Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and the “Portable Fatherland”
In a fascinating narrative in the Talmudic tractate of Gitin (56b), we are told that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, outstanding leader of the Jewish people during the days in which the Roman Empire invaded the land of Israel, was confronted with a question of life and death. Vespasian, who would soon become the new Roman emperor, had brought the Jews to total exhaustion after years of intensive battles. Yerushalayim had fallen, people were dying, there was nothing to eat and complete despair had overtaken the Jewish community. At any moment the (second) Temple would be destroyed. There was no way the Jews could rid themselves of the enemy, and only one question remained. Do they surrender and save whatever could be salvaged, or do they fight until the death without any hope or future?
Rabbi Yochanan, no doubt a “moderate”, made a crucial decision which would save Judaism for all centuries and signal a great message to all future Jews. He asked to see Vespasian. Following the suggestion of Rabbi Yochanan’s nephew Aba Sikra, his disciples hid him in a coffin, smuggled him out of the besieged city of Yerushalayim and brought him to the future emperor. When asked why he came to see Vespasian, Rabbi Yochanan responded that the Jews were willing to surrender, on one major condition: “Give me Yavne and its sages.” (The city of Yavne was known to be the home of many influential sages, the center of Jewish learning and the seat of an outstanding Beth Din – rabbinical court.)
This seemed to be a minor request and Vespasian agreed, seeing no harm in such a humble petition. Little did he know that this agreement ultimately led to the Jews outliving the Romans for thousands of years. Nor did the Jews who opposed this capitulation to Rome realize that Rabbi Yochanan’s agreement with Vespasian was not a sign of weakness but in fact a heroic deed resulting in a splendid victory.
What Rabbi Yochanan understood was that the issue of Jewish survival was not dependant on the possession of the land of Israel, nor on an army, but rather on an identity and an ideology. While in the case of any other nation the possession of a country would be crucial and without it there would be no chance for survival, regarding the Jewish people this would not be true. Although Rabbi Yochanan did not deny the centrality of the land of Israel, he knew that Jews could continue to be a people even without a land. It would be dangerous and far from ideal. It would cause unparalleled harm and bring the Jewish people to the edge of its survival capacity. But if needed, it would work.
However, it required a most unconventional move which would turn the Jewish people on its head. It needed the creation of what Heinrich Heine called a “portable fatherland.” This “land” was to be created from the very components of which the old covenant with God was made: the Torah. It would allow the Jewish people to carry this portable country, in the form of the biblical text, into the lands of exile.
Rabbi Yochanan realized that it was not the land of Israel which had given birth to the Torah, but that the Torah had given birth to the uniqueness of the land. In fact, it was not so much the love of the land which motivated the Jews to stay Jews, but rather the ongoing love affair, one of the greatest of all time, with a single text.
Still, it was not just the plain text which would accomplish this goal; it was the encounter with the biblical text which would keep the Jews alive in exile. A constant dialogue with this text would transform the Jews into an eternal people. It was the enduring interpretation of the text which would guarantee Israel’s capacity to overcome all of its enemies. As long as the Jews kept studying this text, the Jewish people would not die.
But even more was needed. It also required that Jews throughout all the generations would engage in conversation with the great sages of the past. They would argue with them as if they were alive, as if sitting at their feet in the great Talmudic academies and studying this text. Landless and powerless, they would inhabit a mental universe where the horizons in space and time would be vaster than the sum total of their enemies’ empires. It was this realization which prompted Rabbi Yochanan to “surrender” to Vespasian. He knew very well that it would lead to an unprecedented victory which would outlive the Roman Empire and ultimately bring the Jews back to Israel. It was for this reason that he uttered his historic words, “Give me Yavne and its sages.” By obtaining this concession from Vespasian, he not only safeguarded the Torah and its sages, but above all the people of Israel. By laying the foundations for the portable land of the Jews, he in fact had guaranteed their glorious future.
Still, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai realized that that was not all. It would not just be the engaging with the text that would lead to Israel’s survival, but its translation and its encounter with day to day life. Unlike the great academies of Greece, it was not the theoretical study which the sages of Yavne would cause to prevail. Rabbi Yochanan fully understood that Greek philosophy would only reach a limited elite body of students and, more importantly, that philosophy was truth thought but not truth lived. By giving the sages of Yavne the opportunity to continue their studying and teaching, Rabbi Yochanan knew that for truth to remain truth they would ensure that what they taught was also, and above all, to be lived. They would make sure that “ought” would become “is”. The integrity of the sages of Yavne guaranteed that Jews would never succumb to moral bankruptcy as in the case of the Greeks and others who “taught ethics and law but did not deliver”. It was not philosophy which they taught, but life; not faith taught, but faith lived. As Franz Rozenzweig so aptly said, “It is in the deed that one really hears; it is in the performance of a religious act that one becomes a man of faith.”
Shavuoth is therefore not just the celebration of the giving of the Torah many thousands of years ago, but also the commemoration of Rabbi Yochanan’s heroic deed. His surrender turned out to be a victory which brought Jews back home nearly two thousand years later. And he simultaneously sent a message to all the inhabitants of the land in our own generation. The real weapon against our enemies is not the land or its army, but rather the “portable fatherland”.