One of the best known stories in the Talmud is that of 'Qamtza and Bar Qamtza' (Gittin 55b). The story is cited all of the time as an expression of the causeless hatred (sin'at hinam) that brought about the destruction of the Second Temple (cf. Yoma 9b). There is, however, another person who figures prominently in the story. His name was R. Zechariah b. Avqulas. [I addressed another aspect of this story here.] Little is known about R. Zechariah b. Avqulas, aside from his role in the Qamtza/Bar Qamtza story.
Briefly, according to the Gemora, Bar Qamtza travelled to Rome and claimed that the Jews were in revolt against him. Nero chose to test the Jews by sending a sacrificial animal to be offered on his behalf in the Temple. If the Jews offered the animal, it was a sign that they remained loyal and if not, their refusal would be a clear declaration of rebellion. Bar Qamtza, however, owing to his deep resentment of a slight he felt he had received at the hands of the rabbis was intent upon proving the Jews to be in rebellion. Hence he sought to prevent the offering of the animal. This he achieved by splitting the lip of the animal, thereby rendering it unfit according to Halakhah. His choice of blemish was ingenious. For, while such a physical imperfection was recognized as such according to Jewish Tradition, it did not disqualify a sacrficial animal according to pagan lore. Hence, reasoned Bar Qamtza, the Jews would refuse to offer the sacrifice for reasons which Nero would take to be unsatisfactory at best and disingenuous at worst. In any event, Roman retaliation would be assured and Bar Qamtza's lust for vengeance satisfied.
The Talmud recounts, that upon receiving the animal from Nero and the rabbis realized that Bar Qamtza had maneuvered them into a corner. They expressed their determination to offer the animal in any case in order to avert the Emperor's wrath. Only one man stood against them, R. Zekharia b. Avqulos. Eloquently he countered each and every argument marshalled in favor of offering the animal. The crux of his argument? Halakhah must stand pristine under any and all circumstances. No other considerations may prevent the precise implementation of an>established halakhic ruling. In a word, 'Let the Law bore through the mountain!' ( Yiqov HaDin et HaHar). And so, the animal was not offered. Rome attacked and the rest is history.
I thought about R. Zechariah this morning when I heard two, ostensibly unrelated, news items. The first concerned the call by the former chief rabbi and the Yesha rabbinical council, for mass desertion from the army in order to prevent the retreat from Gaza. Now I personally oppose Sharon's unilateral withdrawal, which was approved in a thug-like fashion and is being carried out in the absolutely worst manner possible. Nevertheless, these rabbis are calling for the destruction of the army (and, by extension, of the country) in the name of ideological/halakhic purism. No thought is being given to the implications, both the security implications and those that relate to the social fabric of the country (or what's left of it). R. Zekharia b. Avqulos lives.
The second news item related to the Supreme Court decision to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions performed in Israel, under the subterfuge that the final ceremony takes place outside of Israel. Interestingly, in this case, all sides involved betray characteristics of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos.
The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Aharon Barak, in the name of personal autonomy and post-modern liberal theory, consistently ruled against Tradition in the Israeli Public Sphere. Justice Barak's position is a principled one, but it contradicts the collective nature of Judaism and Jewish identity. Absolute individual liberty cannot co-exist with the demands of Jewish destiny and religio-tribal identity. Nevertheless, with a consistency that is truly stunning, Barak and his court have pushed their agenda so that, eventually, the Jewish character of the state will be expressed by some vague ideals related to prophetic Judaism (whatever that is). He's said as much himself. This decision is another step in that direction, and it bodes very badly for Israel's continued existence as a Jewish State. After all, it is the tribal nature of Jewish identity that holds us together. R. Zekharia b. Avqulos lives.
The Conservative and Reform movements also act like R. Zekharia b. Avqulos. They promised to commit themselves to the truly landmark compromise known as the Neeman Commission Joint-Conversion institutes. However, despite that understanding, they continue to convert independently of the Neeman framework. In large part, this is out of a personal (potentially destructive) desire to being validated within the Israeli context. Their grievances are understandable. Their unwillingness to compromise is not. R. Zekharia b. Avqulos lives.
Finally, the Israeli rabbinate is deeply tinged with the syndrome of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos. Consistently we hear that Reform and Conservative converts turned away from the rabbinate because of the shoddy way in which they were treated. The rabbinate will not even register people who were converted by the Neeman Commission schools or by R. Haim Druckman's Bet Din. These are both Orthodox frameworks (the first, de facto and the second, de jure). By adopting a R. Zekharia b. Avqulos position the rabbinate is directly aiding and abetting the division of the Jewish people into two (or three or four). R. Zekharia b. Avqulos lives.
I think all concerned must keep in mind R. Yohanan's rueful observation that 'The punctiliousness ( anv'tanuto ) of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary and exiled us among the nations!'