July 12, 2010

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

For a genuine yeshivah bochur, nothing compares to the delight of grappling with a complex piece of gemara. This as well as the inspiration of Torah itself, explains why one is not allowed to study during the fast of Tisha B'Av. That would give one pleasure at a time when one should be feeling sad. (For most youngsters nowadays, the highest degree of mourning would be achieved if they were denied Facebook or their iTunes.)

The fast of the Ninth of Av, this coming Monday night and Tuesday, commemorates all the tragedies of the 2,000 years of Diaspora, which for many includes the Holocaust too. So pleasure is out. Studying Torah is out. The only part of the Talmud one may study is that section that deals with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Those ignoramuses who think Herzl was the beginning of Jewish involvement in Jerusalem should ponder that for two thousand years Jews have fasted and mourned the loss of our homeland once a year (three times a year, if you include the other fasts related to the destruction). Actually for 2,500 years if you include the first destruction in 586 BCE.

The text we can study, gives a specific Rabbinic take on the circumstances that led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE.They have always maintained that we have been our own worst enemies and have brought destruction down on our own heads. Most historians would want to include other internal and external factors in the Roman Empire at the time, as well as Vespasian’s personal agenda (read Martin Goodman). But what matters is the moral message.

Here is the first part:
The destruction of Jerusalem happened because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There was a man who had a friend called Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a banquet and told his servant to go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found him sitting there he said, "You are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get out." He replied, ”Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink." He refused. So he said, "Let me give you half the cost of the meal." Again he was refused. "Then let me pay for the whole party," he asked. The host still refused and bodily ejected him. Bar Kamtza said to himself, "Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and stir up trouble with the Roman authorities." He went and said to the Procurator, "The Jews are rebelling against you." He said, "How can I tell?" He said to him, "Send them an sacrifice and see whether they will offer it [in the Temple]." So he sent a fine calf with him. On the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we count it a blemish but Romans do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. R. Zechariah ben Avkulas replied to them "People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar." They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, "Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?" R. Yochanan thereupon remarked, "Because of the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah ben Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land." Talmud Gittin 55b & 56a.
Bar Kamtza was humiliated both by his enemy and by the rabbis who obviously were in the pocket of the host. Nothing much has changed. Most religious leaders forgive and fawn over wealthy donors much more than they do for the more modest. Money is still the root of most rabbinic evil. But then what about the Bar Kamtza's overreaction? Jewish self-hatred can be so profound that some of us still turn on our own with a vengeance, just as he did.

I have often wondered about the servant. Was he a kind of E.M. Forster maiden aunt, meaning well, using his own initiative to try and force a reconciliation, but in fact making matters worse?

As for Rav Zecharia, why didn't it occur to him to send a delegation back explaining their reasons? The point of course is the moral rather than the facts. Zecharia could well represent rabbinic leadership today, so concerned with the minutiae of legal appearances, with what other people might think, that he fails to see the larger picture. On the other hand you might argue that he was too modest to act when what was needed was guts, decisiveness even a certain arrogance. Rabbis, very good at scholarship or teaching, rarely make the best leaders because they won’t stick their necks out for fear of what others might say. And political rabbis are usually tied to their parties and interests. True leadership requires taking risks and unpopular positions.

No we haven't changed. For two thousand years we have been reading this same story and we still haven't learnt the lessons. Those fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.


At 4:21 PM , Anonymous Leila said...

You would do well, Jeremy, to have today's essay written in letters 6 feet tall and plastered on the walls of every synagogue and Beth Din.

As for self-hating Jews, well I pity them for their lack of insight and moral fibre, for their arrogance, tunnel vision and unwillingness to listen to the other side of the argument. In fact, it wouldn't trouble me too much to see them plastered on synagogue walls! Come to think of it, there are certain rabbonim and charedim who would fit the criteria, too.

Shabbat Shalom, Jeremy.

At 6:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the real message of this story is that the rabbis paid heed to the letter of the law and not its spirit, and it is this that was their downfall.

It's arguably still the downfall of modern orthodoxy though perhaps it's hard for those on the inside to see it in this way.

At 6:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Rosen. Please stop speaking loshon hora every week. You're not helping the Jewish people. Which 9 days are we in????

At 8:59 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Anonymous wrote:
>I think the real message of this story is that the rabbis paid heed to the letter of the law and not its spirit, and it is this that was their downfall. It's arguably still the downfall of modern orthodoxy though perhaps it's hard for those on the inside to see it in this way.

Of course I agree.

At 9:00 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Anonymous wrote:

>Rabbi Rosen. Please stop speaking loshon hora every week. You're not helping the Jewish people. Which 9 days are we in????

Instead of leaving puerile responses why don't you try to argue your case intelligently like an adult?

At 9:02 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

I'm afraid most people just don't want to hear a contrary point of view no matter how tall the letters.

At 1:11 PM , Anonymous hs said...


Don't you think the servant brought Bar Kamtza instead of Kamtza not because he was dopey or meddlesome but because there was nothing much to choose between the two? Aren't the examples which follow, intended as further examples of concern over trivia?

At 2:53 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Possibly, one can only speculate.Still I favour the idea that at least he tried to reconcile them. Even tho the obvious sense is that he simply made a mistake. Accident in Jewish history, sounds like a subject for a Thesis!

At 4:26 PM , Anonymous hs said...

I think esprit d'escalier in Jewish texts would make a better one!

At 10:10 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Show off!!!!

At 9:05 AM , Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Someone suggest that perhaps Bar Kamtza was the son of Kamtza, and this fact further highlights the degree of enmity present - that someone would respect the father and hate the son rather than showing some tolerance for the latter for the former's sake highlights how great sinat chinam had become. This explanation also helps with the question of why Kamtza should share in the blame for the destruction.

At 10:50 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Nice theory! Thank you.


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