An Israeli poll in 2017 found that politicians are the most widely seen culprits for Israeli society’s deep rifts, according to fully 75% of Israeli Jewish respondents, and 67% said Ultra-orthodox rabbis and their religious establishment were also to blame. Now, after 5 years and 4 elections, the rifts have gotten worse.
In the State of Israel, where millions of Jews live together in one small geographic area, there are, and have always been, a dozen (sometimes 15+) Jewish political parties.
Is a community as divided and fragmented as Israel currently is, not in danger of disintegrating or being destroyed by its enemies? According to Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 29c,) “Rabbi Yohanan said that Israel did not go into exile until there were “twenty-four (divisive) sects.”
This means that some divisions (less than two dozen) are normal and necessary; but too much division (more than two dozen) is destructive.
Just as every human body is a total unity divided into many different parts (organs, bones, personality types etc.), social, political and religious bodies are also made up of many different religious, social and political parties.
Thus, while Judaism and the Jewish People have always been one religion and one nation; their one wholeness has always been the sum of many different parts.
In Biblical days, the People of Israel were divided into three or four distinct groups based on the number of Mitsvot (religious duties) they were expected to do.
First, the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into Levites, who were responsible for running the Temple in Jerusalem, and the remaining eleven tribes; with more Mitsvot applying to the Levites than the rest of Israel.
Second, the tribe of Levy was divided into the clan of Kohanim, who were responsible for the Temple service ritual offerings; and the other clans who were just regular Temple Levites, with the Kohanim being responsible to do many more Mitsvot than even the Levites.
Third, all Israelites were divided by gender; with many more Mitsvot applying to men than to women.
Although the Jerusalem Temple has not existed for more than nineteen centuries, remnants of these distinctions still do exist in Orthodox Synagogues, where there is a fixed order of four distinct hereditary categories in which Jews are called up to read Torah
First Kohanim, second Levites, third Jewish men in general and fourth; Jewish woman, who are not called up to read Torah at all.
In Conservative Synagogues there are only the first three categories, and in Reform Temples where tribal and gender equality is stressed there is only one category: Jews.
The new groups, parties and sects within the Jewish People in the post Biblical period were no longer tribal and inherited. They were geographical and cultural i.e. Hellenistic Jews and Israeli Jews; religious i.e. Scribes Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and political; Herodians, Zealot and Sicari anti-Roman revolutionaries and disciples of the sages/rabbis.
In Medieval times diversity among new groups was reduced and constricted primarily to geography; Sephardim and Ashkenazim and to some extant to philosophy; Karaites, Kabbalists and Talmudists.
However, the Ashkenazim in the modern age are divided into several religious sects: Hassidim, Anti-hasidim, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Renewal and other smaller groups.
So, is the warning of Rabbi Yohanan that Israel did not go into exile until there were “twenty-four devisive sects” still valid today? Yes and no.
Some divisions are normal and necessary, especially in the realm of religion. As Thomas Jefferson said: “The maxim of civil government being opposite that of religion, where its true form is: ‘Divided we stand, united we fall.'” But when religions get political then extreme and intolerant division is destructive.
As we have seen, from the time of Jacob’s descendants Israel has been divide into twelve tribes. From the time of Aaron descendants, the tribe of Levy has been separated from the other tribes.
From some time after the Maccabbees the Essenes and the Pharisees separated (Pharisee means separatist) from the Sadduces and by the first century there were over a dozen separate religious and political parties in Israel.
But even so there did not have to be fragmentation and destruction. The sin that caused the destruction of Jerusalem was that political and religious extremism led to unrestricted, unlimited hate.
As Eichah Rabbah 1:33 teaches: “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which existed in it: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. …But why was the Second Temple destroyed, since at that time people were involved in study, mitzvot, and deeds of kindness? Because at that time there was senseless hatred among the Jewish people. This teaches that senseless hatred is as powerful an evil as idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined!”
What kind of hatred and intolerance was there? After the disaster our sages said (note that all of these things were done only by some Jews): Jerusalem was destroyed only because of:
her laws were based on the strict letter of the Torah and not interpreted by ways of mercy and kindness,
the morning and evening prayers were abolished.
the school age children who remained untaught.
the people who did not feel shame (at their hatred) toward one another.
no distinction was drawn between the young and the old.
one did not warn or admonish (against hating each) other.
much of scholarship and learning was despised.
there were no longer men of hope and faith in her midst.
(Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, citing Shabbat 119b, Yoma 9b, Tosefta Menahot 13:22, Yalkut Shimoni Isaiah 394, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 15:11)
Or as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (who was there) remarked in the account of Kamza and Bar Kamza,
“Through the strict scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas our homeland was destroyed, our
Temple burnt, and we ourselves were exiled from our land.” (Gittin 55b-56a)
The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) relates that Rabbi Hanina said, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants did not reprove one another. Israel in that generation kept their faces looking down to the ground and did not reprove one another.” Rabbi Hanina doesn’t mention any one specific action that was so reprehensible that it doomed the city.
Perhaps it was something like the decision of some ultra-Orthodox Rabbis to declare null and void the conversions of thousands of Jews, by proclaiming the radical innovation of ‘retroactive annulment’ of thousand of orthodox conversions that took place in Israel in previous years. The sad fact is that most other Rabbis in Israel failed to publicly reprove these zealots for violating the Torah’s commandments to both love converts and not in any way oppress them.
Thus, it was not just the variety of parties and sects that doomed Jerusalem in the first century. It was the ‘unrestrained hatred’ resulting from the strict, uncompromising, overly self-righteous, intolerance of many of the parties that doomed Jerusalem.
That is why our sages decreed a special blessing to be said when we see a very large population of Jews, who because of their great numbers must include more sects of Jews than we ourselves usually associate with: “Blessed is the Sage of Esoterica, for the opinion of each (Jew) is different from the other, just as the face of each (Jew) is different from the other.” (Berakhot 58a)
The problem was not that they differed with each other. The problem was that some of them hated each other with a hatred that was unrestrained by their teachers, and unfettered by the leaders who were close to them. Although teaching this blessing was to late to save Jerusalem and its Holy Temple, our sages learned a very important lesson from that bitter experience.
This lesson and this blessing needs to be relearned by all Jewish political and religious leaders today, so that Jerusalem will not again be destroyed.