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Break the Barrel To Get Rid Of the Serpent?
Tisha B'av thoughts on the conflict in Israel
“If there was a barrel of honey with a serpent wrapped over it, would one not break the barrel for the sake of [getting rid] of the serpent?”
The line, which has been on my mind for days now, comes from the only section of Talmud that one traditionally studies on Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and, by extension, every other major catastrophe in Jewish history, the observance of which begins tonight. The context is as follows.
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Jerusalem was destroyed, so says the text, because of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. A man was friends with the former and the enemy of the latter, and, because of the similarity of their names, accidentally invited the latter rather than the former to a party he was hosting. Discovering his enemy there, the man expelled bar Kamtza, even in the face of bar Kamtza’s pleas not to be so dishonored, and his offers to pay for the entirety of the feast if only he were allowed to stay. Because the other rabbinic guests at the party did not object, bar Kamtza concluded that they must have no problem with such rude treatment, and he decided to get revenge in extravagant style. He went to the Roman Emperor and declared that the Jews were in revolt, and, when asked for proof, said that if the Emperor sent a fatted calf to be sacrificed the Jews would refuse to sacrifice it for him. The Emperor duly sent a calf, but bar Kamtza injured the calf while it was in transit in such a fashion as to render it unfit for sacrifice.
This put the rabbis in a dilemma. The simplest solution would be to sacrifice it despite the blemish. But, Rabbi Zecharia objected, this would mislead the people about the law; they would think such a sacrifice was appropriate. So they contemplated killing bar Kamtza so he couldn’t report back to the Emperor about their failure to sacrifice the animal, but Rabbi Zecharia objected again that this would mislead the people about the law; they would think that maiming a sacrificial animal incurred the death penalty. So they did nothing, the Emperor learned that the sacrifice was rejected, and Rome sent its legions to attack Jerusalem.
Apropos of this, Rabbi Yochanan said that it was because of Rabbi Zecharia’s humility that Jerusalem was destroyed. Why? Because the tradition was that the most junior and least-respected rabbis spoke first in debate, because they would be too intimidated to follow a great scholar. Rabbi Zecharia spoke first in this debate, because he was too humble to consider himself a great scholar who would rightly speak last, but since the other rabbis all respected him so much none of them would raise any objection to his arguments. And so his views carried the day without objection.
Later on in the story, during the siege of Jerusalem, the rabbis want to sue for peace, but the Zealots, a hard-line faction determined to press the revolt against Rome, refuse to let them out to do so. Indeed, to incite the Jerusalemites to go out to battle the Romans, they destroy the food stores of the city, resulting in a devastating famine. As it becomes clear that the city is doomed, the rabbis smuggle out one of their leaders Rabbi Yochanan (a different Rabbi Yochanan), in a coffin. He meets with the Roman general Vespasian and hails him as king, to which Vespasian objects that he is not a king, and if he were then why didn’t the rabbi come to see him earlier. Rabbi Yochanan then predicts, based on scripture, that Vespasian will be made Emperor, and, in response to the question of why he didn’t come sooner, replies that the Zealots wouldn’t let him go.
And that is what prompts Vespasian to say: “If there was a barrel of honey with a serpent wrapped over it, would one not break the barrel for the sake of [getting rid] of the serpent?” In other words: why would you not destroy the city walls to expose and thereby get rid of the Zealots? To this, Rabbi Yochanan had no reply.
When Rabbi Yochanan’s prophecy that Vespasian will be made Emperor comes true, Vespasian offers him a request as a reward, and Rabbi Yochanan asks him to spare Yavneh and its scholars. So Jerusalem is destroyed, and the torch of Jewish leadership passes to the rabbinic class. Once again, though, the text imposes a moral, saying that Rabbi Yochanan erred. First he erred in not responding to Vespasian’s provocative question by saying “we use tongs to remove the snake and spare the honey barrel. Second, he erred in not asking him to spare Jerusalem entirely.
What are we supposed to make of all of this?
The moral of Kamtza and bar Kamtza seems simple on its surface. When you refuse to even sit at the same feast with your enemy, you risk the destruction of the entire community. By the same token, if you do not object to rude treatment, as the rabbis failed to do, and court expulsion yourself, you also risk the destruction of the entire community. The story of Rabbi Zechariah suggests that an unwillingness to recognize the power of one’s influence can stifle debate, and thereby risk the destruction of the entire community. By the same token, the story suggests that too much deference, which the less-esteemed rabbis showed to Rabbi Zechariah, can stifle debate, and thereby risk the destruction of the entire community. The survival of the community depends not on universal agreement nor even on the whole community sitting together as friends, but on having a table where enemies will sit together as enemies, and where even the most-esteemed voices face criticism and debate.
But then there’s Vespasian’s question.
Rabbi Yochanan’s argument to Vespasian is that he could not defend the community by coming to him to sue for peace because the Zealots wouldn’t let him. Vespasian doesn’t ask “well, why didn’t you sit at a table with the Zealots?” nor does he say, “why didn’t you engage them in debate?” He doesn’t even ask “why didn’t you kill the Zealots?” He asks “why weren’t you willing to destroy the very thing you were trying to save—the city of Jerusalem—in order to get rid of the Zealots, who threatened to destroy not only the city but everyone in it?” Rabbi Yochanan had no answer to this, and the rabbinic carping that he should have suggested using tongs feels totally inadequate, not least because the rabbis had not used tongs (whatever they might analogize to) to get rid of the serpent/Zealots.
This seems, in other words, to be a profound exception to the rules established earlier in the text. You have to sit at a table with your enemies, object when someone expels their enemy from a feast that you are attending, and be willing to argue even with the most esteemed members of the community and to invite argument even from the least-regarded. But if you’re dealing with a serpent, not only should you try to destroy it, you should be willing to destroy the most precious thing the community is trying to defend in order to get rid of it.
It appears to be a contradiction—or, to put it another way, the problem would seem to be how to know when one is dealing with an enemy with whom one has to sit civilly even in enmity, and when one is dealing with a serpent?
As you have probably guessed, all of this is on my mind apropos of recent events in Israel.
To summarize for those who haven’t been focused on the situation there: Israel is now governed by the most right-wing government in its history, with a small but solid legislative majority that was elected only by a minority of the electorate thanks to the quirks of proportional representation and which parties cleared the threshold for inclusion in the Knesset. The government proposed legislation that would significantly curtail the powers of the judiciary, claiming that the judiciary has usurped its proper role and become an unaccountable and undemocratic force taking the side of educated, Western-oriented liberals and secularists against a more religious, nationalist and traditional majority that hails mostly from Middle Eastern countries rather than European ones. This proposal prompted the largest and longest-lasting protests in Israel’s history, with major figures from the business world, the military, the intelligence services, and the political opposition declaring that passing such legislation was a fundamental threat to democracy (which the protestors implicitly defined as liberal democracy rather than mere majority rule) and, more importantly, to Israel’s social cohesion. Military officers threatened to resign or refuse to show up for duty; businesses threatened to leave the country—and the government ignored all of this and passed the legislation. And now we’re waiting to see what happens next.
One possibility of what happens next is that the Supreme Court will declare this attempt to clip its wings to itself be invalid. This would constitute a full-blown constitutional crisis, with two branches of government declaring each other illegitimate, the kind of thing that gets resolved either by the collapse of one or the other or by the military and police deciding whom the prefer to obey. Because the Supreme Court knows that’s what it would be, it probably won’t happen—but lesser moves, like narrowing the scope of the law through interpretation, could be almost as provocative. Meanwhile, if the Supreme Court accepted the law, that would effectively grant the government’s contention of its own supremacy, which could either demoralize the opposition or goad it into more direct action, hastening civil breakdown. The government likely went forward with the law in part because doing otherwise would mean backing down in the face of extra-legal pressure from those they saw as their enemies. It was a matter of principle to them to demonstrate that they, having a majority, can make the laws. The same logic applies to the courts, which suggests we will see further escalation in one form or another.
That’s particularly true since this isn’t the end of the government’s ambitions, but its beginning. What else might the government do? They will almost certainly appoint as ministers people like Aryeh Deri whose appointment the Supreme Court has blocked because of his prior criminal convictions, and take steps to insulate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from trial or conviction for corruption. They might further limit the status of people whom the Israeli rabbinate don’t consider halachically Jewish, including potentially amending the Law of Return to shape the electorate in a way that is more congenial to their political future. They might restrict other rights cherished by liberals, such as gay rights, and expand the power of the country’s rabbinic courts. (It’s a potent irony: one side in this contest want to restrict the power of the rabbinic courts, calling them unaccountable and alien to the people, and to defend the power of the secular courts. The other side wants to restrict the power of the secular courts, calling them unaccountable and alien to the people, and to enhance the power of rabbinic courts. Both sides claim to be defending democracy, and accuse the other side of destroying it.) Most dangerously, they might annex some or all of the West Bank, and thereby ignite a third intifada, a spasm of violence that some of the extremists in the government might imagine is the best way to entrench themselves in power.
All of this is hypothetical right now, but the way the government has proceeded in the wake of the obvious evidence that their moves are a threat to the civil cohesion of Israeli society does not inspire any trust that they will take such threats into account when making future moves. In that mood of profound distrust, the opposition is unlikely to weigh that heavily that they are still in an iterative game, that certain moves would provoke a constitutional crisis, or that even if they are successful they might set dangerous precedents for the future. Consider, for example, what character of protests a future secular-oriented government would likely face if they tried to alter the relationship between the state and the rabbinate in a permanent way—or to remove some of the least-defensible settlements in the West Bank—or to treat Israel’s Arab parties as legitimate participants in coalition governments making fundamental decisions about the nature of the state? A protest veto cuts both ways. But from the perspective of the opposition today, that’s a concern for the far future. Right now, as a friend of mine, Rabbi Joe Schwartz, put it in a recent Facebook post, the opposition is in a “Flight 93” state of mind, believing—with good reason!—that the people now flying the plane are terrorists aiming to crash it into the heart of the country’s power, and that they have to rush the cockpit even if they risk crashing the plane themselves in so doing. It’s a phrase with very ominous resonances to an American.
It also sounds an awful lot like breaking barrel to get read of the serpent.
In that same post, Rabbi Schwartz described the two factions in Israeli politics as tribes, one of which, backing the government, thinks of themselves and calls themselves “Jews” and one of which, powering the opposition, thinks of themselves and calls themselves “Israelis.” I think that is a perceptive distinction, which Schwartz uses to bemoan the apparent failure of Zionism to transform the former into the latter, a failure that Gershom Gorenberg has been warning about for years with respect to Israel’s tolerance of a settlement enterprise that it does not fully control. It also reflects its failure to sustain continuity between the latter and the former identities; there’s no reason why Israeli identity should be opposed to Jewish identity, after all. But the important thing from a political perspective is that they are distinct tribes and not part of a single chevreh, to use the potent term from Yossi Klein Halevy’s book about the conquest and unification of Jerusalem in 1967. There is a difference between tribal conflict and ideological conflict, and there is a difference between pluralism in the context of tribal conflict and pluralism in the context of ideological conflict. You can kill the serpent of extremism, even at the price of sacrificing something essential—you can ban Communist or Fascist parties, for example, a clear violation of liberal principles. But killing the serpent in the context of a tribal conflict is just declaring war on the opposing tribe that is harboring a serpent. Pluralism in the context of ideological conflict, meanwhile, means accepting disagreement as legitimate: compromising on some issues, devolving others to a level where there is greater consensus, and accepting that alternation in power will mean policy swings on other issues. Pluralism in the context of tribal conflict means dividing the spoils of power as an alternative to civil war. The former is the essence of democracy. The latter is, in some important ways, an alternative to it that is sometimes (unfortunately) necessary.
That, it seems to me, is the real and stark choice facing Israel today. To sustain democracy, as that word is defined by either the “Jews” or the “Israelis,” would require all sides to abandon these tribal identities in favor of something more like a civic, political, ideological identity. If that cannot be achieved, then Israel’s future looks something like Lebanon’s, where “democracy” just determines the relative weight of the different tribes in the ongoing power-sharing arrangement, the central government dare not disturb those arrangements for fear of reigniting civil war. The private armies that tore Lebanon apart are, of course, not a feature of Israel’s reality, and that makes a huge difference. We’ll see whether that continues to be the case after Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir have done what they came to power to do.
Finally, these dynamics are far from unique to Israel. As I noted, Rabbi Schwartz lamented recent developments as evidence that Zionism failed to transform the Jewish people in Israel into a political community capable of self-government. But from another perspective, Israel looks very much like a host of other countries today, where, as my fellow Substacker Damon Linker has ably delineated, fragile liberal or anti-liberal majorities or even mere pluralities hold power, and seek to effect or prevent wholesale political transformation despite the narrowness of their mandates because the chasm separating them from their opponents feels so unbridgeably wide. That chasm isn’t primarily about policy, where in fact there has been plenty of compromise; see, for example, the successful bipartisan legislating in America under Trump in response to the Covid emergency, and under Biden to build infrastructure, fund science, bolster our competitive position versus China, and arm Ukraine. The conflict is tribal, about identity and the meaning of the polity itself. Israel’s current tribal conflicts are, in the context of other Western democracies undergoing populist ructions, exceedingly normal. “Normal” is what has changed.
Tonight, as I mentioned, is the beginning of Tisha B’Av. The traditional observance involves the reading of the Book of Lamentations, a full day’s fast, from sunset tonight to darkness tomorrow night, and a variety of other departures from normal life: no bathing, no sexual relations, but also no Torah study apart from texts related to the catastrophe (like the one I quoted at the top), no wearing of tallit and tefillin in morning prayers, and so forth. In some traditions the Torah ark is covered with a black cloth; the pre-fast meal consists of a hard-boiled egg and bread dipped in ashes. It is a day of communal mourning, and the observance repurposes many of the observances of personal mourning to drive that point home.
I won’t be observing the holiday this year. In recent years, I generally haven’t. I used to, with some degree of seriousness, but I have fallen away, in part because of a general waning of religiosity, but in part because of thinking I have done about the nature of what Tisha B’Av is mourning. The traditional formula has it that those who fast to lament the destruction of the Temple will merit to witness its rebuilding. I have no desire to see the literal building of a Third Temple in Jerusalem, but more to the point, if I interpret the formula as being about the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, this has been accomplished. Tisha B’Av has resonated with me far less as I have contemplated the meaning of that restoration.
This year, though, marks a further difference. At the peak of my religiosity, at the time of the Second Intifada, I was moved to respond to the call from Israel’s rabbinate to participate in a daylight fast and prayers for Israel’s salvation from the scourge of terrorism. I did not believe, then, that my fasting and prayer would be efficacious, but I wanted to answer the call; I believed that was the right thing to do, and also that it would help me feel connected to those on the front lines, which is to say, ordinary Israelis. In the current crisis, though, Israel is not being attacked from without; it is tearing itself apart from within. I’ve been fretting about that prospect since this government came to power. But I haven’t been directly engaged in political activity with respect to it, for whatever reason, and that distancing has affecting my feeling about Tisha B’Av as well. The holiday resonates, perhaps more than it had until recently, but in a way that has pushed me even further away from a desire to mourn communally. You’re not supposed to mourn with your dead lying before you. It would be downright bizarre to mourn when they are still living, and trying their best to stab each other to death.
Perhaps thinking of things this way makes me part of the problem. Perhaps I’m only rationalizing a distancing that has been long in development. Perhaps I need to do my part to smash the barrel and get rid of the serpent. I don’t know. All I can say is, this is the fast I have chosen. In its own way, it also has the character of mourning, if not for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, then the destruction of something in my own heart.
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