Today, July 30th, is the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. It is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we remember the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians and the Romans, and many other terrible events such as the expulsion from Spain. This moment in our calendar is a time for reflection on the tragedies in our history.
For centuries, Jews have grappled with the question, how do we derive lessons from these awful events? While it is important to acknowledge our pain and mourn our loss, we also have to move forward with lessons learned. Traditionally we understand that the temples were destroyed because of our sins. In particular, according to the Talmudic rabbis, the First Temple was destroyed because the Israelites worshiped idols, committed acts of violence, and engaged in sexual indiscretions.
The rabbis then note that right before the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were not idolaters and were peaceful and generally pious people. So why then did God destroy the holy sanctuary? There answer is that the people committed the sin of sin’at chinam, baseless hatred (Yoma 9b). Sin’at chinam has become almost a cliché in recent years as Jewish leaders encourage us to stamp out this phenomenon which we still face today.
But what exactly is baseless hatred? Is it an excessive dislike of someone? If so, what would be an appropriate hatred? Is the sin of sin’at chinam taught to just encourage us to love other people more and try to give up our feelings of hatred? A few years ago Yair Rosenberg, writing in Tablet magazine, pointed out that very often we get this concept wrong.
Rosenberg gives numerous examples of people accusing their ideological opponent of sin’at chinam, which for him misses the point. He quotes the historian Isaiah Gafni, who jokes that “I am not plagued with sin’at chinam. The people that I hate really deserve it!” He’s not wrong. Usually we have a very good reason to hate someone: they have offended us; they hold a position we find odious; they have treated others with disdain.
Rosenberg argues that the point of sin’at chinam is that it must spur us to look inward. If you accuse someone else of baseless hatred, the concept has gone over your head. The ancient rabbis, when giving an example of this idea, tell the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b) in which a man mistakenly invites his mortal enemy to his party. When the man shows up to the affair, the party thrower kicks him out in front of several rabbis in attendance who do nothing. The humiliated man then goes and denounces the Jews to the Romans, leading ultimately to the destruction of the temple.
The moral of the story is not that man who threw the party shouldn’t have hated his enemy; it’s that the rabbis stood by and did nothing as a man was humiliated. They had no reason to hate him and yet they allowed him to be thrown out. The rabbis of the Talmud engage in a healthy dose of self-criticism, understanding that sin’at chinam is ultimately about their failing.
Needless to say, in our highly polarized country, hatred of all kinds is a real problem, but it would be disingenuous of me to argue that we are guilty only of baseless hatred. This is not an episode of Star Trek where the people who are black on their right side are fighting against the people who are white on their right side. We all have very good reasons for our opposition to the other side, but are we truly prepared, like the rabbis of old, to look internally at our own flaws.
With sin’at chinam in mind, I hope you will join us for Examining Racism: Looking Inward First, a two part workshop that begins August 4 at 7:00 PM and will be facilitated by members of Not in Our Town Princeton. In order to make meaningful change we must begin with ourselves and understand the biases we carry and how they profoundly affect us and those around us.