Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kamtza, Bar Kamtza, the nine days, and a robber

I had actually planned to blog about this last week, when the article appeared in a local newspaper, but forgot about it until I stumbled across it again in a friend's blog.

I'm glad, though, that I ended up waiting, because now I'm in Tisha B'Av mode, and this is a story that in some ways is perfectly suited for that day. Probably everyone has already readthis story, but just in case you somehow missed it:

A grand feast of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp was winding down, and a group of friends was sitting on the back patio of a Capitol Hill home, sipping red wine. Suddenly, a hooded man slid in through an open gate and put the barrel of a handgun to the head of a 14-year-old guest.

"Give me your money, or I'll start shooting," he demanded, according to D.C. police and witness accounts.

The five other guests, including the girls' parents, froze -- and then one spoke.

"We were just finishing dinner," Cristina "Cha Cha" Rowan, 43, blurted out. "Why don't you have a glass of wine with us?"

The intruder took a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry and said, "Damn, that's good wine."

The girl's father, Michael Rabdau, 51, who described the harrowing evening in an interview, told the intruder, described as being in his 20s, to take the whole glass. Rowan offered him the bottle. The would-be robber, his hood now down, took another sip and had a bite of Camembert cheese that was on the table.

Then he tucked the gun into the pocket of his nylon sweatpants.

"I think I may have come to the wrong house," he said, looking around the patio of the home in the 1300 block of Constitution Avenue NE.

"I'm sorry," he told the group. "Can I get a hug?"

So, this is not a particularly unusual story these days, is it? At least, not up until the end.

This is a story about how people can affect their fate through the way they treat one another. Tisha B’av, too, is a story of how human interaction can have profound consequences. Many people ask to day what relevance Tisha B’av has, why we still observe a holiday about the destruction of Jerusalem. I think though, that in looking through what the rabbis themselves have to say about Tisha B’Av, it will become clear just how relevant it remains.

The rabbis exlain the fall of the second temple in
T. Bavli Gittin 55b-56a ff.

Rabbi Yohanan said: What is illustrative of the verse, Happy is the man that feareth always, but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief? [Prov 28:14] The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza [lit.'locust and son of locust' The meaning is that a very trivial cause set in motion the train of events which led to the destruction of Jerusalem] …. The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza in this way. A certain man had a friend, Kamtza and an enemy, Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.

He said, I won't. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, 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. He said, How can I tell? He said to him: Send them an offering 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 as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas 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 R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death? R. Yohanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land....

(page 57a). It has been taught: Rabbi Elazar said, Come and see [from this incident] how serious a thing it is to put a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamtza and destroyed His House and burnt His Temple. גיטין דף נה.ב

אמר רבי יוחנן, מאי דכתיב: )משלי כ"ח( אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד ומקשה לבו יפול ברעה? אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים, אתרנגולא ותרנגולתא חרוב טור מלכא, אשקא דריספק חרוב ביתר. אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים, דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא, עבד סעודתא, אמר ליה לשמעיה: זיל אייתי לי קמצא, אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא. אתא אשכחיה דהוה יתיב, אמר ליה: מכדי ההוא גברא בעל דבבא דההוא גברא הוא, מאי בעית הכא? קום פוקִ אמר ליה: הואיל ואתאי שבקן, ויהיבנא לך דמי מה דאכילנא ושתינא,

גיטין דף נו.א

אמר ליה: לא. אמר ליה: יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיךִ אמר ליה: לא. אמר ליה: יהיבנא לך דמי כולה סעודתיךִ א"ל: לא. נקטיה בידיה ואוקמיה ואפקיה. אמר: הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה, ש"מ קא ניחא להו, איזיל איכול בהו קורצא בי מלכא. אזל אמר ליה לקיסר: מרדו בך יהודאיִ א"ל: מי יימר? א"ל: שדר להו קורבנא, חזית אי מקרבין ליה. אזל שדר בידיה עגלא תלתא. בהדי דקאתי שדא ביה מומא בניב שפתים, ואמרי לה ־ בדוקין שבעין, דוכתא דלדידן הוה מומא ולדידהו לאו מומא הוא. סבור רבנן לקרוביה משום שלום מלכות, אמר להו רבי זכריה בן אבקולס, יאמרו: בעלי מומין קריבין לגבי מזבחִ סבור למיקטליה, דלא ליזיל ולימא, אמר להו רבי זכריה, יאמרו: מטיל מום בקדשים יהרגִ אמר רבי יוחנן: ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס, החריבה את ביתנו, ושרפה את היכלנו, והגליתנו מארצנו.

תניא, אמר רבי אלעזר: בא וראה כמה גדולה כחה של בושה, שהרי סייע הקב"ה את בר קמצא, והחריב את ביתו ושרף את היכלו.

In midrash rabbah, there is another version of this story in which bar Kamtza specifically asks not to be put to shame by being thrown out, and which also places Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkulos at the party, saying: ’ R. Zechariah ben Avkulos, who was present, could have prevented [the host from treating the man in this manner] but did not intervene.

So what exactly is the flaw here? It's clear from the rabbis' comments, that the sin that levelled Jerusalem was the shaming of bar kamtza. But was it? The rabbis go on, and we see this rounded out by the additional telling in the midrash, to sy that really, the fall of Jerusalem was on their shoulders, not because of the shaming of bar kamtza, but beasue the rabbis stood by and did nothing (or at least one rabbi, R. Zechariah Ben Avkulos) while bar kamtza was publically shamed.

Curiously, though, the Maharal points out that in fact, the introduction says that Kamtza and Bar Kamtza both caused the fall of Jerusalem. But how can this be? Kamtza, after all, was not even present.

Maharal explains that when the atmosphere is one of hatred, people seek allies in their disputes with their many enemies and call them their friends. Such a friendship reflects not true human warmth, but rather the calculating partnership of the hostile. If so, even the host's friendship with Kamtza was part of the corruption that characterized the Jewish society of the time. (The excellent translation was by Dovid Gottlieb and comes from Amit Magazine, Summer 2007).

The rabbi say elsewhere in the Talmud in Yoma 9b

Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed. Idolatry, …

…But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed sinat chinam - hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together . מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני שלשה דברים שהיו בו: עבודה זרה, וגלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים.

... אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם. ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים. רשעים היו, אלא שתלו בטחונם בהקדוש ברוך הוא.

What are the sins that we have addressed here: shaming another person, seeing someone put to shame and not acting, baseless hatred.
R. Yosef Chayyim of Baghdad (the Ben Ish Chai, in his work, Ben Yehoyada) says that the gemara is purposeful in saying that what appears to be a minor event is ultimately the cause for the destruction. Unlike in the destruction of the first Temple, sinat chinam often seems to be a low-key matter and not a mojr sin - perhaps because they are sins of omission, rather than commission - passive, rather than active in nature.
But from these seemingly tiny little gestures, come enormous consequences. We often think that we are too small to effect great change to make society change for the better on a large scale, and yet, these acts, which we can affect are cumulative acts – and their outcome can affect entire societies.
As a final question, I ask: why do we continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem while we have regained sovereignty over the land of Israel?
Consider the following:
What is our responsibility in American acts of torture against captives at places like Guantanamo?
Have we protested the $450 million-a-year prostitution industry centered around Tel Aviv, the .trafficking of women in Israel?
When we pass by a homeless person in the street, do we look him in the face and greet him, do we give him money or assistance?
Have we acted to alleviate poverty in this country and in Israel, where, since the implementation of the Wisconsin plan, thousands of Jews (and many non-Jews as well) have lost social welfare benefits, and go hungry along with their children?

Tisha B’Av is not only the low point of our year, it is a marker of the next season to come – that of repentance. But as we know, repentance is meaningless without action. And Tisha B’Av in particular is a reminder of the sins beneath the surface, the ones that we think are okay because they are passive: hatred, failure to act.

The tamlud states (in Shabbat): Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world.

Sinat chinam seems like it might be a huge sin, but when we fail to act on the everyday wrongs that we know of, we are considered by God to be responsible, just as the rabbis of Jerusalem were held responsible - held themselves responsible- for seeing bar kamtza shamed at the hands of his enemy.
The commentary at the end, which scolds Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos for then following up by failing to take either a stand by sacrificing a blemished animal or killing bar Kamtza is a hint that the rabbis thought that he should have a. foreseen t e consequences of allowing one enemy to shame another - the escalation of a personal grievance to one that will take over society, and b. that they were subtly telling us that when we consider what Jewish law , halakhah, requires of us, we too often - among those of us who take it seriously, or believe we do- weight ritual matters far more greatly than ethical ones. This isn't to say, of course, that the rabbis thought that ignoring ethical matters is in any way acceptible, but rather the opposite, that we can't possibly be taking either ritual or ethical matters seriously, unless we count them both as equal; that we do not really worship God, unless we worship by considering our actions ben adam l'cahvero- betwen human beings- as part and parcel as those of ben adam l'makom - between humans and God. For, after all, if we don't take our responsibilties to those who are like us, whom we can see, and with whom we have the ability to interact, and somewtimes over whom we have power, then our worship of God isn't ahavat hashem - love of God, but at best a kind of cringing yirat shamayim - but not in a good sense, but rather, more like a "you have power over me, please don't hurt me, even though I don't take that caution to care for others when I am in the position of acting as the image of God in having power over others" B'tzelem elohim in its meaning of a shadow of God, having some of the powers of God.
And I would ask us to think of even our enemies, those whom we have written off as people whom we cannot speak to, who will not negotiate with us, who hate us without reason. The Talmud never explains why bar kamtza is the man’s enemy – it makes a suggestion (you carry tales) but that clearly isn't the whole story - but the Talmud doesn't fill us in because it doesn’t matter. What matters is bar kamtza suffering humiliation at his enemy’s hands.
We are not excused from responsibility for shaming even our enemies, and it is worthwhile to consider what that may mean: if for nothing else than the practical reason that shaming one’s enemies my lead to one’s own destruction.

But the opposite may be true too. I end with a story from the Holocaust:

By Yaffa Eliach
(from Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. New York: Avon Books, 1982. Pages 129-30. Used by permission of the author. Dr. Eliach writes that this story was "based on my conversation with an elderly Hasidic personality."
Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic Rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties. Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law.
During his morning walk it was the rabbi's custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial "Good morning." Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.
Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Mueller, a Polish Volksdeutsche (ethnic German). "Good morning, Herr Mueller!" the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields. "Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!" would come the response with a good-natured smile.
Then the war began. The rabbi's strolls stopped abruptly. Herr Mueller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields.(*) The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry. He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka, and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.
One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood on line with hundreds of other Jews awaiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death. Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton.
"Right! Left, left, left!" The voice in the distance drew nearer. Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decide who should live and who should die. His lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:
"Good morning, Herr Mueller!"
"Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!" responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones. "What are you doing here?" A faint smile appeared on the rabbi's lips. The baton moved to the right - to life. The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.
The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, "This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man."
(*)After the German occupation of Poland, many Volksdeutschen were eager to serve the Nazi cause. They joined the Nazis and took revenge upon their Polish neighbors in reprisal for the alleged anti-Volksdeutschen pogroms that took place in Poland in the late 1930's. See Hans Schadeaaldt, comp., Polish Acts of Atrocity against the German Minority in Poland: Documenting Evidence, published for the German Foreign Office (Berlin/New York, 1940).

And if he does not even respond to a greeting, he is called a robber, as it says, “That which was robbed from the poor is in your houses.” (Isaiah 3:14) [Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6b]"


Jack's Shack said...

The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, "This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man."

There is a lot of truth in that.

סֵפֶר "Bar Kamtza. 2007" said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
סֵפֶר "Bar Kamtza. 2007" said...

Here were raised the intelligent and important questions - but they were asked about the literal meaning (פשט) of the legend - and this causes disaster!

We MUST DECRYPT the literal meaning of the legends of the Talmud!

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza - who are they really???

The answer is here (in Hebrew):
or (with some additions):

The true meaning of the Sinat Chinam concept is explained in the document called
חמישה קטעים על המילה בריון
on this site: