Immediately after the “We were slaves” paragraph in the Orthodox Haggadah, and just before the lessons of the “Four types of children” paragraph, there comes a description of an important event involving five well known second-century pre Bar Kochba revolt Rabbis who stayed up all night discussing the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt.
According to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, it was only a theological discussion. But to last “all night” until dawn, it might also have included important political issues like the ones Orthodox Rabbis and politicians in Israel will be having now about including a conservative Muslim political party in an Israeli coalition government for the first time in Israel’s history.
If so they should be discussing the well-known narrative of the exclusion of Bar Kamtza from an important banquet, which the rabbis witnessed and did nothing about: that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Talmud (Gitten 56a) reports: The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtza and a Bar Kamtza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. Once he made a banquet and said to his servant, go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found Bar Kamtza there he said, “You gossip about me, what are you doing here? Get out.”
Bar Kamtza replied, “Since I am here let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The host refused. “Then let me pay you for half the cost of the banquet.” “No!” “Then let me pay for the whole banquet.” The host refused and took Bar Kamtza by the arm and pulled him outside.
Bar Kamtza said to himself, “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 (Roman) Government.” He went and told the Governor that the Jews were disloyal.
However, the Governor asked how he could test them. He replied, “Send them an offering (to the Temple) and see if they offer it. So he sent with him a fine (unblemished) calf. On the way, Bar Kamtza made a small blemish on the calf’s upper lip, in a place where we (Jews) count it as a blemish but they do not.
The Rabbis were inclined to (compromise and) offer it (on the Alter). Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos said to them, “People will say that (we approved) blemished animals to be offered on the alter.” Then they proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so he could not go inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos said to them, “Is a person who makes a blemish on a consecrated animal to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yohanan (ben Zakkai) thereupon remarked, “Through the ‘humility’ (scrupulousness) of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos; our sanctuary was destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
According to the Talmud’s account, what or who was responsible for the catastrophe? Was it just bad luck; the servant’s unintentional mistake in bringing the wrong man? Was it the host’s stubborn rigidity or unrelenting hostility to someone who gossiped about him? Why didn’t the rabbis who were there intervene? Shaming someone in public is considered akin to murder in rabbinic thought.
Perhaps, like some ultra-orthodox Rabbis today, they didn’t rebuke the host’s refusal to have anything to do with someone he looked down upon, because they were busy checking if the food was kosher enough? Perhaps those Rabbis thought there is no reason to compromise with opponents.
Bar Kamtza is the pivotal character in this tragedy. His intention was to humiliate the Rabbis, as he was humiliated, by slandering them to the governor (he was a gossip, which is also akin to murder). But a charge of disloyalty is a dangerous charge since the governor will demand proof.
Did it occur to Bar Kamtzah that the priests would refuse to offer the calf? The Rabbis are willing to compromise the ritual purity of the offering and desecrate the alter to avoid insulting the government, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos objects. Is he a man of principle, a dangerous fanatic, or a fool?
The Rabbis now propose killing Bar Kamtzah to shut him up, but Zechariah ben Avkulos objects. Does he lack the guts to do whatever is needed to prevent a war that will kill thousands?
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai says Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos’ ‘humility’ (a lack of willingness to act decisively to transgress the Torah in order to save it) doomed the Temple. Does ‘humility’ prevent Orthodox Rabbis today from solving the problems of thousands of Orthodox women whose husbands will not give them a divorce? Do they lack the guts to prohibit their followers from smoking and overeating while they keep adding stricter and stricter rules for food and female dress?
This ‘Rabbi’ is known today only for his role in this catastrophe. He is called Rabbi Zechariah ben Eucolus in an account in Eicha Rabba where it is said that he was present at the party and could have prevented Bar Kamtzah’s humiliation but did not intervene.
Rabbi Yose says that Zechariah ben Eucolus meekness burnt down the Temple. But Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Zechariah ben Amphicalleus was a leader of a group of extremist priests who halfway through the revolt overthrew the more moderate rebellious priests. Perhaps Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived in Jerusalem during the rebellion, used ‘humility” ironically to indicate a legalistic, narrow-minded extremism dressed up as modesty.
Perhaps this is why the Talmud says that while the first Temple was destroyed because of three evils: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed; the Second Temple was destroyed at a time when people occupied themselves with Torah, with Mitsvot, and with giving charity. Yet unfettered hatred prevailed. This should teach us that unrestrained hatred is deemed as evil as all the three sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed together. (Yoma 9b)
How could people who occupied themselves with Torah study, Mitsvot and Tsadakah engage freely in hate? The Talmud records this amazing statement, “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Jerusalem was only destroyed, because they judged by Din Torah (rigorous/strict Law). Should they have judged by the brutal (Roman) laws?–(no,) but they judged by strict law, and did not go Lifnim miShurat haDin (beyond the line of the law). (Bava Mezia 30b).
Strict halakah and narrow-minded zeal easily lead to anger and hate, which unfettered and unrestrained lead to disaster. It is not surprising that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai openly criticizes the failure to judge people with understanding, flexibility and loving tolerance. He was the only Rabbi in the Talmud to openly declare a Torah commandment suspended due to changed circumstances.
All the rest of the Rabbis accomplished the same thing by legal reinterpretation rather than an open ruling. The Jewish people, especially in Israel today, need another Yohanan ben Zakkai to liberate the thousands of women who cannot get remarried because their husbands have disappeared or are refusing to give them a get.
And the Jewish people, especially in Israel today, need another Rabbi like Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai to welcome a conservative Muslim political party into an Israeli coalition government for the first time in Israel’s history in order to bring Muslims closer to Israelis.