Bar Kamtza, hatred and forgiveness

May it be Your will, my God and God of my fathers, that hatred of us not enter the heart of any man, and that hatred of no man enter our hearts . . . Jerusalem Talmud, 33a (Prayer of R. Elazar)

It is a story old as time itself,  borne when the Second Temple still stood.  Maybe it’s just a tale, a morality play told in an extravagant way in order to generate a teachable moment.  The story of “Kamtza” and “Bar Kamtza” is – at least superficially – elementary.  A man – known only as “A Certain Man” (let’s call him the host) – had a friend named Kamtza, and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.  The host’s servant mistakenly delivers Kamtza’s invitation to the host’s banquet to Bar Kamtza.  When Bar Kamtza arrives (one imagines, with his wife and children in tow), the host rudely demands they leave. Embarrassed, Bar Kamtza offers first to pay for his meals, and then half the cost of the banquet, and finally even the entire cost of the banquet.  Anything to avoid the humiliation.  But no, he was thrown out!

Who wouldn’t be angered by this? And for Bar Kamtza, it wasn’t only the host’s brutal actions.  It was the silence of the rabbis who sat by watching his unfolding torment  and did nothing.  Thus, Bar Kamtza believed that the rabbis agreed that removing him and his family was not only acceptable, but appropriate.  Bar Kamtza retaliates – in a self-defeating, arguably masochistic, mode (given that he was himself a Hebrew), he went directly to the local procurator and told him that the Jews are again rebelling against Rome.  To prove it, he proposed that the procurator offer a sacrifice at the Temple, fully aware that the kohane (priest), surrounded by the rabbis, would reject the offering because Bar Kamtza had secretly cut the calf’s upper lip to cause a blemish that would render it unacceptable on the Temple’s altar.  When the offering was rejected,  the Talmud tells us, it caused an infuriated Roman emperor Nero, and general (later turned emperor) Vespasian, to destroy the Temple in retaliation for the insult to Rome.

Ultimately, one wonders why we are never told fundamentals of the story: the name of the host; why the host and Bar Kamtza are enemies and who, if anyone, is at fault; whether Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are father and son (“bar” meaning “son of”); or why the rabbis did nothing.  Perhaps these bits of information were left untold so that we, today, might substitute our own name, our own life, when our conduct seems to mimic that of one of the story’s participants.

When most of us become angry there is often an understandable reason. Maybe it’s a perceived insult.  A steeped-in-history family dispute.  A sense of inferiority.  An oversight.  A petty jealousy, or envy.  For the “hater,” whether he is right or wrong, there is always a reason, even if based solely on subjective perception.  And, lest it go unsaid, hurt is often the precursor of hate, and that hurt, to the person hurt is surely real.

Are the participants in the story “baseless haters”? Does the communal behavior – the rabbis’ affirmative act of doing nothing while the host forces Bar Kamtza to leave – justify such a radical overreaction, one which Bar Kamtza had to know would cause the Romans to be outraged?  At the end of the day, we don’t really need to decide who is the villain.  And we don’t really need to know if the events actually happened.  If Kamtza/Bar Kamtza were just a simple cautionary tale about a man being publicly humiliated at the hands of his enemy, forced to limply go home and lick his wounds, we would never know about it. We would never be given cause to self-examine how each of us is capable of inducing – or executing – inordinately disproportionate harm.

But perhaps, more important, we might never explore, for ourselves, why and how we are so fundamentally obliged to be our brother’s keeper when we witness injustice, particularly when bathed in hatred (“baseless” or not). Or in the iconic words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

*        *        *

As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, we, of course, remain forever mindful that we receive no “absolution” or “resolution” from God for those sins we commit against man. The line is clear: we must first approach those we have sinned against to seek forgiveness.  As my gifted friend Rene Levy, author of “Baseless Hatred,” tell us so simply, “God is not a substitute for the other party.”

Offering Rabbi Elazar’s prayer is a good way to begin each day. Asking forgiveness from God is, however, easy – we don’t need to physically look Him in the eye worrying that He will look back in disgust.  No. And not meaning to be preachy – for us, the much harder thing is to take affirmative action, undertake the deed, and seek forgiveness from the human being we actually offended.  Prayers, like words, are nice. One suspects, though, that God, even more than our fellow man, judges us by our deeds, not our words!



About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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