How the Social Fabric Can Unravel
And how every single one of us is a thread in it
For the past few weeks, we’ve been studying the quintessential tenet of the Torah: unconditional self-worth as the starting point for unconditionally respecting other human beings and building a healthy, thriving society.
Today, on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, we will study what happens to a society that loses this sacred value of self-worth. Warning: it’s a bit longer than our usual reflections, but I think a day like today asks of us to reflect even a bit more than we usually do.
It feels to me like we’ve been living in the uncomfortable atmosphere of the three weeks for quite some time. While COVID has put strains on just about every human on our planet, a closer look reveals a world that has been strained and stretched from much earlier.
In New York City, at the height of COVID, the impatience of some people towards perfect strangers for how they would wore their masks or how close to them they were standing was particularly disturbing to my wife and I. It seemed clear to us that these weren’t merely unusual phenomenon under unusual stresses, but rather cranked-up preexisting tensions on the threads of human interconnectivity in the perennially frenetic city that doesn’t sleep (and sometimes barely breathes).
A broader vista of the United States shows a degeneration in our ability to hold social discourse on any issue from the environment to racial bias to religious beliefs. One hates to say it, but this trend seems to be going from bad to worse.
The social fabric in which we exist should not be taken for granted. It can get tenuous, and God forbid, it can tear, or unravel entirely.
Put more dramatically, but also more accurately, virtually all civilizations throughout human history have either collapsed suddenly or dissolved gradually.
More precisely still, in the words of historian Arnold Toynbee:
“Great civilizations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.”
Collapsology, the interdisciplinary study of how societies fall apart is now “a thing.” Here is scholar and author Jared Diamond’s TED talk on it. Additionally, here is an interesting but scary follow-up to a 1972 MIT model of social collapse applied to the concerning series of social signals in our world since then.
Jewish society is sadly not an exception to this grim anthropological phenomenon. On at least five major occasions that I can think of, our society has violently self-destructed — all while ignoring the calls of the prophets in those times who spoke against the social and moral diseases that were the causes of our demise.
I suppose what is unusual about Jewish society is that although we have tragically lost millions of individuals in the process, as a society, we survive our own self-destruction.
It seems that the same God Who allows us from time to time to self-destruct is waiting for us to learn lessons and not repeat this excruciating process indefinitely. Perhaps these lessons are worth studying by all modern societies. Not exactly the image of “light unto the nations” that we aspire to be, but a light that emerges from darkness nonetheless.
There is a well-known episode depicted in the Talmud, commonly known as “The Story of Kamtza & Bar Kamtza,” which is usually taken as a vignette of how our ancient society unraveled two millennia ago due to “baseless hatred.”
Interestingly, hatred is actually a reason given for our downfall in a totally different volume of the Talmud.If, however, we read this episode of Kamtza & Bar Kamtza without this reason in mind, we will discover that the Talmud is not simply illustrating what hatred looks like, but is pointing at “the problem behind the problem” — what leads us to descend into the abyss of indifference, apathy and ultimately hatred towards one another?
Additionally, if this is true, it would turn out that “baseless hatred” has a reason, and a sort of basis. What is this basis for baseless hatred, and why would the Sages call it “baseless” if there’s an underlying reason to it?
The story is worth reading in its entirety, but in brief, a man gets mistakenly invited to a party where he was unwanted. The host cruelly ejects him despite his pleading to be allowed to stay. The rabbis in attendance who watched the whole thing did nothing to stop this man’s humiliation, driving him to irrationally bring down the entire Jewish establishment through an elaborate sabotage through the Office of the Roman Caesar, turning the Roman Government against the Jews of Judaea. The High Priest would have stopped the sabotage from wreaking havoc if he would have taken a bold stance, but he failed to do so, and so, the Talmud concludes that it was the “[false] humility” of this High Priest that most immediately led to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and the exile of our nation.
While the social atmosphere described is certainly charged with disdain and perhaps one would call it “hatred,” the Talmud, according to Rabbi Meir Triebitz, is actually pointing at the source of the issue:
The host of the party did not have the fortitude of character to tolerate or at least ignore the presence of his unwanted guest. The humiliated guest did not have the self-respect to leave with his dignity intact, or simply to not accept the obviously mistaken invitation from his arch-nemesis in the first place.
All of this, of course, is on the backdrop of a cliquey, society of socialites of “my friend’s enemy is my enemy” that produces such high-school-esque pettiness in the first place.
At the same time, the rabbis — the supposed moral leaders of their community — sat glued to their seats, incapable of standing up and speaking out against the grievous shaming of this person before their eyes. This man, who was understandably hurt by the episode, went so far as to snitch to the Roman emperor against his own people to vindicate his badly bruised ego. And finally, the High Priest’s “humility” was not humility at all, but rather, a lack of confidence to take a controversial position. His meekness jeopardized the safety of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the entire Land of Israel, ultimately leading to their destruction and exile.
This nuclear chain reaction was enabled by people who did not believe in themselves enough to face adversity.
The Talmud is showing us a case study of how the social threads of the social fabric unwind so that we don’t repeat it.
Every one of us is a thread of the social fabric that sustains us all. The fabric can only be as strong as we are ourselves.
Baseless hatred has a basis: a total lack of self-esteem.
It rests on the vacuum of nothingness inside the person.
On his or her utter lack of self-worth.
It is baseless indeed.
In the end, no one took responsibility for his actions. Everyone was left with a finger pointed somewhere else. The host blamed either his “incompetent assistant” who invited the wrong person, or this unwanted guest for crashing his party. The bystander rabbis perhaps blamed their circumstances for being unable to take a position that would make them unpopular among the prominent people at the party. The unwanted guest, interestingly, seemed to blame those rabbis on the sidelines for their passivity (as opposed to the host who kicked him out). And the High Priest blamed an “impossible situation” for taking a weak position on what to do.
We must begin by asking ourselves if we believe this assessment to be accurate. If so, we have do everything we can to fortify ourselves and those around us — our spouses, our children, our friends, our coworkers, our employees, our clients and customers, our neighbors, our students, and those we mentor formally or informally. We must fortify our strands in the social fabric with awareness of our infinite worth and capabilities. In so doing, we must take responsibility for our own shortcomings and protect ourselves and others from the toxicity of alienation and blame, which are the hallmarks of the hollow pit of hatred in the human heart.
If we do all of this, there is no doubt that we will protect our present and future society from being torn asunder again.
This week’s XL was adapted from an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Nurture their Nature, which is essentially a guided tour through original sources throughout the Jewish library about the sacredness of the individual and his or her individuality. It is available on Amazon.