9 Av 5776 B’SD
Revising the revisions – revisiting the Tisha B’av fast
Recently I read a blog posted in The Times of Israel written by an erudite reform rabbi articulating why she won’t be fasting on Tisha B’av. She writes that for her, Tisha B’av represents the reversal of her democratic rights; it brings back the days of hierarchal priestly rule and denigrates her as a human being. She said it also closes the door on subjective interpretive Judaism and would reintroduce policies that go against her philosophical outlook on life and religion. She also posits that since Israel is now a functioning Jewish democracy, she has little to mourn about the destruction of the Temple.
The reaction by many on the right has been one of shock and indignation. How can a rabbi posit such heretical views? Although I, too, don’t enjoy fasting and if left up to me own volition would consider redacting many laws, I nevertheless will endeavor to fast on Tisha B’av. Why? My answer may be different from the plethora of articles on the subject that highlight the beauty and pageantry of yesterday’s Judaism and reminisce about the grandeur of the Temple itself. They find immense comfort imagining the spiritual heights of the High Priest’s supplications on behalf of the people, while also visualizing the subtle hues of the flickering menorah lights. The scent of the showbreads aromatic fragrance and the aroma of charcoaled sacrifices conjures up in their minds the calm and serenity of days of yore.
I am fascinated by the selective revision of our history and how midrashic interpretation can become mainstream thought. I read the writings of the prophets and see a world vastly different than what is being portrayed today. I try to understand the longing for yesterday, when yesterday brought nothing but war, tyranny, idol worship and dissension. I try to fathom the pageantry of Temple times, but I find that the overwhelming majority of Temple days were spent in communal strife. I read of the beautiful edifice that King Solomon built, but am mindful that as the story continues, King Solomon abandons Jewish practice and constructs altars to alien Gods. I read how soon after the death of Solomon, the nation split in two and was constantly engulfed in squabble and animus. I read that in the time of the First Temple, all Jews (with the exception of only a handful) stopped practicing Judaism and observing the Torah. I read about the ten tribes who assimilated into general society and were lost forever from identifying as Jews. I read of constant invasions by Babylonians, Greeks and Romans; I read of the Hellenization of the Jewish people during the second Temple Era.
And I ask myself why I am longing for days that brought an abundance of grief, assimilation, and sorrow? Why am I not more content today when Jews are free to practice their faith without fear and intimidation? My desire is truly to engage in tomorrow by studying and comprehending yesterday. I think that an honest evaluation of life two to three thousand years ago would seem unattractive for anyone living in our world. I long not for an edifice (regardless how holy), I long solely for what the edifice was intended to accomplish. I long not to repeat the failure of Temple times; I yearn to use those failures as a means of ensuring they don’t happen again. I see a reign of monarchs and generals that wreaked havoc upon Israel and the Jewish people. And Jewish kings who used the community funds as their personal treasure chest and their autocratic styles of rule to demand subservient obedience from their subjects. I yearn for a day when our leaders will lead with humility and subjugate themselves to the will of the people and not vice a versa. I read the history of the two Temples and realize that often even the righteous were led astray. I see the scions of the house of Mattityahu, the High Priest, enamored with Greek culture and abandon the ways of their ancestral lineage. I know too much to contemplate that we fast in our desire to return to return to the days of Yore.
I mourn and fast on Tisha B’av because I need to be reminded of our past. The painful truths of yesterday should never be relegated to the backburner; our eyes and minds should never be shielded by revisionist attitudes that somehow tend to permeate our religious leadership. The combined 830 years of Temple life were far from glorious days that we should seek to emulate; they were inglorious at best and spiritually speaking, perhaps the most difficult period in Jewish history.
I also mourn that there are still many that try to dismiss Israel’s four-thousand-year relationship with the Temple Mount. I mourn that there are ‘unzerer menshen’ (Jewish people) who say Yerushalayim and its Temple Mount is not worth fighting for. I mourn because we are so close, yet so far; I mourn because my family is not permitted to pray on our ancestral holy places. I mourn our willingness to condemn and vilify those who revise history and claim Jerusalem is not ours but fail to condemn those amongst us who embellish our past with platitudes and lies. I mourn what could have been, or more so, I mourn what should have been. I mourn that the cohesion the Temple should have brought is still so far off on the horizon that it’s almost too faint to make out.
But I also mourn this one day a year in order to rejoice with confidence the rest of the year. I mourn because I realize that in spite of all that went wrong, so much went right. I mourn because I understand that if I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, I ensure that no one else will remember. I mourn because so few today even consider the need to mourn.
But in my mourning, I recall the words of Harav Kook who quotes the Talmud that states: The Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam – hatred among the people. He posits that in order to rectify the ills of yesterday’s sins we have to embrace other people with ahavat chinam – love without and ulterior motive. Thus, although I may disagree with positions held by other rabbis, in the spirit of Tisha B’av, I do so with love, admiration, and mutual respect.
Shabbat Shalom and have an easy and meaningful fast,
Rabbi Jack Engel