Yoav Schaefer and Jacob Samuel Abolafia, The Real Lesson of Tisha B’Av, Tablet Magazine, July 2017
Tisha B’Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, comes this year at a particularly fraught moment for the Jewish people. The only surviving architectural element of the Temple, its western restraining wall, has become a site of contention both between different religious movements and between world Jewry and the Israeli government. At such moments, there is a strong temptation to appeal, as the U.S. ambassador to Israel recently did, to the idea of Jewish unity—“that nobody ever has to win” if we all work together and respect one another.
An appeal to solidarity has particular power on Tisha B’Av, a day that is often connected, at least in the American Jewish imagination, to the sin of sinat hinam—senseless hatred. The tradition of connecting the destruction of the Temple with needless enmity between Jews has an ancient pedigree. In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b), the rabbis suggest that the Second Temple was destroyed due to senseless hatred, and elsewhere (Gittin 56a) they provide an example of that hatred through a story of two rivals whose discord led, indirectly, to the Roman invasion: The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa—a friend of Kamsa’s hates Bar Kamsa, and insults him to the point where he turns to the Romans—has a neat pedagogical clarity, which partially explains why contemporary Jews turn to it again and again in their sermons, school lessons, and camp activities.
It’s not clear, however, that this focus on sinat hinam takes the right political lessons from the story of Tisha B’Av. A closer look at that same Talmudic passage suggests that the lesson of Tisha B’Av is not about mending divisions within the Jewish community. It’s about the danger of failing to stand up for a set of values—even at the cost of intracommunity strife.
The very next paragraphs in the Talmud recount the rabbinic reaction to Bar Kamsa’s actions: “The sages thought to kill [Bar Kamsa] so that he would not go and speak [to the Romans],” but ultimately they did nothing. Rabbi Yochanan (other versions say Rabbi Yossi) says it was this act of “humility” that “destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” The Talmud is not shy in assigning blame for the destruction: It happens because of the unwillingness, or inability, of the rabbis to challenge the actions of their fellow Jews.
The Babylonian Talmud was redacted some 500 years after the events described in this story, but the outlines of the rabbinic account agree in large part with the version of events related by Flavius Josephus, who was present outside the walls of the city on the 9th of Av. Despite his later reputation as a Jewish quisling, Josephus was and remains the most reliable witness to the siege and loss of Jerusalem. The heroes, in Josephus’s story, are the leaders who take a stand against those whom Josephus calls “the so-called Zealots” (he prefers to use the Greek word lestes, meaning “thug” or “pirate”).
One of the turning points in Josephus’s narrative is the stirring speech one such leader, the High Priest Ananus, makes against the Zealots. “O bitter tyranny that we are under! But why do I complain of the tyrants? Was it not you [the people of Jerusalem], and your sufferance of [the Zealots], that have nourished them?” The actions Ananus describes the Zealots as committing—the forceful monopoly over the sacred spaces of Jerusalem, the pillaging of houses and the wanton destruction of property—have a distinctly modern ring, as does the striking language Josephus chooses to use for the two parties. The Zealots are “tyrants,” and what is at stake, Ananus argues, is nothing less than the “political liberty” of the Jewish people.
Josephus later describes Ananus as “equal-minded, freedom-loving, and a pursuer of democracy.” Of course, these words didn’t mean exactly the same thing to Josephus that they do in modern usage, but they ring clearly enough to give the contemporary reader pause. Even more alarming is a verdict Josephus delivers twice: It was the defeat of Ananus and his party that doomed the city. The victory of zealotry over equal respect (Greek: isotimia) and tyranny over democracy was not, in Josephus’s opinion, inevitable. Nor was it the outcome of unhealthy rancor or an excess of ill feeling. It was not even due to the external pressure of Roman imperialism. It was a question of Jewish politics. While Ananus defended democracy, the idea of a government that works in the interest of all, there was hope. But once the self-interested and reckless politics of the Zealots prevailed, the destruction of Jerusalem could not be prevented.
The historical lesson of the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, as evidenced by Josephus and the Rabbis, is not about the value of Jewish unity but about its limitations. Whatever the merits of Jewish unity, it should not come at the expense of addressing the real issues that divide our community. Nor should it be given priority over the security and well-being of the Jewish people. This is the thrust of Josephus’ and the Rabbis’ warning that ceding power to those in the community who are unconcerned with the political consequences of their theological or ideological commitments can end in catastrophe.
Of course, political unity can be valuable at times. This is particularly true in times of crisis, when Jews from across political and religious divides come together to pursue shared interests or goals, as was the case in response to the Damascus Blood Libel in 1840—perhaps the first instance of international Jewish collective action—and the reaction to the plight of Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and ’70s, to name two prominent examples. While solidarity may at times be useful as a means for furthering certain shared goals, it is another thing entirely to consider it as an end unto itself. Jewish unity is most necessary when the threat is external to the community, but the appeal to unity when the threat is internal—as it was in the case of the Zealots—is not only misguided and irresponsible; it is fraught with danger.
The appeal to Jewish unity is often made by those who would seek to silence dissenting voices within our community. But history teaches us that such efforts are inherently self-defeating, since attempts to impose political conformity upon a community, far from creating consensus and harmony, tend to backfire. Moreover, the enforcers of unity ignore the fact of political and religious pluralism within the Jewish community. Jews are and have always been deeply divided around issues of politics and religion, and not for no reason. Jewish history, and particularly the history we commemorate on Tisha B’Av, is the history of competing factions struggling, sometimes violently, to shape the identity and future of the Jewish people. The appeal to Jewish unity, therefore, often entails a nostalgic longing for an imagined past of religious and political homogeneity. But that past is a historical fabrication, one easily employed in the service of ideological ends.
The lesson of Tisha B’Av may not point to the value of unity but to its perils. The fast reminds us what happens when the forces that stand against political freedom and equal respect are appeased rather than defeated. When unity trumps sensibility, the consequences may be disastrous.
גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת, דִּכְתִיב: ״וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ יַעַן כִּי גָבְהוּ בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן וַתֵּלַכְנָה נְטוּיוֹת גָּרוֹן וּמְשַׂקְּרוֹת עֵינָיִם הָלוֹךְ וְטָפוֹף תֵּלַכְנָה וּבְרַגְלֵיהֶן תְּעַכַּסְנָה״. ״יַעַן כִּי גָּבְהוּ בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן״ — שֶׁהָיוּ מְהַלְּכוֹת אֲרוּכָּה בְּצַד קְצָרָה. ״וַתֵּלַכְנָה נְטוּיוֹת גָּרוֹן״ — שֶׁהָיוּ מְהַלְּכוֹת בְּקוֹמָה זְקוּפָה. ״וּמְשַׂקְּרוֹת עֵינַיִם״ — דַּהֲווֹ מָלְיָין כּוּחְלָא עֵינֵיהֶן. ״הָלוֹךְ וְטָפוֹף תֵּלַכְנָה״ — שֶׁהָיוּ מְהַלְּכוֹת עָקֵב בְּצַד גּוּדָל. ״וּבְרַגְלֵיהֶן תְּעַכַּסְנָה״ — אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק: שֶׁהָיוּ מְבִיאוֹת מוֹר וַאֲפַרְסְמוֹן וּמַנִּיחוֹת בְּמִנְעֲלֵיהֶן, וּכְשֶׁמַּגִּיעוֹת אֵצֶל בַּחוּרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בּוֹעֲטוֹת וּמַתִּיזוֹת עֲלֵיהֶן, וּמַכְנִיסִין בָּהֶן יֵצֶר הָרָע כְּאֶרֶס בְּכָעוּס.
With regard to forbidden sexual relations, it is written: “The Lord says because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go and making a tinkling with their feet” (Isaiah 3:16). Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, indicates a tall woman walking alongside a short one so that the tall woman would stand out. And walk with outstretched necks, indicates that they would walk with upright stature and carry themselves in an immodest way. And wanton eyes, indicates that they would fill their eyes with blue eye shadow in order to draw attention to their eyes. Walking and mincing as they go, indicates that they would walk in small steps, heel to toe, so onlookers would notice them. Making a tinkling [te’akasna] with their feet, Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This teaches that they would bring myrrh and balsam and place them in their shoes and would walk in the marketplaces of Jerusalem. And once they approached a place where young Jewish men were congregated, they would stamp their feet on the ground and splash the perfume toward them and instill the evil inclination into them like venom of a viper [ke’eres bikhos].
אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב (משלי כח, יד) 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 פוק אמר ליה הואיל ואתאי שבקן ויהיבנא לך דמי מה דאכילנא ושתינא אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיך אמר ליה לא אמר ליה יהיבנא לך דמי כולה סעודתיך 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 יהודאי 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 מזבח סבור למיקטליה דלא ליזיל ולימא אמר להו רבי זכריה יאמרו מטיל מום בקדשים יהרג אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו
§ Apropos the war that led to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Gemara examines several aspects of the destruction of that Temple in greater detail: Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Happy is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief” (Proverbs 28:14)? Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. The place known as the King’s Mountain was destroyed on account of a rooster and a hen. The city of Beitar was destroyed on account of a shaft from a chariot [rispak]. The Gemara explains: Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is as 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. The man who was hosting the feast came and found bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to bar Kamtza. That man is the enemy [ba’al devava] of that man, that is, you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink. Just do not embarrass me by sending me out. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: I will give you money for half of the feast; just do not send me away. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza then said to him: I will give you money for the entire feast; just let me stay. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Finally, the host took bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out. After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform [eikhul kurtza] against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. The emperor said to him: Who says that this is the case? Bar Kamtza said to him: Go and test them; send them an offering to be brought in honor of the government, and see whether they will sacrifice it. The emperor went and sent with him a choice three-year-old calf. While bar Kamtza was coming with the calf to the Temple, he made a blemish on the calf’s upper lip. And some say he made the blemish on its eyelids, a place where according to us, i.e., halakha, it is a blemish, but according to them, gentile rules for their offerings, it is not a blemish. Therefore, when bar Kamtza brought the animal to the Temple, the priests would not sacrifice it on the altar since it was blemished, but they also could not explain this satisfactorily to the gentile authorities, who did not consider it to be blemished. The blemish notwithstanding, the Sages thought to sacrifice the animal as an offering due to the imperative to maintain peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: If the priests do that, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed as offerings on the altar. The Sages said: If we do not sacrifice it, then we must prevent bar Kamtza from reporting this to the emperor. The Sages thought to kill him so that he would not go and speak against them. Rabbi Zekharya said to them: If you kill him, people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. As a result, they did nothing, bar Kamtza’s slander was accepted by the authorities, and consequently the war between the Jews and the Romans began. Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.