Perceptions play a role in the tales I want to highlight in this posting. Two brief accounts in this section of B. Sotah suggest the sages had access to a Bat Kol, a Divine voice, that gave them inside information about world affairs. The same theme is found in other stories, as you will see below.
Following the Hurban, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the Jewish community had little power. They were scattered and defamed. Although the Roman Empire often promoted diversity and supported the various religious cults spread across the Empire, successive Emperors refused to allow the rebuilding of the Temple or the restoration of Jewish sovereignty.
In contrast to their lack of political power we find a number of tales which claim that certain sages had inside knowledge of world affairs. Our section of Sotah (33a) includes the following tales:
A Baraita teaches: Yohanan, high priest, heard a Bat Kol, a divine voice, from the Holy of Holies, proclaiming [in Aramaic], “The young men who went to make war against Antioch have conquered.”In each case the Bat Kol, the Divine voice, reveals a matter of world politics. It is not clear that the information Yohanan received about the battle in Antioch affects the Jewish world in any way, though the oracle that Simon the Righteous heard would certainly have been welcome.
There was the further case of Simeon the Righteous, who heard a Bat Kol from the Holy of Holies, proclaiming [in Aramaic], “The decree which the enemy planned to bring upon the Temple has been nullified, and [in Hebrew] Gasqalges (Caius Caligula) has been killed and his decrees nullified.” They made a note of the exact hour, and it turned out [to be accurate].
These are far from the only examples. The most famous such event involves Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem he was secreted out of Jerusalem in a coffin and then made his way to the camp of the Roman general Vespasian. When he got there, according to Gittin 56a-b, he greeted Vespasian as king.
[Vespasian] said to him, “You are subject to the death penalty on two counts; first of all, I’m not a king, and you called me king; second, if I really am king, then how come you didn’t come to me up till now?”...Again, it seems that this information was known only to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, though we are not told the source of his inside information.
[Moments later] an agent came to Vespasian from Rome. He said to him, “Arise, for the Caesar is dead, and the citizens of Rome propose to enthrone you at the head.”
Vespasian offered ben Zakkai a reward. Make a request and I will grant it. He said, “Give me Yavneh and its sages…”
Along the same lines we find tales of emperors seeking information from the sages. The Ceasar asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah about the nature of God (B. Hulin 59b-60a). This same Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah outwitted the sages of Athens, according to Bekhorot 8b-9a. Numerous tales record the Emperor Antonius asking questions of Rabbi Judah HaNasi, including why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (B. Sanhedrin 91b) and about the secret spice of Shabbat (B. Shabbat 119a). It goes without saying that these engaging tales do not accord with academic history. So what function do they serve within our religious history?
I believe these tales balance our lack of worldly power in this world with the abundance drawn from the Divine world. Whether it is the Bat Kol revealing secret knowledge or the superior knowledge gained through Torah, the message is that the Jews hold a higher truth that cannot be gained through worldly power. Not only do we answer to a Higher authority [like Hebrew National], but that same authority provides us with insight.
A similar impulse, I believe, is implicit in the report that many of the archenemies of Jewish life or their descendants became Jewish. In B. Sanhedrin 96b (also recorded in Gittin 57b) we learn:
Naaman [the Syrian general who kills Ahab in II Kings 5] was a resident proselyte. Nebuzaradan [who destroys the Temple under orders from Nebuchadnezzar as recorded in II Kings 25] was a righteous proselyte. Grandsons of Sisera [who led the war against Deborah in Judges 4-5] studied Torah in Jerusalem. Grandsons of Sennacherib [who besieged Jerusalem in II Kings 18-19] taught Torah in public. And who were they? Shemaiah and Abtalion. Grandsons of Haman [from the Book of Esther] studied Torah in Bene Brak.Why would these individuals who tried to destroy the Jewish people or their descendants join the Jewish people and teach Torah? Surely it is because they had discovered something greater. The power they could wield at the head of their armies was no match for the Higher power of Torah.
Do we make similar claims today? I believe so, but in a slightly different vein. We express our power in more temporal terms. We note with pride that the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners far exceeds our percentage of the world population. We point to the outstanding Jewish authors and artists who have earned international reputations. When Hanukkah comes around we click on YouTube and rock along with Adam Sandler as he recounts this year’s list of who celebrates Hanukkah. Don’t judge us by our numbers, we seem to say, but by our impact on the world.
Judaism teaches a universal truth. The early sages taught that the Torah was presented at Mt. Sinai precisely because it is a place owned by no particular people and is therefore accessible to everyone (Mechilta, Parshat haChodesh 1). Nonetheless, our universal reach contrasts with our physical presence and power in this world. So we sometimes need to remind ourselves, if not the world, not to be fooled by the present but to see the bigger picture. Like Hebrew National, we look to a Higher Authority.