Rebuilding the stories of Jerusalem

Gershon Bar-Cochva and Ahron Horovitz have brought together disparate sources to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

The western wall when Herod expanded the Temple Mount esplanade, he built retaining walls around it. (photo credit: COURTESY MAGGID/MEGALIM)
The western wall when Herod expanded the Temple Mount esplanade, he built retaining walls around it.
It is a testament to the tenacity of the Jewish people’s collective memory that nearly two millennia after the fact, they continue to recall and commemorate the destruction of the Temple.
Historian Esther Benbassa would say this reflects the preoccupation of the Jews with their suffering, as a defining element in their self-definition. “The story of suffering stood in for history in the proper sense of the term,” wrote Benbassa, as a way of preserving “the always fragile unity of the community in the Diaspora.”
An apocryphal story of Napoleon Bonaparte, in contrast, presents a different perspective. Witnessing Jews crying over a destruction that took place so long ago, the French ruler remarked, “A nation that can mourn for so long the loss of its land and Temple will return one day to their land and see it rebuilt.”
Ahron Horovitz, director of Megalim – City of David Institute for Jerusalem Studies, would likely prefer Napoleon’s formulation to Benbassa’s.
Together with military historian Gershon Bar-Cochva, Horovitz, who describes himself as having a love for and a fascination with the Holy City since he was a young man, have brought together disparate sources – from Josephus Flavius’s The Wars of the Jews to midrashim, from Roman sources to the latest archeological findings – to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Horovitz, whom I met in the Megalim offices in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood, says that the result, A Temple in Flames: The Epic Story of the Final Battle for Jerusalem – a joint initiative between Megalim and Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem – answers a very basic need.
“Every year on Tisha Be’av when I would come home from synagogue,” relates Horovitz, “I had trouble deciding which story to tell my children about the destruction of the Second Temple.
“There are midrashim, and you tell them and they’re beautiful and important, but they are not a historical story,” Horovitz says. “Certainly there are parts that are historical in the midrash as well, but they are not a full-length movie.
They can’t compete with any story my kids would know from other sources, so I used to use Josephus because it was the only thing available.”
But he says the story from Josephus, the only historian to record the siege of Jerusalem, is too long and complicated, and often reflects the bias of the Jewish author who changed sides in the middle of the war.
“There’s no way to get the concise story [of the destruction of the Second Temple] from any single source. So I told my son that one day, somebody has to sit down and write that story in a straightforward way, and make it clear what happened in Jerusalem two millennia ago. We’d like to know. We live here; we’re part of that history and continue to live it.”
Horovitz decided to be that person.
Nowhere in the book – which includes the most up-to-date reconstruction of Jerusalem based on the most recent archeological excavations – do Horovitz and Bar-Cochva, who worked under the academic editorship of Dr. Eyal Meiron, attempt to draw parallels between the time of destruction and our own time. But when asked to, Horovitz is willing to consider the relevance of the story today.
“It’s a different story. The context is different. What’s probably most similar is actually the internal strife within the country,” Horovitz says. “I’m not going to say it’s a one-on-one [comparison], but the divisions within Jewish societies – whether they be social, religious or political – are amazingly similar.”
Before the Romans came to conquer Jerusalem, Jewish society was split into rival factions bitterly antagonistic to one other says Horovitz, and the Jews in Jerusalem lost their cohesion. This was the main cause of the destruction.
“It could have played out much differently.
That’s what our rabbis say: that baseless hatred caused the destruction. After Jerusalem fell, the Jews do not give up fighting; they continue to actively pursue the Roman army. It’s an amazing story that you can either call hard-headedness or valor.”
It is irresponsible to use these past events to predict the future, says Horovitz.
“There are many similarities, but there are also major differences, so an attempt to do a one-on-one is going to leave you extreme – and it’s wrong to do that.”
Instead, today’s society can use the history of the Jewish people as a tool, to learn from it and change the future.
“There’s one major difference [between the Jews then and now] – they didn’t have the precedent to learn from. We do, so if we don’t want to redo history, we have to learn from history. Definitely there’s a lesson to be learned, and we see the results – the disastrous results – of civil war, of baseless hatred.”
And for Horovitz, the history of the Jewish people and of Jerusalem is more than just relevant. It is also part of who he is.
He says that his love for archeology stems from his love for Judaism’s holiest city.
Both literally and figuratively, Horovitz is excavating Jerusalem’s past in search of meaning. In the process, he is transforming memories of suffering into a history that has a relevant message for Jews living in a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel.
“It’s my identity. It’s my people. It’s my story. It’s my forefathers, and I’m faced with many of the same dilemmas.
I’m living in the same place; I hold the same respect and love for Jerusalem. I hold many of the religious beliefs that they held. I’m different in other ways, in different ways, but still there’s a lot I have in common with the people who lived here. I feel a closeness. So I want to know everything.”
A Temple in Flames recounts the events that led up to the destruction. It includes pictures and illustrations of such sites as the Shiloah Pool, which was the main water source for the city of Jerusalem; the various gates to the city; the Hulda Steps; coins minted during the time of the Jewish revolt; and reenactments of Roman ballistae, uniforms and battle techniques.
Horovitz thinks the entirety of the Jewish people can benefit from learning the stories.
“Jerusalem affects us today, profoundly.
And it has to do with the history, our people and our beliefs. I think we all have a dream of Jerusalem. I think Jerusalem evokes in us something – our higher selves – and we are dreaming for that day to come, when Jerusalem will be rebuilt. We don’t really know what that means – when Jerusalem will be rebuilt – but it’s something utopian, and something we believe will make things much better,” he says.
“Jerusalem changes people’s lives. I can’t explain that. It’s something mystical, it’s something beyond the realm of logic, but it does. And that’s our consensus, to whatever extent that we have a consensus in this country: Jerusalem is surely the soul of our people.”