Anti-Imperialism, Judean Style

Note: Lew Rockwell recently linked to a story on artifacts discovered near the Dead Sea, which prompted the following.

As part of its campaign of hegemony, Rome occupied Judea in 63 B.C. and stuck around for 376 years.

Like the Hellenists who previously occupied Judea – resistance against whom is now being commemorated during the festival of Chanukah – Rome also infringed upon the inhabitants' religious traditions. For instance, it arrogated the power to appoint the Jewish high priest. (In a contemporary context, imagine Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declaring the right to appoint the next pope. "Il mio governo, la mia chiesa!" could be the slogan. ["My government, my church!"])

In 39, Caligula decreed the construction of his likeness in every temple within the empire. Not keen on desecrating their sanctuary with an idol, the Jews alone didn't follow the decree.

Caligula didn't take the news well and threatened to destroy the Second Temple. (In 586 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple built by King Solomon.) "So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity," he said. Praetorian tribune Cassius Chaerea led an assassination of Caligula in 41, which prevented a possibly genocidal reaction by him against the Jews.

Procurator Gessius Florus expropriated the Temple's treasury in 66 and sparked a rebellion lasting until 70. Emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple after suppressing the rebellion. (Today's Western Wall in Jerusalem is a remnant of the Second Temple.)

Hadrian became emperor in 118. His policies included the construction of a pagan temple in Jerusalem and deporting Jews to North Africa.

Shimon Bar Kokhba led another rebellion from 132-135. Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph supported the rebellion and, thinking its leader the Messiah, gave him the name "Bar Kokhba" (Son of the Star, in reference to Numbers 24:17). Akiva was a shepherd who had no interaction with Judaism until he was 40 and then became one of the foremost Tannaim (sages).

Hadrian crushed the rebellion with a dozen legions. He then renamed Jerusalem "Aelius Capitolinus," renamed Judea "Palestina," and criminalized Sabbath observance and religious teaching.

Rabbi Akiva continued to teach.

When one of his peers asked why he violated Hadrian's prohibition, Akiva responded with a parable:

To what is the matter like? To a fox who was walking along the banks of a stream, and saw some fish gathering together to move from one place to another. He said to them, "From what are you fleeing?" They answered: "From nets which men are bringing against us." He said to them: "Let it be your pleasure to come up on the dry land, and let us, I and you, dwell together, even as my father dwelt with your fathers." They replied: "Are you the animal who they say is the shrewdest of animals? You are not clever, but a fool! For if we are afraid in this place which is our life-element, how much more so in a place which is our death-element!" So also it is with us: If now, while we sit and study Torah, in which it is written, "For this is your life and the length of your days" (Deuteronomy 30:20) we are in such a plight, how much more so if we neglect it?

The Romans soon found out about Rabbi Akiva's activities and executed him. As they tore his flesh with iron rakes, he began reciting the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The L_rd our G_d is one L_rd" (Deuteronomy 6:4). (The Romans executed another rabbi by wrapping him in a Torah scroll and setting him on fire.)

What lesson should Jews draw from this chapter in their history? The State isn't our friend.

November 30, 2002

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