Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rabbi Zekharia ben Avqulas Revisited (II)

There is, as some of the commentors have noted, another version of the story of R. Zekharia b, Avqulos. It is found in Midrash Eikha Rabba (IV, 3 s.v. מעשה). This version haunts me more than the previous one. In light of this past week's scandals, I find it all the more terrifying.

In the telling of the Midrash, the story is largely like that in the Talmud. There is, however, one exception. R. Zekharia b. Avqulos was actually present when Bar Qamtza pleaded with Qamtza not to humiliate him to no avail. The Midrash comments: והיה שם רבי זכריה בן אבקולס והיתה סיפק בידו למחות ולא מיחהת, 'And R. Zekharia b. Avqulos was there, and he could have protested, but he did not.' Seeing the moral timidity, the ethical obtuseness, of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos, Bar Qamtza concocted his scheme to avenge himself, with its tragic results. It was regarding this sin that the Midrash concludes: 'R. Zekharia b. Avqulos' diffidence (ענוותנותו) set fire to the Temple.'

In this version, R. Zekharia's sin was less dramatic, but no less lethal. He simply minded his own business. He was, after all, a guest. How could he intrude upon his host's decision? Perhaps he depended upon his host for financial support for himself, or the educational institutions with which he was affiliated. Perhaps he didn't particularly like Bar Qamtza, whose personality and character were less than stellar, judging from his subsequent actions. Whatever the case, R. Zekharia saw no reason to invoke his moral authority in order to intervene and prevent the abject humiliation of another person.

It was that raw insensitivity, moral obtuseness, smug self-satisfaction, paternalist sense of superiority which enraged Bar Qamtza. Rabbis, it would appear, can forego basic etiquette and ethical conduct when convenient. That kind of sacrilege, that mode of חילול השם sent Bar Qamtza over the edge and we are paying the price to this day.

I keep thinking about the deep seated moral rot that is eating away at the Orthodox Community (across its full spectrum), and the still too quiet ranks of its 'spiritual leadership'. Orthodox Jewish leaders number far too many R. Zekharia b. Avquloses. Too many laypeople and rabbis are blaming the informant (who, admittedly is a lowlife and should also join the Daf Yomi in Danbury Deferal Penitentiary). Too many people are rolling their eyes and speaking of the accused clergy (sic!) as exceptions. Yes, if they did these things; if they desecrated the Holy Name of He who Spoke and Created the World, then they are exceptional...rogues, criminals and traitors to Torah and everything Torah stands for.

I kept thinking about the decay in our community, but my thoughts were best expressed by the brilliant young Rav in whose community I spent last Shabbat. In a carefully presented, chillingly calm address, he straightforwardly noted that if the extremes exhibit decay, it is because the body politic is gravely ill. He noted several ills: 1) The Orthodox community has no idea of the value of money or its proper use 2) The recent economic power and success of the community has gone to its head. It no longer cares what anyone thinks of it 3) The Orthodox community has a sense of entitlement that allows it to expect things without willingness to pay. 4) The Orthodox Community has lost any sense of Qiddush HaShem or Hillul HaShem.

To this, I would add that the Orthodox Community has undergone a self-inflicted labotomy which excised its sense of moral responsibility or its ability to take responsibility. It refuses to take responsibility for deviant behavior at all its levels. It refuses to protect the Agunah, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It rolls its eyes when confronted with the poverty its own system has created. It averts its eyes when people are different. Herdlike, it runs after the most insipid legal stricture, while ignoring the departure of so many of its children from the path of Torah and mitzvot. The list goes on, but its already been written by Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah.

So, with Tisha B'Av looming before us, in a world in which Jewish security is more imperilled than it has been in decades, I am waiting for the shepherds of Israel to summarily and vocally reject the legacy of R. Zekharia b. Avqulos. No buts. No 'you sees'. No 'I don't understand.' It is time for moral root canal. Without our moral bearings, we are left with nothing.

I recall a story that is told of the Rav זצ"ל. A rabbi once told him that if he did not avail himself of some illegal fiscal 'slight of hand' he would be forced to close his yeshiva.
Rav Solovitchik replied: 'Then close the Yeshiva!'


Nachum said...

The third mention of R' Zechariah's name is also interesting: He chose to be more machmir than both Beit Hillel *and* Beit Shammai in matters of muktza. That is, even "chamur" wasn't good enough for him; he had to make a special rule for himself.

The analogy is pretty clear.

Gregg Stern said...


Isn't this problem built into the very fabric of halakhic Judaism? Its just so easy to focus on the formal side of things -- as its so important -- than to be convinced that there's some goal to be acheived beyond the letter of the law. You yourself must have recourse to midrashim to make your point.

The Rav's questioner thought that he had presented an air-tight ad absurdum argument and probably did not understand why he said to close the yeshiva, or would not have agreed to do it.

Ed said...

In a discussion with a brilliant Rabbi (Eliezer Cohen) we found that Orthodoxy today thinks we are on the road in order to obey the traffic laws, rather than to get somewhere.
Very obediently, we spin our wheels and are of little help to fellow travelers.

Ed Codish said...

Much of Orthodox Judaism now "focus(es) on the formal side of things," as Greg Stern wrote. We have forgotten purpose. It as as if, as I suggested to a brilliant student (Rabbi Eliezer Cohen) of the Rav we drove through our lives intent only on observing the traffic laws, ignoring our aims and destinations. We will thus be safe, but will be of no use to fellow journeyers.