Somehow, I was not surprised when the first thing that came to mind after hearing that this month’s issue of Sh’ma would be about “Israel and the UN” was the Talmud.
Emmanuel Levinas, the brilliant 20th century French existentialist philosopher, was also known for his “Talmudic readings,” strikingly modern literary-philosophical readings of seemingly opaque ancient rabbinic texts. Levinas has an incredible ability to walk his readers through a seemingly meaningless, didactic discussion, revealing along the way that–in its own way–the text is dealing with the eternal problems of history and human nature.
This is an excerpt of one passage that first came to my mind, from Tractate Yoma 10a. If it feels confusing, just stick with it:
Rabbah b. Bar Hana in the name of R. Johanan, on the authority of R. Judah b. Illa’i, said: Rome is designed to fall into the hands of Persia….
Rab said: Persia will fall into the hands of Rome. Thereupon R. Kahana and R. Assi asked of Rab: (Shall) the builders fall into the hands of the destroyers? He said to them: Yes, it is the decree of the King. Others say: He replied to them: They [the Persians] too are guilty for they destroyed the synagogues (Levinas 53-54).
This would seem to be a fairly esoteric discussion about how the Rabbis, living sometime between 0 and 300 or so CE, believed the end of history would play out, based on the geopolitics of their time. Rabbah b. Bar Hana quotes a teaching that Rome – the destroyers of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE – will be punished by the Persians, who defeated the nation (Babylon) that destroyed the First Temple back in 586 BCE, and who rebuilt it afterwards, allowing the Jews to return. History, in this model, runs according to justice–the bad guys get punished in every generation by the good guys.
In this worldview, according to Levinas:
“Israel is not the actor of this politics dominated by morality….political powers are judged according to the attitude they adopt towards the Temple of Jerusalem – either as builders or as destroyers of the Temple. ‘What is good for Israel is good’ – or, in a less trivial way, the ultimate distinction between good and evil on the social and poltiical plane would stem from the possibility, for a social and political order, of coexisting with the ethical demands of Israel” (62).
Perhaps God acts in history – Levinas suggests – when other nations hold themselves to the highest ethical standards, symbolized by the land of Israel and the Temple of Jerusalem. Building is good, destruction evil.
Yet the Talmud then presents the opposite opinion as a possibility. Persia will fall into the hands of Rome. Perhaps there is no moral order in history, perhaps the builders (the Persians) can be defeated by the destroyers (the Romans), perhaps the good guys don’t always win in the end! Rab believes that history is simply the unexplainable decree of the King what Levinas describes as “indifferent to good and evil….intrinsic causality, the triumph of the strongest” (63). How can we know God’s plans? It is for us to simply accept God’s judgements as best we can, whether in our personal lives or on the stage of history.
Or, as a third option, the Talmud presents another possibility of what it was that Rab said. It is not that an inexplicable divine decree rules history, but rather that They [the Persians] too are guilty for they destroyed the synagogues. In Levinas’ words, “Persia’s hands are not pure enough to carry out divine plans…nothing can be expected from the politics of pure violence!” (63). The good guys can win, Rab seems to be saying, but only if they deserve it.
The Talmud, and Levinas, continue to debate these issues, but I found this excerpt most interesting and relevant for our particular moment in history. Is history the triumph of the strong, or the triumph of the good? And, do violent means justify righteous ends? Is the modern state of Israel now an actor on the stage of history, competing with the Romes and Persias of the world? Or is it a moral exemplar, to which the morality of Romes and Persias are compared? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
What do I believe, as an American Jew navigating my relationship with the state of Israel? I want to believe in the triumph of the good, even as I read about atrocities every day. I want to believe that the ends don’t justify the means, but cannot imagine the difficulty of actually holding to that principle. And my heart believes that the State of Israel is a moral exemplar, apart from the realities of war and diplomacy, even as my head knows that it is a real place, one of many nations in a dangerous world. Yet for me, part of my faith lies in knowing that we are charged with living in these moral gray areas, commanded to strive toward the perfect world we can envision with God’s help, even as we live in the imperfect world that we have inherited.
Levinas, Emmanuel. “Who Plays Last?: (Tractate Yoma 10a)”. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Trans. Gary D. Mole. New York: Continuum, 2007.