A Tisha b'Av Meditation: Jewish Power in the Shadow of the Holocaust

By Kavon, Eli | Midstream, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

A Tisha b'Av Meditation: Jewish Power in the Shadow of the Holocaust


Kavon, Eli, Midstream


In the year 70 CE, the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion in Judea against their emerging empire, razing Jerusalem and burning the Second Temple to the ground. On the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple almost two thousand years ago. The Rabbis of the Talmud, in searching for an explanation of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, present the story of two men, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. A wealthy man living in Jerusalem, according to rabbinic legend, invites his compatriot Kamtza to a lavish dinner. The man's servant, by mistake, invites Bar Kamtza to the feast. While Kamtza is a close friend of the wealthy Jerusalemite, Bar Kamtza is an enemy of the host. When Bar Kamtza arrives at the feast, the host orders him to leave. Bar Kamtza, attempting to avoid personal humiliation, offers to pay the host a hefty sum in order to remain at the party. The wealthy man refuses and Bar Kamtza is ejected from the feast. The rabbis in attendance did nothing to defend Bar Kamtza and did not try to stop the host from embarrassing him. In revenge, Bar Kamtza engineers a plot to convince the Roman emperor that the Jews are planning to rebel against the great empire. "Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza," the ancient rabbis tell us, "Jerusalem was destroyed."

The legend of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is a wonderful morality tale that squarely places the blame for the Roman destruction of the Temple on the Jews, rather than the Romans. According to this legend, had Jews been kind to and respectful of each other had they acted ethically and not solely centered their faith on sacrifices in the Temple--Jerusalem would have been spared. Yet, this story perplexes me. Did the Romans raze the Temple in Jerusalem and conquer Judea solely because of a lack of Jewish morality? Did not the Romans crush the rebellion because of the reality of geopolitics? The Judeans were divided and outnumbered under Zealot leadership. They were mounting a revolt against the superior forces of a massive empire that could field its legions as an unstoppable military machine. Did the Romans destroy Jerusalem because of one Jew's vengeance at being humiliated by another Jew? Why do the rabbis of the Talmud find it necessary to blame the destruction of Jerusalem on the immorality of Jews rather than the might of a great empire that would tolerate no dissension from its subjects? Cannot the rebellion against Rome by the Zealots--as heroic as the revolt was and how admirable it was that Jews fought for their independence after years of Roman rule--be seen as an example of reckless adventurism fueled by messianic expectation and theological fantasy?

In her recently published study of Jews and Power (Nextbook, 2007), Ruth Wisse analyzes the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza and concludes that "crediting defeat to their own mistakes rather than to the superiority of their assailants was a way of preserving moral independence, since it ascribed agency to Jews or to God rather than the victors." Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, warns that in the post-70 world of the Diaspora, this "toleration of political weakness could cross the line into veneration of political weakness." (author's italics). In other words, in a bid for self-empowerment, Jews had to stake the claim for a theological and moral high ground rather than deal with the realities of power and politics. This form of theological empowerment may have served the Jews well for centuries in the Diaspora. The Jews today live on while the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Hellenists, and Romans have disappeared. Indeed, by denying the reality of the superiority of non-Jewish power for centuries and crediting it to the power of the God of Israel, Jews provided themselves with an almost perfect survival mechanism. But in the world of the Czars, Hider, and Stalin, the strategy of denying the realities of power and politics resulted in the worst disasters ever endured by the Jewish people. …

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