Shammai Engelmayer • Columns
The Three Weeks begin this evening, and with them once again comes the question of why Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The standard answer is this: Jerusalem was destroyed because of the sin of “baseless hatred” (sinat chinam); the Talmud says so, so it must be true.
But the Talmud does not say so. Sinat chinam was a contributing factor, but extremism was the cause.
Actually, the Talmud offers many reasons for why Jerusalem was destroyed. In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat (119b), for example, there are several from which to choose. Among them are that “Shabbat was desecrated there,” “Jerusalemites neglected reading the Shema,” they “neglected [the education of] school children,” acted without concern for how their actions looked to others, acted as though those among them who were the most ignorant of the law were the equals of those who were most knowledgeable, “closed their eyes to the evil around them and did nothing,” and because “scholars there were despised by the general population.”
BT Yoma (9b) offers different possibilities, including sinat chinam, which is by far the most popular one: “But the second Temple… why was it destroyed? Because there existed there sinat chinam. That is meant to teach you that baseless hatred is considered even worse [a sin] than the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed combined.”
What is absent in Yoma, however, is what is meant by “baseless hatred.” For that, we must turn to BT Gittin (55b-56a) and the infamous tale of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which is used as the prooftext that sinat chinam was the cause of Jerusalem’s destruction and our exile. There is only one problem: The text makes no such claim. Those who cite it either have never studied the text, or deliberately cut off the tale at its knees to distort its true — and unwanted — message.
“The destruction of Jerusalem came through a certain Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza in this way,” Rabbi Yochanan explains in the text. “A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, ‘Go and bring me Kamtza.’ The man went and brought him Bar Kamtza instead. When the [host] found [Bar Kamtza] there, he said, ‘Behold, you are the one who tells stories about me. Why are you here? Leave.’ Said [Bar Kamtza to the host]: ‘Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.’”
The host said no, and all the efforts of Bar Kamtza to avoid being embarrassed proved futile. He even offered to pay for the whole party, but the host literally dragged him to the street, while all of Jerusalem’s elite reportedly stood by in silence.
“Said [Bar Kamtza], ‘Since there were rabbis sitting there and [they] did not stop him [from behaving so boorishly], I understand from this that they agreed with him. I will go to the [Roman] government and inform on them.’”
Thus, according to the testimony of Bar Kamtza, the reason for his perfidy was the silence of the rabbis, not the animosity shown to him by the anonymous host. That animosity, in fact, may not have been baseless, at all. The host cites his reason: that Bar Kamtza spread tales about him, presumably of an evil nature. Bar Kamtza does not deny the charge. Rather, he pleads not to be embarrassed in front of Jerusalem’s elite.
The story, however, is not over. Rabbi Yochanan has more to say:
“[Bar Kamtza] went and said to [the local governor, personal representative of] Caesar, ‘The Jews are rebelling against you.’ [The Roman] said, ‘How can I tell?’ Said Bar Kamtza to him: ‘Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar].’”
Bar Kamtza, of course, had a plan. He knew that the Romans would choose a calf for the offering that was ritually acceptable. He would then see to it that the animal would not be acceptable once it arrived at the Temple. “While on the way,” said Rabbi Yochanan, Bar Kamtza “made a blemish on its upper lip, or some say that it was on the white of its eye, in a place where according to our way of thinking it is a blemish [thereby rendering the calf ineligible as a sacrifice], but according to [the Roman] way of looking at it, it is not [considered a blemish].”
Now Rabbi Yochanan gets to his point: The rabbis were prepared to allow the offering “in order to keep peace with the government,” but a rabbi named Zechariah ben Avkulas insisted that the law be followed to the letter.
And so it was. Said Rabbi Yochanan: “Because of the humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, our House was destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
For “humility,” read “extremism.” Rabbi Yochanan’s point is clear: Jerusalem was razed and the Temple set afire because one rabbi insisted that God’s law was immutable and uncompromising, and the consequences be damned.
The true lesson of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, is that consequences must be considered. If God was the ultimate author of the calamities of 70 C.E., then it was God Himself who rejected following a strict interpretation of halachah in the face of impending disaster. It was He who punished His people for not allowing a more liberal interpretation of the law to hold sway long enough to avert disaster.
Sometimes, God was saying, religious authorities must set aside their aversion to compromise. When the fate of the People Israel is at stake, they must be more accepting of other views and must be more honest in admitting that their views may not be the only ones that will please God. They can hold to their views, but they must neither demonize nor delegitimate those who think differently.
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. This article was originally printed in the Jewish Standard of NJ.