Tag Archives: Torah

Did Exremism Cause the Fall of the Second Temple?

Shammai Engelmayer • Columns

Published: 06 July 2012

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.

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All I Know I Learned in High School

It was back in Washington Heights, Manhattan in 1986, I was sixteen years old and in 11th grade at the Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boy – lovingly referred to MTA to this day, and we were quite a group of misfits. That school taught me everything I would need to survive; not much in the area of academics, though. Imagine Lord of the Flies set in Anatevka. Not to reinvent the wheel here, as I believe that my comrade Shalom Auslander who trailed me by a year, accurately captured my experiences in his brilliantly illustrated autobiography, A Foreskin’s Lament.

It was there in MTA, where often timid little naive Jewish kids, many from suburban neighborhoods, descended daily on the Dominican Republic’s satellite city in the very upper corner of Manhattan, that I learned valuable lessons on life. Some of us found drugs, some found religion, others found new friends and even new found inner strength. All of us, however, learned the value of money – that if you had it, you were treated one way, and if not, you were just cast out.

Two juniors took a freshman for a magic carpet ride on his first marijuana high. The kid broke down and told his parents who then told the principal. The junior whose father was a school benefactor was given probation and the junior from a family with somewhat less money and who was likely on scholarship, was expelled. That didn’t come as a shock, but it was one of the most blatant hypocritical contrasts to what we were taught about God and religion and the reality of everyday life. Yet, I cannot complain because I benefited too, no doubt.

My advantage wasn’t money, for I didn’t grow up with much. It was the next valuable lesson, influence. My father – who by the way, just successfully survived major surgery – was the executive editor at the New York Jewish Week back then; the Jewish publication with the largest circulation at the time and was also an important propaganda engine for the Yeshiva University network of schools. I had a bad habit of getting myself thrown out of school for doing little more than expressing my concerns for the quality of my education.

There was the time I was sitting in Talmud (Gemara) class, referred to as a Shiur, and the head of school came in to test us young men on what we knew – or didn’t. It was a random thing. Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen, a tall, thin, beady eyed man with a long white beard, soft spoken, with a deliberately and distinctively enunciated diction that sounded like a throaty Bostonian accent with an Eastern European twinge will always be remembered by me and hundreds of my fellow inmates for his performance in the Wilf Auditorium of the high school decrying the message of the one-hit-wonder pop song by Samantha Fox, “Touch Me!”

That day, he stood up in front of an entire school of young impressionable lads and started flailing his arms wildly, touching himself and yelling “touch me’, “touch me” as he went into a rant over inappropriate messages of modern music. Any one of us that day who did not know the song before hand, went out and bought it, or borrowed the cassette to copy. Good thinking rabbi.

That same approach was successfully employed by Mel Gibson’s folks earlier this decade when they had the Anti-Defamation League publicly oppose his movie The Passion of The Christ. ADL successfully raised funds for its organization, and Mel got better advertising than he could have otherwise afforded to fund for this project. Yet, I digress…

So, we were in Bobo’s class (not his real name, but we kind of referred to our rabbi by it; it was passed down for years before we ever got to his class), well known for being a den of miscreants. One of our esteemed class clowns was comedian Elon Gold, who had a sitcom on network television, many cable comedy programs and does stand-up. I like to believe that he tested many of his early jokes in this class. Now, Rabbi Cohen walked into our class one day and picked up the book of the Talmud that we were presumably learning from and he randomly called on students to answer questions.

We were learning from Tractate Bava Kama, but that didn’t really matter to most of us. He would pick out a word or a phrase and then call on a student to explain it. After a few students had their turn to varying degrees of success, he points his finger into the Talmud and quietly read the words “Esnan Zonah,” simply defined as money paid to prostitute for her services. Now the issue here was about whether an item given in exchange for this money may be offered as a sacrifice, but more to the point.

Rabbi Cohen stated the term and looked up from the book and called out, “Yehuuuudddaa En-Gel-May-errr.” I looked up at him and asked him, “Yes Rabbi?” He continued, “What does ‘Esnan Zonah’ mean?”

Being in an uncomfortable situation here, having to talk to a rabbi about such issues, I simply stated, “money given to a prostitute for her services.” He came back at me with, “What does it mean… what are you paying for, why does it matter?” I stared at him, and just restated “it is money paid to a prostitute for her services.” The rabbi looked at me, clearly bemused by what he saw as my vacant answer and said, “Services? Did she go down to Heshy’s (local coffee shop) and buy you a danish?” I gulped. All that I could mutter from my mouth, caught somewhere between fighting my instinct to be a wise ass and not wanting to have a conversation with this rabbi about what turning tricks is all about, was “Rabbi, if you’re not clear, I don’t think that I should be the one to tell you.” Bobo spit his soda out of his mouth laughing.  Sure it was funny, but I got kicked out of class and “expelled” for it.

So, I did what became habit for me, and I called my father and told him my version of the truth. He moaned, yet still did his part and called his friends at the Yeshiva University Board of Directors who wanted to maintain a positive relationship with the newspaper.  I was told to report back to school the next day. When I approached the school steps the next morning, the principal was standing there and said to me, “I don’t appreciate getting calls from the Board of Directors about you,” and I just said smugly, “Then don’t kick me out anymore.”

Lesson learned here: it’s not what you know, but who you know.

I graduated, life goes on. I learned so much about life at MTA; valuable lessons in street smarts, politics and diplomacy, and surviving. It was the kind of school where the smart kids did just fine and those who struggled continued to do so, just keeping their heads low so to stay off the administrator’s radar.

Fortunately, my children will never be in a place like that. Our hope is that the schools they are in will help them grow academically and spiritually, and will also gain some of the moxie we found in the dark corridors of that old musty building in Washington Heights.

Juda Engelmayer is President and Partner with the NY PR agency, HeraldPR

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