The second instalment of the CNN series on Jerusalem: the City of Faith, entitled 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great *1 tells the story of Jerusalem from the point of view of the ruling Kings of the period, their ambitions and jealousies: Herod, King of Israel, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and her Roman consort Mark Antony, Emperor of Western Rome and the ambitious Octavius.
The program makes for stimulating tv filled with plots and battles for supremacy between Egypt, Israel, and Rome, recounted by excellent contemporary historians. It is a true story that is eerily similar to Game of Thrones. The viewpoint, however, of traditional Jewish texts, Torah and Talmud, which also tells of the history of Jewish Kings of Israel, is missing.
Most relevant to the CNN series is Moses’ advice about Jewish Kings:
If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to put as King over yourself one of your people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your relative. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”
And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long amid Israel. (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20 *2)
This roadmap for a Jewish King is referenced in later historical descriptions of the history of the Jews as recorded in the later prophetic books, Samuel 1 and 2, Judges and Kings. In these canonical Jewish texts, transparency about situations, characters, motivations, and outcomes are impressive. Successes and failures are recorded along with the “sins” of both the mighty and the ordinary person.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast episode #32, Kohen vs King: Two Models of Leadership *4, points out that it is inevitable that both Kohen/Priest and King will make mistakes or “will sin.” He points out that the Torah’s prescription for recognizing and repairing errors/sins – teshuva – through acknowledging sins and ritual sacrifice is different for Priests and Kings. For example, in Leviticus, the Torah referring to the High Priest says “im-if,” “If he sins,” but when speaking about Kings, it uses the word “asher-when,” “when he sins.” Thus, the text implies that the “errors” of rulers are inevitable. Perhaps this is because the conduct of the priests as they perform their tasks of teaching, judging, and completing the rituals of sacrifice, is closely prescribed in the Book of Leviticus, but a King has to assess every situation as it arises and make his own decisions.
Rabbi Jonathon Sacks muses on the requirements for leaders and Kings.
Leaders learn. That is the principle at stake here. Yes, they have advisors, elders, counsellors, an inner court of Sages and literati. And yes, biblical Kings had Prophets – Samuel to Saul, Nathan to David, Isaiah to Hezekiah and so on – to bring them the word of the Lord.
But those on whom the destiny of the nation turns may not delegate away the task of thinking, reading, studying and remembering.
They are not entitled to say: I have affairs of state to worry about, so I have no time for books. Leaders must be scholars, Bnei Torah, “Children of the Book,” if they are to direct and lead the people of the book.
The sins of the Jewish leaders of this period had started with the Hasmoneans, one hundred and fifty years earlier. Then, the Hasmonean priests successfully ridding Israel of Greek hegemony celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah. After their victory, the Hasmoneans sinned by daring to assume the Crown of Kingship and the Crown of Priesthood. They also conquered neighbouring tribes and enforced their conversion to Judaism. This also is frowned upon by the Law of Moses.
“Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
Non-Jews – the stranger – living among Israel must be entirely accepted as citizens as long as they adhere to the seven Noahide laws. They are not required to follow all the commandments of the Israelite Tribes enumerated by Moses.
King Herod, who happened to be a half-Jewish member of one of these tribes converted by force, did not consult with elders or study Hebrew books. He did not even abide by the Noahide laws. But he, too, coveted the two crowns. Having achieved Kingship, Herod strove to be appointed High Priest by marrying the Hasmonean princess, Mariamne. Although he loved her dearly, his love did not prevent him from murdering her and their five children and anyone else he suspected as a rival. He is also the King who had Jesus of Nazareth crucified and suspected as a possible rival to his authority. He was part of the global web of power relationships, an ally of Marc Antony of Rome and mortal enemy of Cleopatra. These relationships are amply elaborated in the CNN plot.
The tv program advises that Herod’s ambition and envy ensured he had no peace in his public or private life. Herod was described in the series as “going mad” by the end of his lengthy reign. After his death, Roman colonial ambition led to the invasion and military occupation of Israel. This led in 70 AD to the destruction of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the one that Herod himself had enhanced in the grand tradition of Roman edifices. The giant stones were thrown over the walls and can still be seen in the archeologically excavated areas surrounding the current Western Wall. The only remnant that remains today of the Temple of Solomon and the one enhanced by Herod is the Western outer wall that had contained the Temple Complex. This became known through the centuries as “the wailing wall” since it was considered the holiest Jewish site. Jews would go there to recall the past and to offer their prayers.
Holyland Model of Jerusalem. A model of Herod's Temple adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The “wailing wall” was re-engineered as a huge Jewish prayer plaza, site of daily prayers and festival celebrations by the thousands. After two thousand years, Jews once more can live and pray in freedom in their ancestral land.
Although the Temple was destroyed, Judaism, as it is known today, managed to survive by a hairs’ breadth. In 70 AD, a small group of scholars/rabbis fled Jerusalem surreptitiously, gaining permission from the Roman Emperor to establish their community in Yavneh, a remote town in Galilee. This is where the Talmud – the conversations of the Rabbis on every subject mentioned in the Torah and what Jews call “the oral law” – became formalized and written down over the next six centuries. The ritual sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus were relegated to the daily and festival prayer services and retained their meaning and power.
The Torah and Talmud *3 have formed the basis of Jewish communal life and Jewish wisdom to our present day. Torah and Talmud continue to be studied daily by Jews of all ages, in yeshivas worldwide, synagogue classes, in universities, and now through zoom classes. Its most important lesson is that whatever happens in this life reflects on the equal responsibility of leaders and followers, for each to continually assess his own values and behaviour.
How does one do this kind of reckoning?
“He shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.” (Deuteronomy Ch. 17 V. 18) *5
Whether a king, priest, or commoner, a Jewish person’s reckoning is mediated through personal prayer, meditation, and Torah study. The month of Elul is primarily dedicated to this process.
- CNN series on Jerusalem: City of Faith, 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great (www.cnn.com/2021/07/18/middleeast/jerusalem-original-series-faith-and-fury-timeline/index.html). This tv program is based on historic writings studied by modern-day scholars, like Sebag Montefiore, contemporary author of Jerusalem: The Biography and others.
- Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17 – V. 14-20, a website presenting the Jewish biblical canon, including Torah and Talmud, along with many commentaries (www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.17.15?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en).
- Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast, Bible 365, episode #32, Kohen (Priest) vs King: Two Models of Leadership https://bible365podcast.com/bible-365/kohen-vs-king-two-models-of-leadership/
- Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Learning and Leadership (Shoftim 57)
- Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17, v 18