The Roman siege of Jerusalem in the years 69 to 70 CE was an ugly business. For more than a century, there had been religious tensions between the Jews and the Roman Empire, which ruled over them and the land of Israel. Around the year 40 CE, the Roman Emperor Caligula had ordered a statue of himself to be placed in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Jews, it was tantamount to an order to commit idolatry. Riots broke out in the city.
Violence escalated into full warfare in 66 CE. Jews throughout the land of Israel protested Roman taxes and refused to pay them. Then the Roman governor responded by sending troops into the Temple treasury and seized more than 1,200 pounds of gold, claiming it for the Emperor. The violation of the Temple was more than the Jews could stand and fighting broke out throughout the province. The Romans cracked down on the rebellion by executing as many as 6,000 Jewish men who opposed them. The Romans brought in a massive number of troops from bordering provinces, and later from Rome itself.
But the Jews, as one might have hoped, did not respond to Roman militarism by joining together in common cause. Inside the walled capital of Jerusalem, there were bloody battles that pitted Jews against Jews. A powerful Jewish faction known as the Sicarii took control of the city, using targeted assassination as a tool to intimidate their fellow Jews. Eventually, the leader of the Sicarii was, himself, assassinated by a Jewish member of a different faction and all the Sicarii were ejected from the city.
Later, another Jewish faction, the Zealots, entered Jerusalem. They were militant fighters who had been driven out of the north by the Roman army. They came to the heavily fortified capital of Jerusalem in the year 67 to make their last stand against the Romans. Jerusalem, however, was led by the Sadduccees, a Jewish faction that favored negotiation with the Romans to end the war. For the next year and a half, behind the capital’s sturdy walls, Jerusalem was in a constant state of internecine warfare between Zealots and Sadducees.
When the Romans finally did come to take control of Jerusalem in 69, all they had to do was build their own wall outside the city’s walls to keep the Jews from escaping the city. Then, they waited while the Jews killed each other inside. The Zealots, in an effort to force the Sadducees to fight the Romans rather than negotiate, burned the city’s food supply. With the city weakened by starvation, the Romans broke through the walls in the summer of 70 and took it easily. They burned down the Temple, expelled the Jews from Jerusalem, and sent them into an exile that would last 2,000 years.
For the ancient Rabbis, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was beyond heartbreaking. However, they were wise enough to recognize that it was a tragedy that the Jews had helped to bring upon themselves. The rabbis wrote in the Talmud that the destruction of the Temple was not God’s punishment for the Jews failing to study Torah or to perform mitzvot. They said that it was a result of the Jews own “baseless hatred,” or sinat chinam (B. Yoma 9b).
The Jews were so engulfed in their own infighting of one faction against another that they failed to see the larger reality. They were so filled with practiced, studied, ingrained hatred for each other, that they could not see past their own anger.
The rabbis even chastised themselves for not taking action to stop the hatred of Jew against Jew. In retrospect, they recognized that they had been so distracted by their own internal debates about legalistic minutiae that they had not acted while a civil war of Jew against Jew was brewing.
Perhaps to illustrate this view, the rabbis told a story that is one of the most famous in the Talmud. It is a story about two men who hated each other (B. Gitin 55b-56a). The destruction of Jerusalem, says the Talmud, came about because of two men who had similar names that were easily confused. One was named Kamza and the other was named Bar Kamza.
A certain man of Jerusalem had a friend named Kamza and an enemy named Bar Kamza. He planned to host a big party and he instructed his servant to send an invitation to Kamza. The servant, though, must have misheard, because he accidentally sent the invitation to Bar Kamza instead. On the day of the party, when the host saw Bar Kamza sitting at a table in his home, enjoying the party with his other guests, he was furious.
He said, “You who tells lies about me, what are you doing here? Get out!” Bar Kamza – who, after all, had been invited – implored the host, saying, “Since I’m here, don’t embarrass me. Let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and whatever I drink.”
The host’s anger was not in any way satisfied. He again ordered Bar Kamza to leave. Bar Kamza said, “Let me pay half the cost of the entire party. Just don’t throw me out in front of all of these people.” Again, the host refused. Bar Kamza pleaded, “Let me pay for the whole thing! Just don’t humiliate me!” Still, the host refused. He grabbed Bar Kamza and physically threw him out of the house.
You can only imagine how furious Bar Kamza must have been. You can only imagine what was going on in his head as he thought about getting back at the party host and all of his friends. Bar Kamza must have begun to make up stories in his head about what had happened – the humiliation he had endured, the complicity of the other guests, and the hatred he felt toward his own people. The story in the Talmud tells us that Bar Kamza thought to himself, “Since the rabbis were sitting there at the party and did nothing to stop the host, they must think that what he did was right. I will have my revenge against them, too!”
Bar Kamza went to the Roman authorities and he inform against the rabbis, against all the Jews of Jerusalem, and, indeed, against every Jew in the Land of Israel. The Romans responded and Jerusalem fell.
Now, I don’t think that the story about Kamza, Bar Kamza and the party host is factual. The tale does seem a bit far-fetched. But, I think the rabbis told this story in the Talmud to make an altogether truthful and important observation about the times in which they lived, and an important observation about how human beings can behave. When people start hating each other for no good reason – when people allow their anger to run away beyond the bounds of reason or the reality of their situation – disaster can happen.
The story describes a habit of the human mind that you have probably seen in your own life. When people become deeply angry with another person, their anger can become all-consuming and self-destructive. Think about your own experience. Think about the times when you have been so angry with someone that you started making stories up in your head, just like the party host and Bar Kamza did, about how simply awful that person must be and how evil their motivations must be.
When you start thinking that way, you can justify in your own mind some of the very worst behavior of which we are capable. Once our anger gets riled up – and, sometimes, for good reasons – we all allow our minds take us for a ride of imaginary reasons to get even angrier. We can get carried away with our feelings of hurt and injustice, and end up doing things we will later regret. I have seen otherwise good people humiliate others when anger got the better of them, like the party host did. I have seen people so poisoned by anger that they tried to get back at their “enemies,” like Bar Kamza did, without thinking about how far the damage would spread. Baseless hatred can make us do terrible things.
This is how the story is usually taught nowadays, as a lesson about us as individuals – about the danger that each of us faces when we allow sinat chinam, “baseless hatred,” to grow in our hearts. It is worth remembering, though, that, in the Talmud, this was not just a story about two individuals. It was a story about how an entire people, an entire nation, can self-destruct when it is engulfed in anger and hatred.
This ancient observation should not be news to us. You might say that we are living today in an age of sinat chinam. American society seems to be locked into something like a 50-50 stalemate in which half the country thinks that the other half are mindless, immoral and un-American. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly what the second half thinks about the first. Even our cable television networks divide us, with broadcasters on each side cheering their viewers into believing that they represent the truth and those who watch the “other network” are merchants of fascism, terrorism, lies and evil. We are knee-deep in baseless hatred.
Unfortunately, this baseless hatred is not just a phenomenon that divides Red States and Blue States. It slowly has become a divide within the Jewish community as well.
Last March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a passionate speech before the U.S. Congress about a deal negotiated by the Obama Administration and five other nations with Iran to end that country’s nuclear weapons program. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, of course, are of paramount concern because Iran funds terrorist organizations that attack Israel and Iran’s leaders have repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction.
But Prime Minister Netanyahu told Congress that the deal negotiated by the Obama administration was wrong-headed and would increase, not decrease, the likelihood of a nuclear Iran. The American Jewish community, which has largely supported President Obama, was split in half. Some defended the deal as the best available course to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. They cited statements in support of the deal from nuclear weapons experts and even members of Israel’s security establishment. But neither deal supporters nor deal opponents have been able to convince the other to change their minds. All this summer, the American Jewish community was at an impasse.
All this is to be expected. Nobody who knows the Jewish community would expect all Jews to agree on anything. But the vitriol in this debate has spilled over into something closer to hatred than mere political disagreement. The fact that the Iran deal is deeply complicated – to a level that it can only be understood fully by a handful of experts in nuclear weapons development and nuclear inspection protocols – has done nothing to subdue the tenor of the debate. In fact, the very impenetrable nature of the deal seems to be an important part of why it makes people so angry.
I read, almost every day, in the Jewish press and in exchanges with friends and relatives, about the outrage people feel on one side of the issue or the other. I see people whom I admire and respect speak of other Jews and Jewish allies with deeply hurtful words.
A past president of the rabbinic association to which I belong wrote in a national publication that the President of the United States employed anti-semitic themes in his defense of the plan. Colleagues with whom I have joined on numerous other issues have made comments about how the opponents of the plan are on the side of warmongers. Again, I fear, we are seeing an alarming level of baseless hatred in the Jewish community.
This is more than merely impolite lack of civility. For sixty-seven years, since the founding of the State of Israel, Jews have been committed to the idea that Israel should never be allowed to become a partisan issue in American politics. The Jewish community has not handed the title of “defender of Israel” to either the Democratic or Republican party to the exclusion of the other. It has not labeled either party as the “enemy of Israel” – and with good reason.
We have seen how other political footballs in American politics – abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage – have divided the country. We want no such division about Israel. Support for Israel should never become a “wedge issue” in American politics, as some say it already is becoming. Can you imagine what would happen to Israel on the day that a U.S. President is elected on an anti-Israel platform? We cannot allow that to happen.
As much as the division on the Iran deal is a political disaster for Israel, it is an even greater disaster for relations within the Jewish community. The Jewish people have too many external enemies for us to be engaged in internecine warfare. We cannot afford to weaken ourselves by doing the real antisemites’ job for them. We cannot afford to engage in sinat chinam, baseless hatred.
Even now, after the Iran deal seems certain to be enacted, American Jews are still bickering and casting blame against each other instead of joining against our common enemy. Remember, everyone in this conversation agrees that it is Iran, and the prospect of Iran gaining nuclear weapons, that is our enemy. No matter what our opinions may be, we must recognize that our enemy is not other Jews who happen to disagree with us.
Think of what American Jews could be doing right now about Iran if we weren’t still fighting over a decision that already has been made. We could unite in asking the White House and Congress to make another deal – a deal with Israel. We could be going to Washington to make sure that the U.S. will commit all resources possible to enforcing the terms of the imperfect deal with Iran – to use the maximum level of inspections and surveillance to prevent an Iranian bomb. We could be demanding that the United States step up its enforcement of international laws that prohibit Iran from sending money and arms to militant groups like Hezbolah, which threatens Israel on its northern border, and to Hamas, which threatens Israel on its western flank. We could be lobbying for the U.S. to upgrade Israel’s defensive capabilities to defend itself from its hostile neighbors.
If the Iran deal was an issue that boiled your blood this summer – if it is still boiling your blood even now that its adoption is secured – I ask you to stop directing your anger toward other Jews and other Americans. They are not your enemies. Instead, join with people who may have seen the Iran deal differently than you did, and find common cause with them. Write letters to your representative urging their support for the defense of Israel and their support for measures to improve our new inspection regime against Iran. Build bridges within the Jewish community. Do not tear them down.
Part of our commitment on Yom Kippur is to transcend the passions that distract us from our real goals in life. At this time of year, and on this day, we commit ourselves to seeing a picture that is bigger than just getting our way, and winning out over our political opponents.
On this Yom Kippur, let us resolve to rid ourselves of sinat chinam. Let us notice, as the ancient rabbis noticed (even if only after the fact), how much damage we can do to ourselves as a people when anger and hatred divide us from our fellow Jews and our fellow human beings. Let us notice that it is possible to disagree with people – even to disagree passionately – without seeing them as monstors. Let us notice how we become our own worst enemies when we allow our minds to steep in the vinegar of bitterness, anger and hatred.
Let us free ourselves of hatred so that we can recognize the wisdom of our tradition that urges us to be brothers and sisters to each other, and to see how good and pleasant it is when we dwell together in peace.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
May you be sealed for a good year.