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The oxymoronic Religious-Rationalist!



As I have stated in various relations to other themes I consider myself a rationalist. Sure, seeing a religious person writing about himself that he’s a rationalist, most likely seems a little, well, odd. But realizing this I still view myself as a rationalist. Let me explain. Within most religions people normally will find both a rationalist and a mystical (or spiritual) approach, and so is it also the case in Judaism. Or rather, there are actually three approaches to living a “correct” life as a Jew, though this is not something being expressed or believed in the notion that you have to live like one or the other. It is more a matter of personal approach and thought on how to fulfill the life as a religious Jew.

The one is based on an ethical approach, called Musar, which is mostly followed by the group among the Ashkenazim called “Litvik,” being derived from its origin, Lithuania. This tradition is based on a range of ethical works and approaches by great rabbis, such as R. Bahya ibn Paquda and R. Moshe Haim Luzzato, and to a certain extent also Maimonides, though some also finds mystical elements in his philosophical writings and believe that this was his true approach. This tradition is about acting correct, and put primary emphasis on the rational approach to the commandments and the world we find ourselves in. That is not to say that there is no religion or spirituality in it, but rather that through the correct conduct can we approach God the right way and get closer to Him. Or rather, the Musar attempts to analyze and approach the ethical teachings in a systematic way, relating to them in a more rational organized way, than what we see in the other approaches.

The second approach is the spiritual approach, which is expressed by the Hassidic movement, being founded by R. Yisrael ben Eliezer, called Baal Shem Tov, the Owner of the Good Name. Living in the 18th century in what today is Ukraine, he saw the need for a more “popular” approach to Judaism, bringing the religion back to the people, instead of being some elitist wisdom, only being taught and related to in the Yeshivot (religious schools). His approach meant a revival for the general Jewish population, making it able to learn complex Jewish thoughts in a popular fashion. This approach focus more on the right motives and attitude than acting in a strict ethical matter, though in no way intending the fulfilling of the commandments to be unnecessary.

The last approach, which often gets fused into the Hassidic approach, is not per se an approach, at least not in itself. It is the Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which emphasizes the attempt to get closer to God through esoteric teachings. The most well known mystical work in Judaism is the Zohar, but there are even earlier works, going all the way back to the time of the Second Temple. This approach can be very personal, and as such could seem to be countering the Hassidic approach, but with both playing on the more spiritual understandings of Judaism, they tend often to go hand in hand.

All that said I feel it important to point out that these approaches in no way deny each other or cannot be mixed. There are Hassidic books on Musar, as well as some people considered to teach teachings belonging to Musar has been suspected to be “mequbal,” that is, one who practices Kabbalah, such as Maimonides.

Personally I feel somehow between the Musar and the Hassidic approach, leaning to the Musar, but still seeing the need for the correct intentions and motives, as well as having a popular religion, not an elitist religion, only belonging to those sitting and studying its text all day. But that said, looking at how many religious people are behaving today, Jews as well as non-Jews, I believe that there’s a need to focus much more on correct conduct than what is being done now. And not only on what can be called “Duties of the Limbs” – that is, the visible actions, such as praying and keeping strict kosher, or what have you, but rather on the “Duties of the Heart” – that is, having a positive attitude and struggle with the inner commandments, such as love for your fellow human being, being polite, humble, and so on. Or as Maimonides put it, to focus on the “Lifnim Mishurat HaDin” – that is, acting beyond the letter of the law, not only doing exactly what is demanded of us and then stop there, but rather doing more than what is expected of you.

I actually wanted to write this post as an introduction to one, who is considered a great mekubal in our time, R. Avraham HaKohan Kook, Z”L, and present you for some of his writings, as well as telling why I see him as a great inspiration for me, even though I’m more of a Musar-guy than the spiritual “dreamer,” but seeing how much I’ve already written I think that I’ll save that for the next post. But at least I got some basic explanations in place, so hopefully my next post will make that more sense.

A third way(?)


I know that I’ve said earlier that I’m not going to focus much on politics, and I’m intending to keep those words, though only to a certain extent.

The thing is, I live in Israel, in what is popular known as a “settlement”. If you wonder why I’m putting settlement in quotation-marks, then it’s because that the “settlement” I’m living in is basically a city (Ma’aleh Adumim), with more than 35,000 citizens, among them some few Palestinians (yes, you read correctly).

Anyway, I don’t live here based on any kind of ideological motives, especially not that the Palestinians don’t have any rights to live here. I simply live here, because that’s where I’m ended up (more or less, my wife lived here when we got married, and our budget is not to finding an apartment big enough for four people and a dog in Jerusalem or anywhere near Jerusalem – not that I would’ve moved would we have the money, maybe, maybe not).

That said, what bothers me to a certain extent is how Jews and Palestinians in general are being portrayed in relation to each other. Either Jews as evil imperial or colonial settlers, harassing and beating up innocent Palestinians, or Palestinians as fanatic religious extremist with the sole purpose in life being to blow themselves up in the middle of Jewish civilians. Or simply that we hate each other and want each other dead.

There is some truth in the above description, but it is far from the general picture you’ll get when living here. Sure, there are people who want to do everything they can in order to make you believe that, but they are not telling the whole truth, namely that most people here just live, and live together. It has to be added though that it’s not always harmonious or that we hang out together, but it’s not the opposite either.

Anyway, in order to challenge the stereotype presentation of Israel/Palestine, I will once in a while write posts on incidents, groups, organisations, something else, which shows that Jews and Palestinians actually can and in some extent also do live and share lives together. Not only in Tel Aviv or Haifa, but also on the West Bank (or as it is known in Hebrew, Shomron and Yehudah). As far as possible these representations will be nonpolitical, in that sense that it will deal more with the general lives than political discussions. And, if possible, I will invite friends to write posts about their lives here, Jews as well as Palestinians.

The first two incidents I will present is dealing with the Gush Etzion bloc, which is just south-west of Jerusalem, next to Bethlehem. The first is a video presenting the initiative for dialog between Palestinians and settlers in the area (the settlers belonging to R. Froman’s, shelita, group, a group of religious settlers struggling for promoting mutual understanding, acceptance and coexistence.

The other a recent happening, in connection to Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for the trees, just being celebrated, where Jews and Palestinians planted trees together.

But before we get to it then a short word to all of you guys out there only focusing on the negative in the other, and being pessimistic. Yes, Jews can be evil, Palestinians as well, no group of humans has patent on that one. And maybe we don’t see Jews and Palestinians flocking on the street to jump into each other’s arms, wanting peace, but we won’t get peace, if we don’t believe in it.

Enough talk, here you are:

Settlers for Peace on Youtube

Jews, Palestinians Plant Trees Together in West Bank

Note: All opinions expressed in the material is not necessarily the same as my opinions. Nor am I attempting to promote any political opinion, or saying who is right or wrong.

Between Kamza and Bar Kamza – Part II



The next part of the account on Kamtza and Bar Kamtza we are going to deal with, is from the Talmud Bavli, namely in Gitin 55b-56a.

As is the case with the Midrash, also here we have two overarching parts, the one about the banquet, and the one of Bar Kamza’s revenge.


On account of Kamza and Bar Kamza was Jerusalem destroyed.

אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים.

There was a man whose friend was Kamza, and whose enemy was Bar Kamza. He made a banquet, and said to his servant, “God and bring me Kamza.”

דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעיל דבביה בר קמצא עבד סעודתא. אמר ליה לשמעיה: זיל אייתי לי קמצא.

He went and brought him Bar Kamza.

אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא.

He came and saw him sitting there, and said to him:

אתא, אשכחיה דהוה יתיב, אמר ליה:

”Since you are my enemy, what are you looking for here? Get out!

מכדי ההוא גברא בעיל דבביה דההוא גברא הוא, מאי בעית הכא? קום פוק!

He said to him, ”Since I am already here, let me alone, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.”

אמר ליה: הואיל ואתאי, שיבקן, ויבנא לך דמי דאכילנא ושתינא.

He said to him: ”No.”

אמר ליה: לא.

He said to him: ”I will pay you half the cost of the banquet.”

אמר ליה: יהיבנא לך דמי פלגא דסעודתיך.

He said to him: ”No.”

אמר ליה: לא.

He said to him: ”I will pay you the entire cost of the banquet.”

אמר ליה: יהיבנא לך דמי כולא סעודתיך.

He said to him: ”No.”

אמר ליה: לא.

He picked him up and threw him out.

נקטיה בידיה ואפקיה.


He said: ”Since those Rabbis were sitting there and did not protest, I will go and slander them.

אמר: הואיל והוו יתבי רבנן ולא מחו ביה, איזיל איכול בהו קורצא בי מלכא.

He went and said to the king, ”The Jews have revolted against you!”

אזל, אמר ליה לקיסר: מרדו בך יהודאי!

He said to him, ”How can this be proven?”

אמר ליה: מי יימר?

He said to him, ”Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.”

אמר ליה: שדר להו קורבנא, חזית אי מקרבי ליה.

He sent with him a three-year calf.

אזל שדר בידיה עגלא תלתא.


As he went, he placed a blemish on the lip (some say, the eyelid) – a place which is a blemish for us, but not for them.

בהדי דקאתי, שדא ביה מומא בניב שפתים (ואמרי לה: בדוקין שבעין) – דוכתא דלדידן מומא, ולדידהו לאו מומא.

The Rabbis considered offering it as a sacrifice for the peace of the kingdom.

סבור רבנן לקרוביה משום שלום מלכות.

R. Zechariah b. Avqulos said to them, ”They will say, ’Blemished animals are (permitted) to be offered on the altar’!”

אמר להו ר’ זכריה בן אבקולס: יאמרו, בעלי מומין קרבין לגבי מזבח.

They considered killing him[1], so he would not go and tell

סבור למיקטליה דלא ליזיל ולימא.

R. Zechariah b. Avqulos said to them, ”They will say, ’He who puts a blemish on a sacrificial animal deserves the death penalty’!”

אמר להו ר’ זכריה בן אבקולס: יאמרו: מטיל מום בקדשים יהרג.


R. Yohanan said, ”The timidity of R. Zechariah b. Avqulos destroyed our house, burned our Temple, and exiled us from our land.”

אמר ר’ יוחנן: ענוותנותו של ר’ זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו.



What is going on?


A man, who has a friend, Kamza, and an enemy, Bar Kamza, decides to hold a banquet, and wishes to invite his friend, Kamza. His servants misunderstands and thinks that he asks for Bar Kamza, and brings him instead. When the man hosting the banquet sees Bar Kamza, he wonders why his enemy is there. In order to mock him maybe? He then tells him to leave, something Bar Kamza attempts to convince him is not needed, first by stating that he will pay for his meal, then for half the banquet, and then for all the banquet, but the man hosting the banquet is adamant.

Upon being thrown out, Bar Kamza feels let down by the Rabbis, who are apparently taking part in the banquet, not objecting on the man hosting the banquet being obstinate, so he goes to the “king” (the Aramaic text has Qaisar, how to precisely translate this term I am not so sure) and accuses “the Jews” for having revolted, something he wants to prove by bringing a sacrifice, which he will make sure will be rejected.

Being faced with the blemished sacrifice, and the obvious threat against peace in refusing to bring the sacrifice, the Rabbis discuss whether they should offer it anyway “for the peace of the kingdom.” R. Zechariah jumps in an disagree, stating that that would make people think that blemished animals are permitted for sacrifice,” an argument the Rabbis apparently accept, for then to discuss whether they should kill Bar Kamza, again having R. Zechariah objecting, stating that that would make people think that there is a death penalty on putting blemishes on animals.

The text ends with R. Yohanan stating that the timidity of R. Zechariah was the cause of the destruction of “their house,”[2] the Temple, as well as the exile, though the introducing verse states that it is because of the confusion of Kamza and Bar Kamza.


[1] Bar Kamza.

[2] I am not sure what is meant by ”our house” here, since the Temple is mentioned also, but I’m thinking that it might be a reference to the Sanhedrin, the religious high court, which was situated at the Temple.

Between Bar Kamza and Bar Kamzora


Though it’s not totally related to the former comparative studies of the Talmuds, this post is sort of related, though the comparison will be between a story, as it is presented in the Eichah Rabbah 4,2 (Midrash to Lamentations) and in Talmud Bavli, Gittin 55b-56a.

The story is about why the second Temple was destroyed, or at least so it appears. The two stories do put weight on different details though, and these details interest me, so I thought it fitting to share it with the rest of you. In order to make it easier to read and keep it somewhat concise, I will go through it three parts, first presenting the Midrash, then the text from the Talmud, and then finally comparing them.

Now, the Eichah Rabbah is – as the Talmud – a rabbinic text, being one of the oldest Midrashim, from the first part of the fifth century, so it’s dating from the same time as the Talmud more or less, which makes the two approaches to the story even more interesting.

I’m not sure whether the whole account presented in the Midrash is authored at the same time, since three of the sentences are written in Hebrew, whereas the rest of the account is written in Aramaic. I’ll point it out when we get there. The Midrashic account goes like this:

A tale is told of one of the wealthy men of Jerusalem who made a banquet, inviting everyone.

מעשה באדם אחד מגדולי ירושלים שעשה סעודה והיזמין את הכל.

He said to his servant, “Go and bring me my friend Bar Kamza.”

אמ’ לטלייה: זיל ואייתי לי בר כמצא רחמי.

He went and brought him his enemy, Bar Kamzora.

אזל ואייתי ליה בר כמצורא סנאיה.

He entered (the banquet) and found him sitting among the guests.

על ואשכחיה דיתיב בין אריסטייה.

He said to him, “Get up and get out of here.”

אמ’ ליה: קום פוק לך מן הכה.

He replied, “I will pay the cost of the meal; but don’t throw me out in shame.”

אמ’ ליה: אנא יהב טימי דסעודה ולא תפקין בבוסרן.

He said to him, “You have no choice but to get out of here.”

אמ’ ליה: לית אפשר דלא נפקת מן הבא.

He replied, “I will pay for the entire banquet; but don’t throw me out in shame.”

אמ’ ליה: אנא יהב טימי כל הדין אריצטון ולא תפקין בבוסרן.

He said to him, “You have no choice but to get out of here.”

אמ’ ליה: לית אפשר דלא נפקת מן הבא.

He replied, “I will pay you double; but don’t throw me out in shame.”

אמ’ ליה: אנא יהב בדיפלה ולא תפקין בבוסרן.

He said to him, “You have no choice but to get out of here.”

אמ’ ליה: לית אפשר דלא נפקת מן הבא.

R. Zecharia b. Avqulos, who was capable of protesting, was there, but he didn’t protest.

והיה שם ר’ זכריה בר אבקליס שהיה ספיק בידו למחות ולא מיחה.

Upon leaving, he said, “I get thrown out in shame, and let them sit there in peace?!”

מן דנפיק אמ’: מה אנה נפק בבוסרן ושביק להון יתבין שליות!?

He went down to the king; and said to him,

נחת ליה לגב מלכה.

“Those sacrifices that you send them – they eat them.”

אזל ואמ’ ליה: אילין קורבניא דאת משלח להון – אינון אכלין להון.

He rebuked him saying, “That’s slander; you wish to denigrate them.”

נזף ביה. ואמ’ ליה: מילא בישא אמרת, דאת בעי למימר שם ביש עליהון.

He said to him, “Send the sacrifices with me, and send along a trustworthy man, and you’ll find out the truth.”

אמ’ ליה: שלח עימי קורבניאושלח עימי ברנש מהימן ואת קיים על קושטא.

He sent a trustworthy man with him along with the sacrifices.

שלח עימיה ברנש מהימן ושלח עימיה קורבניא.

He arose at night and placed unnoticeable blemished on (the sacrifices).

קם הוא בליליה ויהב בהון מומין דלא מנכרין.

When the priest saw them, he didn’t offer them as sacrifice, saying,

כיון דחמא יתהון כהנא לא קריבינון

“I’m not offering them (now); tomorrow I will offer them.”

אמ’ ליה: לית אנה מקריב להון, מחר אנה מקריב להון.

A day went by, and he didn’t offer them; another day went by, and he didn’t offer them.

אתא יומא ולא קריבינון. אתא יומא ולא קריבינון.

At which he sent word to the king, “What that Jew told you is true.”

מיד שלח ואמ’ למלכא: ההיא מילתא דאמר לך ההוא יהודאה קשיט הוא.

Immediately he sent out to destroy the Temple.

מיד שלח ואחריב היכלה.

That is what people say, “Between Kamza and Kamzora was the sanctuary destroyed.”

היא דא דביריאתא אמרין: בין כמצא ובין כמצורא חרב מקדשא.

R. Yose said, “The timidity of R. Zecharia b. Avqulos burned down the temple.”

א’ ר’ יוסי: עינוונות של ר’ זכריה בר אבקליס היא רפה את היכל.

We have a number of persons being presented for us here: A man being among the upper class in Jerusalem, his servant, Bar Kamza, Bar Kamzora, R. Zecharia b. Avqulos, the king, and the priest.

The priest is most likely R. Zecharia b. Avqulos, who himself was a priest[1], which would explain R. Yose’s statement being stated here in two forms.

What is going on here? We see the wealthy man, without name, wanting to make a banquet. He tells his servant to bring an invitation to his friend, Bar Kamza, but by mistake the servants confuses Bar Kamza and Bar Kamzora, who then comes instead. When the man sees Bar Kamzora, he tells him to leave, something that is shameful to Bar Kamzora, and he in return offers to pay for his meal, the banquet and double the price of the banquet, but to no vain. Apparently that is too much for him, so he decides to bring them in discredit with the king, who at first doesn’t believe in his intentions, but accept to check out if Bar Kamzora’s claim, that the guests are eating the king’s sacrifices, instead of sacrificing them, is really true. At night Bar Kamzora makes blemishes on the sacrifices, making them unfit for sacrifices. When checking the animals, the priest denies to sacrifice them, but instead of stating that outright and explain why, he tells them that he will do it the next day, which he does not do in the end. After a couple of days, the man going with Bar Kamzora, returns to the king and tells him that Bar Kamzora was right, which angers the king enough to send people out to destroy the Temple.

There are some notes that have to be added here.

  • The king is most likely the Roman prefect.
  • Regarding the sacrifices, when they were brought to the Temple, they had to be without wounds. Even a small unseeing wound, would be enough to render it unfit for slaughter. It was practice to bring sacrifices for the Roman emperors during the time of the Second Temple, not for his divinity, but for his success and health.
  • The first verse, and the two verses mentioning R. Zecharia b. Avqulos are in Hebrew, whereas the rest of the text is in Aramaic. I have a feeling that the Hebrew verses are put in later, in order to give a teaching, though the sentences themselves might be older than the text, at least the ones about R. Zecharia. We see for example a version of the texts, which appears in the Tosefta (in tractate Shabbat 21:3), though in a slightly different version and a different context.

If we leave out the Hebrew parts, then the text is stating that the confusion between Bar Kamza and Bar Kamzora is what brought the destruction of the Temple, though one could point to Bar Kamzora’s need for revenge, the wealthy man’s stubbornness, or the priest’s lack of explaining what was wrong (and, I might guess, though it probably is influenced by me being rather moderate in comparison, the king’s overreaction on the news).

With the Hebrew text though, the “blame” changes, being more or less directly and totally put on R. Zecharia, who first didn’t react to the humiliation of Bar Kamzora, and later was overly zealous in his denying to bring the sacrifice to the altar.

Saying all this I have to admit that there are points which I haven’t dealt with, which I have somehow answered, based on material and knowledge I haven’t shared with you yet, but that will come from the coming posts, so bear over with me.

All the best

[1] See for example Josephus’ ”War of the Jews,” where he mentions ”a certain Zacharia, son of Amphicalleus, being of priestly descent.” The Hebrew name of the rabbi is ‘ben Avqalis’ or “son of Avqalis,” which in its Latin form is changed to Amphicalleus.