A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 7.23.2020

The Talmud famously relates that Jerusalem was destroyed due to sinat chinam – baseless hatred: “There was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza.”  As is common in Talmudic stories, it’s not clear who “his enemy” is referring to: is bar Kamtza the enemy of the host, or of the host’s friend Kamtza?  In either case, the host tells bar Kamtza to leave. To avoid the humiliation, bar Kamtza offers to pay for his meal, but his offer is rebuffed. He then offers to pay for half the feast, and is again rebuffed.  Finally, he offers to pay for the entire feast, but the host insists that he leave and then bodily removes him.  Furious at the terrible insult and humiliation, and enraged that the guests – “the Sages” – said and did nothing, he goes and turns in the entire Jewish community to the Romans, framing them for insulting the Roman government.  The Romans lay siege to Jerusalem for three years, and ultimately conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.

It’s a grim story – a story of unapologetic hatred and inflexibility.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that bar Kamtza was the enemy not of the host but of the host’s friend, Kamtza. If so, then any basis for mistreating him thus would be far removed.  The story is opaque on that matter, and maybe that’s the point; nothing could justify treating someone so harshly.  Justified hatred is problematic enough, but baseless hatred? So painful is baseless hatred to God, the story seems to be saying, that the consequences are utterly earth shattering.  

We are living through a time of extraordinary division in our country. People on different sides of an issue attribute evil to their opponents. Our two party political system has devolved into a take-no-prisoners zero-sum game, rather than the model of compromise and broad representation that it was meant to be. People feel genuine hatred and malice for others whom they have never met. Only yesterday, a congressman rudely accosted a congresswoman on the Capitol steps over a policy difference. They had never spoken before. She called him out for his rudeness, and as she walked away, he audibly called her an “f—ing b–ch.” This kind of terrible, violent division has oozed off of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and into the lives of all Americans. None of us is unaffected by the Coronavirus pandemic which rages out of control because wearing masks and behaving responsibly, collectively, has been turned into fodder for further divisiveness, another expression of the “controversial-ization” of absolutely everything. 

Tisha b’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning, begins next Wednesday night.  At 8:15 pm, we will gather on Zoom, recite the ma’ariv prayers, recite kinot (liturgical poem-elegies), and read the scroll of Eicha / Lamentations. Tisha b’Av, of course, commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. It can serve as a reminder – a wake-up call – that baseless hatred and division can only lead to no good. In our modern context, it can serve as a spur to more pluralistic tendencies: we can disagree with people and still like them.  We can hold different opinions from our fellows and still enjoy their company. We can disrespect an idea but respect a person’s right to hold it. Of course, there are cases of what philosophers call “intolerable deviance,” when a set of beliefs is so far outside of the mainstream as to be harmful to the society as a whole, but most of the time, there is nothing to prevent us from dialogue, détente, and de-escalation. It’s easier said than done, of course, but we may see Tisha b’Av be our annual reminder that we have the power to make changes, and that the changes begin with us. 

Bar Kamtza may be the real hero of our story, at least initially.  According to the Maharsha (16th-17th c. Talmudist – no joke, he was the rabbi of Chelm for a spell), bar Kamtza was the son of Kamtza, and was the enemy not of his father Kamtza but of the host. When the servant accidentally invited him, bar Kamtza assumed that the host, a friend of his father’s, wanted to reconcile with him, and so he accepted the offer to attend the feast. He was prepared to “let bygones be bygones” and to make peace with his enemy. It was only after he was summarily rejected by the host that his animosity was magnified and he committed his act of betrayal. There is more than one moral to this story.

So as we move through the “nine days” of Av leading up to Tisha b’Av, let us all reflect on how we can do better, how we can listen better, and how we can embrace people even when their views do not match our own.

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat full of love and tolerance.

Rabbi Sam Levine