This is the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, July 17, Shabbat Chazon -- the Shabbat preceding the fast of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Romans.
I want to tell you a story from the Talmud often taught at this time of year, around the fast of Tisha B’Av. But first I want you to take a minute and think about the Jewish person who is most unlike you as a Jew. The Jew or the Jewish group you find it hard to admire, or who is hardest for you to feel connected to as a fellow Jew.
Here is the story (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b):
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.
It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called 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 the other: “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 give you half the cost of the party.”
The host refused.
“Then let me pay for the whole party.”
Still the host refused, and took him by the hand and threw him out.
Said Bar Kamtza, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the government.”
He went and said to the emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
Said the emperor, “How can I know that this is true?”
“Send them an offering,” said Bar Kamtza, “and see whether they will offer it on the altar.”
So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip (or some say, on the white of its eye)—in a place where we Jews count it a blemish but they Romans do not.
The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
This story from the Talmud is retold often around Tisha B’Av, part of the idea that the Second Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred among Jews, sin’at chinam.
There is a lot here in the story and I’m not going to give you a complete analysis. But a few things stand out particularly to me this year:
- The names Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the host’s friend and his enemy, are almost the same. Among Jews, the people we like and the people not so much are really close together, sometimes in the same space and if not, then not entirely different from each other.
- This is a story about a Jewish party, a social gathering of people in the same place, that ends connected to the political world of the Romans – but it starts with the Jewish party.
- The story asks whether relations among us as Jews are governed culturally by us or by the general world. We know that Jews argue or don’t always get along – will this be played out Jewish-style or Roman-style?
The last issue is particularly worth our attention, always and especially this year. Jews argue and Jews don’t all get along always. Conflict is built into Torah and Talmud, and into Jewish culture. The good version of this is called machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement and even division for the sake of Heaven. It goes hand in hand with Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people and love of Jews generally, beyond one’s own community and the Jews at your own Shabbes table or your own synagogue.
I do think what happened here is that a Jewish fight got turned into a Roman one, and the rabbis stood there and let it happen. They didn’t ask what Jewish ethics had to say about these two people in an uncomfortable situation, who maybe were enemies for a good reason. The rabbis got stuck on technical rituals questions and didn’t see the bigger human picture. So the Talmud here doesn’t blame the destruction of the Temple on the Romans; or on Bar Kamtza, the Jew who sold out Jews to the Romans; but on the rabbis who could have turned this around.
Bar Kamtza didn’t act well but we understand he was hurt. The rabbis didn’t act well because they didn’t put ritual and relationships together. And they got so focused on Bar Kamtza that they forget the Romans were a much worse enemy, a much bigger issue. The rabbis and Kamtza and bar Kamtza could have all gotten on the same side of that.
I’m very much feeling like our Jewish community’s conflicts today are being Romanized, so to speak. Americanized. And this story and the Tisha B’Av fast day are reminders to deal with our conflicts Jewishly. Ahavat Yisrael for me has always been about forcing myself to ask: Who is the Jew who is least like me, whom I have the hardest time feeling connected to. Then looking for a connection of friendship or admiration with someone in such a group. For me it’s a nice long list of Jews different from me who are hard for me. It’s charedi Jews, and West Bank settlers, and completely secular you-can’t- possibly-lure-me-into-shul-no-matter-how-good-the-music-or-food-or-your-sermon. I have to work at that. That’s not what modern day Romans do. Rather than get sucked in more to American-style conflict, I can find ways to love and connect that don’t sell out my integrity. I might even find something that my own Bar Kamtza and I both care about, a moral issue that we can work on together.
There is a tremendous example of Ahavat Yisrael that took place recently, from the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. The speech he gave in the Knesset introducing the leaders in his new government was a like mashup of announcing the starting lineup for the Celtics at the Garden and a book club summary of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.
Prime Minister Bennett presented by name, with affection, the leader of each party in his government and the specific good each one was going to work on for Israel. More of these partners than not are ideologically opposed to him in some profound way. I know this was politics, but he turned a moment of just enough votes in the Knesset to an expansive and generous and forward-looking, hopeful moment. It went even beyond Jews, as the new prime minister even gave a shout out for Mansour Abbas of the Arab Ra’am party.
Bennett did this while the country was hardly out of war with Gaza and just beyond fighting in the streets between Jews and Arabs. He did this with all the emotion in the air around former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he did this while death threats were being made members of his political party and the new government. I would say you should read the speech, but it’s not soaring, it’s not a great read. It’s just the fact of it. Prime Minister Bennett found a way for Kamtza and Bar Kamtza to fight the Romans instead of each other. And the Romans are worth fighting together even if you’re not going to be actually friends. In my proudest, Jewish-egotistical way I would say only a Jew could have pulled this off.
So we might all learn from that. We should try to find a way to say something true and sincere and generous about Jews we’re not like. And as part of that, we have to love ourselves as Jews – you for your own Jewish life, us for our shul’s Jewish life. We have to do better at making sure that there are many good and admirable things that a Jew so different would say about us.
There is a cost to Ahavat Yisrael, to putting this much value on loving all other Jews. Whenever you set aside even for a minute an ideological debate, you are putting on hold a belief you hold because other people’s wellbeing depends on that core belief. There’s a cost, no doubt.
But Ahavat Yisrael is a model not for when to give up our principles, but for how to enlarge our world. For saying: there’s a person unlike me who isn’t only my opponent, who isn’t all the timeworking against what’s important to me, and who I hate to say might be a role model for me in some way.
When I think of the charedi community or the settlements, I know there’s a tight-knit quality and a commitment to taking care of each other that I want more of in our community and that I want to imitate. When I think of the most secular Jews I know, I often find an honesty, a straightforward path toward moral commitments, that I want to work at more.
We Jews have more history than anyone of suffering because of our divisions -- losing life and losing our land and losing each other. We also have more history than anyone of enduringbecause we figured out how to be divided. We are resilient because we’ve learned to be at the same party, as Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Our divisions have not destroyed us; sometimes they have helped us grow. I know my own Judaism is stronger because of the Orthodoxy I reject in my own life, because of the Reform I reject in my own life, because of the Israeliness I chose not to pursue in my own life.
Who knows if this is the gift we’re supposed to find for our time. To find our Ahavat Yisrael, our love of Jews, and machloket l’shem shamayim, division focused around things that matter. Who knows, we could spread this out to the Romans, to the Americans. At least we can try not to be swept up on other people’s terms in the divisiveness of the moment.
So as we go into Tisha B’av, let’s each think about the Jew who pushes our buttons, whether that’s here locally or anywhere in the Jewish world. Find something to admire or like or chuckle about. Find an idea from them that challenges you in a good way, and be thankful and gracious. Imagine a party we can all be at together -- or at least a Kiddush after services.