Political Civility: Rethinking Bar Kamtza

After Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant earlier this month, I was asked: Is there any classical Jewish parallel to such an incident? I responded that a close parallel may be a story that is well-known to many Jews, especially at this time of year.

The Talmud relates that the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire as the culmination of a series of tragic incidents that all began with an incident at a party. According to the Talmud: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” However, the servant got confused with the similar names and made the mistake of bringing Bar Kamtza. (In a study group I led this month, someone quipped: “That’s like if I wanted to invite Sarah Huckabee Sanders to my party and I invited Bernie Sanders by mistake.”)

When the host found him there, he said, “You are my enemy!” [alternate translation: “You tell tales about me!”] What are you doing here? Get out.”

Bar Kamtza responded: “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”

The host said, “I won’t.”

“Then let me give you half the cost of the party!”

“No!” said the host.

“Then let me pay for the whole party!”

The host still said “No!” and took him by the hand and threw him out of the party.

Bar Kamtza then said: “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government.”

Bar Kamtza then contacted the Roman Emperor and said, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” When the Emperor was skeptical, Bar Kamtza proposed a test: he invited the Emperor to donate an animal for a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem and see if the Jewish leaders would accept it. While transporting the animal, however, Bar Kamtza blemished the animal to render it unfit for sacrifice, with the knowledge that the Jewish leaders would probably refuse to offer it as a sacrifice, which would lead the Emperor to conclude that they were being disrespectful to him.

This is only the first chapter of a multi-part story, but it is the most famous part of the story. I have had numerous opportunities to teach this story to adults and children alike, and I always ask: what were the “off-ramps” that were missed in this story? What could each of the characters done to prevent the unfolding disaster?

Consistently, people answer: the host of the party is primarily at fault. He should have welcomed Bar Kamtza, or at least taken him up on his generous financial offer. Alternately, the rabbis at the party should have spoken up for Bar Kamtza to spare him the embarrassment of being thrown out of a party. The Talmud indicates that this was Rabbi Eleazar’s interpretation of the story as well: “Rabbi Elazar says: Come and see how great is the power of shame, for the Holy Blessed One assisted Bar Kamtza in destroying God’s Temple and burning God’s sanctuary.” (BT Gittin 57a) This story is often used as an illustration of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that was the ultimate cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. In this story, a petty interpersonal conflict festers into a conflict between peoples and ultimately leads to death and destruction, because of the host’s intransigence.

As time goes on, however, I have started to think about this story differently — and over time, my empathy for the host has grown, as my empathy for Bar Kamtza’s humiliation has diminished.

A first textual clue is that Bar Kamtza is introduced as a בעל דבבא ba’al devava – a phrase that is often translated as ‘enemy,’ but can also mean ‘tale-bearer.’ And in fact, that is what Bar Kamtza does: immediately after being thrown out of the party, he contacts the Emperor and makes a false report about the Jewish people.

Bar Kamtza’s later actions give us some indication of his character, his connections, and the role that he apparently plays in Judean society. That he has access to the Emperor places him at the upper echelons of society, aligned with those who already have a conflicted relationship with the leaders of the Jewish community. When Bar Kamtza has a grievance, he responds immediately by crafting a plan of deception and manipulation, with the goal of provoking a regional catastrophe, and he has the high level connections to make it happen. It is possible that some of these qualities are the reasons why the host was not excited to have him at the party in the first place.This leads me to suggest an alternate reading of the story. Bar Kamtza is not at all “embarrassed” to be thrown out of the party. Rather, he is a political operative who knows how to exploit every mis-step of his opponents. Such a person is skilled at harnessing umbrage and using it for political purposes. I picture Bar Kamtza receiving the invitation to the party, realizing that it must have been received in error, and rejoicing that he has an opportunity to exploit his enemy’s mistake. Of course he is going to attend the party, and of course he is going to respond with crocodile tears when he is asked to leave, with the goal of provoking an overreaction by the host. And of course he is going to use the experience as a pretext to pursue the goal that he had already established – but this time with the appearance of the moral high ground.

What would have happened if the host had welcomed him into the party, or taken him up on one of his offers of payment? My sense is that Bar Kamtza would have found some way to exploit this as well. He might say, for example, that it is a sign that the host is unprincipled and materialistic. Or he might overhear some information at the party that he could use to pursue his goals. Or he might simply wait until tomorrow for another chance to pursue his goals. I used to empathize with Bar-Kamtza over his embarrassment at being disinvited, but now I feel that even if he is coddled, he will always manage to find something to take umbrage about, at a time and place of his choosing.

The implications of this reading of this classic story are challenging in light of the current debate over “civility” in the United States and elsewhere. I would still counsel civility as the wise choice in almost every interaction with people with whom one disagrees, even if the disagreement is vehement. A person like Bar Kamtza is trying to provoke an overreaction from the other side, which is a good enough reason not to overreact. But I am increasingly convinced that Bar Kamtza does not deserve our sympathy. And sadly, our world is full of those who will exploit apparent minor slights with the goal of magnifying them into serious conflicts — and that, too, is a manifestation of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that we are cautioned to avoid.

About the Author
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg is the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, a teacher and musician, and an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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