The Price of disunity

November 24, 2016 23:02

by Rabbi Yonason Goldson [Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. He is author of Dawn to Destiny: Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom, an overview of Jewish philosophy and history from Creation through the compilation of the Talmud, now available from Judaica Press.Visit him at]

It was in the year 3826 (66 CE) that the excesses of Roman governance over the Land of Israel finally drove the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the breaking point. On the 17th day of the month of Iyar, the taunts and jeers of Roman soldiers provoked an uprising by the city’s populace more violent than either Jew or Roman could have imagined. By the end of the day the Jews had retaken control of their capital. The Great Revolt had begun.
The victory in Jerusalem came at a painfully high price. Thousands of Jews across the region were massacred or sold into slavery as citizens in Hellenized cities of Caesaria, Alexandria, and Damascus responded to the Jewish uprising with riots and pogroms. But the official response from Rome was more calculated. To impress upon other nationalities throughout its empire the folly of rebellion, the Roman Senate dispatched a massive army to crush the revolution in Judea.
Faced with the approach of four Roman legions led by Vespasian, one of Rome’s most successful generals, it seems unimaginable that the Jews could have held out any hope of victory. But unlike secular history, the Talmudic record incorporates spiritual, as well as political, cause and effect. Just as the Roman occupation of Israel had been decreed on High in response to the Jews’ spiritual shortcomings, so too did the fate of the Jerusalem ultimately rest in the Jews’ own hands. Spiritually, as well as militarily, it was the Jewish people’s internal divisiveness that left them vulnerable to the power of Rome.
“On account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed,” declares the Talmud. This episode occupies a prominent place in Jewish tradition as a painful illustration of the consequences of senseless hatred, as well as a reminder of how the Jewish people have failed repeatedly to learn its fundamental lesson.
A man making a banquet sent his servant to invite his close friend, Kamtza, but the servant erred and invited his master’s enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host discovered the servant’s error, he ordered Bar Kamtza to leave immediately. Bar Kamtza begged the host to allow him to stay and spare him humiliation. But even when Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire banquet, the host refused.
Seething with anger, not only at the host but at the sages who were present and did not protest his treatment, Bar Kamtza vowed revenge. He accused the Jews of rebellion before the Roman authority, saying, “Send an offering to their Temple and you will see they refuse it.”
The Romans appointed Bar Kamtza to deliver their offering. On his way, Bar Kamtza made a small wound in the animal, insignificant to the Romans but invalidating the animal as a Temple offering. A suspicious priest alerted the Sanhedrin, whose members debated what they should do.
Most of the sages voted to offer the animal despite its blemish. But one of their number, Rabbi Zecharyah ben Avkulas, protested that such a ruling would teach people that a blemished animal was acceptable as an offering. The sages continued to debate, until again a majority decided to put Bar Kamtza to death for threatening the lives of the people of Jerusalem. But again Rabbi Zecharyah protested, this time arguing that such an action would teach the people that bringing a blemished offering was a capital offense.
By prolonging the debate, Rabbi Zecharyah paralyzed the Sanhedrin. Bar Kamtza returned to the Romans and reported that the offering had been rejected. The rumors of the Temple priests’ refusal to accept gentile offerings, the one-sided reports of Jewish insurrection, the successful defense of the city against a contingent of Roman soldiers, and Bar Kamtza’s slander all combined to convince Rome that the Jews were in full rebellion. The Romans dispatched their general Vespasian commanding the army that would ultimately lay ruin to Jerusalem.
In their final assessment, the sages understood that it was the Jewish people collectively who were responsible for the destruction of the Temple and the religious life centered around it in Israel. If not for sinat chinam, the senseless hatred that permeated every corner of Jewish society, no individual, no group, no error in judgment, no emperor or army of Roman legions could have destroyed God’s Temple. The Jewish people brought the tragedy upon themselves, and suffer from the consequences of disunity to this day.
The narrative of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza raises as many questions as it answers. Why is Kamtza blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem if he was not even present? Why were the sages silent when the host mistreated Bar Kamtza? And since it was the actions of the host that precipitated the disaster, why does the Talmud leave him unnamed?
Rabbi Yochanon Zweig suggests that “Kamtza” and “Bar Kamtza” may not have been the real names of the individuals involved. Rather, these might have been Talmudic descriptions hinting at the character defect responsible for their behavior. The word kamtza translates as “fist,” alluding to the trait of tight-fisted stinginess.
Such a description seems to contradict the narrative, since Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire banquet and the host refused his money. However, not all stinginess is financial. One can lavish his money when it suits his purpose yet remain incapable of giving according to the needs of others. When this happens, wealth ceases to be a blessing with which to perform acts of kindness and becomes a weapon with which to inflict pain. The sages therefore describe the hatred of that generation as senseless: its indulgence was not only profitless but ultimately self-destructive.
The host could have spared himself great expense while at the same time sparing his uninvited guest great embarrassment. But he was a “friend of Kamtza,” implying his intimate familiarity with close-fisted, senseless hatred. Similarly was Bar Kamtza the spiritual “inheritor” of his host (with bar translated as “son” or “derivative”). The anger and resentment that the host aroused in him provoked the same kind of senseless behavior. By taking revenge he brought destruction upon himself and his people.
As for the sages, we can only surmise why they did not protest. Perhaps they recognized that the host would not accept their rebuke, or perhaps Bar Kamtza was a person of such nefarious reputation that they did not consider him deserving of their defense. Either way, when society devolves to the level where rebuke can no longer be given, then there is no hope of redemption. It is time to tear down the old, so something better may grow up in its place.
Finally, the Talmud teaches that, in addition to senseless hatred, the Temple was destroyed because the people did not go beyond the letter of the law in their observance of Torah. Rather than seeing the 613 commandments of the Torah as 613 distinct opportunities to grow closer to Almighty, the people saw them as 613 obstacles interfering with their own pursuit of happiness. With such an attitude, the Jews became minimalist in their Torah observance, seeking out every leniency, exemption, and loophole to circumvent the spirit of the law.
Such an outlook inevitably breeds a suspicion of all others whose level or style of observance differs from one’s own. Everyone “more religious” is perceived as a fanatic, while everyone “less religious” is perceived as a heretic. The boundaries of Torah and Jewish law are broad enough to allow a wide range of individual expression without crossing the line into apostasy. But it is much easier to invalidate the legitimacy of any Jew with different customs or practices than it is to reflect upon the adequacy of one’s own observance. The unexamined life begets insecurity, which begets intolerance, which begets hatred -- senseless hatred. And senseless hatred brings destruction to the world.
At the dawn of Creation, nearly 4000 years earlier, it was the character flaws of ingratitude and a failure to take responsibility for their own actions the resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. And today, nearly 2000 years after the Temple’s destruction, we are still struggling to learn that one who appreciates every mitzvah, every Torah precept, as a priceless opportunity to become closer to God will never consider any mitzvah a burden or hesitate to push himself beyond the letter of the law. Moreover, one who takes responsibility for his own actions will never seek to pardon his own behavior by seeking excuses to despise his fellow man.

November 24, 2016 23:02

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