May 19, 2024
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Guide to the Rabbis’ Perplexing Silence

Bar Kamtza (Gittin 56a) is incensed by the rabbi’s silence in the wake of his humiliating expulsion from the grand party. He interprets their silence as acquiescence to the host’s very poor behavior. The Gemara does not explain this rabbinic inaction, and we are left to speculate why this happened.

Fear of the Host?

A Shaarei Orah congregant suggested that the rabbis feared confronting the party host. He appears to be quite wealthy and well-connected. I am not satisfied with this explanation, since Bar Kamtza also seems to have been very rich and well-connected, especially with the Roman leadership.

Divine Manipulation

Shaarei Orah’s Carmi Mizrahi suggests Hashem manipulated the rabbis to remain silent. We do find the Gemara (on the next side) suggesting that Hashem controlled Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai to err, to enable the Churban to occur (“Meshiv Chachamim Achor, V’Da’atam Yisacheil — He turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish.”)

However, the Gemara — only a few lines later — criticizes rabbinic inaction when the Romans sought to offer a sacrifice with a subtle blemish. Perhaps here as well, the rabbis are to blame for choosing silence.

Group Think

Binyamin Jachter thinks our situation is one of “groupthink” gone awry. Binyamin notes a similar instance in the planning of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy cabinet members reflected that each realized the plan was doomed to fail. However, they all feared voicing their concerns, since they thought everyone else approved of the idea. Each one feared being the lone dissenting voice, and each tragically remained silent.

Groupthink might also be to blame for the rabbis’ inaction when the Romans brought their blemished Korban. The Biryonim of the same Talmudic page also suffered from this malady. Their leader told his uncle, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, that he recognized that their resistance to the Romans was futile and even suicidal. Still, he feared voicing his disapproval to his followers lest they kill him. It is likely that the followers also realized their foolishness but feared retribution from their leader if they dissented.

It is for this reason that Moshe Rabbeinu exhorts the judges, “Lo taguru mipnei ish — do not fear others,” (Devarim 1:17). Rashi (d”h Lo Taguru) adds that it teaches, “Lo teegor devarecha — do not store your words (i.e., if you see something, say something).”

Rav Fohrman: Innocent Rabbis

Rav David Fohrman suggests that the rabbis had no idea what happened. Bar Kamtza incorrectly assumed that the rabbis ignored his plight. Rav Fohrman explains that this is a classic example of sinat chinam — unnecessary hatred. He notes that this fits the pattern of the party host unnecessarily suspecting Bar Kamtza of coming uninvited to disrupt his great event and the Romans misinterpreting our refusal to offer their slightly blemished sacrifice as a signal of disobedience and rebellion.

A problem with Rav Fohrman’s approach is that the subsequent story regarding the Roman trying to bring a korban decries the rabbinic inaction in that case. One might assume the previous episode’s rabbinic silence at the party is also a case of misguided rabbinic inaction.

If You See Something, Say Something

In contrast to the lack of rabbinic response to evil action, Moshe Rabbeinu in Shemot, Perek 2 reacts to poor behavior. He intervenes when an Egyptian oppresses a Jew, when two Jews are fighting, and when shepherds abuse Yitro’s daughters. When Moshe Rabbeinu took action against evil, it led to the Geulah. Rabbinic inaction in the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story led to destruction.

The rabbis in attendance might have felt that their involvement would inflame and aggravate the situation. Perhaps, they surmised that the host had good reason to hate Bar Kamtza.

However, the rabbis could have and should have intervened and mediated a resolution to the destructive hatred between the host and Bar Kamtza. By contrast, Ta’anit 22a tells of Eliyahu HaNavi, who noted the gentlemen who merited Olam HaBa due to their mediating peace between the warring parties. Conflict resolution is even described by Yishayahu HaNavi (Perek 2), as the primary activity of the Melech HaMashiach.

Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7) writes that dayanim must follow Moshe Rabbeinu’s example. I have done my best to honor this directive. At a get procedure many years ago, the husband had the gall to openly demand concessions from his wife in exchange for the get. I was keenly aware of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story and admonished the husband for his outrageous demand. When the husband responded that it was none of my business, I replied that rabbis are required to respond to injustice.

On another occasion, when adjudicating a monetary dispute, a litigant and his spokesman were not embarrassed to state that they had shamed an opponent for advocating an opinion contrary to theirs. Again, I reminded my colleagues of the disaster wrought by rabbinic silence in Gittin 56a, and our court decried the disturbing behavior.

A Davar She’eino Nishma

The Gemara (Yevamot 65b) urges refraining from saying something that will be disregarded. The rabbis at the party may have felt that their words would be unheeded. The Gemara — in the same context — tells of the Biryonim who spurned Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s urging restraint in the face of the Roman onslaught. Perhaps, this was symptomatic of the times.

Thus, the community may also share part of the blame for the rabbis’ silence. While the rabbis are at fault for not responding, the community may have been at fault for failing to create a climate of receptivity to rabbinic directives and direction.

Conclusion

It is remarkable and a sign of authenticity that the Gemara does not shy away from acknowledging the mistakes of rabbinic leaders. No one is perfect, and had the Talmud presented its protagonists as flawless, its stories would be too good to be true. As in the Tanach, the Gemara acknowledges both the strengths and weaknesses of our rabbinic role models. In admitting their mistakes, the rabbis also serve as a role model of appropriate and proper behavior. It is also a mark of authenticity.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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