From 70 to 2018


Sunday is the 9th of Av* on the Jewish Calendar. If Yom Kippur is universally recognized as the holiest day of the year, the 9th of Av, is unquestionably the saddest. It is the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Jews around the world will mourn by fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations, and engaging in communal self-examination.

Self-examination for what, exactly? The Rabbis say that the Second Temple was destroyed as punishment for sinat chinam, among Jews, usually translated as “baseless hatred.”

But is any hatred truly baseless? Doesn’t even irrational hatred have some basis? Does anyone really hate someone else for no reason at all? Individuals have grudges, groups have rivalries, parties have different visions for the future. Sure, some of these may get out of hand, but are they ever totally baseless?

Rabbi David Fohrman discusses this at some length in his writing. In discussing the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis tell a story about what got the ball rolling. It’s the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa, and in it lies both the answer to our question, and a lesson for Americans today.
The story begins with a party. A wealthy man – he remains unnamed, perhaps a personal punishment – is throwing a party, and he sends his servant with an invitation to his friend, Kamsa. The servant, by mistake, brings the invitation to his enemy, a man named Bar Kamsa.

When the host sees Bar Kamsa at the party, he orders him to leave. Bar Kamsa, embarrassed at the mistake, asks to be allowed to save face. He’ll pay for his food. The host turns him down. He’ll pay for half the party. No, says the host, you must leave. Bar Kamsa will pay for the whole party, just don’t humiliate him in front all these people. No, insists the host, and forcibly escorts Bar Kamsa to the door.

What really stings Bar Kamsa, is that a number of prominent rabbis at the party saw the whole thing and who did nothing. Fine, the host was his enemy, thinks Bar Kamsa, I get that. He was being a jerk, but did I really expect anything better?

But the rabbis, it’s their job to encourage people to act with decency and respect, and they just sat there and did nothing. The longer Bar Kamsa thinks of this, the angrier he gets, until he finally decides to take revenge. He tells the Romans that the rabbis are plotting rebellion, manipulates events to make it look that way, and the whole thing snowballs into an actual revolt and the burning of the Temple. Bar Kamsa’s hatred has sown the seeds of Israel’s national destruction.

Fohrman notes that when we’ve been wronged, we react on two separate scales. One is how right we are, the other is how intensely we feel it. Was Bar Kamsa right? Of course he was. He humiliated in front of the cream of Jerusalem society, and the conscience of that society passively let it happen.

But on a scale of 1 to 10, how angry was he? Looks like 11. How angry should he have been? A four, maybe a five? After all, it’s just a party. By next week, everyone will have forgotten about it. Instead he decided to turn it into an international incident that ended up destroying the remnants of Jewish sovereignty for the next 1900 years.

Bar Kamsa, the host, and even to some extent the rabbis, had stopped seeing other people as whole human beings, and instead saw them as symbols. The host saw Bar Kamsa not as a person who was trying to redeem an uncomfortable situation, but as “enemy.” Bar Kamsa saw the rabbis as people who may not even have fully understood what was going on, but purely as instruments of his humiliation. The rabbis, for their part, didn’t see the host and Bar Kamsa as people acting out a personal drama in public, but as litigants in a dispute they couldn’t rule on. It’s much easier to get uncontrollably angry at a symbol than at an actual person.

Which brings us to today. Our social media personas can’t possibly reflect our full selves, and we react to others’ personas as though they were pure, true, authentic, and complete. For most of us, even for public figures, politics is a fragment of our lives. But we increasingly reduce each other to avatars of political movements, judging and punishing each other on that basis.

We react rather than taking time to think. We post with the fierce urgency of now, rather than the calm reflection of later. We use words designed for anger, and then find ourselves made angry not only by our own words, but by those of others.  We go to 11 on the outrage meter and stay there, on everything, and we quickly make our disagreements about each other rather than about the thing we disagree on.

Increasingly, we think there is no escape, feel backed into a corner, raising the stakes of our politics. Each side believes that the other, given power, will use that power to take away our livelihoods and ruin our social lives merely for holding the “wrong” opinions. Each side believes that the other represents a metaphorical authoritarian gun pointed at our heads. Elected officials openly compare policy to the Holocaust, and call for the public harassment of political opponents – and it won’t end with high-level officials.

Since the election, the bulk of the hysteria has come from the Democrats and the Left. This is because they lost. However, given the reason that many voted for Trump, exemplified by Michael Anton’s famously persuasive Flight 93 Election article, I am reluctant to conclude that Republicans would have behaved much better had they lost. The Russians on whom so much attention is focused were careful to leave plenty of conspiratorial breadcrumbs on both sides of the street.

The Left is more responsible for the relentless politicization of every square inch of our public, private, and personal lives. But that doesn’t absolve anyone of trying to arrest this slide. Because we have a very clear message on the consequences of not arresting it.

And I have no idea how to put that back together.


*It’s actually the 10th of Av, but the fast and commemoration are put off for a day because the 9th falls on the Jewish Sabbath.