On the ninth of Av, in the year 70, Roman legions broke into the Holy Temple and set it ablaze.  We are taught that the second Temple was destroyed due to sinat hinam, the causeless hatred between siblings. Historically, the fractious infighting between different sects of Jews in the first century did indeed set the stage for our destruction. In response, Rav Avraham Isaac Kook taught that since the destruction of Judea was caused by hatred it could only be rebuilt by love. 

However, the rabbis of Talmud suggest another failure that caused the calamity. The failure of too much humility. 

Those familiar with the tale of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza will remember that to punish the rabbis for humiliating him, Bar Kamtza brings a blemished sacrifice from the Caesar and the rabbis are posed with an agonizing choice: either silence the messenger or sacrifice the blemished goat. In paralysis, the rabbi responsible, Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas, does neither. Bar Kamtza returns to the Caesar, who interprets the refusal to sacrifice the animal as rebellion and war ensues.

Rabbi Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land. (Gittin 56 a–b). 

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805–1855) in his commentary wonders why humility is the problem. Should it not have said the rabbi’s overzealous righteousness was responsible instead? Rav Chajes says that Rav Avkolas did not consider himself sufficiently great to make the hard call. “He did not excite the courage in his soul because…he was concerned that they would suspect he was acting against the law. He did not consider himself sufficiently great enough to stand up for his own good sense.”  How often have we heard rabbis say: “Who am I to make such a bold halakhic decision?” Such paralyzing humility can be horribly destructive. 

We pray during this time for religious leaders who courageously resist halakhic paralysis, who are willing to wisely and comprehensively address the diversity of human sexuality and gender, and who do not take cover in humility. May we all learn from our history not only that the antidote to causeless hatred is causeless love, but that we are each capable of the courage to stand up to communal resistance in the service of that love.

Steve Greenberg  Rabbi Steve Greenberg