This is the week when Jewish teachers throughout the world teach the lesson of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The moral of which is that enmity between two people can have profound political consequences. Rabbi Yochanan teaches that because of the hatred of Bar Kamtza, and rabbinic apathy, Bar Kamtza became an enemy of the Jews and managed to provoke the Romans into destroying Jerusalem. Bar Kamtza’s plan was to have the Romans bring a sacrifice to Jerusalem, on the way he would make a blemish on the animal so that it would not be fit for the altar, and then claim that the Roman Emperor was being disrespected. The Rabbis immediately divined the predicament and deliberated about what to do. Here is what the Rabbis had in mind:
“The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, ‘People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’ “
“The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar-Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to the Caesar! But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, ‘People will say, ‘One who makes blemishes in sacrifices is killed!’ “
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The excessive carefulness of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.” (Gitin 56a)
Rabbi Yochanan, a fairly tough minded sage with very profound standards for personal piety, has harsh words for Rabbi Zechariah and his inflexibility. Rabbi Zechariah, of course, had a point. What, after all, is more important? What the Romans think, or being consistent and faithful to our sacrificial rites? It would, however, have taken a miracle to save the Jews from the yoke of Roman oppression, and we are enjoined not to rely on miracles. There was no choice according to Rabbi Yochanan. Lives were in the balance and sacred rituals–no matter how sacred–be damned. The people come first, and the rigidity of Rabbi Zechariah had ominous consequences that deserved to be condemned.
When I was living in Jerusalem, I was once asked by a journalist from a prominent American newspaper about the “Who is a Jew” amendment that was being debated in the Knesset. The late (Reform) Rabbi Alexander Shindler had held a press conference railing about this divisive piece of legislation. He neglected to mention the Reform movement’s contribution to divisiveness by countenancing patrilineal descent, but, never mind.
I answered that I didn’t believe in unenforceable laws that were made only to disenfranchise people. The journalist asked, what might be a rebuttal to the liberal Jews’ position. ”Well”, I said, “if 60,000 more Reform Jews lived here, then that might be three Knesset seats, and labor wouldn’t need to make coalitions with the religious parties, but until that time comes, they might not matter so much.” This was in my own estimation a glib, but cogent response. Orthodox observant Jews far outnumber their Conservative and Reform counterparts, they are allowed to vote their conscience, even if it means bringing their holy wars to the Knesset. This is not Ayatollastan as Jeffrey Goldberg would say, but democracy.
It is, however, at this juncture, profoundly misguided to muscle through the Knesset legislation that can only help to diminish support among a community that Israel may need more and more in the future. If Congressmen from the Democrats are writing letters to the State of Israel echoing the concerns of their Jewish constituents, then this is no longer a side issue.
It is true! We are one people of many religions. One of those religions has a monopoly on personal status in Israel for two reasons: One, lots of them live there, and this issue is important to them. Two, dominion over personal status was granted to the Jews living in the Land long before there was a State by the Ottoman Turks, and Ben Gurion maintained that status quo. Why? Because there were lots of those Jews and their rabbis. It is time for leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement to acknowledge that lack of Aliya and lack of success in bringing great numbers to their ranks in Israel is the primary reason for their predicament.
I am, however, very tired of my community not being able to see the proverbial forest. We read these passages year after year–don’t you think enough of us would get the message? This legislation is bad for All of us. It is true that Jewish affiliation is messy, and has been messy for many years, but as long as there is a diaspora, such legislation only succeeds in making Israel less relevant to maybe millions of Jews.
We should listen deeply to Rebbe Yochanan.