On Tisha be-Av
Here we are again, like every year, Tisha beAv approaches. It begins this evening. As always, it is up to the rabbis to explain what it is about, what we commemorate and all the rest.
It is hardly surprising that Tisha beAv is the least observed Jewish recurrence in the Diaspora and in Israel too.
There are trivial reasons. It’s the saddest day of the year, and nobody likes to be sad. Nobody wants to remember tragedies such as these commemorated on this date. The destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem by the hand of the Babylonians, and the destruction of the second Temple, by the hands of the Romans. Then all catastrophes of Jewish history, of which there are plenty. The Crusades, the expulsions from England, the expulsion from Spain, the blood libels, the pogroms, World War I … tragedies which Rabbis and commentators have found -often creatively- a way to link to this mournful date.
So, that is the first problem. No one likes being sad, and this is a sombre day. It is the day when all the possible reasons for sadness have been stuffed together to give us reasons to cry, mourn, and be sad for a full day.
It is fast, and this also is a problem. No one likes to fast, obviously. But we also fast on Yom Kippur, or at least we try. And Yom Kippur is by large the most attended of the Jewish holidays, So what is the problem with the fast of Tisha be Av? Perhaps the answer is its conclusion!
On Yom Kippur, the conclusion is uplifting. The Neilah begins with El Nora Alila just before sundown. And it goes on with familiar words of the prayers (by then, they have become familiar) until the longest Shofar blow of the year. We experience a real catharsis at the end of the 25 hours after all these prayers, songs, and cries.
On the other hand, the conclusion of the fast of the nine of Av is not particularly inspiring. The day ends, fasting ends, that’s it.
Let’s be honest: no one wants to spend a Summer day in synagogue remembering a series of catastrophes distant in time and space. Finding the motivation to go to synagogue on a regular Shabbat is difficult enough.
Why should we attend a sad service in the middle of the week?
For Reform Jews, the matter is even more complicated, the day of fast even more challenging to observe.
Historically, the Reform movement celebrated the Diaspora against the land of Israel. If you think that Jews are at their best when they are scattered around the world, there is not much to mourn about the loss of Jerusalem. More than a century ago, someone had even proposed to transform Tisha beAv into a day of celebration as it marked the beginning of the Diaspora. These are provocations that we have largely overcome. However, still, there is in the DNA of us emancipated and modern Jews an intense hostility towards the theology of Tisha be Av. And rightly so! To put it mildly, we dislike the idea that the loss of Jerusalem is Divine punishment for our sins and moral failures.
We are rational human beings; we see the world as it is, and we see that things in the world do not work out as the Rabbis would like them to. We are aware that Divine justice does not exist in this world. We all see wicked people rewarded, for example, with massive business success. We all know of righteous people whose life is a sad succession of misfortunes. This story of divine punishment does not correspond with what we see, and it is foreign to our idea of religion.
Tisha beAv is scarcely observed in general because it is a low recurrence. And for the reasons that I have mentioned, it is even less observed by Reform Jews.
Tisha beAv is also problematic for many Zionists, a large part of the Jewish people, who do not keep it, too. They argue that there is no reason to commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of our people from the Land of Israel since these are things of the past. We are now returning to live in the land of Israel.
And yet. Can I ask? What are the consequences of this lack of observance? Shall we have a look at the Rabbinic interpretation? Or, if you prefer, to the stories the Rabbis have made up, told and retold to explain the tragedy? The Rabbis teach that the root causes of the destruction of the Temples are the divisions within the Jewish people.
Divisions and factionalism are the causes of the tragedy and the catastrophe.
If you want to know more details, join the Zoom service and shiur tonight. I do not care if you do not observe the fast; the stories are interesting and must be told and retold and studied because right now, there is a lot to learn from them.
According to the Rabbinic perspective, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem was caused by the internal divisions of the Jewish people, by hatred between one Jew and another.
Such hate — and that’s crucial- was not theological, ideological, or political: people did not disagree on religion, what to observe, how to follow, which party support, which to oppose, etc. There were no confrontations between different factions or parties or ideologically driven clashes. No. The divisions within the Jewish people that caused the catastrophe were purely personal.
It all started with the rivalry between two people when one guy came to a party without being invited. Can you imagine something more trivial? I will tell you the details if you connect … The rivalry then degenerates because -as it often happens with rivalries in the Jewish world- at a certain point, non-Jews are involved, or worse, they are called by one Jewish side to support the fight against the other. It sounds familiar, I know, But in this case, the non-Jews who got involved in internal Jewish infighting were not the Evangelicals or the Soviets, but instead, they were the Romans … and when you look for help from the Romans, then things always go wrong.
Here you are. By failing to observe Tisha beAv, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to reflect on the tragedy of our internal divisions and their consequences.
Look around. There are Jews who refuse to attend one synagogue because that synagogue is egalitarian. As if the sight of women wearing a tallis was offensive to the religious feeling of pious Orthodox men.
And there are Jews who refuse to enter an Orthodox synagogue because that synagogue is not egalitarian enough, But then no one raises these problems of this sort when participating in services in a mosque in the name of inter-religious dialogue. And in a mosque, men and women are separated!
This constant search for internal divisions is absolutely counterproductive.
Tisha beAv should be observed to remind us how stupid it is and how much damage this attitude produces, of this obsessive focus on the things that divide us.
Through fasting, we discover that those Jews whom we never talk to because of ideological or political choices are grieving the same tragedies that we suffer, are mourning the same victims and martyrs that we mourn. And then that strange, unfathomable experience of empathy, unity, and understanding develops, and it blossoms, despite any ideological or theological difference.
Comforting each other while commemorating tragedies is a psychologically transformative experience. But we avoid it. We prefer to isolate ourselves in our bubble and protect ourselves with narcissistic arguments and excuses. And more often than not, there is the competition of who is more Reform than who else, who is more Orthodox than who else, and how do you prove you are really Orthodox or really Reform? by scorning and hurting your fellow Jews.
Well done, Great job. Really something to be proud about…
There is another crucial lesson to be learnt from Tisha beAv. It is said that the Messiah will be born on that day.
I don’t believe in a personal Messiah; among us, thank God, very few believe in it. Possibly nothing has caused harm to the Jewish people than the belief that regular Jew, such as the son of a carpenter, can be the Messiah (and don’t get me started with Sabbatai Zevi)
This is not an essential point of the Jewish religion. But I find it extraordinarily poetic and inspiring that at the most profound moment of the most intense time of mourning, a new page can be opened, hope can rise, and we can glimpse redemption.
It is an incredibly profound idea. When all Jews can identify with the other Jew, regardless of theological or political or ideological positions, at that moment, we can see the dawn of the messianic era, the beginning of a new stage of our history. A more serene and less mournful page of Jewish history. Because we have become capable of deep permanent empathy among ourselves beyond the temporary divisions on which we focus too much
We are not there yet. We do not yet live the messianic moment of Jewish unity based on empathy, but we can pray for it to get there soon.
I wish you an easy fast.