Tisha b'Av

Tisha b’Av in Dangerous Times

The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE because of baseless hatred. In the Talmud Tractate Gittin the rabbis say Jerusalem was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.

If you read the story carefully, it’s clear Jerusalem and the Temple were not destroyed because of hatred between Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, but rather because of religious zealotry.

To start with, Kamtza has virtually nothing to do with the story. It’s about an unnamed person who was throwing a party, and he wanted to invite his buddy Kamtza. His servant accidentally brought his enemy, Bar Kamtza, and the situation escalated out of control. All the bigwigs in Jerusalem were there, and having already shown up Bar Kamtza felt he would be disgraced if he got kicked out. He offered to pay for the whole party if the host would only let him stay, but the host refuses. 

Since the sages were there and didn’t protest, Bar Kamtza felt this showed they approved of the host’s behavior. He decides to show them a lesson by telling the king that the Jews had revolted against him. He told the king to send a calf as a sacrifice and see if they offer it in the Temple. The king agrees, but Bar Kamtza made a minor blemish on the calf, like a little cut, that the rabbis would notice but gentiles would not.

When they saw the calf, the rabbis vacillated. They were inclined to go ahead and offer the calf as a sacrifice because of the importance of keeping peace with the Roman authorities. One of the rabbis, Zekharya ben Avkolas, said, “but the people will say we offer blemished animals on the altar!” So the rabbis considered killing Bar Kamtza to stop him from telling the emperor, and Zekharya said, “then the people will say offering a blemished animal will get you killed!” So they did nothing, the king saw the rabbis refused to offer his sacrifice and were therefore rebelling against his authority, and the battle was on and Jerusalem ended up destroyed.

But why say Jerusalem was destroyed because of the hatred? There will always be people who have enemies. We don’t even know why the host hated Bar Kamtza. Maybe it wasn’t baseless, maybe he had a good reason to hold a grudge. But we do know the religious zealotry of Zekharya ben Avkolas, and the sages refusal to stand up to him, is indeed what led the king to believe they were rebelling. So it wasn’t hatred, it was religious zealotry that destroyed the Temple.

Which brings us to the present day, and why this Tisha b’Av feels way scarier to me than any Tisha b’Av in the past.

For several years now, I’ve struggled with reading Lamentations on Tisha b’Av. How can I read this book about Jerusalem sitting alone, destroyed, desolate, when Jerusalem is a vibrant lively city with 700,000 people?

But this year is different. This year I read Lamentations not just as mournful history, but as a warning. The religious zealots are in control. They are working to remove the guardrails that are intended to make sure Israel is both Jewish AND democratic. They are working to bend the nation to the will of the most radical right, the ones who see kicking Arabs out as a messianic mission, and the ultra-Orthodox who want to tell the rest of us how to live and how to practice Judaism.

Earlier this week – what timing! – the Knesset passed a law doing away with the “reasonableness clause.” The reasonableness clause allows the Supreme Court to overrule the Knesset if they are doing something that is objectively “unreasonable.”

Now the reasonableness clause is kind of a crazy thing. The court should not have that power. But in a normal democracy, there are a lot of other checks and balances on the power of the government, so you don’t need the reasonableness clause. But Israel has no constitution. Checks and balances are limited and fragile. As proof of the problem, and what the secular majority is worried about, the very first law proposed after doing away with the reasonableness clause is one that would treat studying in a yeshiva as the equivalent of serving in the army for receiving various social benefits and preferences. That would clearly fail the “reasonableness” clause, but what’s to stop the government now? 

Me and millions of my fellow Israeli citizens fear for the future of our country. Treating yeshiva students like veterans is just the first of a long list on the agenda of the far-right government. Civil rights for anyone who is not an Orthodox Jewish man are in jeopardy. The charedi will become even more parasitic, demanding more money from the secular public to pay for their yeshivas, enshrining an exemption from serving in the army into law, removing any attempts to force their schools to teach secular subjects such as math and science. The messianic settlers will be given free rein to build where they want, confiscating private Palestinian land in the process. LGBTQ rights will be rolled back, women could literally be sent to the back of the bus, and on and on.

An astounding 28% of Israelis have said they are thinking about leaving the country. And the ones who are thinking of leaving are the educated secular people who have been the backbone of Israeli society, the ones driving the “Startup Nation,” the ones serving in the elite IDF units, the ones paying the taxes. 

If the messianic right has its way, the Temple will be rebuilt, never mind what a billion Muslims think of the idea. And that truly could lead to the destruction of Jerusalem. Yes, crazies could always threaten that they would defend Israel with nukes…but Pakistan also has nukes.

I know it’s not actually that bad – yet. There will be new elections, God willing sooner rather than later. The next government will almost certainly be more reasonable. Current polls show Likud plunging and Gantz soaring, and today’s opposition would be tomorrow’s government. 

This roller coaster is not a good thing. Israel needs not just judicial reform, it needs a real constitution, one that would prevent small minorities from hijacking the government. A majority of Israelis seem to want a center-right government. While I’m more a center-left person myself, I could live with that. 

The previous government showed that there is actually more we agree on than we disagree on. I was very surprised that Naftali Bennett, someone actually to the right of Netanyahu, was a decent prime minister. Yair Lapid really impressed me with his ability to put his ego in check and somehow cobble together a coalition that lasted longer than most thought it would. We need to let the sane people run the country.

May all of this spur real change in Israel, so that we can live up to our mission to be a light to the nations. 

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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