Generations of rabbis and scholars have endeavored to understand the reason for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. The Talmud and Midrash propose a wide range of solutions, all of which assign the blame to the behavior of the generation that experienced tragedy. One of the most fascinating of these interpretations is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b). According to Rabbi Yohanan, “Jerusalem was destroyed because they limited their decisions to the letter of the law of Torah… and did not perform actions that would have gone beyond the letter of the law.” At first sight, this is quite astonishing, given that compliance with the laws propagated by the Torah is the consummate religious ideal. How can obedience to its precepts be cited as the reason for the tragic catastrophe of the loss of the Temple and, in its wake, the loss of sovereignty?
More generally, going beyond the strictly religious discourse, it is the law, the rule of law, that holds society together. Without it, if each person acted according to his or her own lights, we would deteriorate into total social chaos and, in the words of the Mishnah, “man would swallow his fellow alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2). How, then, can the tradition suggest that precisely the maintenance of the rule of law, religious or other, was the cause of the destruction?
Rabbi Yohanan was a member of the rabbinic elite of his age (third century C.E.). Torah law was his daily fare, and observing it the center of his life. He was no anarchist preaching civil disobedience or worse. The message he wanted to convey was that the behavioral norm of obeying the law is not enough. If you hunker down in this minimum, the final result will be the destruction of your national home.
Law — civil and religious — is a collection of behavioral imperatives that provide the negative definition of a “crime” or “sin,” with an attendant sanction for violating them. But is every behavior that is not unlawful necessarily appropriate? Is living strictly by the book a guarantee of virtue and integrity? Is “lawful” also necessarily ethical and moral?
Jewish tradition answers these questions with a resounding “no.” We are all deeply conscious of the dictum that “derech eretz (ethical conduct) comes before the Torah — the law.” Even the Lord himself must meet the obligations of ethical conduct, as may be inferred from Abraham’s protest against the impending destruction of the Cities of the Plain: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25). The late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein demonstrated that Jewish tradition recognizes the existence of a natural morality that does not depend on Halachah, and in fact precedes it. This moral code, which is not part of the binding legal system, is what Rabbi Johanan meant by “beyond the requirements of the law.” It was the people’s failure to hold to the moral and ethical principles not spelled out in the law book that led to the national catastrophe.
To jump from our ancient traditions to our national life here and now: Israel has experienced a sweeping process of “legalization,” in which every dispute and disagreement is submitted for a judicial decision. The contending parties prefer to rely on the statute book to resolve their quarrels, and feel that they are right to do so. However, life that exists exclusively in the shadow of legal norms is trivial and even cruel. The law can produce a cut-and-dried result with winners and losers, but it frequently fails to cope with the complexity of human life. When it comes to relations with other people, consideration, understanding and gentleness are required — not just the assertion of inflexible rights and duties.
There is good reason why the wisest judge of all, King Solomon, recognized that “Alongside justice there is wickedness, Alongside righteousness there is wickedness” (Ecclesiastes 3:16). The Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai observed something similar, in a slightly different context (trans. Stephen Mitchell):
“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled,
Like a yard.”
Rabbi Judah Löw, the Maharal of Prague (15th century), explained that Rabbi Yohanan did not see the destruction of the Temple and loss of sovereignty as a punishment — after all, the people were observing Torah law. Rather, the calamity was the natural outcome of a community whose behavior was based exclusively on law, without the saving grace of moral sensitivity. This is a very important message for Israel in its 71st year.
The article was first published in the Forward.