Review of the CNN documentary on Jerusalem:  The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great 

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.

Holyland Model of Jerusalem. A model of Herod’s Temple adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The program makes for stimulating tv filled with plots and battles for supremacy between Egypt, Israel, and Rome, recounted by excellent contemporary historians.

King Herod married the Hasmonean princess Mariamne in a plot to be loved and accepted by the Israelites. However, Herod’s love did not prevent him from murdering his wife, their five children and anyone else he suspected as a rival. He was also 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.

He also tried to build his way out of depression:

https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2021/07/22/jerusalem-faith-fury-herod-the-great.cnn

The series advise us that Herod’s ambition and envy ensured he had no peace in his public or private life. CNN describes him 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 (then called Judea) and to the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple that Herod himself had enhanced in the grand tradition of Roman edifices.

This true story is eerily similar to The  Game of Thrones tv series. Unfortunately, the viewpoint of traditional Jewish texts, Torah and Talmud, which tell the story of Jewish Kingship is missing from the CNN narrative.

Moses himself lays out the roadmap for Jewish governance and Kingship in the book of Deuteronomy.

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.  (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-17 *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. Additionally, the sins of the kings from Saul to Herod are amply documented.

The sins of the Jewish leadership of this period had started with the Hasmoneans, one hundred and fifty years earlier. The Hasmonean Dynasty (140 BCE to 37 BCE) was successful in ridding Israel of Greek hegemony. This early victory is what we celebrate annually on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The Hasmoneans were of the priestly caste and served as priests and High Priests. However, after their victory, they assumed the crown of Kingship and the office of High Priest. This went against the Mosaic law mentioned above. They also forcefully conquered neighbouring tribes and enforced their conversion to Judaism. This is also frowned upon by Moses’ injunction. King Herod, a Jewish member of one of these tribes that were converted by force, also coveted both crowns. He consulted neither holy books nor priestly advisors, yet he strove to be High Priest and King of Israel.

 

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.” Moreover, Rabbi Meir points out that the Torah’s prescription for recognition and repentance for mistakes/sins is different for Priests and Kings. When in Leviticus the Torah refers to the High Priest, it says “if,” “If he sins,” but when speaking about Kings, it uses the word “asher-when,” “when he sins.” The Biblical text closely prescribes the conduct of the priests as they perform the rituals of worship, and so are very clear, but the narrator understands that the “errors” of rulers are inevitable. A ruler or King has to assess every situation as it crops up and make his own decisions.

The High Priest                                             The King     

 

Herod the Great

Herod the Great

The high priest.  

 

To help him with these decisions, he needs to:

“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.” 3 Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20

Herod’s reign was followed by Roman colonization and rule by Roman governors. His magnificent Temple – the Second Temple that he had greatly enhanced – was crushed and demolished, but Judaism, as we know it today, managed to survive this destruction over two thousand years ago by a hairs’ breadth.

A small group of scholars/rabbis fled Jerusalem surreptitiously and gained 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, what Jews call “the oral biblical law” – became formalized and written down over the next six centuries. The Torah and Talmud form the basis of Jewish communal life to our present day, both in Israel and the diaspora. Torah and Talmud continue to be studied daily by Jews of all ages, in yeshivas worldwide, synagogue classes, and even universities. These canonical texts have been the backbone of Jewish communal life all over the world in the diaspora and in Israel. It has been the guide for life for commoners and kings.

But it’s not enough to study these texts; execution is even more critical because Jewish history teaches us that acts of both kings and commoners have consequences.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:18-20
  4. 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/
  5. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Learning and Leadership (Shoftim 57)
  6. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17, v 18

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