With the current situation in Israel being so disturbing, the democratic uncertainty hanging over the heads of Israelis (and American Jews), the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Hareidi and secular Jews, the Right and the Left political wings – it is difficult to understand and is paralyzing. I decided to post some of my thoughts.
I would like to discuss a well-known Talmudic story about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which I think draws some parallel to today’s reality in Israel. It presents a symbol of a social pathology among the Jewish people in Jerusalem during the 1st century BC. Social divisions which had hate and disrespect. This division came to the worse point when informing each other to the Roman emperor happened. This, the rabbis believe, what brought the destruction of the 2nd Temple.
But I will first start with another parallel to what is going on in Israel. I read a Facebook post by Rabbi Haviva Ner-David from Kibbutz Hanaton in Israel. She runs a mikvah in the kibbutz called Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, and is also an author of many books.
She shared that she was invited to do a ‘story hour’ at the English library in Tzfat with her children's book called ‘Yonah and the Mikveh Fish’. Her website clearly states that she is a woman post-denominational rabbi who runs the only mikveh in Israel that is open to all to immerse as they choose, and yet, she was invited to present to an observant community.
The majority of the population in Tzfat is Hareidi – Ultra-Orthodox (super religious observant) and her audience were women and kids who were Ultra-Orthodox. Rabbi Haviva expected to find a religiously open-minded group of participants, but that was not what she found.
She read out loud the first page -- which is about Yonah, a kindergarten girl, waking up excited to be going to the mikveh. When Rabbi Haviva read the second page, which is about Rabbi Rebecca (kippa and all) explaining to a group of inter-racial Jewish children what a mikveh is -- one mother interrupted her and told her to stop reading because she didn't want her children to hear such heresy. Rabbi Haviva was amazed, as she was invited as a female rabbi to speak to a religious community, and then felt that she was punched in her face by their a refusal to hear her out.
“I stopped reading. I am not a woman who likes to force my opinions on others. I would not have asked to come there; I had been invited.
But when one of this woman's kids asked me to read another book instead, I was stunned, even appalled -- not blaming the kids but, rather, their mother who did not say a thing to reprimand this rude behavior. It took me a few moments to gather my equilibrium and say ‘no, I had come to read this book, the one I wrote. So they left’. “
A few minutes later, another mother showed up. She was dressed more liberally than the woman in the wig and stockings who had stopped Rabbi Haviva. This mother was warned about the content of the book, but the mother agreed to listen. Rabbi Haviva read the story and an interesting discussion developed in spite the fact that there were 2 different worldviews presented.
“One of the three boys who stayed to listen to the story was proud of himself when he guessed the surprise ending. I rewarded all three boys with fishy crackers. And neither the boys nor their mother (who also partook) checked the package to make sure it had a kosher symbol. I had gained their trust. That made me happy”.
It is clear that there is a clash between 2 different communities, trying to live in one space, but not always knowing how to integrate ideas in a respectful way. Rabbi Haviva was open to hear the audience out and learn about their ways, but the religious audience were not willing to hear her out. It is like the new term: “Israel and Yehuda” as used by Israelis today. Many promote the idea that the State of Israel should split into a federation or into two separate states – conservative/observant and liberal.
And now, let us return to the 1st century CE Talmudic story in Gittin 55b-56a:
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 nost came and found Bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to Bar Kamtza: you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave.
Bar Kamtza offers to make peace with the host, first by offering to pay for the food he eats, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the entire party, but the host remain angry and insisted Bar Kamtza leaves the party.
Finally, the host took Bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out.
…and the rabbis did not protest.
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 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 sends along with Bar Kamtza a three-year-old calf to be sacrificed as a peace offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. On the way, Bar-Kamtza purposefully slightly wounds the animal in a way that would disqualify it as a Jewish sacrifice.
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 sages 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 Yochanan says: because of the actions of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land.
There are a few points that I want to make;
It hurts to note that what existed in the past – the shaky relations among the Jews in Jerusalem, continues to be seen in modern Israel. History repeat itself. Going further from the collective problem to the personal responsibility for proper behavior, we see it is also missing. Note that the host’s name, who shamed the unwanted guest in public is not even mentioned. Revisit the above Facebook story and note the way the mother in Tzfat treated Rabbi Haviva. And the silent rabbis?? Nothing to be proud of either. This is another kind of bad behavior. The rabbis did not defend Bar-Kamtza, and the other mothers in Tzfat said nothing when Rabbi Haviva was asked to stop reading. The point -- Keeping mitzvot should NOT exempt them (or any of us) from Derech Ertez דרך ארץ (Hebrew for way of the land - correct conduct).
Lastly, Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos is also an example of a questionable behavior -- he made a decision between not sacrificing a blemished animal or not. By his fear to transgress a Jewish law (halacha) he chose to sacrifice the future of the Jews and he knew that the outcome of this decision will not be good. Clearly, today, the Israeli government seems to be going this direction, by catering to the religious parties and sacrificing the rights of secular Israelis.
Yes, we see bad social behavior repeating itself. I just wonder whether it will ever be possible for the conflicted parties to take an example from Hillel and Shamai, that in spite of their ideological - theological differences, they showed respect to one another, and even have their kids marry.
The question remains – What kind of future can we expect for Israel?
I posted only small pieces of what is going on today in Israel. I hope that you could understand where my discomfort level lies. But – my last question is:
Is it possible that each one of us has a Bar Kamtza in us? That when we are hurt, insulted or disputed, we are ready to hurt, to damage and take revenge too? Or could we also be on a split road, when we need to decide or take sides in such a way we are carful not to cause harm?
I pray for peace among the Jewish sisters and brothers soon.