On his show this week, Stephen Colbert said that he goes into each program wanting to talk about something other than Donald Trump, but somehow or other he’s always pulled back into the vortex. I feel somewhat the same way. I sit down to write wanting to talk about something else, anything else, but it’s hard to avoid talking about Donald Trump. Every day the story gets richer, and more bizarre.
What is on my mind these days relates to our being in the midst of the Three Weeks, the mournful twenty-one days between the fasts of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, when the temples in ancient Jerusalem were destroyed. More specifically, I find myself returning to the most famous Midrash relating to Tisha B’Av, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.
I know, it’s an old warhorse… but it seems to me uniquely relevant to what’s going on with Mr. Trump.
According to the Talmudic legend, a certain man was making a party for all of his friends, and on his guest list was a man named Kamtza. But, famously, the person sending out the invitations inadvertently sent the invitation to Bar Kamtza, a sworn enemy of the host.
When Bar Kamtza showed up at the party and the host saw him, he immediately told his friend to throw him out. Bar Kamtza, who had been moved by the invitation, thinking that his host was seeking to make amends, was mortified, and begged his host to stay and spare him the embarrassment. He even offered to pay for part of the party, but his host refused, becoming ever more insistent that he leave. Ultimately, Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire party rather than be publicly embarrassed by the host, but the host was unrelenting. Bar Kamtza was forced to leave the party.
So incensed was Bar Kamtza by the host’s behavior that, upon leaving, he went to the Roman authorities and fabricated stories of Jewish disloyalty, leading, ultimately, to attacks by the Romans and the destruction of the Temple.
For the ancient rabbis (and, also, more than a few modern ones), the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is the classic paradigm of sin’at hinam, senseless hatred among and between Jews. The rabbis understood this hatred as being one of the root causes of the destruction of the Temple. Think about it… what would it have cost the host of that party to allow Bar Kamtza to stay? If anything, he might have gained in stature had he allowed him. The other guests might have seen him as forgiving, bigger than any petty feud. But something deep within him made it impossible for him to be gracious, to make the gesture that so obviously was called for. He just couldn’t bring himself to rise to the moment…
The crucial tag line of the story is that the Talmud casts blame as well upon the rabbis who were in attendance at that party. They saw what was going on and did not intervene. They should have aggressively counseled the host to relent, and allow Bar Kamtza to stay, but they didn’t.
Fast forward a few thousand years and consider the sad story of Donald Trump’s insulting response(s) to the Khan family and their son, who died a hero’s death in the service of our country. Really… what would it have cost Donald Trump to simply say “I’m sorry,” admit that his words did not do justice to the martyred soldier, and unnecessarily pained his parents? He could have simply said that what he said was not adequate, and he regretted having said it. But instead of taking the high road and being gracious, he immediately, as is his natural inclination, attacked the victims, casting aspersions on the Khan parents and in so doing, attacking veterans and Gold Star parents everywhere.
The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is, of course, about Jews behaving badly. Because of the host’s gratuitously ungracious behavior and Bar Kamtza’s public shaming, a chain of events was set in motion that ultimately caused the destruction of the Temple.
I would humbly suggest that his campaign managers would do well to read Donald Trump the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. It is a story of vanity run amuck, of good sense and common decency being overwhelmed by ego and power, and an inability to see the broader implications of one’s actions, particularly as they might impact the community as a whole.
Sound familiar? To me it is amazingly relevant. The sin of sin’at hinam is not a uniquely Jewish problem. Narcissism is not a uniquely Jewish neurosis. Mr. Trump– Jewish history has a lot to teach you. It’s not just your candidacy that you are jeopardizing with your petty and careless speech. It is our country.
I am a rabbi at Donald Trump’s party, witnessing his conduct, and I will not be silent. None of us should.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.