Who Destroyed the Temple?
Historically speaking, there is no dispute that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans as part of the policy of subjugation of conquered peoples. The Romans are to blame for the destruction, and subsequent exile of the Jewish people. Surprisingly, however, this is not the picture that emerges from the Sages' tales of the destruction.
The first and most famous story of Sages, from a collection of aggadatot in Masachet Gittin, is the comic-tragic story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza. A mix-up of Shakespearian proportions leaves Bar-Kamtza humiliated and spurned after being thrown out of a party where all the important rabbis are in attendance, but none of them speak up in his defense. In retribution, he reports to the Romans that the Jews are rebelling against them. He suggests that the Romans send an animal offering for the rabbis to sacrifice; if they refuse, it will be proof that they are insubordinate. Bar-Kamtza makes a small blemish on the animal, rendering it unfit for sacrifice. The rabbis understand that rejecting the sacrifice will have grave consequences, and yet, after debating, they remain indecisive; and the rest is history.
This aggadah seems oddly disconnected with the historical reality of the destruction of the Temple. P
erhaps we are meant to read it through the prism of moral truth, as opposed to historical accuracy. It is very possible that the Bar Kamtza story never took place at all - and yet, there is a very strong reason why the Sages nevertheless tell it.
The most striking lesson that emerges from the story is that the destruction of the Temple could have been prevented. At every turn, there are squandered opportunities to rectify the situation. The host of the party could have backed down instead of humiliating Bar Kamtza. The rabbis could have stepped up to defend him. Bar Kamtza's own reaction could have been less extreme. Even at the point where Bar Kamtza brings the Romans into the picture – who seem to have had no previous interest in destroying the Temple – there are opportunities to thwart it. As the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza progresses, the reader is exposed to the senselessness of the destruction. Each and every key player could have prevented it; hence the central conclusion of the sages, that each of us is responsible for the destruction of the Temple.
The common denominator of the rabbinical lore, surrounding the destruction (particuarly the aggadatot pertaining to Tur Malkha, Beitar, and the siege on Jerusalem) is that it is Am Yisrael, not the Romans, who are to blame. The emphasis is not on what the external enemy did to us – but on what we brought upon ourselves, and how we became what we are.
In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 64a) it is said that "every generation that [the Temple] is not built in its days, it is as if they themselves are responsible for its destruction." While we all bear the burden of the destruction, the opposite is also true: each and every one of us is taking part in the rebuilding of the Temple, from the simplest person to the greatest leader. The rebuilding happens through the everyday actions of our life: treating each other with kindness and not fear; speaking out when another is being mistreated; treating even your enemies with humility and decency. The key to redemption is in our hands – each and every one of us.