“What is your Jerusalem?”
I asked my group one morning, on an old city Jerusalem rooftop. It was a Friday in July, and we had been working on similar questions all morning. The group pondered the question for a while, and then one participant, a Muslim Palestinian teen decided to take a go at it. She spoke of her core tenets of faith. Of the role of religion in her life and of those elements that are ‘make or break’ for her. She was not off-topic, for the question was not asked superficially, but rather, Jerusalem was a metaphor for what they could never give up. The core of their very being, their redline. I was leading an interfaith group of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans on an educational journey, through the streets of our city, to that place that has no answers.
I wanted them to speak of the space where their Jerusalem’s collide — to that space in which our beliefs contradict the very essence of the other who is our neighbour.
The teens worked on it for a while, and I didn’t go easy on them; challenging each answer as they made their way into our circle. I wanted to enter that uncomfortable space where tolerance no longer informed our actions, a sphere beyond the borders of pluralism that challenges the peacemaker in every one of us. To create moments of cognitive dissonance that leave us confused and wondering about our true “ism’s” in life. When all is said and done, I wanted to know — what hierarchy of values will drive your action, what will come first? Will we follow the doctrines of our faith, or will co-existence triumph?
I was hoping to bring our conversation from the educational theory to our physical reality, to really talk about Jerusalem. But the sun was pounding down on us, and the gurgling of someone’s stomach reminded me that despite my own Spartan ways, the group needed to eat. So I let it be, and the question was left on a Jerusalem rooftop, while the rest of us went to eat lunch in the Muslim Quarter.
One thousand nine hundred fifty years ago Yohanan Ben Zakai took leave of Jerusalem. The story in the Talmud tells how he made his way out of the besieged city by faking his death and presented himself to Vespasian; the general soon to be emperor. When asked by Vespasian for his will, Ben Zakai turned his back on Jerusalem and asked for three things; the city of Yavne and her sages, the ensured survival of Rabbi Gamliel’s line and the guaranteed survival of the High Priest and his line. By doing so, the Talmudic narrative claims that he saved the Jewish people from annihilation.
Rabbi Akiva though disagrees and states that even the wisest of people can lose their wit at times, leading the claim along with others that Ben Zakai should not have given up on Jerusalem.
The two opinions reflet one of the great rhetorical questions; When should one persist and follow through and when should one recognize failure, cut their losses, and begin again?
While Ben Zakai chose to give up on Jerusalem and start a new, Rabbi Akiva would burn on the stake after spiritually leading the second rebellion for Jerusalem. Some applauded R. Akiva for his bravery and tenacity; others admonished him for the irresponsible exploit of leading the Jewish people; who had no significant military might, against the Roman Empire. A perhaps brave, but foolish action that led to far greater destruction and one that would put the very existence of the Jewish people at stake.
Ben Zakai, on his part, may have cut his loses. But then, led the Jewish people through one of the most significant theological reforms Judaism has ever seen — shifting the focal point of Judaism from the Temple to one focused on the study Torah, prayer and community. Words would take the place of sacrifice; Rabbis would take the place of Priests. The change would not be superficial, to say the least — It would completely change the core tenets of the faith, but many would argue that in doing so, Ben Zakai saved Judaism.
While there is much to say for compromise, one can’t help but wonder; who would we be as a nation if we always gave up on Jerusalem? Are there not times when one must stick it out and fight for what they believe in?
Radical compromise can often be just as devastating and also lead to Jewish demise. The Ben Zakai mindset had Jews bow their heads for the last 2000 years while suffering massacres, pogroms and the holocaust. It was the ‘Rabbi Akivas’ who blew wind into our sails and gave our people direction. It was the ‘Rabbi Akivas’ who gave shape to our redemption and led the Jewish people out of the Diaspora to a State of their own.
Ben Zakai acknowledges this possibility. Giving up on Jerusalem plagued him his entire life. It is told that on his deathbed he shared this with his disciples, pondering his actions and their consequences and concludes: “Furthermore there are two roads [before me], one of Gan Eden the other of Gehenna and I do not know down which one I will be led” [Berachot: 28b].
The final words to leave his lips being -
“Sanctify the vessels from their impurity and prepare the seat for Hezekaiya — the King of Judah who has come”.
While somewhat cryptic, it is clear that in his dying breath Ben Zakai was not satisfied that his compromise was warranted. Should he have fought for Jerusalem?
With his death, the Talmudic question remains open to inspire generations to come.
Yet despite his uncertainty, one would be wise to remember that we are the decedents of the ‘Ben Zakai’s’ of this world. While the ‘Rabbi Akivas’ fight and perish, it is the Ben Zakais who survive and continue the legacy.
Now it is left to me to take inspiration from Both Rabbi Akiva and Ben Zakai, to share in the uncertainty.
I am a peacemaker; I teach compromise at every turn. But I deeply believe that this process must begin by clearly defining ones Jerusalem. Only when we know who we are, understand our red lines, what we can’t compromise on, what we are willing to die for — can we begin the process of compromise and creating the reality that we want to live for.
It goes deeper still. Those who know themselves, know their borders and feel secure in them tend to be more peaceful people. In my work, I have often found that when people don’t have a base to stand on, they grow fearful, which in turn can lead to hatred and violence. We must spend the time to get to know ourselves, get to know our values, get to know our limits and limitations — we must recognize when we can’t coexist so that we might coexist.
It may sound like a contradiction, but a peacemaker must always contend with the ultimate Tisha B’av question; When do they compromise on Yavne and when do they fight for Jerusalem?
Only then, can we come together to begin rebuilding the City of Peace.