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(photo credit: )
Next week, as mourners converge on Jerusalem the way they have been doing every Ninth of Av since 71 CE, Jews the world over will recall matter-of-factly that the temples were destroyed "for unwarranted hatred." Who can disagree? In this case, faith and research concur.
Yet this pertains to the Second Temple, the one that was built by Herod and torched by Titus after its defenders, while braving Roman arrows, found time to betray, starve and knife each other. Less thought is paid to the circumstances of the First Temple's destruction some five centuries earlier.
True, biblical Judah's catastrophe is the focus of the graphically morbid Lamentations ("Alas, women eat their own fruit, their new-born babes! Alas, priest and prophet are slain in the sanctuary of the Lord!") whose public reading launches the fast. Yet that tragedy is more distant, and less documented, than the one we were handed by Rome.
The Second Temple is a vivid memory. We have accurate descriptions of its architecture; we know its remaining wall intimately; we have surveyed its model thoroughly; we are deeply aware of its reputation as one of the ancient world's most inspiring wonders; and even gentile chroniclers attest that our forebears flocked there in the hundreds of thousands to celebrate the Jewish holidays.
Moreover, the Second Temple could have been saved, had the Judeans been less fanatic. Maybe we are influenced by historian Josephus Flavius's pro-Roman inclination and maybe by the Talmud's anti-rebel bias, but the fact is that unless it felt provoked, Rome tolerated other religions.
Not so the First Temple.
Solomon's Temple was stormed by a stampeding empire that tore apart whatever stood in its way. Faced with such imperial ferocity, what could tiny Judah have done?
Well, by the time of Jeremiah and Nebuchadnezzar, there really was little that could be done, but back when the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land, there was plenty that could have been done, had the Israelites possessed political vision.
EVEN BEFORE setting foot in the Promised Land some one-fifth of the Israelites told Moses plainly: "Do not move us across the Jordan." Moses's reply - "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?" - reminds some of today's haredim and others of the Wandering Jew, hedonistic Tel Aviv or Gush Emunim's settlers and, at any rate, exudes fear of secession. Yet the ancient Israelites' political tragedy lay less in that episode's origins and more in its aftermath.
Moses, whose upbringing in an imperial court made him loathe governmental arbitrariness, treated the eastbound tribes' request morally rather than politically. Once they promised to fight with their brethren - a promise they later fulfilled to the letter - he was fine. Thus, haphazardly, the tribes who until then were passive objects of history were allowed to become active subjects of history, shapers of their own destiny, actual political actors.
Suspicions emerged already upon the eastern tribes' arrival at the Jordan's west bank, where they built an altar through which they hoped to cement ties among the tribes, only to be so badly misunderstood that they were nearly attacked by the western tribes for ostensibly courting idolatry. Within several generations, the tribe of Ephraim actually provoked a clash east of the Jordan only to be mass-slaughtered there, and the river was painted red with the blood of 42,000 Israelites - roughly twice the fatalities the modern State of Israel has suffered in all its wars.
Now one wonders: To what extent did those warring tribes share a heritage? How much of what Moses had bequeathed them did they observe, or at least recall? If they were so pious that they were prepared to kill and die over a rumored attempt by the eastern tribes to build an idolatrous altar, chances are they also observed a Sabbath of some sort or held a Passover meal, as their forebears had been commanded to do while standing shoulder to shoulder at Mount Sinai.
Can it be that while driving swords, spears and daggers through each other those Israelites all wore, say, the tzitzit? Clearly, they spoke the same language, the only difference being that these said shibboleth and those sibbolet. Even more clearly, the Bible is filled with tales of such intra-Israelite wars. Did they really have to happen?
In acquiescing to a semi-secessionist initiative, Moses - whose disdain for strong government made him avoid recommending the establishment of a monarchy - paved the way for the Israelite equivalent of what is known in American history as "states' rights."
Some - from Medieval commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, who was traumatized by his failure to avert the Spanish Expulsion, to modern philosopher Martin Buber, who was traumatized by the Nazi rise to power which he witnessed - romanticized the Israelite tribes' loose federation of peaceful peasants, who when necessary knew to combine their powers, whether to fend off invaders or to punish their own criminals, as they did to Benjamin when it sheltered the perpetrators of an innocent woman's gang-rape and murder.
The problem was only that the tribal instinct was legitimized, in fact nurtured, in a way that proved fatal.
FEDERATIONS always have the same dilemma: How much local power. Often the debate is decided violently, but even then, to survive in the long term, the federation must address the tribal instinct, whether by suppression, appeasement or both.
The Israelite federation failed at this, as not even David's might and Solomon's vision could properly cement it once both men died. During the 500 years between the crossing of the Jordan and the destruction of Samaria, there were hardly five generations of Israelite unity. With Solomon's death, the united Israelite kingdom unraveled much the way the Yugoslav federation did following Tito's death.
Had the Israelite federation remained intact, it may have stood up to the Assyrians who destroyed Israel and the Babylonians who destroyed Judah. Tragically, their unresolved conflict made Judah and Israel face each other for centuries the way the Confederacy and Union would have done had neither prevailed over the other, thus making it impossible for either to produce the superpower we all now take as a given.
Who knows what course history would have taken had the Israelite kingdom not split? Perhaps we could have been spared the centuries of wandering, fearing, apologizing, hiding, bickering, bleeding, fasting and lamenting to which our ancestors were condemned because their ancestors never bothered bridging the rivers that ran between them? And since we can't answer this hypothetical question, can we at least agree this Ninth of Av that we modern Israelis had better learn to compromise our own sectarian convictions or we'll end up where Solomon's Temple did?
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