The Law of Unintended Consequences: 

The Temple’s Destruction and Decaying Political Discourse


Alexander the Great was not only one of the greatest political leaders of antiquity, but he also studied philosophy under the tutelage of the distinguished Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Alexander pondered some of the salient questions of life. One of the rabbinic sources attesting to his thirst for wisdom is recounted in the Talmud (Tamid 32) when during his Middle Eastern conquests, he presented ten philosophical questions to the חַכְמֵי הַנֶּגֶב – the Sages of the South. 

One of those questions was – who is considered a wise person? What is the single quality necessary in order to be considered wise and sagely?

The Sages of the South answered simply: “הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד, one who has foresight,” someone who is able to consider carefully the consequences of their actions.

Indeed this very same quality was identified by the Sage of the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, as the most important quality that a person should cleave to (Avot 2:13). Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had questioned his five students as to what the most important quality of a life is. Rabbi Shimon answered that the quality of foresight is paramount of all qualities, echoing the very same words of the Sages of the South – הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד.

Prof. Merton and unintended consequences

Considering the consequences of our actions is a critical principle both in our individual lives and for leaders making decisions with communal and national consequences. The great American sociologist Robert K. Merton developed what is known as “the law of unintended consequences” in the course of his writings. Born with the distinctly Jewish name Meyer Robert Schkolnick, Merton is considered by many as the founding father of modern sociology. In an influential article entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” he argues that there are 5 main causes that result in an unintended consequence to a particular action. 

The one I would like to focus on is his third one, described by Merton as “the imperious immediacy of interest.” By this, Merton is referring to instances in which individuals wish the intended consequence of an action so much that they either consciously or subconsciously choose to ignore any possible undesired results – a type of willful ignorance. This happens when the decision maker is pressed for an immediate result and driven by agendas serving the immediate and short-term, without careful consideration of the long-term consequences of their actions. If they were more patient with a medium- to long-term worldview, they would undoubtedly act differently. By not doing so, they often achieve what they want in the short-term, which then unleashes an unexpected snowball effect in the long-term.

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

In the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55) which led to the destruction of the Temple, we see two critical decisions which our Sages identify as pivotal reasons that caused the destruction of the Temple. Both fit into Merton’s third category – making short-sighted decisions, without enough foresight, and with disastrous consequences.

The first was the cruel and unkind decision of a prominent party host to throw his mistakenly invited enemy Bar Kamtza out of the party after confusing the name on the invitation with his friend Kamtza. Ignoring Bar Kamtza’s pleas not to be humiliated and his offer to pay for half of the entire banquet, the host publicly humiliated Bar Kamtza by throwing him out the party. The host achieved his short-term aim – alleviating himself of the presence of his enemy at his banquet, but didn’t think about the chain reaction his actions would cause. Bar Kamtza was so upset, not only with the host but with the fact that none of the public notables and rabbis interceded, that he decided to seek vengeance on the whole society. 

It was then that he began a course of action which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple – this was the unintended long-term consequence of the hosts actions. Bar Kamtza ‘informed’ the Romans that the Jews were about to rebel against them, based on the “proof” that they would not offer a sacrifice brought by the Romans to the Temple. When the Romans sent a sacrifice to check it out, Bar Kamtza made a blemish behind the animal’s lip which disqualified it for the Jews but not for the Romans. The rabbis believed the right thing under the circumstances was to offer the forbidden blemished sacrifice in order to avoid angering the Romans and presenting a danger to Jewish life. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, the leading sage, ruled against it with the argument that “people will say that it is permitted to offer blemished sacrifices on the Temple.” When the sages argued further that Bar Kamtza would now go and inform the Romans that the sacrifice was not offered and this with potentially devastating consequences, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, once again argued that he should not be harmed as “people will say that it is permissible to kill a someone who offers a blemished sacrifice.” In the end the sacrifice was not brought and Bar Kamtza was not harmed. He indeed as expected went on to deceitfully relay the news of an imaginary Jewish rebellion which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. 

Short-sighted humility

A second unintended consequence was the conservative and humble ruling of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas. Immediately at the end of the story, the sage Rabbi Yochanan then very sharply opined “as a result of the humility of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas the Temple was destroyed.”

Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas was a humble purist, a person who could not bring himself to rule proactively on something controversial. It is true that it was a tough and controversial decision to offer a blemished sacrifice or certainly to kill Bar Kamtza, but it is equally true that not doing so was much worse and caused horrific long-term destruction to the Jewish people. His humility prodded him to take a conservative passive stance of not ruling to allow a forbidding sacrifice or kill a fellow Jew. Unfortunately, in the harsh reality of life and leadership, proactivity and courage are needed. The source of his greatness became the source of his weakness in this specific circumstance. Rabbi Zechariah’s short-sighted view of what he felt was right in the particular short-term, led so quickly to long-term devastating consequences.

Confronting the potential long-term impact of our actions is absolutely critical in decision-making and according to the Sages of the South and Rabbi Shimon, the single greatest quality of wisdom and life respectively.

Democratic discourse vs. anarchic chaos

In recent years we are encountering an ever-increasing political discourse which is now bordering on anarchic chaos. The democratic right to protest has been taken to such extremes that it has started crossing all boundaries of civility and basic human dignity. This began in 2021 with the inauguration of Prime Minister Bennett, which saw so much vocal protest that so many parliamentarians had to be removed from the Parliamentary plenum. Members of the opposition were then summarily excluded from key committees. In protest to the breaking of campaign promises of members of Bennett’s Yamina party in joining the then coalition, their parliamentarians were constantly harassed outside their private homes as well as sometimes during synagogue services.

When the current government unveiled their judicial reform program, there was much anger by many who felt that this had gone too far. They began to exercise their legitimate right to protest and to vociferously oppose the plans. But then lines were crossed when 200 IDF pilots decided in protest not to show up for training. Putting Israel’s security on the line is crossing a thick red line. Bringing life-saving issues of consensus such as the army into the center of the political fray is a disturbing precedent. Similarly, some leaders overtly or covertly encouraged financial disinvestment from Israel as a legitimate tactic. Bringing the army and economy – Israel’s security and economic stability – into partisan politics has dangerous long-term consequences.

The non-stop disruptions in places all around the world when some members of the coalition speak, with protesters shouting “busha, busha, shame, shame” has no red lines. Recently, when MK Simcha Rothman spoke in a shul in New Jersey, protesters outside were shouting “shame, shame that you came even to listen to Rothman.” It is disgraceful that people are shamed for coming to merely listen to another view about a significant political issue. The proliferation in recent years of this type of public humiliation and disruption, starting with the opposition to the Bennett-Lapid government and continuing in much greater proportions against the current government is alarming. Our politicians need to consider very carefully the long-term consequences of their actions. When lines are crossed in political discourse for the sake of immediate gain without considering the implications for future discourse, an unintended snowball effect is unleashed. 

A time for civility

We are treading very close to the abyss of causeless hatred which was a primary cause of the Temple’s destruction (Yoma 9b). Equally, the lack of foresight by the host and bystanders when Bar Kamtza was humiliated as well as Rabbi Zechariah’s lack of foresight are also salient reasons for the destruction.

Leaders, and indeed all of us, must be exceptionally careful what means we deploy to get our way in the short-term. Acts taken for immediate gain can unleash a snowball of unexpected consequences which alter the rules of the game. It is high time to put political gain and short-term considerations aside and engage in civil, respectful debate for the sake of the long-term integrity of our society. 

It is time to wake up. Too much depends on it.


Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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