The following is an only slightly edited version of my farewell lecture at Boston University, April 27, 2015.
The essay is only partially linked. As I reread it, I see numerous jumps in reasoning which make it a difficult read. It in some ways runs the gamut of my research, putting together apocalyptic types, honor-shame, zero- vs. positive-sum, and the huge dilemma we’re in today, where we can’t talk about the most serious threat to global peace (not kidding), and instead, we talk endlessly about the flaws of the Jews, individually and collectively.
Apocalyptic and Gratuitous Hatreds:
The Revival of Jew Hatred in the 21st Century
The rabbis attribute the destruction of the Second Temple to sinat chinam, causeless, or gratuitous hatred between Jews. The most elaborate example used to illustrate the point, tells the story of the confusion of a certain a-Kamtza, an invited guest to a wedding, and Bar Kamza, the mistakenly invited man whom the host dislikes intensely. The host, discovering Bar Kamtza at his feast, demands he leave, and refuses to relent even when Bar Kamtza offers to pay for the full feast. Angry and resentful, Bar Kamtza plots to use the Romans to take vengeance, not only against the host, but the rabbis who stood about and did not intervene while he was being unbearably humiliated. Deeply knowledgeable about both the halacha and the proclivities of its interpreters, and determined to take vengeance, Bar Kamtza sets off a chain of events that ultimately led Rome to destroy the Temple.
Josephus, the historian, tells a different tale. Although it failed, that failure was hardly fore-ordained, and had it succeeded, it would rank as the first successful blow against the juggernaut of Roman hegemony that dominated the previous centuries of Mediterranean history. In Josephus’ account, there were plenty of hatreds, and some – like the Zealots who burned the besieged city’s supplies – clearly contributed to the failure of the Jewish revolt. In historical terms, Josephus is both more embedded in events, and confirmed by outside sources which show a vast range of prophetic/messianic behavior among individuals acting before receptive crowds. Far from gratuitous, the passions that drove the Jewish Revolt might best be considered apocalyptic: in other words, for the participants, the things at stake in these hatreds, were cosmic; this was the final battle.
These believers, whom I call roosters, who live in apocalyptic time, in the certainty that the culmination of history is underway, can behave at once enthusiastically and self-destructively, like the Xhosa in what became South Africa in the mid-19th century. Told by an adolescent girl to slaughter their cattle in preparation for redemption, many Xhosa, including their greatest chief slaughtered their precious herds in anticipation, and each time that anticipation disappointed, they killed even more systematically. They followed this pattern of doubling down so determinedly that they went from voluntary sacrifice (believers killing their own cattle) into coercive purity (killing the cattle of non-believers). In the end, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of cattle, and tens of thousands of Xhosa starved.[i]