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The Hero of Tisha B’Av?

Was the humble Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos the real hero of the destruction story?
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Who is the hero of the Tisha B’Av story told in the Gemara?

Excuse me – hero?

Chanukah, Purim, we can talk about heroes. But Tisha B’Av? There are no heroes. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, and we were thrown into a two millennia-long exile.

The Gemara details the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. An unnamed man throws a party intending to invite his friend Kamtza, but there is a mix-up, and his enemy Bar Kamtza receives the invitation and shows up at the party. Kamtza we never hear from. The host of the party wrongs Bar Kamtza, who then does wrong in return. The rabbis at the party do wrong by remaining silent. Who, then, could be the hero?

Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos!

Excuse me once again. Is it not the case that at the end of the tragic story the Gemara tells us the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of the misdirected humility of Rabbi Avkulos? He was perhaps the worst villain of the entire story. He had the power to save us, but stood in the way. And yet, in our day, it seems, he has been elevated to the status of a hero.

How is this so? How can it be so? What did Rabbi Avkulos do (or not do)? And why would anyone praise or emulate such behavior?

According to the story, the Beis HaMikdash is threatened by the actions of Bar Kamtza. The rabbis propose various solutions – accepting the imperfect offering from the Romans, having Bar Kamtza killed – and each time Rabbi Avkulos comes up with a reason not to go along – because of what people might say, that they might mistake an emergency measure for what is permitted normally. The sense of the story is that the rabbis’ decision must be unanimous and that this one dissenting voice prevents any proposed action to save the Beis HaMikdash and the Jews.

My understanding of the story and its conclusion is not that Rabbi Avkulos countered the other rabbis with bold, principled arguments, but rather that his “humility” made him afraid to agree with these rabbis. Just as he feared what people might say about the Torah, it appears he feared that people might judge him unfavorably as one who did not uphold the truth of Torah.

This fear and unwillingness to make a tough decision and take responsibility is what led to a blow against Torah Jewry, for centuries until today. The solutions proposed by the rabbis were surely imperfect, but any one of them might have saved the Beis HaMikdash, along with the Jews of Jerusalem and Israel. (A midrashic account further indicts Rabbi Avkulos by placing him at the party and remaining silent while witnessing the host’s abuse of Bar Kamtza.)

Sadly, it appears the approach of Rabbi Avkulos is one that is valued by many in our own time. Have we not all heard accounts of some rabbis of our generation who say one thing in private and another in public – admitting in private that they hold one way but that they could never state as such in public for fear of what others might think or say about them? And how many – rabbis and laypersons alike – have remained silent (and even encouraged silence) when made aware of sexual abuse or other crimes or corruption?

It is said that each generation that fails to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash is as if it has destroyed it. Let us then imagine the same situation in our world. What percentage of our rabbinic leaders, placed in the position of Rabbi Avkulos, would agree and commit to the difficult decision to save the Beis HaMikdash? In our day, when chumras (stringencies) are recast by some as basic halachic obligations, and when a great deal of pride is taken in being the most machmir, what percentage would refuse to sign on to such a weighty decision out of “humility,” worrying that they would be endorsing a leniency, a kulah? And thus the irony of the very name Avkulos – the “father of leniencies” – who will not allow his name to be associated with a kulah, even one designed to save lives and the Beis HaMikdash!

Perhaps I have spoken too strongly here in an effort to draw distinctions and make a point. Certainly many (hopefully most) rabbis do not emulate the behavior of Rabbi Avkulos – some simply do not live up to the honor of the title and bring disgrace upon themselves and the office. And there remain many bold rabbis, leaders with vision, who act thoughtfully and decisively without fearing damage to their own reputations or honor.

In this season of the Three Weeks, as we approach Tisha B’Av, perhaps it is worth re-examining the story told in the Gemara and the version found in the Midrash, and particularly the role of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos. I might even humbly suggest that in an effort to correct the failings that led to the churban, the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, it perhaps is the task of our leaders and of our generation to declare publicly that Rabbi Avkulos was no hero; that his behavior ought not be emulated; that none of us, rabbis included, should fear to say in public what we acknowledge in private; and that we do what is upright regardless of the potential consequences for our reputations and honor.

In such an effort we will recognize many true heroes.

About the Author: Alan Krinsky is a senior analyst in the field of healthcare quality improvement. He is also a writer who was previously a monthly columnist for Rhode Island’s Jewish Voice & Herald and whose essays have been published in print and online by a number of publications. He lives with his family in Providence where he currently serves as president of Congregation Beth Sholom.


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