It’s that time of year, folks. The time when Jews get really sad and stop eating. The time when we cry about our past that we can’t seem to let go of and spend all day avoiding each other’s eyes.
No, it’s not the family reunion.
We’re coming up on Tisha b’Av, my favourite of the religious practices avoided by Reform Judaism. I say avoided because we haven’t really expunged it from the realm of “normative” Reform Judaism (a concept that I acknowledge is itself highly specious), we’ve just pushed it to the fringes of what we do. I imagine that part of the reason for it’s relegation to the land of tznius and shatnes is that Tisha b’Av always takes place during the summer, when attendance at shul is down and most of the dedicated member base aren’t around. I would be curious to see what a Reform observance of Tisha b’Av would look like if it were in September, right after Simchat Torah.
In any case, it seems that many Reform Jews have a fragile relationship with Tisha b’Av. Most Reform Jews don’t do anything at all to acknowledge the day. At many of our camps, there is some sort of ceremony that is largely tied to the creation of Israel and it’s successes in light of our history of persecution. And then there are those Reform Jews that try and engage with the central meaning of the day – the destruction of the Temples. I would be willing to wager that out of those who observe some form of rememberance – either through fasting, prayer, study, or the such – none actually wish to see the beit hamkidash restored. For those Reform Jews that do observe Tisha b’Av, the day is about something else. So what is it about?
The URJ’s Jewish Holidays website has this to say:
“Reform Judaism has never assigned a central religious role to the ancient Temple. Therefore, mourning the destruction of the Temple in such an elaborate fashion did not seem meaningful. More recently, in Reform Judaism Tishah B’Av has been transformed into a day to remember many Jewish tragedies that have occurred throughout history.”
Ok, fine. Fair enough. We’ve got Rememberance Day in Canada, and there’s Memorial Day in the USA. But collective historical memory is nothing new to Jews. It’s no Reform innovation to say that we need to recall our past tragedies. So what’s going on?
Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, professor emeritus of midrash and related literature at Hebrew Union College, posits a modern Reform approach to the day in this week’s Reform Voices of Torah:
“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 good, too. Great, actually – a perfect model of Reform Jewish practice. But it’s also no Reform innovation to suggest that we need to think about how to better our socity. Ever heard of tikkun olam? Do we need Tisha b’Av to highlite the importance of tikkun olam in Reform Judaism?
This past week, Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman responded to Rabbi Barth’s drash, with the following question:
“How far should we be willing to go in re-adopting what so many of us believe to be antiquated and outmoded observances, beliefs, and rituals? How far ought we be willing to stretch ourselves ideologically when it comes to these concepts which our Reform fore-bearers jettisoned?
Things in Jewish blog-land are never dull. I’ll respond to the idea of “stretch[ing] ourselves ideologically” in a moment. First, here’s an excerpt from David A.M. Wilensky‘s response to Rabbi Shwartzman’s response:
“Does mourning the loss of the immense and rich culture of European Jewry that existed before the Shoah mean that we desire to return to a ghettoized, isolationist shtetl lifestyle? Obviously that’s not what is meant when we mourn the loss of that culture. We accept that a Jewish way of life, full of culture, came to an end and we mourn its loss.”
I’m not sure how much unpacking David’s reponse needs – it’s pretty straightforward. I recommend reading the rest of what he has to say. I happen to agree (mostly) with him on this one. For Reform Jews, Tisha b’Av is not about tying ourselves down to an Orthodox conception of the holiday, nor is it about re-establishing a caste system. In that light, and going back to Rabbi Shwartzman’s posting, I do think that the holiday can be about stretching ourselves ideologically. I also happen to think that that’s what all of Reform theology and practice should be about – stretching ourselves.
I (and I don’t believe I’m alone on this one) have always believed that Reform Judaism is verbular – it is a dynamic movement. Indeed, we are a movement. We’re unsatisfied with stagnant practices and beliefs solely for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Why then should we be afraid of stretching ourselves on Tisha b’Av? How about some theological yoga? Hell, even Maimonides knows that observances are useless unless they direct us towards the greater good:
“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)
Even some members of the Modern Orthodox world seem to be acknowledging that Tisha b’Av doesn’t have to be about a restoration of any sort, but is more about fighting against political and societal corruption:
…But by 70 CE the whole [Temple] thing was probably looking a bit dated. How long could the [Beit Hamikdash] have gone on for anyway? Certainly by the middle ages the notion of having a temple and sacrificing animals would have been totally ridiculous, and even by Chazal‘s time I think it was just not feasible… By the end, the Temple had become a totally corrupt institution. (Actually even near the beginning). And the Priests were a political power base which Chazal didn’t care for too much.”
As for me, I think within Reform Judaism, the “raging” debate over observance of Tisha b’Av is part of the greater debate on the inclusion of rational vs. irrational practices. As I’ve noted earlier, I think Judaism (and religion, really) isn’t an inherently rational institution, so to try and square everything out is like trying to push a square block through a triangle hole. At some point, you’re going to distort the square a little too much. Is it rational to observe Tisha b’Av when we have no desire to see the Beit Hamkidash restored? Nope. In no way. Why mourn something you don’t want back. The reason we mourn things is because we lament their loss, and I think it’s completely irrational to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But I also think that’s ok.
I think we should be irrational. I think we try way to hard too rationalize everything, and we are worse off for that. Let Tisha b’Av be a time when we embrace the irrationality that exists within our traditions and stretch ourselves a little. When we mourn the destruction of the Temples, what is hidden behind the irrationality of that mourning? It is the opportunity to think about political corruption and the ways in which we can better society, not for the inherent worth of doing so, but for the sake of embracing a hugely significant part of our history.