Political Hatred and Tisha B’Av

REG:  If you wanted to join the P.F.J., you’d have to really hate the Romans.

BRIAN: I do!

REG: How much?

BRIAN: A lot!

REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front.

FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.

LORETTA: And the People’s Front of Judea.

REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!

LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.

FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?

REG: He’s over there.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian

The Talmud helpfully uses the modifier ‘baseless’ when referring to the type of hatred that caused the second Temple’s destruction. Which is convenient. Because my hatred of others is never baseless, unlike their hatreds of me.

The Talmud then brings in the famous story of Kamza and Bar-Kamza. It’s easy to read it as a story of petty squabbling and humiliations. And that may be the best way to tell the story to children.

But as adults we must revisit the story understanding that people rarely think that their own hatred is baseless. The Talmud presumably did not use the word baseless to make it easier to identify our enemies with the Bar-Kamza story’s villains, while exempting ourselves. The story is not intended to increase our hatred of others. So we need to first find ourselves in the story, and then accept the Talmud’s judgment that our hatred is baseless.

The story is of a host who accidentally invites Bar-Kamza to a party. The host immediately throws him out, ignoring Bar-Kamza’s offers to pay for the entire party just to be spared the humiliation. There are Sages at the party who do not react. Bar-Kamza, boiling in self-righteous rage and humiliation, approaches the Roman leader. Through slander and deception, he convinces the Caesar that the Jews are rebelling and that he must destroy them.

Rav Tzachi Lehmann speculates that the host’s opposition to Bar-Kamza was not over some petty quarrel, but rather over some significant issue. Bar-Kamza’s subsequent actions, convincing the Romans to destroy the Jews, can be read as simply a nice man so driven out his mind by a single act that he chooses to destroy the Jewish people. More reasonably, one can speculate that even before the incident, the host and Bar-Kamza had very different opinions and instincts regarding issues like Rome and Jerusalem. The incident at the party didn’t cause Bar-Kamza to do anything out of character, it just pushed him to the next level of escalation.

The host likely has legitimate reasons to distance himself from Bar-Kamza. And yet he, along with the Sages who remained quiet, are clearly included among the story’s many villains.

The Talmud names the story Kamza and Bar-Kamza, and people who tell the story often struggle to remember which name refers to which character. Which may be part of the point. It reminds me of the cryptic story of Jacob wrestling with the strange man. The first two verses are

“Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him.”

Genesis 32, 25-26

If Jacob is left alone, then with whom is he wrestling? Why are the characters generally referred to only by the not very helpful pronouns he and him. Wouldn’t “and the man dislocated Jacob’s hip-socket” be a simpler formulation than “he struck the socket of his hip; so Jacob’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him?”

One interpretation is that Jacob is wrestling with himself. Jacob’s attempt to dislocate his rival’s hip-socket dislocates his own.

This all occurs in the context of Jacob’s confrontation with his twin brother. Rabbi Ari Kahn powerfully connects this with the Yom Kippur service where we take two identical goats, randomly choose one for G-d, and project all our evil desires and actions on to the other one, the scapegoat, which we cast into the wilderness.

It’s natural to project our own evil onto others. Perhaps the reason I write posts like this is that lecturing you is the only way that me and myself ever converse. Thanks for your help, BTW.

I repeatedly read political views which fill me with anger and hatred. And I respond in kind. This, despite the fact that part of me recognizes that the other people generally share at least some of my views and values. Our biggest disagreements usually boil down to questions like “what do you do when every other country in the world thinks you’re wrong” and “will making the government bigger and stronger help the weak or hurt them?” And admittedly, it’s usually my views that are less conventional and intuitive.

This seems to be even worse in American politics than in Israeli politics. A liberal friend recently insisted to me that people who oppose stricter gun control do so for the sole purpose of making killing easier. She rejected the possibility that while they were perhaps misguided (or not), their motive was self-defense, not pure evil. Opponents of the president are quickly dismissed as racist, and anybody who does not want to redefine marriage is a homophobe.

It’s easy and natural to view all politics and history as a morality tale of good vs. evil. Perhaps it’s a step forward that some circles have replaced religions and nationalities with ideologies. Primitive people think my religion & nation = good and your religion & nation = evil, while advanced people know that my ideology & political camp = good and your ideology & political camp = evil. Which is the progressive leap I suspect Bar-Kamza felt he was taking two millennia ago when he turned to the Caesar.

This should be easier for me. I recognize that we all have a combination of good and evil. I don’t need to project my evil desires on to others. I don’t think that all of the world’s problems were caused by my political opponents, nor do I imagine that the world would be perfect if other people shared my awesomeness. And yet, I can’t shake the anger and hatred.

In Baseless Hatred, Rene Levy writes

the irrational aspects of hatred are:

  1. You feel like a victim, yet you are the aggressor.
  2. Your hatred focuses on only one instant of a whole relationship.
  3. Your overinflated ego makes you expect respect and honor, but extracting honor from others is not achievable.
  4. You are under the illusion that your hatred serves you, but it does not solve any problem.
  5. If you are rational, you should use your selfishness to forgive.

….It becomes obvious that nursing hatred indefinitely is absurd, foolish, and hurtful to the hater.

Rene H. Levy, Baseless Hatred

I’m sure I’ve provided you enough information to overcome your hatreds. So please do so. And then tell me how.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at Answers.com. He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.