We’re approaching Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of God’s Temples in Jerusalem and for nineteen centuries of Jewish exile.
And I’m wondering whether Bar Kamtza was right.
It was because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza that Jerusalem was destroyed, the Talmud says.
Here’s the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Once upon a time a man threw a party in Jerusalem. He meant to invite his friend Kamtza. Instead, the invitation was delivered to Bar Kamtza, who showed up for the party. The host asked him to leave. Bar Kamtza begged to be spared the embarrassment of being evicted. He would pay for his meal. Heck, he would pay for half of the party. Just don’t make him leave. Don’t embarrass him in front of everyone.
The host didn’t compromise. Bar Kamtza was evicted. And Bar Kamtza, seeing that the rabbis attending the party didn’t protest, plotted his revenge not against the host but against the entire Jewish people. When a Roman official sent an animal to be sacrificed in the Temple, Bar Kamtza subtly maimed it, disqualifying it as an offering.
As the Talmud tells the story in tractate Gittin, the rabbis who oversaw the Temple worship debated. Should they accept the animal nonetheless, breaking the law this one time for the greater good?
Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos was a stickler for rules. The law should not be set aside, he insisted. Instead, the sacrifice was rejected, the Romans were infuriated, and the Roman war machine moved into motion and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
For Rabbi Yochanan, who escaped Jerusalem and rebuilt Judaism after the destruction, the villain was Rabbi Zecharia.
But what about Bar Kamtza himself?
Why isn’t he declared the villain?
Could it be that his complaint against the Jewish community was not unfounded? Did not God allow Bar Kamtza’s anger to be acted out, ultimately deciding that Bar Kamtza was right: Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed because its leaders (and populace) allowed him to be shamed?
A different Talmudic passage, from Baba Metzia, offers some insight. In Leviticus, the Torah commands, “You shall not wrong one another.” “This refers to verbal oppression,” the Talmud explains. It elaborates that embarrassing someone is akin to killing them. Then it tells the story of Rabbi Eliezer being shunned by his colleagues — and retaliating in shame and anger by summoning a wave of Divine devastation and death.
Why were his angry prayers answered? “All the gates of heaven are locked,” the passage concludes, “except for the gates of oppression.”
Given that God so evidently hates verbal oppression and emotional insult, why did the rabbis not speak up to defend Bar Kamtza’s honor?
The mindset of Rabbi Zechariya excuses the rabbinic inaction. Where is the halachic obligation to protest in the face of meanness? Sure, the Torah commands “you should not oppress,” which the Talmud understands to mean even through words. And the Torah commands “you should love your fellow as yourself,” which Hillel taught us means not to do to someone else something that is hateful to you. Surely Bar Kamtza’s enemy, the surly host, transgressed these commands.
But where is it written that the rabbis must protest injustice? There is no specific mitzvah, no Mishnah, no line in Tractate Sanhedrin demanding that rabbis speak out against offenses before God —- particularly against an offense that’s not happening in the name of religion. The party Bar Kamtza accidentally crashed was not held in a synagogue catering hall.
And yet: God didn’t block Bar Kamtza’s revenge against the rabbis. As the Talmud’s telling of the Temple’s destruction continues, all the auguries foretold that the Romans would conquer Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.
This is where it’s important to remember the role played by the rabbis of the time — at least as understood by the later rabbis, who wrote the Mishna and Talmud. The rabbis were at the top of the leadership pyramid. They told the priests how to act. They effectively supervised the worship in the Temple.
In effect, with the Temple in action, with God’s miracles (as per Pirkei Avot) in constant evidence, the rabbis were giving evidence to God’s presence — and God, by being present in the Temples, were asserting to the rabbis’ leadership.
The silence of the rabbis was intolerable to God.
To have reduced God’s concerns to the blemishes on a calf and to ignore the Divine calls for justice, mercy, and empathy was blasphemy.
Better for God to evacuate the Temple than to provide false witness.
In other words, Bar Kamtza was right.
If the rabbinic leaders were unable to live up to their responsibilities, they didn’t deserve God’s presence — or God’s blessings on their institutions.
Which brings us to the question. Are our rabbis and other leaders passing the Bar Kamtza test? Are we passing it? Am I passing it?
When feelings were hurt, which side were we on?
Were we silent when bullies struck?
Did we side with the victims or the cover-up?
Did we run to help the powerful and look away when the powerless needed help?
Did we hide behind the excuse “it’s complicated” when confronted with the tears of the oppressed?
Because the lesson Bar Kamtza taught us is that out mightiest institutions can, and will, be obliterated by the grief and pain and anger of the shamed and oppressed.