Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A Tisha B’Av Lesson on the Historical Method

Since today is the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the two temples and a host of other tragedies, I decided to offer a brief lesson in the historical method using the destruction of the second temple. To explain why the temple was destroyed the Talmud tells the following story of Kamtz and Bar Kamtza.

There was a man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. This man made a feast and told his servant to bring Kamtza. The servant made a mistake and brought Bar Kamtza. The man found Bar Kamtza sitting at the feast and asked him to leave. Bar Kamtza offered to pay for his meal. The man refused. Bar Kamtza offered to pay for half of the entire feast, but the man still refused. Bar Kamtza finally offered to pay for the entire feast. The men would not even consent to this and threw Bar Kamtza out. Bar Kamtza decided that since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not protest they must have supported it. He decided to take revenge by libeling them before Ceasar. He went and told Caesar that the Jews were rebelling. Caesar asked him how he knew this. Bar Kamtza suggested that he send the Jews a sacrifice and see if they bring it. Caesar sent, in Bar Kamtza’s hands, a calf. Bar Kamtza took a needle and pierced the calf’s lip, thus making a blemish. Upon examining the calf, rabbis were uncertain as to how to respond. Some wanted to bring it in order to preserve peace with Rome. Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkulos, though, argued against this saying that people would come to think that it is permissible to bring blemished animals. The rabbis then suggested that they kill Bar Kamtza in order to silence him. Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkulos would not allow this either lest people think that bringing blemished animals carries the death penalty. The sacrifice was not brought and because of this Rome attacked Judea and destroyed the temple. (See Talmud Bavli Gittin 55b-56a.)

As a historian I am required to follow the historical method of examining texts. Amongst many other things, this method requires that one privilege texts written close to a given historical event and treat texts written long afterwards with extreme caution. Closely connected to this is the notion that written texts are to be privileged over oral traditions. The rule of thumb when dealing with oral traditions is that they have a shelf life of seventy years, beyond that they become legends. Even more important than what texts you read, is how you read them. Amongst other things, the historian needs to have a good sense as to how a literary narrative is likely to sound and how it differs from a historical narrative. For example, having a war break out because the queen of one country fell in love with the prince of another country makes for an exciting romantic story, but does not confirm very well to real life experience. For this reason Herodotus, who was willing to accept a lot of strange claims, thought the Homer’s explanation as to why the Trojan War started, Helen of Sparta running off with Paris of Troy, was unlikely.

This is not to say that texts written close to the event are true and those written later are false. I do not claim that accurate oral traditions cannot be transmitted over hundreds of years. Also, I readily admit that truth is often stranger than fiction and stories that sound like fiction may in fact be true. All that this means is that, as a historian, one cannot grant much authority to such types of evidence. As a former teacher of mine once said: history is not about the search for truth, it is about verifiability. One can think of history as intellectual game that we play in which we follow the historical method of analyzing evidence, mainly texts, and see what sorts of directions this evidence points to. Whether or not what comes out is in some objective sense the Truth, is a separate issue that has nothing to do with history; let philosophers and theologians worry about such things.

I make no claim as to whether the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza actually happened or not. The historical method, though, does not allow me to give it much credence. The Talmud was written hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple. Even more damning is the fact that this story has the ring of a fable to it. A man has a friend and an enemy whose names are almost identical and accidently invites the enemy instead of the friend. This enemy offers to pay the man a fortune in order to let him stay, but the man hates him so much that he refuses. This enemy becomes so bitter that he decides to take revenge against his entire people. To do this he travels from Judea to Rome, no small feat in the first century, and gets an audience with Caesar, also no small feat. Caesar, having nothing better to do than to listen to the ravings of a malcontent and conduct meaningless tests to discern the loyalty of a small province in the Middle East, decides to go along with what this man suggests. The plot works perfectly. The rabbis do not bring the sacrifice and Caesar, having nothing better to do with his legions, decides to launch a full scale invasion. A bunch of people decide to go to war and no one bothers to sit down, talk things over and negotiate. Is all of this quite possible? Certainly. But what does this story sound like? Does it sound like a real historical event or does it sound like the story that people, hundreds of years later, would tell about a historical event, dramatic with a nice moral lesson attached to it? As a historian, one must go with the later.

This has important implications as to how one looks at the history books put out by Haredi publishing houses such as Artscroll and Feldheim. When authors of Haredi history books report stories found in rabbinic literature as historical fact, such as the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, they are not simply offering their own interpretation of history, to be put alongside academic history as a legitimate alternative. They are not following the historical method. As such what they write is not history and these authors cannot be viewed as historians.

1 comment:

סֵפֶר "Bar Kamtza. 2007" said...

Here were raised intelligent and important questions - but they were asked about the literal meaning (פשט) of the legend - and it makes disaster!

We are MUST DECRYPT the literal meaning of the legends of the Talmud!

Who is Bar Kamtza??? Here is the answer: