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Jewish Factionalism: Nothing New Under the Sun


One of the traditional lessons of Tisha B’Av is that the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and factionalism.  However, factions don’t come into existence spontaneously said Rabbi Dov Nimchinsky, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Robert M. Beren Academy. There is usually a history of sociological and philosophical factors that cause their rise.

Speaking on “Factionalism in the Second Temple Period” at an August 6 Meyerland Minyan Sip of Life program, Rabbi Nimchinsky described the rise of the Sadducees and Pharisees as “one of the most significant of all the philosophical splits the Jewish people experienced”.

Many Jews were strongly influenced by Hellenism in the Second Temple period. “The Greeks had a melting pot philosophy,” said Rabbi Nimchinsky. “When they conquered a region, they maintained control by saying ‘you’re better off by becoming a Greek. Why go back to being primitive when we’ve improved your life’? And they would build infrastructures like stadiums and gymnasiums where Hellenism had its articulation.”

There’s a famous conversation in the Talmud from that period that illustrates the Jewish attitudes towards Hellenism. Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossei and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together along with Yehuda, son of Jewish converts. Rabbi Yehuda opened the conversation by saying, “How good are the deeds of this nation (that is, the Roman Empire). They built markets, they built bridges, and they built baths.” Rabbi Yossei kept silent. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai replied, saying, “All that they built, the built for themselves. They built markets, prostitutes to please them, baths to groom themselves and bridges to charge tolls.”

“The truth is,” said Rabbi Nimchinsky, “on the surface, Greek culture seemed to have a tremendous amount to offer in areas like medicine.  But at the same time, Hellenism came with a corrosive price. It was a brutal culture: a culture where pedophilia was institutionalized and where women were treated no better than cattle. There were gifts to society but at terrible costs.”

The cultural clash between Judaism and Hellenism gave rise to a faction known as the Sadducees. They accepted the written word of the Bible but rejected the Oral interpretation.

“The Sadducees were more Hellenized and less traditional,” said Rabbi Nimchinsky. “They developed a power base in the priesthood in Jerusalem among some, not all, of the priestly families.”

We know little of the belief system of the Sadducees. We do know they believed in a literalist interpretation of the Bible and rejected the Oral Law. Although religiously conservative, they were politically liberal in their willingness to incorporate Hellenistic influences into the life of the Jewish people.

Their opponents, the Pharisees, maintained observance of the oral tradition. “The oral tradition has many rules to separate Jewish practices from non-Jewish practices. So the Pharisees became known in Hebrew as perusim, or those who separate, which became anglicized to the word Pharisees,” said Rabbi Nimchinsky.

The Pharisees were religiously liberal but politically conservative in their attitude towards Hellenism. The Talmud recounts their quarrels and conflicts in ideologies as both parties fought to control the Sanhedrin, the seat of religious leadership.

The situation got more complicated after the Roman occupation. The Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus II invited Roman presence into Israel to help put down Jewish opposition to his rule.  But the Romans took more and more control until they removed the last of the Hasmonian kings.

“Roman occupation was harsh,” said Rabbi Nimchinsky. “They installed a governor or procurator. Roman military veterans were given this position for one year. This meant the governor had one year to (tax and profit) as much as possible with the backing of the army while keeping Roman law and order. Roman-backed tax collectors would go in and massacre leaders of a city as an example to those who weren’t paying their taxes. The Jews had a series of governors; one worse than the next and the situation was oppressive.

“Whenever Jews were facing oppression, they went back to Scripture to where it says G-d will rescue you. Jews began anticipating a messianic figure. So you have a number of messianic factions forming around this time.”

One of these factions was the Essenes.  Historians speculate that this splinter messianic group had a charismatic leader. They believed that if they isolated themselves from Jerusalem and followed a true path, then the prophecies will be fulfilled and the Redeemer will come. The Essenes were an example of a messianic splinter group that remained within the parameters of Jewish law.

Other messianic splinter groups dropped Jewish law. The most famous of these groups were the Christians. “They started as a Jewish group, initially claiming that Torah law was important,” said Rabbi Nimchinsky. “It wasn’t until Paul of Tarsus had his vision that the idea of not observing Jewish law comes into existence. The interesting thing about the Christians was that they remained integrated in the larger Jewish society and didn’t live in caves out by the Dead Sea.  There’s no reason to assume they were unique in that regard.”

It might appear that once the Jewish Revolt began, the Jewish community would unite in opposition to the Romans. However, factionalism increased. By the time the siege of Jerusalem began under Vespasian, many of the Jews from Judea had fled to Jerusalem. So the city was packed. Many were prepared to wait out a long siege. But factions such as the Pharisees realized they didn’t have the divine favor to deserve a miraculous divine rescue. They wanted to sue for peace to minimize loss of human life, said Rabbi Nimchinsky. “And of course, it turned out they were right.”

Opposing them were the Zealots who were convinced the Roman presence in Judea was an affront to G-d.

“The Zealots believed that G-d promised (the Jewish people) this (Roman occupation) was unacceptable. They were the hawks. Making the mix more exciting were The Friends of Rome, the wealthy families heavily influenced by or who were Sadducees. They wanted to sue for peace--not necessarily to preserve Jewish life but to preserve their own life style. Then you have the Sicarii. They were called this after the short curved daggers they carried. The Sicarii would go into crowded places, stab people in the kidneys and walk away. Their goal was to destabilize the situation in order to force a war with Rome. They were the zealous Zealots.”

Just before the destruction of the Temple, two unique personalities appeared who basically saved Judaism. One was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who faked being dead and was snuck out of the city. He negotiated with Vespasian and created the center of Jewish learning at the yeshiva of Yavne.  Ben Zakai’s successor, Rabban Gamliel, was the Nasi at Yavne.

“Rabban Gamliel preserved and protected Judaism. He changed it from a Temple-centered religion to a portable, law-centered religion. He was a tough man who had a tough job.”

It would be easy to seek lessons for today by pointing out that factionalism caused the destruction of the Second Temple. And indeed, there are some in the American Jewish community and in Israel who argue that diversity and disagreement is a negative force, something to be avoided in the name of Jewish solidarity. Yet Rabbi Nimchinsky rejects such an easy lesson.

“In areas where we disagree, it’s important to give others the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Don’t judge somebody until you’ve walked in their shoes. We have to realize we’re all one body. One Jew should not harbor dislike of another Jew any more than your right hand should dislike your left hand.”

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