We are now in the midst of the "three weeks"
preceding Tisha Be'av, when we mourn the destruction of the ancient
Temple in Jerusalem. The sages of the Talmud state that the Temple was
destroyed due to sinat hinam - baseless, or gratuitous, hatred within the Jewish people.
expression is a bit anomalous, especially for a social scientist
trained to assume that people have reasons for everything. I would like
to present one explanation for both the term and the phenomenon,
drawing on the resources of ethics and social science.
One obvious benefit of hate is to induce us to protect
ourselves from harmful individuals, people who it would be dangerous to
be near. This could be because they are actually trying to harm us
(such as a mugger or a terrorist), or because they are liable to
influence our behavior in a way we identify as harmful (such as a dope
There is nothing baseless or gratuitous about hatred like this.
But there are still isolated individuals who manage to rise above even
this very practical kind of hatred - people such as Bruria, who taught
we should hate only the sin, not the sinner.
However, another benefit of hate is to improve the
cohesiveness of some social group. It is a short step from noticing
that adversity increases solidarity to realizing that inciting
adversity may be a useful tool for bolstering solidarity within some
Such "instrumental" hatred is not gratuitous in the sense of
being without benefit or reason, but it is gratuitous in the sense that
the object of hatred isn't being hated because of any particular
iniquity. Rather, the chosen enemy just happens to be in the wrong
place at the wrong time - a time and a place where hating somebody
happens to be useful.
(Rashi's definition of baseless hatred: "He
didn't find any sin in him for which it would be permissible to hate
him, and [even so] he hates him.")
Of course, hating people has costs as well: there are immense
benefits to cooperation and friendship, which tend to be destroyed by
outbursts of hatred. For this reason, we would expect that instrumental
hatred would be particularly cultivated when its object is powerless to
One instance would be a powerless alien group, such as the Jews
in exile. Jews often wonder what it is about them that arouses the
scourge of anti-Semitism almost everywhere they wander. But it need not
be anything in particular that Jews do; sometimes it is just useful to
hate someone, and the Jews are a convenient someone. It's nothing
(Remember the kindly Constable in Fiddler on the Roof?
"Just some mischief, so if an inspector comes through, he can see we
did our duty. I don't know why there has to be this trouble between
people. But I thought I should tell you.")
Almost the opposite can take place in a free society.
Fortunately, in a free society, innocent identity groups cannot be
oppressed merely because they are different. But it can also be
difficult to prevent a group from cementing its own solidarity by
relating to its host society as a whole, or to some competing subgroup,
as "the great Satan" or the like. There may be no particular trait
arousing enmity and suspicion; it's just a matter of convenience and
nothing personal. In other words, it is sinat hinam.
I believe such "instrumental hatred" between factions was
responsible 2,000 years ago for corroding the Jewish polity and the
last remnants of Jewish sovereignty, those collective institutions that
enabled the Temple to survive. I also believe both kinds of
instrumental hatred - that from without, if we are too powerless, and
that from within, if we are too divided - have the potential to
threaten our collective survival again.
Most of all, I am convinced that if we are wise enough to heed
the message of our sages, and recognize the unique nature and the
unique threat of this special, seemingly gratuitous type of enmity, we
can keep it to a minimum and continue to thrive as a united society.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center
of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of
Technology (Machon Lev).