(RNS) — “OK, Rabbi. You told us what happened on Tisha B’Av, on the ninth day of Av. The Temples were destroyed, as well as other terrible things that happened to the Jewish people.
“Do we know what happened the day after — like, say, on the 10th of Av?”
Let’s imagine the 10th day of Av, or thereabouts, in the year 70 of the Common Era.
The Talmud (Gittin 56b) tells the following story.
Jerusalem was in flames. In utter despair, the Jews put their quite-alive leader, Yochanan ben Zakkai, into a coffin, so that they could smuggle him out of Jerusalem.
The Roman soldiers spotted the procession. They demanded that the Jews halt, and then asked: “Who is in the coffin?”
The Jews responded: “Our teacher and leader, Yochanan ben Zakkai, has died.”
The soldiers replied: “Then let us pierce the coffin with our spears, to make sure that he is really dead!”
“How can you do that? It is bad enough that our teacher has died; would you now desecrate his body?”
The soldiers allowed them to pass.
When they were outside the walls of Jerusalem, Yochanan leaped out of the coffin — and saw the Roman general, Vespasian, and greeted him: “Hail, Emperor of Rome!”
This did not endear Yochanan to Vespasian. “I am not the Emperor. I am merely a general.”
Moments later, a messenger arrived on horseback. He told the general that the emperor had died, and that the general was to take his place.
Grateful to Yochanan, the general, now emperor, asked him: “What can I give you as a reward?”
To which Yochanan famously replied: “Give me Yavneh, and its sages.”
At Yavneh, south of modern-day Tel Aviv, the sages of Jerusalem knew that they faced the mother of all existential problems.
Their Judaism had centered itself on the Temple in Jerusalem — the place of pilgrimage, national gathering and sacrificial offerings.
What would they do, now that the Temple was in ashes? What would they do when they could no longer offer sacrifices?
In retrospect, their solution was brilliant, revolutionary and the epitome of religious adaptation.
As Jewish Renewal Rabbi Marcia Prager put it: The rabbis at Yavneh were the midwives of a paradigm shift.
No more altar in Jerusalem? OK. They would relocate Judaism from the Temple to the home — more precisely, to the table. That would become their new sacrificial altar.
Can’t sacrifice lambs anymore at the Temple for Pesach? OK. We move the whole thing to the table in the home. We institute the Passover Seder. We start working on the Haggadah.
Can’t offer sacrifices anymore? We cope. We create a new religious language — of prayer, Torah study and mitzvot.
While they were at it, the sages in Yavneh decided what books would be included in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), and which would be left on God’s cutting room floor. They reestablished the Sanhedrin, the legal system of ancient Judaism. They formulated the Amidah, the classic statement of Jewish prayer.
That whole scene where Yochanan leapt out of the coffin?
That is a fantasy of resurrection. For that is exactly what the sages did. In Yavneh, the sages resurrected — we might say rebooted — Judaism.
One year at Yavneh, Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbat. Yochanan ben Zakkai did the unthinkable. He blew the shofar.
Outrageous! Completely contrary to tradition! How could Yochanan have done such a thing?
We must blow the shofar, Yochanan said, because it is a wake-up call. Not just the Temple, but our entire world of meaning has disappeared. We cannot bring that world back, but perhaps the blasts of the shofar can inspire us to create anew.
Over the past 2,500 years, Jews have heard the story of Yavneh, and they have internalized that story as their own wake-up call.
Zeitlin dreamed of creating an intentional, elite community of young Jews who would reinvigorate Judaism with the spiritual energy and enthusiasm of Hasidism. Their new Yavneh would replenish modern Judaism’s storehouses of study and activism.
Zeitlin died on the road to the Treblinka death camp on Sept. 2, 1942, wrapped in a tallit and tefillin. With his death, his dream died, as well.
In 1960, young Orthodox Jewish students dreamed of a new Yavneh. They wanted a new kind of spiritual invigoration, of not only ethnic pride and socializing, but of religious intensity. Yavneh would become the name of their college organization, which would be guided by such luminaries as Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg. Yavneh was short-lived; by 1980, it had folded.
In the 1970s, the “guru” of Jewish Renewal, the late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, picked up the sparks from the ashes of Zeitlin’s dream and once again dreamed of a new Yavneh.
Is there a problem with the story of Yavneh? In the words of my teacher, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the story of Yavneh is actually the story of an exclusive Judaism.
Think about it. Yochanan ben Zakkai flees from Jerusalem with several of his students. He leaves the other Jews of Jerusalem behind. He asks for Yavneh as a city of refuge. As he does this, he is bowing down to Roman authority and ingratiating himself to Roman authority. True, he saves Judaism and/or leads the process to reimagine a Judaism without the Temple. But, it comes with a price.
There is, however, a second story of renewal after the catastrophe. It is a story that I have only recently learned from Yehuda. It might be a better story.
It is the story of Usha, a city in the Western part of Galilee. It was to that city, as well as to Yavneh, that some sages also fled. They moved the Sanhedrin from Yavneh to Usha, and then from Usha back to Yavneh, and a second time from Yavneh back to Usha.
The leader in Usha was Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. There, the sages did not exactly reinvent Judaism, but they made many reforms.
These are my favorites:
They ruled that if people knew that the president of a Jewish court had behaved badly, the first resort was not to excommunicate him. Rather, they would ask him to “show self-respect” by resigning his post. If he persisted in the same act, only then would the community excommunicate him.
They ruled that it would be unlawful for any person to be wasteful with his own money, goods or property. They were not allowed to give more than one-fifth of their money to tzedakah, so that they themselves would not have to become the recipients of tzedakah.
They ruled that young people could read publicly from the Megillah on Purim.
They ruled that parents could compel their children to have an education.
And then, we have this amazing teaching from the midrash (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:5):
At the end of the persecution our rabbis entered Usha (followed by their names) … They sent a message to the house of the Elders of the Galilee and said, “All who have already studied, let them come and teach, and all who have not yet studied, let them come and study.”
Amazing! They issued a general invitation. If you have studied, then come teach. If you have not studied yet, come learn. They basically said: The study of Torah is open to everyone. Anyone can become a student, and anyone can become a teacher.
And then, this is what follows. “They entered, and learned, and met all their needs.”
Not just their intellectual needs; all their needs. As a response to persecution; as a result of trauma — what did these refugees from Jerusalem do?
They created a genuinely open and diverse community — not only of those who learned, but of those who cared.
In a time that has seen, and continues to see, its own version of trauma — this plague that has not yet abated — I think that this is what people need from their religious communities.
The three Cs: community, content and caring.
Sign me up.
Who else is in?