“Jerusalem was only destroyed because they zealously applied the strict letter of the Law and did not go beyond the letter of the Law” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 30b).
The month of Av is replete with calamity – a month of sorrow – from the negative report of the spies under Moses in the Book of Numbers, the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, 656 years apart, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the edict of expulsion from Spain in 1492, the beginning of World War I, to the deportation of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. As Rabbi Brockman explained in his talk for the Summer Institute last week, all these dates are conflated and commemorated on Tisha b’Av, which we mark today with a 25 hour fast and the recitation of the megillah Eichah, the Book of Lamentations. While Yom Kippur is the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha b’Av is the saddest.
During the period known as the Three Weeks, a semi-mourning time when weddings are not performed, live music not played and some refrain from haircuts and shaving, leading up to today’s fast, I have been reminded of a story in the Gemara which offers insights into not only the historical period of the Roman sovereignty over Israel but also to events as they unfold for the Jewish people today.
Unlike the destruction of the First Temple, which our Sages tell us was destroyed because of the cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and violence, the Talmud points to a deep societal problem during the days of the Second Temple which is described as sinat chinam, baseless hatred of one Jew towards another that led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
Here’s a famous Gemara text which spotlights the cause for the destruction of Jerusalem and offers a lesson as to what we need to rectify in order to rebuild a foundation of unity of the Jewish people. Then as now.
A story: “Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed. It happened this way. 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 Kamtza”. The servant went and brought Bar Kamtza.
When the man who gave the party found Bar Kamtza there he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here. Get out.” Said Bar Kamtza, “Since I am already here, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” Said the host, “Absolutely not.”
“Then let me pay half the cost of the party.” The host refused. “Then let me but stay as it is embarrassing to me and I will pay the cost of the whole party.” Still, the host refused and took Bar Kamtza and threw him out. Said Bar Kamtza [to himself], “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with his behavior. I will go and inform against them to the Roman authorities.” (Talmud Bavli. Gittin 56)
The story is generally taught as a paradigmatic lesson on the perils of gratuitous hatred. The host of the party is held culpable for Bar Kamtza’s action. But what about the complacency, the passivity of the Rabbis who watched the scene unfold and refused to take action when they witnessed someone being humiliated and hesitated to criticize their host? They fail in their role as leaders, as moral exemplars. Because of their inability to wisely use the powers vested in leadership, they forfeited Jerusalem.
Ultimately, the fractious nature of Jewish society in the first century of the Common Era, the zealotry, internecine rivalry leading to the widespread breach of achdut, or unity among the Jews, the lack of compassion and understanding for others, led to a national catastrophe of exile from our land that lasted almost 2000 years. This is the context that led to the fateful outcome according to the Rabbis, not the superiority of the Roman war machine, not the attractions of Roman culture, not the fact of being vastly outnumbered, but the societal disunity and enmity that will always be our undoing.
It is traditional to shed tears on Tisha b’Av. I have found myself deeply saddened by the political maneuvering in Israel around the effort of MK David Rotem, of the hard-line Israel Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, to propose a controversial conversion bill in the Knesset. A bill which, should it pass, would alienate the vast majority of world Jewry. I believe it would not be too much of an exaggeration to view the conversion bill, which would exclude vast segments of Jews, as tantamount to a schismatic rupture in the fabric of Jewish peoplehood.
Fortunately, we have witnessed leaders who have not refrained from decisive action. This has not been a party, with invited guests standing idly by when exclusionary and hurtful practice takes place. The new head of the Jewish Federation of North America, Jerry Silverman has courageously and dedicatedly mounted staunch efforts to prevent the bill from passing into law. Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel stated unequivocally that “we believe the proposed legislation to be profoundly damaging to the State of Israel. At a time when world Jewry stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel against a vicious multi-front campaign of delegitimization, this bill is seen in large parts of the Diaspora as delegitimizing their own religiosity and Jewish identification.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken out against the bill, recognizing that a rift between world Jewry and Israel would be a disastrous occurrence and he has hastened to mend the political conflict between himself and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman and taken a stance to preserve the unity of the Jewish people.
Israel’s president Shimon Peres pressed for more dialogue.”A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices – from within Israel and from without. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.”
In my own letter to the Prime Minister, I urged him to put politics aside and principle first and to insist that “We are One” is not simply a slogan of the Jewish Federations, but the full expression of the concept of klal yisrael.
What we mourn for on Tisha b’Av is our past losses; what we pray for is to combat gratuitous hatred with a maximum effort to love every member of the Jewish people. What we desire is the redemption of our people, and the way to repair the tragedy is through the opposite of its cause. Instead of gratuitous hatred, we need to practice boundless love. Instead of divisiveness, we need to unify against the very real dangers that face Israel today. Instead of leaders who are more concerned over political infighting, we need to insist on courage and vision. Instead of the treatment of rituals as substitute for deeds of loving kindness, we need to practice compassionate righteousness. Then, as the prophet Isaiah says, “Zion will be redeemed by moral justice.”
Have an easy fast.
Sydney A. Perry
Chief Executive Officer
Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven