Today it was so unreasonably hot that hatam_soferet's (unlit) havdalah candle melted. We stayed in her room where there is air-conditioning, and studied some Gemara relevant to today's fast of Tisha b'Av.
The scene is this: some rabbis are discussing the events of around 70 CE (a generation or so after Jesus' death). Judea was under Roman occupation, and in 70, the Romans decided to take action to end the political trouble and fomenting rebellion in the province. This culminated in the destruction of the (second) Temple, the centre of Jewish worship, and the whole city of Jerusalem was also razed and the Jewish population relocated. This is one of the major tragedies that is commemorated by today's fast. R Jochanan tells the following story:
Once there was a man who had a good friend named Kamtza and a mortal enemy named bar Kamtza. He threw a party, and told his servant to invite his friend Kamtza, but the servant invited his enemy bar Kamtza. When the host saw bar Kamtza sitting there at his party, he was furious.
"What are you doing here?!", he cried. "Get out of my house!"
Bar Kamtza begged to be allowed to stay, offering to pay for whatever he ate and drank. No way, said the host. Bar Kamtza offered to pay half the cost of the party. Still no way. He offered to pay the whole cost of the party. No! The host had bar Kamtza seized and bodily thrown out of his house.
Bar Kamtza saw the rabbis, the community leaders, sitting at the party and watching this happen. None of them said anything, so bar Kamtza thought they must be ok with him being treated this way. He decided to become an informer and approached the Roman authorities. He had a report made to Caesar saying that the Jews were planning a rebellion. His Roman contact was cynical: "Sez who?". Bar Kamtza replied, "If you don't believe me, why don't you send them a sacrifice for the glory of the Empire, and see if they offer the sacrifice or not."
The Romans gave bar Kamtza a three-year-old calf for sacrifice. He took the calf and deliberately made a blemish in its mouth or eye, so that the Jews would consider the animal unfit for sacrifice but the Romans would still see it as acceptable for sacrifice. Now the Jewish community had a dilemma: should they sacrifice the blemished animal in the hope that the Romans would leave them alone, or should they follow Jewish law correctly and refuse to sacrifice it, risking terrible reprisals?
Most of the rabbis favoured sacrificing the blemished animal anyway, given the political situation. Or maybe they should refuse to sacrifice it and kill bar Kamtza so that he couldn't make his damaging report to the Roman authorities. R Zechariah the son of Avkoulos protested: they couldn't give the impression that they were the sort of people who went around sacrificing blemished animals, and they couldn't give the impression that they were the sort of people who would kill someone for a trivial offence like making a blemish on a sacrficial animal.
Because of this, the Temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem was burned, and the Jews were sent into exile.
So the question is, whose fault is it that Jerusalem was destroyed? Answers in comments please! Not doing a poll because I want to know your reasoning. I've heard it said you can deduce a lot about someone's character from whom they blame in this story.
(The story is my paraphrase of a chunk from Gittin 55b. And yes, some of you have played this one before. Oh, and R Jochanan says it's R Zechariah b Avkoulos' fault for being excessively pious, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's right.)
I say it's the fault of the Romans who actually did the destroying. Regardless of what anyone else had or had not done, they still had the choice either to destroy or not to destroy. Ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own actions, and their own actions only, so I don't think I could lay the blame elsewhere. That's not to say that I think everyone else in the story acted without fault, I just don't think they're the ones responsible.
That was quite deliberate! The text says it was "because of confusing Kamtza with bar Kamtza", which I take to mean, this whole incident that I just described. That's why I decided to represent it by a pronoun without a clear referent.
I did also mention that R Jochanan, the guy allegedly telling this story, thinks that it was because of "the excessive piety of R Zechariah"; if you want to go with authorial intent (which is always complicated in this sort of literature, but anyway), then that's the answer. My point is though that it's quite possible for someone reading this text to disagree with R Jochanan's interpretation.
From my perspective, forget your Mishnaic parables and look at the history books. It was clearly the fault of lots of people. (Indeed, there's more answers to who started the Judaean revolt than who killed Jesus of Nazareth.)
However, I would single out in particular Gessus Florus, the last, appalling, Roman governor of Judaea; also the Jewish fundamentalists (Zealots and other movements) who provoked the rebellion and fanned its flames when the moderates wanted to make up with the Romans, then went on to wrest power in Jerusalem and put the moderate leaders to death, and then burned the city's stores, in order to encourage people to fight to relieve the siege of Jerusalem rather than negotiate a peace.
The real question, I think, was: why did the Roman occupation lead to the rise of the fundamentalists? To be sure, there was always going to be a clash between the Jewish and Roman worldviews, but until the last few decades, it was a low-level one. There was not any significant violence until about 30 CE; and it was only since then that the fundamentalists became a major influence.
From my perspective, forget your Mishnaic parables and look at the history books. Thank you for reacting entirely in character! Though to be pedantic this is Gemara, not Mishnah, but anyway.
The thing is, I think the nimshal of this piece is pretty close to the sorts of conclusions you're drawing from your rational, historical approach. It was the fault of lots of people: yeah, that's why we have a whole parable where lots of people do blameworthy things! It was the fault of an appalling Roman governor: in the parable, they are represented by "Caesar", waiting to seize on the slightest excuse to move against Jerusalem. Presumably you weren't expecting Gemara to actually name names, were you? Caesar in this story may well be Gessus Florus; it can hardly mean the actual Caesar in Rome. It's the fault of the fundamentalists and Zealots: surely they are represented by R Zechariah, refusing to make any accommodation with Rome but insisting on the exact detail of the sacrificial laws even if it meant destruction.
And I think the parable is even considering the question of why there was such violent opposition to the Roman occupation at this particular time. Clearly, the Jewish community had really awful leadership, the rabbis being unable or unwilling to prevent the humiliation of a member of the community, and unable to stand up to the fundamentalists even though they have great superiority of numbers. And the fractured, unstable situation caused by bad leadership led to people like bar Kamtza becoming so disaffected they turned traitor.
Bearing in mind that my approach to Tisha b'Av is unorthodox (I regard it as a day for mourning our distance from God, for which the destruction of the Temple is a useful synecdoche -- but I wouldn't undo the Diaspora and return to Temple sacrifice even if we could)...
I think it was the host's fault. His behavior showed a complete lack of compassion, which set the whole bitter chain in motion.
(That said, it's also bar Kamtza's fault, for taking such a minor slight and turning it into such a tragedy.)
Bearing in mind that my approach to Tisha b'Av is unorthodox Very much with you on that one! I think the orthodox (Orthodox?) answer to the question is: Because of our sins we were exiled from our land..., which I really struggle with and I came to this piece from the starting point of that moral difficulty.
I regard it as a day for mourning our distance from God, for which the destruction of the Temple is a useful synecdoche -- but I wouldn't undo the Diaspora and return to Temple sacrifice even if we could)... I have a lot of time for that approach, thank you. (Plus you used the word synecdoche in a reasonable sentence, which is very cool!) I think what I'm mourning is more gratuitous hatred than the destruction of the Temple per se. I do agree with you about reversing the Diaspora and rebuilding the Temple, but even with that approach it's possible to regret and mourn the human misery our ancestors suffered when the destruction actually happened.
I think it was the host's fault. His behavior showed a complete lack of compassion, which set the whole bitter chain in motion. I agree the host behaved very reprehsensibly. And I think in metaphorical terms he represents a population that had lost touch with the basic moral values of hospitality and courtesy and, yes, compassion. But he couldn't possibly have known that being rude to a guest would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem. He still shouldn't have done it, but I'm not sure he can be blamed, even if it was his action that, on a physical level, started the escalating consequences.
(That said, it's also bar Kamtza's fault, for taking such a minor slight and turning it into such a tragedy.) He acted much more knowingly than the host; he deliberately intended to provoke the Romans into taking catastrophic action. I'm not sure what he went through was a minor slight; he was publicly humiliated in front of the community leaders! His reaction was certainly not reasonable, but was it really disproportionate? I think he did have a right to be upset.
Interestingly, the person who taught me this originally (unfortunately I can't now remember who it was) said that children typically pick bar Kamtza whereas teenagers typically pick the host. Children are more likely to be looking for an obvious, personal villain, and bar Kamtza makes an appropriate bad guy like the ones that show up in fairy tales or cartoons. Whereas teenagers are likely to be exquisitely sensitive to social exclusion and humiliation.
There's a huge biblical focus on hospitality, both in story--Avram feeding the angels, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah--and in the mitzvot, particularly those regarding strangers and remembering that we were strangers in a strange land. Given that context, blame falls on all who were present at the party for lack of hospitality to bar Kamtza, and we have seen with Sodom that G-d will destroy a city on on the basis of a widespread lack of hospitality.
If the rabbis knew the Romans were using the sacrificial animal as a test, and I read the story as indicating they may well have, then the commandment to save a life even if it means breaking other commandments may also come into play, and if so, then the rabbis are at fault for agreeing with R Zechariah. R Zechariah is not at fault for arguing the position he did; the others are at fault for agreeing.
Ooh, hospitality, good point. The whole setup seems to be treating hospitality as the foundation of a morally decent society. And I like the comparison with Sodom; probably not one that would fly very well in traditional circles, but it's a very nice connection.
I think the rabbis did know that the sacrifice was a political test. If it was just a blemished animal there would be no real debate: obviously they wouldn't sacrifice it. And the fact they also suggested killing bar Kamtza in order to prevent him from informing on them any further does strongly imply that they knew that there would be really bad consequences to refusing the sacrifice.
It's also a good point that they should have made saving life take priority over correctness in bringing sacrifices (and certainly over worrying about giving a false impression by agreeing to offer an unfit sacrifice!) However, this is first century so it's before the halachic position on that had become fixed. And there seems to have been something of a pro-martyrdom atmosphere at the time, something else that fits in with the idea that there was a lot of fanaticism and internal trouble. I mean, you know about R Akiba and his parable of the fox and the fish and what happened to him in the end, right?
Also like the view that R Zechariah was right to present his argument even if the argument was itself wrong in the long term. That's the way the system is supposed to be working, isn't it? R Jochanan blames R Zechariah, but really, if he was in a minority of one the other rabbis should certainly have overruled him.
Given the parameters of the story, I blame the rabbis that led the Jewish community. (Although outside of the story I would blame the Romans for misgoverning and mismanaging the province, leading to rebellion and the response.)
It seems to me that the rabbis were halachically obligated to sacrifice the animal to save lives. Moreover, I have always wondered why they didn't just substitute a different calf. The substitution could have been done surreptitiously, or even openly with a bit of subservient explanation that only the best would do for Caesar.
The rabbis were more concerned with their reputations than for the safety of the people. They showed themselves to be unfit leaders. Into that power vacuum came Zealots and rebels, followed inexorably by destruction and death.
Given the parameters of the story, I blame the rabbis that led the Jewish community. A nice distinction, yes. This story is after all part of rabbinic literature and I think the rabbis of the Gemara would connect themselves with the rabbis in the story. (Factually, I'm not sure the rabbis really had much direct power before the destruction of the Temple; the real leaders may have been the priests and lay authorities.) So either they're saying: we screwed up, or: our predecessors were bad leaders but we've learnt better now.
Although outside of the story I would blame the Romans for misgoverning and mismanaging the province, leading to rebellion and the response.) I think you're possibly right there. The story itself doesn't really allow for the explanation: there was nothing we could do about it, it was just the Romans being nasty. They're working in the mindset that the Temple was destroyed because of something that we, the Israelites, did wrong. It's interesting that nobody so far has chosen to blame God, because that's an option that does quite often come up when this story is being discussed!
It seems to me that the rabbis were halachically obligated to sacrifice the animal to save lives. OK, so you agree with lumiere's view on this. There's a lot to be said for that argument, yes.
Moreover, I have always wondered why they didn't just substitute a different calf. Very good suggestion! I think at least part of the reason is that they were poor leaders, they really weren't thinking creatively or even really looking for ways to avert the Roman crackdown. They certainly have other options besides the ones they discuss in the story.
The rabbis were more concerned with their reputations than for the safety of the people. They showed themselves to be unfit leaders. Yes, very much so! This is close to the reasoning hatam_soferet came up with when we were studying this together. She's had far too much personal experience of a Jewish leadership who care more about their reputation for being really frum than the exigencies of the situation. And I do think it's very telling that the argument is not: it would be wrong to sacrifice a blemished animal / kill bar Kamtza, but rather: people might think we were the sort of people who...
Into that power vacuum came Zealots and rebels, followed inexorably by destruction and death. That quite nicely synthesizes the more religious view with the more historical, rationalist one, I think. Also, the rabbis were already terrible leaders at the beginning of the story, when they failed to speak up against bar Kamtza's humiliation.
My gut reaction is that it's all just unfortunate, and that blame is devisive and unnecessary etc. but that if I had to blame someone it would be bar Kamtza, as in disfiguring the calf he performed the only act that was both deliberately aimed at the destruction of Jerusalem, and not in any way dictated by circumstances.
Do you mean in the sense that the Romans had a justification for acting as they did, whereas bar Kamtza had no moral justification for inciting them to destroy Jerusalem? I definitely hold bar Kamtza culpable, but whether he is the most responsible is debatable. It's a very personal view of history, it makes individuals' actions supremely important. Blaming bar Kamtza seems a little like saying that the guy who shot Archduke Ferdinand personally caused WWI. It's not quite analogous, cos the assassin wasn't deliberately trying to cause a world war, but still.
Hey, is that the time of Masada? I remember studying that in Latin class...
I think it was the Romans' fault, because they destroyed the temple!
This is tricky, because there are so many pieces of information we don't have. For instance, although the guy who threw bar Kamtza out of the party was mean, we don't know why they were enemies... say bar Kamtza had killed his son or something, you can see why he wouldn't let him stay at the party even if he *did* offer to pay. Because that's just not the point.
Or maybe it's the servant's fault, for inviting the wrong person? Because, really, that's a pretty stupid mistake.
It's very close to the time of Masada, yeah. There were some Zealots in Masada already by 70, but they only became a significant threat to the Romans after a whole load more ended up there, having been expelled from Jerusalem. So the successful siege of Masada was the Romans finishing up what they'd started by destroying Jerusalem, basically, crushing the last remaning rebel enclave.
Another vote for blaming the Romans. Makes sense, cos taking the historical view it does seem like most of this was their fault and they were going to do something at some point anyway, no matter how the Jews acted.
I'm glad someone thought of blaming the servant! That implies an interesting view of morality. Yes, in a literal sense, his mistake was what started everything else. But I think it's hard to sat that it was his fault, because (even if he deliberately muddled the order as opposed to just making an innocent mistake) he couldn't possibly have forseen that this would lead to such terrible consequences. Also, didn't the host have some responsibility to make his orders a bit clearer? If my mortal enemy had the same name as my close friend, I'd probably want to point that out when giving instructions relating to one of them!
I don't think it's in much doubt that the host in the story was a mean guy. Yeah, he could have had some justification for hating bar Kamtza, I suppose. But I think the way the story omits any mention of the background behind their feud is significant. The traditional explanation of what was wrong with the Jews that led to the destruction and exile was gratuitous hatred, and I strongly suspect that this story is meant to be an example of such gratuitous hatred. The point is not whether what the host did was morally right; I think it's pretty clear that it wasn't. The point is whether we can reasonably blame the host for the whole catastrophe.
Some fault lies on the host of the original party, for making a scene - provided the presence of a guest is not making other guests uncomfortable,a host is rude to ask them to leave. Because this was wrong, the rabbis are also at fault, for not speaking reason to the short-tempered host.
But free will remains despite rudeness, so bar-K is culpable for setting up the loyalty test and then rigging it. I'd say that this act has the majority of the responsibility for the Temple's destruction and the diaspora, given the situation presented.
Lesser fault lies with the rabbis who listened to Zechariah. I'm not familiar with the rules regarding sacrifices: is the intent really to prohibit sacrifices with man-made (rather than Divine) blemishes? Even if so, it doesn't seem to tax the ingenuity to explain that _that_ sacrifice was unsuitable, and to make a larger sacrifice of fit animals for the glory of Rome and the Emperor.
But bar-K is the one carrying the most blame IMHO.
Ooh, interesting analysis, thank you! I agree that the host behaved badly and that the rabbis at the party should have spoken out. But I would have a hard time jumping from that to the whole tragedy being the host's fault. What he did was wrong, yes, but not because he indirectly caused the destruction of Jerusalem, but because it's morally wrong to treat your fellow human beings like that.
I like your argument in favour of blaming bar Kamtza. Yes, he was badly treated, but he had the option whether or not to react in vengeful way, particularly in such a hugely destructive way. That's very much in tune with the way I look at responsibility.
I'm not familiar with the rules regarding sacrifices: is the intent really to prohibit sacrifices with man-made (rather than Divine) blemishes? I don't think the rules were really intended to cover that kind of situation, because there wasn't an expectation that people would go about deliberately making blemishes on perfect animals. But it would have been difficult for the rabbis to argue that way, I think. Generally the rabbinic legal system works by precedent rather than by trying to guess the intention of the laws; after all, they are believed to be Divine in origin and you don't normally try to second guess God's intentions. It seems pretty clear to me that a calf deliberately blemished by bar Kamtza is more analogous to a calf that happened to be born with a blemish, than it is to a sacrificially acceptable calf.
The argument that would have been open to them would have been more along the lines of: the principle of preventing widespread death, destruction and exile outweighs the principle that only perfect animals can be sacrificed. Or they could, as you and others have suggested, have found a workround that would have satisfied both their consciences and the Romans (assuming the Romans were prepared to be even vaguely reasonable, which is doubtful.)
Didn't they have free will in the same way as bar Kamtza, though? Yes, he set up the situation, but they had the opportunity to defuse the worst consequences of his actions and they didn't do that. The same argument that makes bar Kamtza more culpable than the host might conceivably make the rabbis equally culpable as bar Kamtza; he didn't force them to make a politically stupid decison.
Aww, please do join in! There are lots of people in this discussion who know no more than you do about the historical and religious background. And I want to know what you think.
Also, in this kind of story, the person sitting in the corner listening intently but not saying anything often turns out to be a great sage. Seriously, I'm glad you're enjoying the discussion at least.
I agree that it seems likely that something was going to trigger the Romans into acting sooner or later. However, I'd put the majority of the blame for it happening at this particular moment on bar-Kamtza.
As well as the fact that making the blemish on the animal is an act of premeditated malice, in a way that no-one else's behaviour is, I'm actually querying bar-Kamtza's motives from quite early on. Why did he want to go to a party at his mortal enemies house (did it not occur to him to double-check with the servant if it was really him that was meant), and why - on it being confirmed that he was not welcome - was he so determined to stay? Had he left quietly and with dignity as soon as the host told him to, he would have avoided being bodily thrown out of the house, and probably attracted quite a lot of sympathy and support as a result of the host's rudeness. Or he could have turned immediately to the rabbis when the host told him to get out, and asked them what they thought of the host's behaviour - perhaps that would have spurred them into rebuke instead of just sitting there. Just going away and brooding and then seeking disproportionate revenge seems like very immature behaviour.
OK, this seems a very comprehensive checklist of reasons why bar Kamtza is thoroughly not a nice guy! He did nothing at all right from the beginning of the story, you're quite right there. And I think your distinction between the overall thrust of history, and the particular timing of what happened, does give you more leeway to blame bar Kamtza as an individual than might otherwise be available. I'm leaning towards being convinced by this presentation!