The Startling Message of an Obscure Jewish Holiday

A classic Jewish joke says when two Jews gather, you have at least three opinions. We are a people who prize argument. Doubt is not only tolerated. It is encouraged.

When embraced with integrity and respect, doubt and argument can lead to truth. They can illuminate difficult and complex questions. Yet, sometimes differences cause division. Look at the history of Protestantism. Wars over doctrine and practice have a long and sad history.

Despite our culture of argument, we Jews have had similar experiences. We remember them on the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av, a phrase meaning “the ninth day of the month of Av.” It occurred earlier this week and recalls a monumental event of 2,000 years ago.

What happened?

In first-century Judea, two groups of Jews — the Pharisees and the Priests — battled with each other. The priests believed interpreting God’s law — the Torah — was their prerogative. They were God’s chosen elite. The Pharisees believed the Torah was for all Jews, rich or poor, learned or not.

The Priests sided with their Roman overlords. The Pharisees urged rebellion against the imperial power. The Priests conferred status based on birth. The Pharisees revered learning and leadership.

Tensions mount

They began to exclude one another from community gatherings. They rejected the another’s legitimacy. They refused to permit their children to marry one another.

Perhaps these differences could have been tolerated in a less tense environment. Yet, first-century Judea was a tinderbox. Tensions finally reached a boiling point, and Jewish legend illustrates this moment through a startling legend.

A deadly party

A man named Kamza hosts a party at his home. He invites his entire town except for one person. This person’s name was Bar Kamza. (These similar names symbolize the way conflict emerges among people close to one another.)

 Bar Kamza asks to be invited. He says he will pay for his meal. Kamza refuses. Bar Kamza says he will pay for half the party. Kamza refuses. Bar Kamza says he will pay for the whole party. Kamza refuses.

 Bar Kamza seethes with anger. He not only blames Kamza, but also blames the rabbis at the party who did not protest their host’s behavior. In his anger, he arranges to deface one of the Jewish community’s offering to the Roman Emperor. The Emperor is furious, and when the community does not respond, he sends in troops. The troops create unrest and fuel further hatred among the people. The people revolt, lose, and see their temple destroyed. Put simply, one display of poor manners leads to the destruction of our most sacred sanctuary. 

A message for the future

While probably not factually accurate, this story helps us see a critical lesson. It is one we need to hear again in America today.

We can differ — in political identification, religion, ethnicity, philosophy and much more. These differences make us fuller and more interesting as a community. But what unites us needs to transcend what divides us.

When we dismiss another person because they do not share our religious or political views we risk we risk our community, our stability, our nation. It happened 2000 years ago. It can happen today. That is why Jews observe Tisha B’Av. We remember such a tragic moment not for the benefit of the past, but for the sake of the future.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.