The Destructive Power of Speech

This time of year my thoughts turn back to a favorite story from the Talmud, the story of Bar Kamza.

In the Jewish calendar we are approaching Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the date traditionally associated with the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and again by the Romans in 70 CE. The observance is of mourning-it is customary to fast and read the biblical book of Lamentations by candlelight while sitting on the floor.

While from a historical perspective the Temples were destroyed by outside forces, Jewish commentators  throughout thetemple sacrifices ages have sought to find theological reasons for their destruction. Some of the most compelling of these have to do not with divine retribution for sin, which is certainly found in the traditional texts, but rather internal dissent and strife which leads to the collapse of society, which is represented by the destruction of the Temple. It then gives us space to examine what are the practices which are damaging to our own communities.

So the story of Bar Kamza, found in the Bablyonian Talmud, Gittin, 55b-56a. The story opens by saying, “The destruction of Jerusalem came about because of Kamza and Bar Kamza.” It continues (I’m retelling rather than quoting exactly):

A wealthy man had a good friend named Kamza and an enemy named Bar Kamza. He was holding a party and sent his servant to invite Kamza. The servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamza instead. When the host saw Bar Kamza sitting at the table, he said, “What are you doing here? You tell tales about me! Get out!”

Bar Kamza said, “If you let me stay, I will pay for what I eat and drink.” The host refused. “Then I will pay for half the party,” he said. The host again refused. Bar Kamza then offered to pay for all of the party. The host refused and kicked him out.

Bar Kamza said to himself, “Since the Rabbis [i.e., the leaders of the community] were all there and let this happen, they must have approved of how he treated me! I will then go an inform on them to the [Roman] government!” He went to the Emporer and told him that the Jews were rebelling against him.

“How can I be sure?” the Emporer asked. “Send them a calf to sacrifice and see if they will do it.” So the Emperor sent a calf with Bar Kamza. On the way, Bar Kamza made a blemish on the calf [which would have made it unfit for sacrifice.]

When the Rabbis received it, they were inclined to sacrifice it so as not to offend the authorities. One rabbi, Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas, objected saying, “People will then say it is OK to sacrifice unfit animals!” The Rabbis then proposed killing Bar Kamza so that he will not inform on them again [that they didn’t sacrifice the animal.] Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas objected again saying, “People will then think it is OK to kill people who blemish animals!”

Said Rabbi Yohanan, “It was because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas that the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem burned and the people exiled.”

Now, there is a lot to unpack in this story, and a lot of directions it can go. At the core, the rabbis are saying that it was human behavior, specifically ethical behavior and how we deal with one another, which brought about the downfall of society. The story of Bar Kamza is not a historical tale, but a fable.

And it is not just one individual action which brings about the destruction, but the culmination of a series of actions which together create the end result. It is interesting that the Talmud introduces the story saying the destruction was because of Bar Kamza, then concludes by saying it was because of Zechariah. All play a hand in this unfortunate tale.

What was the culmination of sins? Rabbi Zechariah only saw things in black and white, and was unwilling to be flexible in any matters of law, despite the circumstances. He was also more concerned with outward appearance than what would be most beneficial to all concerned. The Rabbis allowed someone to be publically humiliated and did not intervene. Their silence condoned the actions of the host. And the host publically humiliated someone and was unable to put another’s humanity over his own feelings. (The poor servant’s actions puts this all in motion, but his was a simple mistake. And Kamza doesn’t even show up in this story.)

In reading this story as I do at this time, this year the character of Bar Kamza stands out for me. For though he is the one who is the victim at first (maybe he thought the invitation to the party was not a mistake but a step towards reconciliation), he too is not wholly innocent here. For he takes the drastic step of informing to the government to get back at the Rabbis. In other words, rather than confront the problem head-on, and speak directly to the people who have offended him, he in turn defames someone with baseless allegations. Plus he takes what is an internal disagreement and makes it into a public issue.

And what, in the beginning, is the reason the host and Bar Kamza don’t get along? Bar Kamza is called a ba’al debaba, literally “a man of evil speech”–a teller of tales. Bar Kamza already is known as a person who uses words to harm others. This is the first sin mentioned, so perhaps this is where the destruction all started.

The rabbis see the destruction of the Temple, the paradigmatic example of the fall of the Jewish community, as coming from the inside, rather than the outside. The warning is that through our behavior, we have the power to undo our society. There is much in this story upon which to draw. By focusing on the example of Bar Kamza, we learn that resorting to hurtful speech, public defamations, ad hominum attacks and baseless allegations–rather than trying to build relationships, have open and honest conversations and mend disagreements through engagement and dialogue–is what ultimately will be our undoing.