I am disturbed by an incident that happened some 36 years ago. At the time, I was a student spending the summer volunteering in an absorption center in Giv’at HaMoreh, just outside Afula, with olim who had come to Israel from Uzbekistan and Georgia in what was then the Soviet Union. My fellow volunteers and I prepared a full day of activities and learning around the fast day of Tisha B’Av, on which we commemorate the destruction of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem in ancient times. Over the course of the summer, we had come to rely on the halachic knowledge of the people who staffed Afula’s Chabad House.
Just prior to Tisha B’Av, I came to the Chabad leaders with a question: In working with the immigrants, would it be appropriate on the night of the ninth of Av, to conclude our program and services by mentioning that our Tisha B’Av mourning is tempered by the fact that we are in the land of Israel and in the state of Israel, referred to in the prayers as reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. Rather than the sympathetic response I had expected from those who worked regularly with the non-affiliated or unknowledgable members of the Jewish community, their response was “it is prohibited to say that, not only on Tisha B’Av, but at any time during the year.”
The incident still bothers me, not as a stand-alone event, but as somewhat indicative of a 60+ year refusal by many traditionalists to admit that the holiday needs a new face today. I find the reading of the book of Eicha / Lamentations to still hold deep meaning. The loss of self-government, horrible scenes from a war in which ancient Israel was defeated and the destruction of the central focus of Jewish religious life are all memories that we must hold as a people.
But when we read the liturgical poems (kinot) of Eliezer HaKallir, Yehudah HaLevi and others, in which Jerusalem is depicted as laying in ruins in the hands of enemies, I quickly find my mind wandering. I was born at a time at which Jerusalem was most definitely not in ruins, and came of age when the city came fully into Israel’s hands. Crusaders and other occupiers are history to me, but do not make a case for what Tisha B’Av should mean today.
Even the destruction of the Temple and the longing for a new Temple don’t speak to me as they once did. I’ve long ago stopped praying for a restoration of animal sacrifices, so a rebuilt Temple has to mean something other than what traditional prayers call for.
As I’ve struggled with the meaning of Tisha B’Av in a world in which there is a rebuilt and wonderful city of Jerusalem, and Jewish self-government in Israel, the traditions and observances have become more and more distant from my reality. The restrictions against eating meat for days before the fast (themselves speaking to a time in which meat was a treat that could only be indulged in on rare occasions) and the prohibitions against wearing freshly laundered garments during that time period are no longer compelling to me.
On the other hand, some of the reinterpretations of Tisha B’Av still speak to me:
- Jewish unity (which co-exists with Jewish diversity) is still challenged. We see it in this week’s headlines in Israel over women’s access to the Kotel and to the continuing dissention over definitions of Jewish identity as debated in Knesset.
- The centrality of the Temple as focal point is no more. Ori Brafman, in The Starfish and the Spider, suggests that it is the organization that is most decentralized that has the greatest chance for survival in today’s world. If so, then Tisha B’Av is a time to reflect on just how important (or unimportant) a single physical focal point or institution really is to the Jewish people.
- Modern Israel is on a journey, and is part of the greater Jewish journey. It has begun to respond to how to take ancient ethical and moral teachings and apply them, for the first time in 2000 years, to a real life nation and society that is free from the control of non-Jewish gonverments. But it has not fully actualized. The question of how a modern country and an ancient tradition work hand-in-hand is part of the dynamic challenge ahead. Tisha B’Av can remind us of the potential not yet fulfilled.
So, what I search for is the Tisha B’Av that will abandon some of the realities and assumptions that kept the Jewish dreams alive for the years between 70 CE and 1948 CE, and will instead look at what has not yet been rebuilt. I look for new prayers, observances and conversations that will help us to focus, in today’s terms, on what it will take to complete the recovery from the terrible tragedies of our past, so that we can continue to fulfill our people’s destiny to be a “light unto the nations.”