The prophets espoused a curious position: at the end of time, God will punish Jews in order to force them back to his law. That position logically continued their explanation of the first exile as a punishment. They presumed that the punishment aimed at correction, and more punishment leads to more correction. This assumption is erroneous.

From the experience of the penitentiary system we know that punishment rarely leads to correction. Even when it does, the person merely abstains from evil behavior, but doesn’t embrace the ways of righteousness. It is impossible to punish someone into doing something.

Punishment can also be intended to reinforce the governing authority, but in order to do so the connection between the authority and punishment has to be clear. Police represent the government, but who can be sure that Babylonians, Romans, or Germans were God’s instruments? The refugees explained their misfortune by geopolitical circumstances rather than divine punishment.

King Solomon advocated the middle way for a reason: too few people can cling to their beliefs in the face of extreme circumstances, whether poverty or riches. Between the sufferings of Auschwitz and the riches of America, many Jews lost whatever small faith they had.

The sufferings imagined for the messianic period just cannot bring Jews to God. Even with the whole world against us and no one to flee to, Jews would still harbor the hope of befriending Gentiles rather than repentance. Which is only natural; a person in dire circumstances seeks the most credible and immediate solution rather than far-flung theological explanations.

Rabbis have written that God regretted creating the exile because it failed to improve the Jews. He might also have rethought the prophetic promise of immense sufferings. Instead of waiting for the final signs of the Messiah—which might not come—why don’t we take shovels and go rebuild the Temple?