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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.
Just a shout out to my father, Shammai (Sheldon) David Engelmayer for his recent win of The American Jewish Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. The award was in its Category 4:
Award for Excellence in Editorial Writing – Division A. Newspapers over 15,000 circulation and all Magazines/Websites.
Jewish Standard, Teaneck, NJ
“A Deafening Silence” by Shammai Engelmayer and Larry Yudelson
Comments: A stirring pair of editorials denouncing the silence by both American Jews and Israeli officials in the face of unacceptable violence by ultra-orthodox Jews against Jewish school children in the town of Beit Shemesh.
See the Editorial here
or read below:
So every day, from the second day of school, mobs of neighbors protested, screaming “sluts” and other unconscionable epithets as the girls exited the building in the afternoon. Some of the protesters threw eggs and bags of excrement at the girls and at the school, to punctuate their points.
How do you think world Jewry would react?
How should we in America react? Should we call upon the Anti-Defamation League or the Simon Wiesenthal Center to demand intervention from the White House? Should we lobby the U.S. State Department to publicly condemn the behavior of Country Y and to insist that Jewish human rights be observed there?
Perhaps we should demand that the United Nations investigate. Perhaps, too, we should stage a massive demonstration in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza.
We would do just those things if the country in question were Belgium, or Belaraus, or Bahrain. As we report on page 14, however, the country is Israel, which may explain why we have heard and read precious little from those only too quick to condemn even a hint of anti-Semitism anywhere else in the world.
The flashpoint is a school for girls in Beit Shemesh, a town near Jerusalem. The town’s rigidly Orthodox charedi community objects to the presence of a modern Orthodox school in their neighborhood. Is it because this is a Jew vs. Jew conflict — or worse, an Orthodox vs. Orthodox conflict — that there has been so pronounced a silence from the organized Jewish world?
It is not acceptable that little girls are being screamed at by grown men.
It is not acceptable that little girls must pass through a gauntlet of angry men who are armed with bags of excrement.
It is not acceptable that Jewish leaders both here and in Israel remain silent about this disgrace.
American Jewry needs to let the Israeli leadership know that our concern for Jewish schoolchildren extends to Israel — just as we would protest if the harassment took place in Moscow or Marrakesh.
Israel’s leaders need to understand that by tolerating charedi violence, the State of Israel is undercutting the Zionist rationale of providing a secure homeland for the Jewish people.
The pride we take in the high level of aliyah from our own community turns sour when we see former neighbors of ours, such as Englewood native Esther Boylan Wolfson and her family, being subjected to what can only be called anti-Semitism in their new Israeli homes. “It’s a confrontation with a kind of evil that frankly I’ve never experienced,” she told The Jewish Standard. That is not why the Moriah graduate and her family moved to Israel 14 years ago.
Protecting nine-year-olds from assault should not be the sole responsibility of the parents and the neighbors.
Where is the Israeli government in this?
When it came time to integrate schools in the American South, it was clear which side President Dwight D. Eisenhower was on. Where does Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stand in the Beit Shemesh case?
Only Israel’s Ministry of Education has acted with any sense of justice and equity. The charedi mayor of Beit Shemesh suggested that the violence would end if the school moved somewhere else and the building was handed over to the charedi community. We applaud the ministry’s rejection of that offer, which is nothing less than extortion.
We would applaud even louder if the deputy minister of education — a representative of the charedi Agudath Israel party — would join the parents in protecting the schoolchildren and condemning the violence. He will not do so, however, because charedi leaders say they do not want to identify with what they see as anti-charedi elements. Translated, that means the modern Orthodox.
Would we accept that as an excuse for refusing to denounce anti-Semitism anywhere else in the world?
In America, as in Israel, the leadership of the charedi community needs to be called upon to declare on whose side they stand: with the hooligans, or with the girls?
A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, when questioned by The Jewish Standard on Tuesday, condemned the harassment as inappropriate and a violation of Jewish law.
Yet he defended the silence: “I do not believe that a decision to not condemn behavior necessarily implies tolerance of said behavior,” he said.
We disagree, taking the Talmud’s word that “Silence is like assent.”
This article was reprinted from the Jewish Standard where it first appeared.
Memo to all those hardliners who believe that not getting serious with negotiations with the Palestinians will wear them down and, eventually, lead to a one-state solution, with Jerusalem permanently in control of all the Land of Israel:
Without a doubt, you will get your wish.
Be warned, however. What you will get will not be a Jewish state. At best, it will be a state run by Arabs and Jews, but more likely only by Arabs.
It is what the world is waiting to impose. It is what a small but growing minority of Jews seems to want. It even is what underlies the effort in some quarters to rewrite Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah, to make it more comfortable for Israel’s non-Jewish majority to sing. Suggested rewrites water down Jewish claims to the land and downplay two millennia of hopes and prayers for the sake of an unwarranted political correctness.
We understand — we really do — why there is such great reluctance to give up any territory on the other side of the Green Line. It is on that side of the line, on the west bank, that the hope of 2,000 years is truly fulfilled. When we prayed for a “restoration of Zion,” for a return to our homeland, our hearts and minds were focused on Hebron, where our forefathers lay buried; on Beit El, where Jacob dreamed of a stairway to heaven; of Shechem, where once the Tabernacle stood in all its glory; on the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, where the returning Israeilites conducted a covenant renewal ceremony; on Bethlehem, where Mother Rachel is buried along the way to Efrat, the better to keep an eye on her children. “Re’i Rachel, re’i, hem shavu li-g’vulam,” Look, Rachel, look and see; they have returned to their borders. Your children have returned home.
We understand — we really do.
We also understand demography and democracy.
At the rate things are going, sooner rather than later there will be more Arabs than Jews on the soil of our dreams. The world will not tolerate that Arab majority being turned into second-class citizens by a minority that for decade after decade shoved the Holocaust in everyone’s face and declared that only the Jews occupied the moral high ground.
To be sure, we do not believe for a moment that anyone in the Palestinian Authority actually wants a two-state solution, either. That is the real reason why negotiations with the Palestinians can go all the way, as they have in the past, with the Palestinians getting almost everything they asked for — including a chunk of Jerusalem — and they still will walk out in mock disgust, as indeed they have. The Palestinians understand only too well that time is on their side. Our side has not yet figured that out.
There is a way to avoid this disaster. If the peace process is to fail, the Arabs must be seen as the sole reason for that failure. Israel, meanwhile, must be seen as negotiating in good faith and with an open heart, interested as much in accommodating Arab aspirations as fulfilling Jewish dreams. It does not have to give away the store, but nor can it be seen as attempting to padlock all its shelves.
Some would argue that the world will see what it wants to see regardless of what actually there is to see. There is much truth in this, but it also is beside the point.
We long ago gave up our place on the moral high ground, but we must never abandon our morality.