Tisha B’Av

Another Tisha b’Av has come and gone.  When I was a little kid I knew most of the Jewish holidays (maybe not Lag B’Omer, and not the various fasts), but I didn’t meet Tisha b’Av until I was at camp.  For one thing, it falls in the summer (in the northern hemisphere), so Sunday School took no note of it.  But at camp, it became quite a production: bonfires and high emotion about past disasters.  Just the thing for young teenagers.

But I distinctly remember the year in Bloomington, Indiana, when I was trying to get into the spirit of the day, and Alvin Rosenfeld, the head of the Jewish Studies department, commented to me that Tisha b’Av is quite different post-1948 than before.

And of course.  I have always known a free and independent Israel.  Tisha b’Av commemorates the loss of political independence and the demise of the ancient Temple-centered version of the religion (more properly called Israelite religion than Judaism).  It is the quintessential “we were punished for our sins” Jewish holiday.  And in its day, that’s exactly what it needed to be: If a foreign power conquered you, it not only meant that their army beat your army, but their god beat your god.  And who would want to worship a loser god?  So by rights, the Jews (Judeans, Israelites, call then what you will) should have disappeared in 586 BCE when King Nebuchadnezzar defeated them, destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, trashed the Temple, and carried off anybody who was anybody back to Babylonia.  (And all this really because we picked the wrong side in the fight between Babylonia and Egypt — read Jeremiah.)  His gods beat our God — right?

Well, no; we came up with a novel explanation for our defeat.  “This is our punishment,” we said.  “We were misbehaving (not being faithful to one God) and so God is using Babylonia as an instrument of our punishment.  So our God LET King Nebuchadnezzar win.”  This explanation allowed the Judeans to remain loyal to their God and their religion, and allowed the survival of Judaism/Israelite religion.

It worked again in 70 CE, when it was the Romans.  Only this time, it was clear that religious worship had been consolidated in Jerusalem and was being carried out properly.  So what could be the sin this time?

Sin’at chinam, baseless hatred, said the Rabbis who looked back in the next few hundred years and had to make sense of it.  They tell a story to illustrate, and even implicate themselves in allowing one Jew to shame another in public for no good reason.

What’s interesting is that I learned when I was in Israel 4 years ago (traveling and studying with the Melton Program) that during the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans, Jerusalem was occupied by 3 different Jewish forces, who held separate sections of the city in concentric circles.  And they were so busy fighting each other that they couldn’t unite and face the Romans together.

They still might have been defeated.  But is the rabbinic story an echo of actual sin’at chinam that may have contributed to the military defeat?

ANYWAY.  That old explanation worked really well then.  But today it’s troubling.  Especially after the Sho’ah (Holocaust), “We were punished for our sins” is offensive, to me, as a blanket explanation for persecution of Jew.

So theologically, Tisha b’Av doesn’t work for me, in terms of connecting directly with being a member of the Jewish people today.  And it’s hard to weep over the loss of the Temple, because while its way of connecting with God — bringing animal and produce offerings — worked fine in the ancient world, it too had to go by the wayside for Judaism to grow and develop.  (Moses Maimonides says that offerings were essentially “training wheels” for the Jewish people.  There were too many other innovations — only one God,  and not only that but God was invisible and you couldn’t make pictures or statues of God — to make the switch from bringing offerings to praying with words at the same time.)

And lamenting the loss of Jewish independence doesn’t resonate much, when all my life there has been an independent Jewish state.

There are still reasons to observe Tisha b’Av.  Memory is one: disasters do happen, have happened, will happen again.  Communal introspection, not unlike the personal introspection of Yom Kippur:  What are we doing or not doing that strengthens or weakens our community?  And a day of fasting — in the heat and abundance of summer, during summer vacation — can redirect our attention.  (Interesting article here on MyJewishLearning.com; a fellow who has struggled with Tisha b’Av for all the same reasons I have, but values fasting for itself.)

But there is a fundamental divide between folks who remember when there was no Israel, and people like me who find it hard to imagine Jews having no “home base” in the world.  At least on Tisha b’Av, I am reminded.

By the way, it was very interesting a few years ago — current Iraq war or the first one? — to learn that one of the divisions of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard was known as the Nebuchadnezzar division.  We remember him as the enemy, but clearly he’s an Iraqi (= Babylonian) hero.  What amazed me is that we both remember: It’s been 2,600 years, but we know the name and what he means to us.  How un-American, to have that long of a memory!