The secret of survival

How could the people chosen by God, in Jerusalem, the city the Holy One had designated, be defeated?

When it comes to commemorating history, we Jews are remarkably adept. Shortly we will begin a period of three weeks when we recall the events that took place in 586 BCE – nearly 2,600 years ago – leading up to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the city of Jerusalem and the exile of our people to Babylonia. Even after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern kingdom, Judah, had felt itself immune to destruction. The warnings of the prophet Jeremiah that destruction was in the offing went unheeded by the populace. How could the people chosen by God, led by a monarchy anointed by the Lord, worshiping in the Temple that was God’s dwelling, in Jerusalem, the city the Holy One had designated, be defeated? And yet it was. From then on Judaism was permeated by an element of sadness and mourning such as it had never known since the days of the Exodus.
The Babylonian Exile was a moment of crisis, a time of despair. One can sense it in the book of Lamentations. Chapter two, for example, is a lament describing the terrible destruction and suffering as resulting from God’s actions – “He has torn down without pity; He has let the foe rejoice over you...” (2:17). The conclusion of the book is one of gloom and despair – “For truly You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us” (5:22). No wonder that when we read Lamentations, we add a repetition of the previous verse which at least sounds a note of hope: “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old” (5:21).
Although the exile was not prolonged, since Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylonia and allowed them to return in 538 BCE, during those years the exiled Judeans had no way of knowing when it would end, if at all. Some of them gave up hope and said, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands, worshiping wood and stone” (Ezekiel 20:32). They would assimilate and become like the Babylonians. Yet that did not happen.
Three things contributed to the fact that they remained true to their identity in Babylonia. First, the teachings of the prophets of the exile, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah (the unknown prophet whose words begin in Isaiah Chapter 40), had an enormous effect. Ezekiel told them that the Lord would bring them out of their exile and renew the covenant with them (Ezekiel 20:33-38). Second Isaiah assured them that God had not abandoned His people, forgave them and would comfort them, leading them in rejoicing to Zion just as He had led them earlier out of Egyptian bondage (Isaiah 40:1-11).
Second, their belief in the one and only God made it impossible for them to simply adopt the ways and beliefs of their host country. To them the worship of these many gods in the form of idols was, as they themselves put it to Ezekiel, merely “worshiping wood and stone.” Even though they may have strayed from the terms of the covenant, the teachings of Moses concerning one God and one alone, above nature and fate, completely different from polytheistic belief, remained strong.
And finally, they developed ways of study and worship,proto-synagogues, where they could gather, pray and, most of all, studythe sacred traditions that had developed over the centuries. Even thosewho chose not to return to Judea when given the opportunity (and thatwas the majority) remained Jews.
Thus the experience of exile in Babylonia paved the way both for thereturn and the re-creation of a national home in Eretz Yisrael and forthe existence of Diaspora communities. When the Second Temple wasdestroyed in 70 C.E. and the new exile began, Judaism was prepared forit even though it lasted for some 1,900 years, to be ended only in 1948with the creation of the State of Israel.
The three elements that helped us survive as Jews in Babylonia andlater in Europe and elsewhere, are important today as well, both in theDiaspora and in Israel. They are: a strong belief in the importance anddestiny of the Jewish people; a belief in the religious teachings ofour tradition; the existence of institutions of learning and worshipwhere Jews can strengthen their identity.
The question we all face in this new emancipated secular age, however,is: Can we find the same strength in our tradition that our ancestorsfound in theirs? The answers are not simple and require some creativethought on the part of our leaders. One thing is certain: Unless peoplefind meaning in their Judaism, they will not identify with it in theDiaspora when opting out is so simple. Even in Israel Jewishness caneasily be supplanted by a kind of bland Israeli nationalism divorcedfrom our traditions and beliefs, thus tearing asunder the fabric ofJudaism that has endured and grown over nearly 4,000 years. That indeedwould be a cause for lamentation.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the MasortiMovement and the author of several books, the most recentbeing Entering Torah.