Yochanan’s Gamble Judaism's Pragmatic Approach to Life

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  • Rabbi Marc Katz (author)
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December 2024

Some two thousand years ago, the story goes, a rabbi named Yochanan makes the epitome of pragmatic gambles—wagering the entire fate of the Jewish people. In dialogue with the soon-to-be Roman emperor Vespasian, Yochanan acquiesces to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in return for a plot of land in a town called Yavneh. There, after the razing of Jerusalem, Jews will join with their teacher to reenvision a new Judaism—one not based on Temple rites but on real life in exile—laying the groundwork for our own vibrant Judaism.

In Rabbi Marc Katz’s novel examination, pragmatism is itself an authentic Jewish strategy to address moral questions. The rabbis of the Talmud model the process, demonstrating how to think situationally, weigh competing values, and make hard compromises. Leading rabbis ask, “What will work?” alongside “What is right?” They birth a malleable and nuanced system of law (halakhah) faithful to their received tradition and to the people and circumstances before them.

By investigating how the rabbis navigate their own ethical challenges—determining truth, upholding compromise, convincing others, keeping peace with neighbors, avoiding infighting, weighing sinning in hopes of promoting a greater good—Yochanan’s Gamble forges a new Jewish path forward for resolving moral conundrums in our day.


“Rabbi Marc Katz has captured the daring, humane, pragmatic, and creative spirit of the rabbis of the Talmud and distilled it into language that’s eminently accessible, engaging, and alive.”—Rabbi Samuel Lebens, associate professor of philosophy, University of Haifa

“Impressive. Rabbi Katz convincingly demonstrates that our sages developed halakhah to be faithful, not only to the tradition, but also to the people before them. Then, he effectively applies that process to how we confront issues in our own time.”—Rabbi Barry H. Block, Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas
“Illumines many arenas where the rabbis’ pragmatism could be beneficial in today’s divided world.”—Jonathan K. Crane, founder and coeditor in chief of the Journal of Jewish Ethics


Rabbi Marc Katz

Rabbi Marc Katz is the rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He is the author of The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort, a National Jewish Book Award finalist.

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