Standing Up While Seeing One Another

BY RABBANIT SHANI TARAGIN

During the nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av, we usually blame sinat chinam, baseless hatred, for the conflicts that plague our society. Very often, however, conflicts are not based on petty reasons but on disagreements over profound issues of principle. Through the classic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b), Chazal explain the complexities of hatred and the political factors which foster animosity:

The destruction of Jerusalem came about through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza… 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.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the host found him there he said, “See, you are mocking me; what are you doing here? Get out.” Said the other, “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” He said, “No.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” “No,” said the other. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” He still said, “No,” and he took him by the hand and threw him out. 

The story begins by introducing Kamtza, meaning “the miserly one,” and Bar Kamtza, the “son of the miserly one” – the former a friend, and the latter a foe of the anonymous host. Our ill-feelings toward one another begin with how we identify ourselves. Are we self-centered, or sufficiently open-minded and open-hearted to see others? Kamtza and Bar Kamtza reflect an egocentric society of “self” – a father and son with enmity towards others and perhaps even between themselves. 

The Talmud continues with the even more inexplicable aggravation of the conflict through Bar Kamtza’s response:

Said [Bar Kamtza], “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.” He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” He said, “How can I tell?” He said to him: “Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it.” So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on it… The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them, “People will say blemished animals are offered on the altar”… R. Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our Land.”

After being publicly embarrassed with no defense from the Rabbis, Bar Kamtza seeks revenge through the Roman Emperor! He was clearly a powerful man, with access to prominent Roman officials, who was willing to cooperate with the Romans. Perhaps this was the root of the host’s animosity towards him; the host belonged to the anti-Roman faction, as were the Rabbis invited to his party. And so the underpinning of the story is not baseless hatred but rather a fundamental conflict of principles regarding the future of the Jewish people. Debates were heated, with each side convinced the other would lead the nation to catastrophe.

The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza addresses the complex challenge of dealing with legitimate disagreements over issues of judicial reform, religious and political affiliation, security policies, and other matters of principle. The tragic sin occurs when we turn our disagreements over issues into conflicts filled with hatred for our fellow Jews on the other side of the debate. The anonymous host is not criticized for not inviting Bar Kamtza to his parlor meeting, but for not finding room in his heart and home to appreciate that Bar Kamtza shared his goal of national survival. Had he done so, a disastrous civil war would have been avoided.

We must not respond to debate with hatred, as other societies do; we cannot let our principled differences prevent us from seeing one another as brothers and friends. Rabbi Yochanan’s closing remark indicates that Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas repeated the sin of the silence of the Sages at the party. They were steadfast in their views – political and halachic, and yet both chose not to choose, not to see the real problems of hatred and potential destruction and not to speak when they should have spoken.

The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza reminds us that it’s not enough to avoid petty arguments to bring healing to our people. To truly heal our society, we must first understand its complex tensions. Then, when standing for our values and principles, we must be wary of our speech and never forget that those on the other side are our brothers and sisters. May we merit to love one another, even as we disagree!

 

Rabbanit Shani Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and the Director of the Mizrachi-TVA Lapidot Educators’ Program.

 

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