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We are now in that part of the Jewish year known as the Three Weeks, or Bein HaMetzarim. The Three Weeks begin on the fast day of 17 Tammuz, the day the Romans breached Jerusalem’s city walls, and end with another fast day – Tisha B’Av, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Between the two fasts is a time of mourning for many Jews, intensifying as we get closer to the day of the Temple’s destruction. Many observe customs such as not wearing new clothes or listening to music. Special passages from the Prophets are read in the synagogue, foreshadowing the fall of Jerusalem.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis grappled with what it meant to be Jews in a post-Temple world. They asked what sin on the part of the Jewish people could possibly have caused such destruction. The Talmud offers several possible explanations, but the most common is that the Temple was destroyed due to ‘baseless hatred’[1]. Baseless hatred, it goes on to say, is as severe a sin as idol worship or bloodshed.

What is ‘baseless hatred’? Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin wrote that it refers to wrongly treating others as heretics because they behave differently to oneself.[2] This narrow intolerance and misplaced righteousness is not in accord with God’s wishes.

It is easy to see how the rabbis identified baseless hatred in the Second Temple period. The time was characterised by the intense animosity between Jewish groups, both religious and political. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, early followers of Jesus, and others fought for control of the Temple and the people’s hearts and minds, their arguments often breaking out into physical violence. Meanwhile, the political tensions led to the rise of the groups such as the Sicarii, who set out to kill fellow Jews with whom they disagreed. From a historical perspective, Jewish infighting undoubtedly aided the Romans in the destruction of Jerusalem.

The understanding of the rabbis is that if a sin led to the destruction of the Temple, doing the opposite of that sin will lead to its restitution. On this basis, the medieval sage Ibn Ezra said that to restore the Temple one must do the opposite of ‘baseless hatred’, and observe the commandment to love one’s neighbour.

Bein HaMetzarim, the period of the Three Weeks, literally means ‘between the straits’. The name comes from Lamentations 1:3:

‘Judah has gone into exile because of misery and harsh oppression; when she settled among the nations, she found no rest; all her pursuers overtook her between the straits.’

It is not only the time of year which can make us feel that we are living between calamities, between the straits. We live in a time of increased populism and polemic, with rising fears both within and outside our communities. Fears can often turn into hatred of the other, and differences can breed divisions. In our communities and in our country, we risk polarisation and fragmentation.

In this difficult time, it is easy to condemn others for their actions, or to decide that someone else’s behaviour does not measure up to our own standards of morality. But we must remember that differences are not always difficulties, and that diversity is not heresy. We may have different understandings of religion, of observance, and of God. Nonetheless, we must not only respect and tolerate one another, but go forward into the world and love our neighbours.

Jessica Spencer

Programme Manager

[1] Yoma 9b

[2] HaAmek Davar, Introduction to Genesis