Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tisha B'Av.

.תשע באב

Last night, Tisha B'Av started. I've never commemorated this day before this year, so what I've been learning so far (which has been a lot) has all been new. In brief, Tisha B'Av (literally, the ninth day of the month of Av) commemorates certain catastrophes in Jewish history. Classically, Tisha B'Av recounts the following five events:

1. The return of the spies from the land of Israel with disparaging news
2. The destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE
3. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE
4. The defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt as marked by the fall of Betar in 135 CE
5. The leveling of Jerusalem in 136 CE

Additionally, tradition holds that the following events also occurred on this date:

6. Expulsion from England in 1290
7. Expulsion from Spain in 1492
8. Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942
9. Disengagement from Gaza in 2005

Basically, Tisha B'Av is a mourning day in the calendar that's set aside to commemorate these historical tragedies (or perceived tragedies). The day is traditionally a strict fast day in addition to being a day of mourning. This year, I decided to observe the traditional fast to see if I would find significance. What follows are an account of what we've done with the HUC community to mark Tisha B'Av and my thoughts on the day.

Tisha B'Av started at the end of Shabbat yesterday. (Interesting fact: The Jewish calendar is "rigged" so that Tisha B'Av cannot ever coincide with the Sabbath (and Yom Kippur cannot ever abut a Sabbath).) Jessica and I joined the HUC students in a creative service planned and led by three of our summer interns. During the service, we supplemented the regular evening service with a version of the reading of the book of Lamentations; we had five experiences (including a traditional chanting) correlating to the five chapters of the book. I thought the service was quite good, and it helped highlight some issues of what Tisha B'Av means to us today.

Haim talked about Tisha B'Av in relation to the state of Israel. The primary brunt of the day is focused on the destruction of Jerusalem ... but Jerusalem stands with Jewish protection today, so why mourn its loss? However, with the power to protect itself comes the responsibility of also protecting others. Haim suggests that Israel is not living up to its potential and obligation as a "light unto the nations" and that significant moral reform is necessary in the Jewish state. Perhaps we will continue to mourn until we can be the example we strive to be.

Additionally, Dan suggests that the "senseless hatred" (שנאת חינם) that is considered in the Talmud to be the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple still exists in Jerusalem today and therefore, we still have Tisha B'Av-related work to do even if we're not trying to restore a Third Temple. The fact that some Reform Jews stereotype, prejudge, and condemn some orthodox-looking Jews and vice versa is evidence of the "senseless hatred" that needs to be overcome before we can abandon this period of national mourning.

After the service, Rabbi Wilfond (Gingy) led the majority of us to the Kotel and led us in some brief text studies along the way. We arrived at the Kotel at around 10:40, and it was packed. The mechitza (the wall between the men's and women's sides) was extended into the courtyard to make sure that men and women wouldn't be lamenting side-by-side. As I walked through the men's section, I saw several groups of orthodox(?) Jews sitting in circles and reading from Lamentations, rocking with the power of the text. Sometimes, individuals (including children) were reading the text on their own, and some people had their heads buried in their arms, sobbing against the Western Wall. Of course, beggars abounded but for once, no one asked me to wrap tefillin ... that's not something traditionally done on Tisha B'Av until the day is almost over. It was bizarre seeing so many people sitting down at the Wall and reading from the same text (not necessarily praying), and I definitely felt voyeuristic as my entire goal was to observe rather than to participate. Still, it was a worthy experience as going to the Kotel is apparently a huge part of Tisha B'Av around here. As we were leaving the Old City (11:15-11:45), we passed streams of hundreds and hundreds of people all heading to the Western Wall. It was unbelievable. I had no idea of the magnitude of this day which goes largely unmentioned in Reform communities in the States.

This morning, after a Tisha B'Av-related Hebrew class, we had a lecture on the reactions of different religious groups in Israel to Tisha B'Av, a text study on some original sources on the day and its mourning and fasting practices, and a standard (Reform) Tisha B'Av afternoon service. Jessica and I went shopping for a few items this afternoon, and though there were several closed stores, more was open than I expected. Apparently, in Israel, Tisha B'Av is not a nationally-recognized day off. To compensate for those who wish to take off, many Israeli employers provide "choice days," which can be taken at any time during the year; many Israelis use one of these days on Tisha B'Av.

After shopping, Jessica and I read through the book of Lamentations to see what the big deal is. It's really a powerful text. I won't go into some of the worst details here because they're really horrific. Suffice to say, the destruction of Jerusalem as recounted by Jeremiah was a tragic and unbelievably difficult experience for the Jewish people to endure.

Now, my thoughts on the matter.

I don't mourn the loss of Jerusalem or the loss of the Second Temple. I don't mourn the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt. And even as I admit the tragic nature of these events in their time, I don't think I could ever be moved to sobbing about them. They are natural parts of the development of modern Judaism, and we have grown from them into a spiritually stronger, more morally driven people (in my opinion). In other words, we've gotten over it.

Jim, one of my fellow classmates, made an astute comment during our text study today. Mourning is a process that one goes through when one is exceedingly sad in order to bear and overcome the sadness. On Tisha B'Av, it seems that we are encouraged to induce mourning in order to become sad. It'd be one thing if I were sad already about these tragedies, but I'm not. So why should I recognize Tisha B'Av as a day of mourning when I don't need to overcome my sadness.

Of course, I grant that some communities and individuals may indeed feel that sadness over loss and therefore look to Tisha B'Av as a necessary release of that anger and frustration. (Better to read in Lamentations "Persecute and destroy [my enemies] in anger from under the heavens of the LORD" than to actually seek any physical retribution.) For these individuals and communities, I can recognize the value of the commemorative day. For me, though, the value is harder to come by.

On the one hand, Tisha B'Av seems like it should most naturally reflect the tragedy of the Holocaust. To my reckoning, the Holocaust is a catastrophe to modern Judaism as much as, if not more than, the destruction of the Temples and the expulsion from Spain were to their respective communities. We have a visceral need to wrestle with the Holocaust, to release our grief and seek understanding. And we have a day for that. Historically, some argued against the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day (in 1951 in Israel), citing Tisha B'Av as the appropriate day of mourning for the Shoah. And, in fact, many Haredim don't celebrate Yom Hashoah since it's a creation of the modern national state (and not a true "religious festival").

But for me, Yom Hashoah is a very real, very powerful day of memorial and testament to the events of the Holocaust, and I fully intend to continue to commemorate it. So, what do I do with Tisha B'Av? I'm not in mourning, I don't want a Third Temple, and I don't feel that it's healthy to dwell on these events of destruction in the past.

Perhaps for me, Tisha B'Av is a memorial day like the American Memorial Day. That is, on Memorial Day, I honor the deaths of soldiers from America's past, but I don't have a visceral connection to it. If I were closer to people who served in the military, I'm sure it'd be different; likewise, if I were closer to the traditions of the Western Wall, I might feel more association with Tisha B'Av. I understand that it's important to mark the tragedies of Jewish history, and I definitely don't think that we need a whole day for every single one of them (because there are a lot). But, there's a lot that can be gained to, once a year, thinking especially about, say, the expulsion from England or the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I do think that that's meaningful, and I value the Jewish calendar's flexibility in providing that to me.

So, as a modern Reform Jew, I don't feel the connection to Tisha B'Av that I believe many of my Orthodox fellows feel. Nevertheless, I respect the place that the day has in our tradition, and I will continue to explore my relationship to it. Will I fast in the upcoming years? As of now, my answer is no ... but I'm fully open to the possibility that my perspective will change. One of the reasons I've taken so much time with this post is so that I may come back and read it next year to see how my views have changed. And, of course, I invite the comments of any readers who have insights on this issue. Again, I'm only thinking about this topic for the first time, so any other perspectives are highly welcome.

And ultimately, I hope that the issues that Haim and Dan raise can be taken seriously in the near future so that we can overcome the "senseless hatred" that is the cause of so much destruction and maybe one day do away with the need for a national day of mourning altogether.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

D - this is a link to a chapter of a book I read for Intro to Judaic Traditions. Thought it might be interesting to you as you consider this holiday.

Thanks for spending the chag with me - it was much more meaningful because I had someone to share it with, and because that someone was you.