Beyond the Ninth of Av: Yavneh Reconsidered

“Give me Yavneh and Its Sages”: This request made by Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai of the Roman general Vespasian almost 2000 years ago has shaped and defined Jewish life and history for centuries. The request was made by Rabbi Yohanan at a dire time for the Jewish people: the Romans began a siege of Jerusalem that eventually led to their destruction of the Temple and the razing of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. It was not long before this catastrophe that the rabbi realized the revolt staged by Jews against the Roman Empire was doomed. The various Jewish Zealots leading the fight spent more time killing each other than they did the Romans. While the revolt began in 66, the Romans were successful in taking back most of Judea two years later. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s perception of the political reality was brilliant. The request to found a home for the rabbinic elite made it possible for Jewish life and faith to live on, despite the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was the center of religious, political and economic life in Judea. Its destruction confronted the rabbis with a new reality. Yavneh saved Judaism and established a Jewish autonomy that would flourish for 1800 years.
Why did the Romans grant Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s wish? According to rabbinic tradition the rabbi foretold of the elevation of the general Vespasian to the status of Emperor of the Roman Empire. When this soon took place, Vespasian granted the rabbi anything he wished. Yohanan chose Yavneh. While this tradition is no doubt flattering to the early rabbi, the likelihood is that he abandoned the Zealots in Jerusalem and surrendered covertly to the Romans and was placed in internal exile in the coastal city of Yavneh. Despite the greatness of Yavneh’s accomplishments in rehabilitating a Judaism without a Temple, Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s request has been mired in controversy. Ancient rabbis questioned why Yohanan did not request the Roman general to spare Jerusalem from being destroyed. Centuries later, many Zionist thinkers assessed Rabbi Yohanan’s surrender as being defeatist, passive and weak. These negative and condemnatory evaluations of this early rabbi ignore the great feat that he achieved.
A request to save Jerusalem from the Romans ignored the reality that the Zealots in control of the rebellion were never going to surrender to Vespasian. They would never give up Jerusalem to the Roman invaders. Rabbi Yohanan was limited in the requests that he could make. If he indeed made this request, it was the most sensible and responsible. Yavneh became the heir to Jerusalem. Saving the rabbinic elite insured the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. All the Zealots could offer was glorious death in the name of God and Israel. Masada, the last stronghold of the rebels, was a dead end, literally and historically. The rebels died as free men and women by choosing suicide. Perhaps this was heroic and an inspiration to modern Zionists—but Yavneh, quietly and without the drama of mass suicide, transformed Jewish life and faith. Masada did not. Only many centuries later did Masada emerge as a symbol of defiance and heroism.
Modern Zionists have often contrasted a vital, heroic, and honorable rebellion against Rome in Jerusalem to a defeatist, life-denying and shameful Yavneh. This failure to understand the importance of ancient and medieval autonomy paints a “lachrymose” picture of Jewish history that is a distortion of that history. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s political realism was not romantic and not monumental and not as dramatic as the heroic struggles of the Maccabees, the Zealots or Bar Kokhba. But his request was visionary. It sustained Jews in Israel and the Diaspora for almost two millennia. It is only in the modern period that the request for Yavneh is viewed as irresponsible, cowardly and fatal.
The time has come to rehabilitate Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s request for Yavneh as a watershed in Jewish history and deserving of honor and praise. There is a time to fight. There is also a time for diplomacy. With an Iran poised to go nuclear, the realities of Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS, Yavneh is not the paradigm for today. To ignore, however, its success in the Jewish past is to look at our history through a distorted lens. It is time for pilgrims to go to both Masada and Yavneh.