Crossposted from The Times of Israel Blog.
In just a few days, an interesting phenomenon will take place. Groups of Jews around the world will mark the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem with ceremonies of mourning. At the same time, many (most?) of these Jews have absolutely no desire to see the Temples rebuilt. Is this an act theological hypocrisy?
Tisha b’Av has always flummoxed me. I understand the practice of considering the day a memorial for the many additional tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. To be sure, there’s probably a psychological benefit to the ethos of the Jewish people for an annual opportunity to vent and take thousands of years of weight off of our communal chest.
But memorializing and remembering thousands of years of tragedies is different from engaging in an act of mourning over the loss of an institution which many (most?) do not have any real desire to return to.
Mourning is different from remembering. Mourning implies a manifest sorrow for the loss of something and the desire to have it back. Especially within Judaism, it has specific connotations separate from memory. So while we can remember and appreciate the centrality of the Temple in its time, I would imagine that most non-Orthodox Jews don’t truly mourn on Tisha b’Av. Is it possible to reconcile an outward religious act with a conflicting inward belief?
To be sure, many Jews do mourn the destruction of the Temples and do wish to see the Temple restored. While I disagree with this vision on religious, political, and social grounds, I’m not debating it here. I appreciate this religious belief for what it is, and am in fact somewhat envious of those who hold it. For them, I imagine Tisha b’Av presents no hypocrisy whatsoever, and is a day filled with kavannah (intention) and great liturgical focus.
For most other Jews, we are left with Tisha b’Av as a day of solemn remembrance. But communal historical memory is part and parcel of almost all Jewish holy days. Napoleon and Chaim Weizmann shared a common philosophy when they both observed that Jews have a long memory. It’s no surprise to say that we need to recall our past tragedies.
So what’s going on with Tisha b’Av? What’s taking place in the kishkes of Jews around the world who mark the day?
Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, professor emeritus of midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has posited a modern, progressive approach to the day:
Tishah B’Av could be a day that we spend in self-reflection and self-examination regarding (1) the legal, economic, social, moral, and religious issues of our own time, (2) the ways our congregations and communities might measure ourselves and society against our commitments to social justice, and (3) the obligations we have to take responsibility for helping to make this a better world.
Ok, that’s a good start. Great, actually – a perfect model of modern Jewish practice. But it’s no innovation to suggest that as Jews, we need to think about how to better our society. Do we need Tisha b’Av to highlite the importance of tikkun olam?
Even Maimonides has tapped into the quandary of what to do with this day:
There are days when all Israel fasts because of the troubles that happened to them, in order to awaken the hearts and open the pathways of repentance… so that in the memory of these matters we will return to doing the good.
– Mishneh Torah, (Ta’anit 5:1)
The Rambam had a pretty prescient view of modern Jewish life. He cautions us to be unsatisfied with stagnant practices and beliefs solely for the sake of maintaining the status quo. (It should be noted that Maimonides also envisioned the rebuilding of the Temple and the resumption of sacrifices as soon as possible.)
Does that solve the problem of potential hypocrisy in mourning? Is it rational to mourn on Tisha b’Av when we have no desire to see the Beit Hamkidash restored?
Absolutely not. Why mourn something you don’t want back? The reason we mourn things is because we lament their loss, and I would argue that in that light, it’s fairly irrational to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But I also think that’s ok.
When everything is rational; when everything makes sense; when everything is smooth and polished in perfection, we stop thinking. It becomes easier to glide through life without thinking about our actions. When everything is simple and easy and clean, we are robbed of opportunities for kavannah.
Sociologists teach that it is moments of tension that result in opportunities for personal and communal growth. So perhaps Tisha b’Av is the perfect time to engage in a little irrational Judaism. Tisha b’Av can be a time when we embrace the irrationality that exists within a tradition and stretch ourselves a little. Instead of “mourning” and fasting appearing as hypocritical actions, they instead become useful tools for personal and communal growth as Jews.
When we “mourn” the destruction of the Temples, what is hidden behind the irrationality of that mourning is the opportunity to rouse our dormant souls, and awaken ourselves from our otherwise easy day-to-day lives. In that way, we are better able to follow Maimonides’ clarion call and “return to doing good.”
So Tisha b’Av may be a little irrational, but it’s certainly not hypocritical. And while it inextricably rooted in the past, for me (and I think Maimonides, too), it presents a vision directed more towards the present and the future.
That future may or may not include a rebuilt Temple… but I’m not the one who gets to decide that.