27 July 2011

On Tisha B'Av

On Monday night August 8 at 9 pm at CBE, our synagogue will commemorate Tisha B'Av with Altshul, the Independent Minyan which has been meeting at CBE for the past five years.  We will meet in the Rotunda space at 274 Garfield, beginning with an evening service, the reading of the Book of Lamentations in Hebrew, and a Dvar Torah by yours truly.

Traditionally, the Reform Movement has not commemorated Tisha B'Av, a policy platform essentially going back to the early 19th century roots of Reform.  The essentially thinking at the time was that Reform did not seek the messianic restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the re-building of the Temple, which last stood two thousand years ago and was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 AD--the beginning of the Jewish exile until the advent of Zionism in the late 19th century and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. 

By the mid-twentieth century--if not centuries earlier--most Jews prayed for a restoration to the Jewish homeland, orienting their spirituality "East" toward Jerusalem, but it's fair to say a distinct minority would actually seek to restore the Temple and the practice of animal sacrifice.  Maimonides, as early as the 12th century, seemed to believe that animal sacrifice represented a stage of Jewish belief that had been fully replaced by Torah study, Prayer, and Mitzvot.

So, while one understands on a certain intellectual level the perceived mandate of Reform to abandon Tisha B'Av, their narrow reading of its significance (limited to the Temple's destruction) circumscribed a deeper and more national understanding of what it meant to the Jewish people to lose their spiritual center--Jerusalem.  The Book of Lamentations is a prophetic dirge, a terribly troubling and awe-inspiring funereal national poem about loss and destruction that can make the coldest heart weep.  Written after the first destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC, it is a document filled with self-blame and a sense of punishment at the hands of God for national sin.  Nearly 700 years later, when Jerusalem falls again to the Romans, the Sages go deeper inside themselves, blaming the fall of Jerusalem and "free and causeless hatred," factionalization, fissures that divided the people beyond repair.  Whereas an earlier generation saw themselves as being punished by an Omnipotent God, the Sages understood something else--national tragedies are often brought upon nations themselves.  They implore us to understand our public discourse, our public behavior, our civic culture, as necessitating scrutiny and introspection in order to determine if we've always acted, as a political entity, as we should.

Here then, when the Reform movement maintains a kind of objective distance from Tisha B'Av--a small number of synagogues actually mark it on their calendars--we have an opportunity to re-engage this traditional day of mourning, fasting and commemoration with a real and metaphoric reading of how Jerusalem has fallen and, God forbid, could fall again.  Similarly, when the national political discourse in the Diaspora has grown increasingly violent and cynical, one can also apply the lessons of Tisha B'Av to the American civic experiment as well.  Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural address immediately comes to mind, steeped as it was the deep religious concern for God's judgement of America for slavery.

As a man who generally has to be dragged away from Jerusalem each summer by wild horses, it pains me greatly to have to leave this heart of my own spiritual existence.  Being forced by the calendar of Jewish time to imagine its utter destruction, to examine the ways in which my own actions or language contribute to the destabilizing structures of Jewish life, and further, to apply a similar interpretive lens to the American civic experiment as well, is a mandate we ought to welcome as a community. 

I was speaking to a Moroccan storekeeper yesterday, a 4th generation Jerusalemite, who remembers being expelled from the Old City by Jordanians in 1948.  "You can leave your home temporarily," she said with a wink, "but forever?  That's for God to decide." 

Zionism's great, bold, revolutionary ingenuity, was insisting on coming home and rebuilding a Jewish home that continues to emanate outward, in new ways that continue the Jewish people and its ideas onward into the future.  That it has come with the responsibility of its engagement with a diverse Jewish world--ethnically and religiously; and the responsibility of its engagement with Palestinians and the Arab nation; and the responsibility of its engagement with the greater world in general--means that there will always be successes and failures that we as a people *ought* to be confronting, examining, learning from, and finding, with strength and vision, new ways forward into history and time.

Just because you don't pray for a Third Temple, it doesn't mean there isn't significant work to do in examining destruction, hatred and division.  And Tisha B'Av is our sacred Jewish time for doing such work together as a community. 

I invite you to join us at CBE on August 8 at 9 pm.

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