Next month, on the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, my fellow traditional Jews will mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. and the Romans in 70 C.E. We will fast, read the Book of Lamentations and recite kinot — dirges that lament those disasters.
Without doubt, the destruction of the Temples and of Jerusalem, our spiritual and political capital, were two of our most traumatic events and should be remembered.
But I maintain that the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans had several salutary effects.
When the Muslim Arabs conquered Palestine — or the Land of Israel — in 640 C.E., they in most cases permitted the small Jewish communities to continue to live as Jews under Muslim rule. But had the rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem not taken place some 500 years earlier, the Jewish community in the land of Israel would have been much bigger, almost surely too large for the Arabs to permit its continued existence. Then, Jews might have been given the choice of conversion or death, which in either case would have ended Jewish history.
The Temple’s destruction also forced us to undertake one of the Jewish people’s primary roles — spreading the word of God to the nations. By dispersing, we were able to influence many more people — including those who followed our daughter religions, Christianity and Islam — than we could have from the tiny state of Judah.
Our dispersal facilitated the evolution of Judaism from a Temple-based religion of animal sacrifice to a faith based on morality and ethics. The Bible indicates that Jews often made the required Temple sacrifices but ignored the ethical provisions of the law. When a religion centers around sacrificial rites, as Temple Judaism did, human nature may incline people to conclude that pleasing God involved paying for that goat to be slaughtered and offered up in His honor and that making sure that your employees are paid in full and on time and that your starving neighbor has food on his table were of much less importance.
Without the possibility of animal sacrifice, other aspects of the religion, under the aegis of synagogue-based Judaism. were allowed to come to the fore.
So, on Tisha B’Av, I will mourn the suffering of some 100 generations of Jews. But my sorrow will be tempered by my joy that we have survived as a people, resurrected our homeland and witnessed the evolution of Judaism from a religion based largely on animal sacrifice to one whose standards of ethics and morality have become a beacon to the world.
Aaron Leibel is a Baltimore native and former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week.