Don't Destroy the World on Account of Fools: The Roman Jewish Community's Policy of Pragmatism
With attacks on Jews on the rise in the aftermath of the October 7 events, some Jewish communities have noted that the hatred toward Jews runs far deeper than many realised. In the face of such an enormous problem, how should we fight back? And how much is enough? This sheet explores Jewish responses to antisein the diaspora.

What should our response be to hatred?

Jewish communities are frequently faced with the dilemma of how much effort should be expended when countering hate and discrimination. Many Jewish communal organisations make fighting attacks on Jews their central mission. Other groups seek to promote interfaith and intercommunal relationships and joint action. Still others seek to dismiss all efforts as a lost cause and would rather retreat into the safety of insular community spaces. Regardless of the specific policy approach, it seems that from a contemporary Jewish perspective, the hatred and attacks on the Jewish People constitute the great sin of the nations of the world. This situation may parallel the thorny theological question recorded in the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7, below): if God opposes idol worship, why does God allow it to flourish? Why doesn't God destroy all the idols in the world?

The Mishnah

שָׁאֲלוּ אֶת הַזְּקֵנִים בְּרוֹמִי, אִם אֵין רְצוֹנוֹ בַּעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, לָמָה אֵינוֹ מְבַטְּלָהּ.
אָמְרוּ לָהֶן, אִלּוּ לְדָבָר שֶׁאֵין צֹרֶךְ לָעוֹלָם בּוֹ הָיוּ עוֹבְדִין, הָיָה מְבַטְּלוֹ. הֲרֵי הֵן עוֹבְדִין לַחַמָּה וְלַלְּבָנָה וְלַכּוֹכָבִים וְלַמַּזָּלוֹת. יְאַבֵּד עוֹלָמוֹ מִפְּנֵי הַשּׁוֹטִים.
אָמְרוּ לָהֶן, אִם כֵּן, יְאַבֵּד דָּבָר שֶׁאֵין צֹרֶךְ לָעוֹלָם בּוֹ וְיַנִּיחַ דָּבָר שֶׁצֹּרֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹ.
אָמְרוּ לָהֶן, אַף אָנוּ מַחֲזִיקִין יְדֵי עוֹבְדֵיהֶם שֶׁל אֵלּוּ, שֶׁאוֹמְרִים, תֵּדְעוּ שֶׁהֵן אֱלוֹהוֹת, שֶׁהֲרֵי הֵן לֹא בָטָלוּ:
"They asked the Sages in Rome: If it is not [God’s] will [that people should engage] in idol worship, why does He not eliminate it?
[The Sages] said to them: Were [people worshipping only] objects for which the world has no need, [God] would eliminate it. But they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations. Should [God] destroy [God’s] world on account of fools?
They said to [the Sages]: If so, let [God] destroy those objects [of idol worship] for which the world has no need and leave those objects for which the world has a need.
[The Sages] said to them: [If that were to happen], we would thereby be supporting the worshippers of those [objects for which the world has need], as they would say: You should know that these are [truly] gods, as they were not eliminated."

The question of idol worship

In this text, the Jewish sages (who are visiting Rome) are asked this question, to which they respond that the destruction of idol worship would be feasible if it were confined to a limited sphere of human life and activity. However, since humans choose to worship just about anything, including the sun and moon, God will not destroy the universe on account of fools. I note that some translations of the Mishnah present the questioners as gentiles (and this follows the Tosefta Avodah Zarah 7 (below) that describes them as a group of philosophers). However, we may read this text as a dialogue between the Jews of Rome (perhaps a group of community elders) and a group of visiting sages (see Mishnat Eretz Yisrael). The Roman Jewish community offer a counterargument: Why doesn't God eliminate the non-essential objects of worship and leave the rest of the world intact? The sages respond that a selective destruction could have the opposite effect with the sun and moon worshipers declaring that their idolatries have been vindicated. And given the presentation of this Mishnah as a question posed to the sages who are visiting the Roman Jewish community (שָׁאֲלוּ אֶת הַזְּקֵנִים בְּרוֹמִי) - presumably, to raise support for their sisters and brothers in the Land of Israel, or to advocate for the release of Jewish captives - we can assume that this position was adopted by the community as the authoritative communal position.

A lesson in pragmatic communal policy

One possible interpretation and application of this Mishnah to the contemporary Jewish situation is to read this text as a dialogue between Jewish community advocates. One side (represented by the sages) adopts a pacifistic stance, not wishing to declare open war against the haters of the Jewish People. The other side (represented by the Roman Jewish community) counters: If this is a true evil, shouldn't we fight to eliminate it (אִם אֵין רְצוֹנוֹ ... לָמָה אֵינוֹ מְבַטְּלָהּ). The pacifists respond: We would agree in the event the evil is localised. But this evil has managed to seep everywhere, including among those in power. Should we destroy the entire world on the account of fools (יְאַבֵּד עוֹלָמוֹ מִפְּנֵי הַשּׁוֹטִים)? The activists respond: Can we not at least try a selective approach? The pacifists respond: This effort might seem worthwhile, but it would have the unintended effect of leaving an elite form of hatred intact. Perhaps it is better to find a way forward that does not involve the need for direct engagement and conflict with those who hate us.

Discussion

In the context of the Mishnah, the sages still advocate human action against idol worship (boycott its use, destroy objects found in your possession, etc.). If applied to the contemporary problem, there would be a range of actions that are deemed vital for Jewish safety, security, and wellbeing. But what are the limits of fighting evil? What cost is too high? And is the pacifist position one that is specifically required of the Jews in diaspora who do not have control of the power of the state? From this Mishnah it appears that the first assessment of a Jewish communal response to the hatred of Jews and attacks on the Jewish community is to diagnose the extent and nature of the issue. Has this hatred infected major social institutions or is it merely a fringe trend? Are attacks the result of a small minority of bad actors in society, or have individuals with significant positions of power (e.g., the Head of State) joined in on the incitement? From this perspective, Jewish communities require a clear-eyed analysis of the state of their societies to determine an appropriate course of action.

Sources

שָׁאֲלוּ אֶת הַזְּקֵנִים בְּרוֹמִי, אִם אֵין רְצוֹנוֹ בַּעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, לָמָה אֵינוֹ מְבַטְּלָהּ.
אָמְרוּ לָהֶן, אִלּוּ לְדָבָר שֶׁאֵין צֹרֶךְ לָעוֹלָם בּוֹ הָיוּ עוֹבְדִין, הָיָה מְבַטְּלוֹ. הֲרֵי הֵן עוֹבְדִין לַחַמָּה וְלַלְּבָנָה וְלַכּוֹכָבִים וְלַמַּזָּלוֹת. יְאַבֵּד עוֹלָמוֹ מִפְּנֵי הַשּׁוֹטִים.
אָמְרוּ לָהֶן, אִם כֵּן, יְאַבֵּד דָּבָר שֶׁאֵין צֹרֶךְ לָעוֹלָם בּוֹ וְיַנִּיחַ דָּבָר שֶׁצֹּרֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹ.
אָמְרוּ לָהֶן, אַף אָנוּ מַחֲזִיקִין יְדֵי עוֹבְדֵיהֶם שֶׁל אֵלּוּ, שֶׁאוֹמְרִים, תֵּדְעוּ שֶׁהֵן אֱלוֹהוֹת, שֶׁהֲרֵי הֵן לֹא בָטָלוּ:
They asked the Sages in Rome: If it is not God’s will that people should engage in idol worship, why does He not eliminate it?
The Sages said to them: Were people worshipping only objects for which the world has no need, He would eliminate it. But they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations. Should He destroy His world because of the fools?
They said to the Sages: If so, let Him destroy those objects of idol worship for which the world has no need and leave those objects for which the world has a need.
The Sages said to them: If that were to happen, we would thereby be supporting the worshippers of those objects for which the world has need, as they would say: You should know that these are truly gods, as they were not eliminated from the world, whereas the others were eliminated.
שאלו פילוסופין את הזקנים ברומי אם אין רצונו בעבודת כוכבים מפני מה אינו מבטלה אמרו להן אילו לדבר שאין העולם צורך בהן היו עובדין היה מבטלו הרי הן עובדין לחמה וללבנה לכוכבים ולמזלות יאבד עולמו מפני השוטים אלא הנח לעולם שינהג כמנהגו ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין. גנב זרעים לזרוע לא סופן לצמח בא על אשת איש אין סופו לילד אלא הנח לעולם שינהג כמנהגו ושוטים שקלקלו יבואו ויתנו את הדין.
Philosophers asked the elders in Rome, if it is not [God’s] will [that people should engage in] idolatry, why do does he not eliminate it? They said to them, if they were worshipping [only] objects upon which the world does not depend, he would eliminate it. But they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations. Should He destroy the world on account of fools? Rather he leaves the world to follow its course and the fools who sinned will in the future be given to judgment. The one who steals seeds for planting, [the seeds’] end should not be to sprout. The one who had sex with another man’s wife, his end should not be to beget a child. But [God] leaves the world to follow its course and the fools who sinned will come to be subject to justice.