I assume I am not the only one who noticed the significance of the timing of the recent violence surrounding the Temple Mount, during the three-week period leading up to Tisha B’av. Beyond the tragic loss of life and the general frustration of having to deal with this type of disruption, the recent events also forced us to confront the insulting demand – respected by governments around the world including the White House – that our government protect a “status quo” denying any Jewish connection with the site of the Bet Hamikdash, and that we respect the sensitivities of worshipers at this “important Muslim holy site”. The sight of our government feeling compelled to capitulate to these demands was simultaneously infuriating and humiliating. I couldn’t help thinking that if we needed a reminder that in spite of all the blessed accomplishments of our generation, the Temple is still very much in ruins, we got it.
But I also noticed another irony. Remember how, just a few weeks ago, the Jewish world was up in arms about who has the right to pray at the Western Wall, in what format, and especially about who “owns” or should “control” that site? Remember the flood of angry and vicious statements, op-eds and blog posts either attacking the Reform or Conservative movements or Women of the Wall for demanding the right to non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall, or attacking the Orthodox establishment for using their political clout to prevent this? Is it not symbolic that the Temple Mount humiliations came shortly after all of these harsh attacks and mutual incriminations, and at this particular time of year? I see this as a reminder that apparently, the Jewish people – all of us – still don’t deserve access to the holy site over which we fight.
A well-known rabbinic adage (Yoma 9b) teaches that the second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. When the rabbis said this, they weren’t really speaking about petty gossip, jealousy, spitefulness and the like. Mostly, they were talking about sincere and passionate disagreements over religious, ideological and political matters.
At the end of the second Temple period, the Jewish people was divided into multiple factions who argued about the correct way to serve God, and about whether and in what manner to confront the Romans (see Josephus Flavius, The War of the Jews II 8:2, V 1, 6:1; Gittin 56a). In these debates, each side genuinely believed not only that its position was correct, but that all others were wrong and dangerous, and that nothing less than the future of the Jewish people depended on them prevailing over their opponents. The problem wasn’t the fact that they disagreed, or that each side fought for what they believed was right. Rather, the problem was how they conducted those arguments.
It is possible to respect a person while vigorously opposing his opinions. When one does so, the tone of the struggle, and the methods deemed legitimate, will be very different. Back then, though, Jews fought bitterly with one another, and all seemed to believe that the ends justified almost all means. When Jews try to defeat each other this way, we all lose. The only winners are the Romans.
To me, as we prepare again to sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the Temple, the lessons are clear. The reason we’re still banished from the Temple Mount is not because some women want to pray at the main Western Wall plaza with tefillin and Torah scrolls. And it’s also not because other Jews, who believe this is prohibited, are trying to block them from doing so. But it may well because of the type of rhetoric and methods that both sides use against each other.
Nowadays, I often hear people invoke the idea of sinat chinam, commenting how sad it is that we still haven’t learned the lessons of history. The problem is that when people say this, they are almost always criticizing other people’s behavior. Unfortunately, it is way too rare to see Jews look at themselves and make the honest admission that Tisha B’av requires: “The Lord is righteous; I have rebelled against His word…We have transgressed and rebelled, You have not pardoned…Return us to you, God, and we shall return” (Eicha 1:18, 3:42, 5:21). So for now, our enemies dance on ruins of the Temple, mocking us while we fight over the wall below.
This year, let’s try to finally learn from the past.