What did we learn from the Great Rebellion?

I believe there are three central lessons we can learn from the great rebellion.

WIND TURBINES pictured in the Golan Heights. (photo credit: REUTERS)
WIND TURBINES pictured in the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I was standing in the old synagogue in the Golan Heights, imagining what life was like here less than 2,000 ago when tens of thousands of Jews lived and flourished in this area. In the year 66, Josephus – then the commander of the Galilee – prepared the city for a rebellion against Rome, and rebel they did. After crushing the people of Gamla and the Golan, the Romans continued to Jerusalem, when they devastated the city, destroyed the Temple, and put an end to Jewish sovereignty. Two thousand years later, proud and sovereign Jews are blessed to be able to stand in those same places. It’s at that point that I wonder: what is the lesson? Is there anything we can learn from the horrible consequences of our rebellion?
Sure, there is the old militaristic chant echoes by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2008: “Gamla will not fall a second time.” Written in stone right near Masada is: “Masada will not fall again.” Those are not lessons learned; those are assessments, hopes and commitments, not lessoned learned. Does anyone think that any of the defenders of Gamla or Masada did believe they would fall? Of course not. They were very wrong. The decision to rebel against the Romans both in Gamla in 66 CE and the days of Bar-Kochba in 132 CE were horrifically terrible decisions. Those decisions caused the Jewish people to lose any hope of living in the land of Israel, sent hundreds of thousands of Jews to death and cruel slavery, and decimated the land of Israel. There must be something we can learn from those horrible decisions and from the unthinkably terrible consequences that followed. Sure, we can say “Am Yisrael Chai!” and look at the remarkable miracle of the Jewish revival in the land of Israel, which is true. We cannot ignore, though, the tens of millions we lost on the way in 2,000 years of persecution and expulsion. We cannot ignore the death, humiliation, subhuman conditions, trauma, poverty, assimilation and suffering that followed those rebellions. So what is the lesson? If I could speak to those people whose legacies hover over the ruins of Gamla and Masada, what would I tell them?
I do not agree with Satmar and many in the ultra-Orthodox world, who while not admitting it, concluded: do not rebel ever again. Sure, they have plenty of religious sources backing it up. The traditional Jewish approach to managing our shared destiny – learned from the post-trauma of being mercilessly crushed by the Romans – has been not to rise ever again. It makes a lot of sense. After all, the logic which must have led so many to rebel against Rome, despite the mammoth military Rome had resulted from the mindset that things cannot get worse. At the time of the great rebellion, thousands of Jews were already taken to Rome as slaves; taxes were heavy, brutal religious oppression was in places, and was no light at the end of the tunnel. If half my family were taken as slaves to Rome; if my religion declared illegal, incredible taxes placed on me, I would also think things can’t get much worse. I would probably be very open to a revolt. And so, Jews went on to rebel, just to find out that things can get far, far worse. That is why it wasn’t unreasonable for the Jewish attitude to lower our heads for the next 1,800 years, and take whatever came our way. Whether it was pogroms, massacres, humiliation, we just took it all. It is very unromantic and behavioral. We were hurt so badly we told ourselves never again.

THEN CAME the Holocaust.
Jews went with so much of what the Nazis ordered. “Der Arbeit Macht Freit,” the sign in Auschwitz read. Work and you will live. And so, we went with it. As long as we can live, we would take anything. We then woke up to the worst of all our nightmares. Six million Jews, one-third of our people, decimated. There is no question this played a significant role in the military determination of the Jews who fought for a state in Israel. Never again rebel became never again a holocaust, we must fight at any price.
So, which is it? What can we learn from the great rebellion (66-70) and the Bar-Kochba rebellion? Did we learn anything from what we have been through in the past 2,000 years? Can we learn anything from so many varying circumstances?
I believe there are three central lessons we can learn from the great rebellion.
Firstly, infighting kills. The worst events in our history are strongly associated with deep rifts in our people; the collapse of the ability to communicate, and people busying themselves with fighting one another, rather than focusing on the threats facing us from the outside. Such was the situation before the great rebellion of 66, and other major tragedies facing the Jewish people. Not long before the Assyrians conquered and expelled the Ten Tribes, those tribes set siege to the kingdom of Judea, leaving them unprepared for their next real battle. It was not the first or last time we prioritize infighting over self-defense.
Secondly, there is no eternal formula. Ultra-orthodoxy and ultra-nationalism have both been bitterly disproved over the course of our history. Situations vary and so should Jewish preparedness. To say that we must always submit to empires or that we must never do so is out of touch with reality. There is no “always.” There are radically different situations. Attaching a fixed ideology to one or the other is a huge mistake; we must consider each situation differently.
Thirdly, nationalism and religious identity can never survive without each other. I got a powerful illustration of this on my recent visit to Israel’s North. The bedrock of the communist kibbutzim and secular Zionism now filled with synagogues, Chabad centers and many religious Jews. Many of the children and grandchildren of the founders have either left the country or become religious themselves. In the shtetls? No observant Jews left there. The combination of a national and religious identity was necessary to preserve us as a nation. Neither can fully succeed without the other.
As I stood on the ruins of the ancient Jewish Golan even while looking at the renewed one, I basked in the profound meaning of a closed circle. I remembered all those who we had lost during this journey. The tens of millions of lost souls. The unfathomable amounts of pain. Still wondering what we had learned over the past 2,000 years, I was woken up from my thoughts by the sound of children playing and the sight of communities being built. I realized: we may not always know the formula for surviving as a minority, but renewal, rebuilding, and revival, have – and will – always be at the epicenter of Jewish life.