Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tisha Be'av 2010

Tisha Be’av, the great midsummer fast day whose name is its own date, falls next Monday night and next Tuesday. (Tisha Be’av has no “real” name and is called simply by the Hebrew expression meaning “the ninth of [the Hebrew month of] Av.”) Like most of you, I suspect, I harbor a certain amount of ambivalence about the day. On the one hand, I know more than enough about the Jewish past to understand that both times Jerusalem was destroyed in ancient days, by the Babylonians in the beginning part of the sixth century BCE and by the Romans towards the end of the first century CE, were true threshold moments in Jewish history after which nothing was the same as it had previously been. And because both instances of mass destruction (and also, of course, the terrible loss of life both sieges entailed) coincidentally befell the Jewish people on almost the same date, the midsummer fast of Tisha Be’av has always been taken more than seriously. It is, for example, the only full dusk-to-dusk fast in our calendar other than Yom Kippur. (Other fast days begin at dawn.) And it is the only one with its own customs and ceremonies, and with its own scroll—the Book of Lamentations, called Eicha, written by the prophet Jeremiah who was himself an eye witness to the devastation and desolation of Jerusalem in his day, is read twice in the course of the day—and its own Yom Kippur-like set of rules and regulations. So clearly it is meant to be a big deal in our calendar and as such is it widely observed both in Israel and abroad.

On the other hand, we have the reality that Jerusalem is not in ruins and—just to the contrary—is the thriving, bustling capital of the Jewish state. Readers who have been to Jerusalem on Tisha Be’av, in fact, know that there is a certain absurd feel in the air as people walk through the streets of a vibrant Jewish city on their way to mourn the destruction of that very same city. If people we have lost came back to life, would we continue to say Kaddish for them? I suppose we wouldn’t! Of course, with respect to our parents and grandparents, it doesn’t seem like something we need to worry about too intensely. But when Tisha Be’av comes around we all face the urban version of that dilemma as we wonder if there is value or meaning in mourning for a city razed to the ground and then come back to life. So there is that set of issues to consider too…and it is, depending on one’s mood, either an amusing paradox to deal with or else an instance of cripplingly irrational conflict between history and reality.

And layered over all that is the history each of us brings to the fast. Other than when I have actually been in Jerusalem itself for Tisha Be’av, the most meaningful fasts I have experienced were usually in summer camp or at JTS. But as the years have passed I have occasionally spent the fast in unusual places that have added their own flavor to the mix of emotions I bring to the day. In 2004, Joan and I had the idea to drive from North Carolina to New York on Tisha Be’av and to mark the day, other than by reading Eicha and fasting, by stopping at the huge life-size model of the desert Tabernacle Moses and the Israelites constructed in the Sinai during their years of wandering (and which serves in Jewish history as the precursor to the great Temple in Jerusalem the was destroyed twice on Tisha Be’av) that the Mennonites have constructed near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It sounded like a good idea at the time! But it turned out to be inaccurate and cheesy—and, yes, in retrospect the whole concept seems peculiar to me too and even I don’t know what we can have been thinking as we planned out our route home—and we both ended up with huge headaches that even the gift shop with its wooden Aaron-the-High-Priest dolls and postcards did nothing to assuage. (We ended up sleeping in the car until nightfall, then breaking our fast and heading home in the cool of night.) And then there was the time shortly after we met that Joan and I had a tire blow out on us on Tisha Be’av right in front of Santa’s Village in Bracebridge, Ontario, and had to spend an exceptionally peculiar hour waiting for the CAA to arrive with a replacement. (The fact that Santa himself came over to chat—business was apparently not great in the 100+ degree July heat—only added to the Fellini-esque feel of our first Tisha Be’av together.)

But none of that is what I really want to write to you about today. The reason Tisha Be’av is meaningful to me, and the reason I encourage its observance and wouldn’t dream of not fasting myself, is not because Jerusalem isn’t the living capital of our Jewish state or because I really would continue to include resurrected relatives in my Yizkor prayers. What it’s all about to me has to do with the rabbinic lesson—meaningful and intensely monitory at the same time—that for all it felt as though Gentile armies of marauding invaders were destroying Jerusalem, the more profound truth is that the Jewish people were themselves responsible for the destruction of their most holy city because of sinat chinam, the sin of irrational loathing focused not on the enemy but on each other. (The Talmud passage I am thinking of, I should note, is speaking specifically of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and makes sinat chinam the functional equivalent of the three most heinous of all sins: murder, immorality, and idolatry. But I think we can broaden the scope to include all instances of devastation preceded not by inner-Jewish unity but fractiousness and internecine hatred.) And, regretfully, that is not something I think any of us can reasonably describe as an ancient memory or an antique feature of Jewish life we have long since moved past.

Two events in Israel last week will provide ample illustration of what I mean. First we were treated to the spectacle of David Rotem, a member of the Knesset who represents the Yisrael Beitenu party, introducing a bill into the Knesset that would undo the highly fragile compromise that has gradually emerged regarding the status of converted Jewish people in Israel by handing complete control over conversions to the chief rabbinate, a body that is almost entirely now under the unholy influence of the extreme right wing of the Orthodox movement. If this bill should pass—although Prime Minister Netanyahu said unequivocally the other day that it will never reach the Knesset floor, a pledge charitably interpreted as the expression of his fervently-held wish that it not do so—it will not only divide the Jewish people in two, but ineradicably demonstrate the contempt in which non-Orthodox Jews are held not only by the Orthodox establishment in Israel but also by their secular bedmates in the Knesset. We would not love Israel any the less if this bill passes. But it will be hard to feel that the Israeli government, by passing such a bill, has not taken a huge step forward towards encouraging diaspora Jewry to feel disconnected from Israel and uninterested in participating in its future. It’s hard to find words to say what an error of judgment the passage of this bill would constitute. And yet there it is, approved by the Knesset’s Law Committee for a first reading as though it were merely another piece of legislation duly to consider.

It is true, I believe, that MK Rotem’s bill has more to do with the 320,000 Israeli citizens, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are not fully Jewish according to Jewish law than with us or “our” converts. Many of these people have served in the army and almost all plan to make their permanent homes in Israel. So some solution has to be found…and the answer, apparently, is deemed to lie in finding rabbis lax enough not to care that the vast majority of these people are neither observant nor interested in observance but who themselves are still deemed pious enough rabbis enough for the chief rabbinate to accept their pro forma efforts at conversion. The hypocrisy behind such a solution to the problem would be breathtaking even if it did not entail alienating precisely the huge majority of world Jewry who do not self-identify as Orthodox and who reject Orthodox fundamentalism as emotionally untenable and intellectually unappealing. But given the possibility of the Knesset enacting a law that would create a two-tiered system of Jewishness that would have the potential to divide the Jewish people in two, our response has to be more than vigorous. To that end, everyone who cares about the future of Israel should write immediately to Prime Minister Netanyahu and encourage him to find the courage to fight back against the forces of sinat chinam that have brought us to this impasse. If you wish, you can simply sign the form letter available here: and that will suffice. If you wish to express yourself more personally, then you can write in English to the Prime Minister at But regardless of whether you choose to formulate your thoughts on your own or just to sign the prepared letter, all who care about Israel should find the time to send an e-mail to the prime minister as soon as possible.

The other event that occurred in Israel this week, also a stunning example of sinat chinam, involved the arrest of Anat Hoffman, the chairperson of the Women of the Wall group, for the crime of having held a Torah scroll in her arms. (The police explained afterwards that they had to move in for fear that she might actually read from the scroll, thus defying a 2003 High Court ruling prohibiting such provocative behavior!) So this is what it has come down to as we prepare to fast on Tisha Be’av. Jewish people who wish to worship at our holiest site, the Western Wall, can only do so if they obey the strictures of the ultra-Orthodox who have somehow become the lords of the manor. Women, even if they do knuckle under to the self-arrogated authority of the Haredim, risk arrest if they look as though they might wish to hear the Torah read aloud. In the Knesset, a bill that could well drive a permanent wedge between world Jewry and the State of Israel is introduced…and seriously discussed and approved for debate instead of being thrown out by the entire Knesset speaking with one voice in favor of Jewish unity and interdependency. I feel despair in my heart when I write of these things to you. And yet my love for the land of Israel, slightly paradoxically, is only heightened by considering these issues. And for the people of Israel as well—in both senses of the term—is my affection only heightened by these onslaughts against common sense and normal decency. Somehow, we will come through all of this intact. And Israel will not only do the right thing, but thrive and continue to be the beacon of democracy and hope in the Middle East as which it has served for more than sixty years. It will all be good…but fasting on Tisha Be’av to remind us that, should we allow it to happen, the worst can also befall us—that seems to me a worthy way to spend a day immersed in prayer, thoughtful consideration of the Jewish past and the Jewish future, and in renewed dedication to the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

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