This year, the Jewish people will have a particularly easy time following the Mishnaic injunction to “reduce joy as the month of Av begins.” As bereaved families mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, and others bury their loved ones killed in last week’s Bulgaria terror attack, we are reminded that Israelis continue to be targets anywhere in the world simply for being Israelis.
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I do not subscribe to a worldview that seeks to place blame on the victims, looking for reasons why the Olympic athletes 40 years ago or the tourists in Bulgaria now did something to deserve being murdered. They were murdered because of others’ hate and cowardice, and we can only hope that such murders will soon be a thing of the past.
Nevertheless, in reflecting on the rabbinic reasons for why tragedies befell the Jewish people on the 9th of Av, I am inspired. I do not wish to claim that individual victims of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem deserved their death. However, the rabbinic idea that the temple was destroyed due to “causeless hatred” teaches us many lessons. These lessons do not teach us how to prevent tragedies such as terror attacks, but do help us create a better society.
The midrash Lamentations Rabbah explains the meaning of causeless hatred through the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza. According to the midrash (a similar version is also told in the Talmud tractate Gittin, with a different moral), a man instructs his servant to invite Kamza to a party, but mistakenly invites Bar Kamza, the host’s enemy, instead. Bar Kamza shows up at the party, but is humiliatingly turned away. The many great rabbis present at the party say nothing as Bar Kamza is humiliated.
So far in the story, it seems clear who was guilty of causeless hatred. The host could have allowed Bar Kamza into the party, or one of the sages could have intervened. Instead, the host publicly humiliated Bar Kamza, an act equated with murder elsewhere in the Talmud. At this point, the story continues, and the blame seems to shift. Bar Kamza, so upset with the rabbis, decides to go to Caesar and “prove” that the rabbis are rebelling, and therefore would refuse Caesar’s offering at the temple. Bar Kamza continues to sabotage the sacrifice (by causing a minor blemish), the rabbis indeed refuse the sacrifice, and Rome proceeds to destroy the temple and Jerusalem.
Two major lessons stand out from this rabbinic tale. For one, no one in this story is morally right. The host behaves badly, the rabbis behave badly, and the wronged guest behaves badly. Thus, it is not clear what behavior defines the act of causeless hatred. Was it the host’s refusal to accept Bar Kamza, the rabbis’ unwillingness to try to better the situation, or Bar Kamza’s act of revenge against the entire Jewish people?
The story’s ambiguity is the lesson in and of itself. Indeed, every conflict must be set into motion in some way, even as the various parties have different perspectives on why. This does not however exonerate any individual party. Every time an opportunity comes up to do the right thing, it is incumbent upon us to seize that opportunity. Furthermore, no matter how justified we believe our anger to be, we are taught not to engage in destructive behavior.
The second lesson deals exactly with that justification. While the midrash speaks of “causeless” hatred, many of the acts of hatred described indeed seem to have cause. We do not know why the party’s host has such animosity toward Bar Kamza, but it seems very ingrained. Moreover, we do know the cause for Bar Kamza’s act of hatred, but it nevertheless is implicated in causing the destruction of Jerusalem. Perhaps the lesson of the story is that there are reasons for anger, but no cause is great enough to justify an act of hatred.
This year, as the 9th of Av approaches, the Jewish people can easily point to the Munich massacres and the terror attack in Bulgaria as continuing proof that there are people in the world who hate Israelis and Jews. These acts join the Holocaust, pogroms and the Inquisition as acts of causeless hatred, for which we appropriately devote a day of mourning.
The message of the fast day, though, is that we must not allow the existence of cruel acts of terror to prevent us, as a Jewish people, from doing true soul searching. Even as the rabbis clearly felt that the Romans persecuted the Jews simply for being Jewish, they sought to create a lesson for how Jews can better their lives and their society. This year, I will be looking at my own actions, making sure that I am not guilty of acts of hatred, even when I feel justifiably upset. I hope to be joined by all segments of society, so that we can learn to interact with one another in productive ways, ceasing to bring destruction upon ourselves.
Arie Hasit studies at the rabbinic seminary of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, with plans to become a Masorti rabbi. He works for a number of different Masorti and Conservative institutions; the opinions expressed here are his own only.