Sermon: On Kamza and Bar Kamza

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 July 2023

In the first century CE, the Talmud tells us, a wealthy man – name unknown – was having a party.

This man had a friend whose name was Kamsa, who he wanted to invite to the party.
And he also had a sworn enemy, whose name, rather unfortunately, was Bar Kamsa.

And when the invitations to the party were sent out by his somewhat hapless servant, inevitably, the invitation was delivered not to Kamsa, but to Bar Kamsa, who showed up for the party.

The host asked him to leave. Bar Kamsa asked to stay.
“I’m already here” he said.
“I’ll pay for my meal, I’ll even pay for half the party. All the party. Just don’t embarrass me in front of everyone”.

But the host wouldn’t back down. And Bar Kamsa was thrown out.

No one in attendance stood up for him.
Not even the Sages who, it turns out, were there, watching all this take place.

So, Bar Kamsa plotted his revenge.
He went to the Roman emperor to inform against the people.
And when – at his instigation – Rome sent an animal to be sacrificed in Jerusalem, he created a tiny blemish in it so that it would present a dilemma for those who oversaw the temple:

Accept the animal, breaking the rules to keep peaceful relations with Rome, or keep to the rules, and risk provoking Rome with what would be seen as a snub, an act of rebellion.

The sages argued about what to do – they even discussed killing Bar Kamsa – but in the end, rather than allow an animal with a tiny blemish to be sacrificed, they decided to turn the sacrifice away whatever the consequences.

And, the story in the Talmud tells us, it was this incident that kicked off a chain of events that led to the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people from the land.

Of course, this is not why the second temple was destroyed – an event that we commemorate on Tisha B’Av, taking place this coming Wednesday night, Thursday.

The destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE was a moment in the Roman suppression of a Jewish rebellion that had begun four years previously; a rebellion that had been coming since Roman assumption of direct control over Judea in 63.
Historians of this ‘Great Revolt’ write of a number of different forces at play – what we would now call ethnic conflict between Jews and Greeks, religious extremism, social revolution – but they make no reference at all to the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa.

It is, of course, just that: a story, a literary construction as so much of the Talmud is.
Kamsa and Bar Kamsa are not real people, but characters. In Aramaic, their names mean locust and son of locust – locust junior – they are literary figures, harbingers of the destruction that is to come.

So why do the rabbis tell this story to explain the destruction of Jerusalem? What are they trying to teach us?

As you would imagine, plenty of explanations have been given over the years:
Most commonly, the relationship between the unnamed man and Bar Kamsa is cited as an example of sinat chinam –causeless hatred, which, according to a statement elsewhere in the Talmud, is the reason that the temple was destroyed. The world in which events like this take place – it suggests – is one of social division that brings collapse.

Another explanation is that it tells us to pay attention to small things. Even the littlest mistake – the wrong name on an invitation by a careless servant – can bring destruction to the world.

Or maybe our learning is about what happens next: the risk of scapegoating a whole people for the failure of a few. Or a rabbinic warning, familiar in our tradition. about what happens when people are too close to government, the danger of associating with oppressive regimes.

There is much to appreciate in these explanations.

However, when reading this story, we can focus on the wrong characters – on the host, or his attendant, or on Bar Kamsa himself.
But that’s not the way the Talmud works. It’s a work written by the Sages for the Sages. They are always the most important people in the room.
And, the important thing about the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is that they were in the room.

The moment everything goes wrong, the moment the story turns, concerns the rabbis. It is when no one, including the Sages in attendance, intervenes on Bar Kamsa’s behalf that he resolves to get his revenge.
The Sages had the ability to stop all this happening.
Spiritual, intellectual, moral leaders of the people, they sat at a party and watched the public humiliation of someone and did nothing. Our tradition takes shaming, takes embarrassment of others seriously – but for some reason the Sages, in that moment did not.

And later in the story, they also fail to respond as the moment requires. When they have the option of letting something else go – something that is far less important than public humiliation, a minor blemish on a sacrificial animal for the sake of peace – at that point they choose not to ignore but to take action.
They allow the humiliation of Bar Kamsa but reject the sacrifice from Rome.

Fundamentally, this is a story about action and inaction. It reminds us that the choice not to act is also a choice, that it also has consequences, also carries liability.
And – whether intended or not – that inaction will also be understood by those watching as an expression of intent, an expression of what we think is important.

It is a reminder of our obligation to intervene.
This is a message found elsewhere in rabbinic literature, too. In our Study Passage this morning, set in Jerusalem 600 years previously, also in the moments before destruction, we read a midrash in which a personification of Justice challenges God that God is wrong to call righteous those who fail to protest.
As the Talmud continues after our passage:
“Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his family… against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his community… against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of the entire world.”

For our rabbinic colleagues in Israel, their involvement in the democracy movement over the last 28 weeks, protesting proposed judicial reforms with the potential fundamentally to change the character of Israeli democracy – added to this week, with a legislative assault on the independent media in Israel – for them this is an expression of this core Jewish ideal of protest.
This is an ideal, an obligation, that falls upon us too, as we grapple with what is happening in Israel and our response. And something we might also bear in mind when considering this country’s rather odd attitude to the right to protest.

Hidden in the story of Bar Kamsa, is also a rabbinic articulation of what is really important – what it is right to protest about.
It is rare that the rabbis come out and say it explicitly – they are not able to be as forthright as, for example the prophet Isaiah in our Haftarah this morning – but the message is the same.
That our ritual lives are worth nothing if we are indifferent to human needs. The critique of the rabbis in our story is that they are sticklers for the rules of sacrifice despite the consequences, but cannot raise themselves to protest against the mistreatment of Bar Kamsa.
So often we run the risk of making a point of principle about something deeply unimportant, while forgetting that what really matters is the quality of our human interactions.

The destruction of the second temple was the most significant event in the formation of rabbinic Judaism, a trauma that hung over the people for generations, one which continues to play a disproportionately large role in the lives of parts of the Jewish world today.

It would have been natural for the rabbis to simply attribute this to divine will, or to declare their helplessness in the face of global forces.
But they did not.
They took this enormous national event and placed it in one anonymous man’s party. And then they put themselves in there and asked – what could we have done differently?

The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is an invitation to us to also take responsibility for that which happens around us.

To examine our behaviour, to ask whether we should be intervening.
In our action or inaction, in our choices, in the things that we say really matter, in the smallest and greatest moments of our lives, how might we make a difference?

How might we change the course of human history if we can bring ourselves to act?