemorated by Jews ever since on the 9th day of the month of Av, a day of fasting and mourning. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of the French Emperor Napoleon entering a synagogue on the 9th of Av, expecting a warm welcome from the Jews for destroying the ghetto walls and proclaiming their freedom. He asked why they fasted and sat on the floor, and the story relates that he was amazed to hear that the Jews were mourning the destruction of the Temple and the loss of their homeland. “Any people who can mourn their homeland and Temple after nineteen hundred years,” he is reputed to have said, “will one day regain their homeland and Temple.”
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Even with the Temple in ruins, the Zealots continued to fight on against the Romans, making their last stand at Masada, a stark and imposing flat-topped mountain next to the Dead Sea. Isolated in the arid Judean Desert and scorched by the sun at the lowest point relative to sea level on the face of the planet, the Zealots held off the Romans until the year 73, when they massacred themselves in a huge suicide pact which only a few survived. In the twentieth century, Masada took on huge symbolic importance for the fledgling Israeli state, and many officers in the Israeli Defense Force were sworn into duty atop the mountain to the slogan “Masada will not fall again.” Josephus’ account of hundreds of suicides does not seem to be supported by the archaeological evidence, however, and the issue of suicide remains problematic in Jewish law, not to mention political ideology. The last stand at Masada and the characterization of role of the Zealots in the first Roman-Jewish War continues to be a subject of debate among Israelis.
The Second Roman-Jewish War was fought in the following century. A much more modest conflict, some historians prefer not to use the term “war” to describe the conflict at all, while others prefer to call it the Third Roman-Jewish War, considering a revolt in 115 the second. At any rate, the Bar Kokhba movement was clearly the most influential in Jewish history after the First Roman-Jewish War, and we will follow that designation here. A charismatic leader by the name Shimon bar Kosiba, known popularly as Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”) because the Aramaic translation of his name could be rendered “son of a lie,” rallied Jews for another challenge to Roman domination (after the failure of the insurrection, his detractors used this in a derogatory fashion). His movement had very strong religious and even messianic overtones, and the elderly Pharisaic scholar Rabbi Akiva openly endorsed it, proclaiming Bar Kokhba the long-awaited Messiah despite the opposition of many of his contemporaries.
The movement learned from many of the errors of the earlier conflicts, and in the year 132 struck a Roman garrison in Modi’in. The Romans were unprepared for the conflict, and Bar Kokhba’s forces were able to hold them off for three years of brutal guerilla warfare before they succumbed at a final battle at Betar. Emperor Hadrian imposed horrific persecutions following the defeat of the rebels, including the grotesque execution of Rabbis who had supported Bar Kokhba, known in Jewish tradition as the “Ten Martyrs of the State.” They included Rabbi Akiva himself, whose death by flaying with iron combs was immortalized by his students in the Talmud. “All my life,” he said as he endured the Roman tortures, “I wanted to fulfill the verse, ‘and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Now I finally have the opportunity to love God with all my soul, will I not take advantage of this?” He died with the verse, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” on his lips, the last phrase that a Jew must utter before dying.