This coming Tuesday we will mark the Jewish observance of Tisha B’av. Tisha B’av, or the 9th day of the month of Av, is a national day of mourning for the Jewish people. According to tradition, a large number of disasters befell our people on this day. The most significant of these were the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. However, our tradition tells us that the date also marked other tragedies: from the decree that the Jews would wander in the wilderness for 40 years all the way to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and even beyond.
The central observances of Tisha B’av resemble those of Yom Kippur: fasting, abstention from bathing and sex, and the avoidance of perfume, body ointments, and the wearing of leather. We chant the sad melodies of the book of Lamentations and other dirges. In addition, we observe mourning customs on the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av by avoiding public celebrations such as weddings, and by not shaving.
Reform synagogues observe Tisha B’Av intermittently. My last congregation had a major observance of the holiday. At my current one, we have not chosen to emphasize the day. As far as my personal observance in concerned, I have been ambivalent about it for a number of years.
In ancient times, when the spiritual life of the Jewish people was in its infancy, our people were united behind one sacrificial cult. Time and again we, in the Torah, showed how badly we needed concrete signs of religion, almost an idolatrous way of worshiping. We needed a golden calf, a visibly grand and holy Temple, and adorned leaders.
Gradually our faith developed and changed until, with the destruction of the second Temple, and the beginning of Diaspora Jewry, we were forced to become decentralized and de-cultified. The religion of sacrifice could no longer be followed, so the Rabbis taught us to substitute avodah – worship, for avodah – sacrifice. Rabbinic Judaism was born and with it Talmud, discussion, dissention, debate, the fruits of everything that we love and value about Judaism today.
Some years, as Tisha B’Av approaches, I dare to think that we should almost celebrate the day when the sacrificial cult died and Rabbinic Judaism was born. But of course, we should never exult in a tragedy, a battle where people suffered and died. Nevertheless, this very dark cloud had a very bright lining and we should rejoice in the Judaism that we experience today, just as we mark that terrible day that caused the change.
This year in particular, I am feeling very glad for the decentralized Judaism of our time. I am so grateful that there are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Humanist, and Cultural Jews. I love the debate that our difference enables. We are now, as we were when we came out of Egypt, a mixed multitude. This diversity means that we each have an important responsibility to insure that our singular voices remain a part of the collective Jewish community. Today especially, we need to make sure that liberal Judaism does not become marginalized and separated.
Once there were Jews. There were more and less observant Jews, but if you were born Jewish, you were… Jewish. Then Reform Judaism was born and as a reaction against it, Orthodox Judaism came into being. Neither one is traditional. Neither one is authentic. The only truly authentic Judaism that ever was died on that fateful Tisha B’Av when the second Temple was destroyed.
In ancient times, worship was centered around the holy Temple. The only remnant of that sacred place is the Kotel – the western part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple mount. Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have returned to this holy site, thought to be so close to G-d. We have pushed our written prayers into its crevices and cried our tears onto its cold stones. The wall is a strange place. Its stones are strangely smooth, rubbed by countless hands in tearful prayer. It has a smell that exists nowhere else on earth. It has an aura. After you pray and touch its holy stones, you walk backwards away from it, never turning your face from its beautiful countenance. Strange that though I would actively pray that we never return to the Temple worship, I find this place so holy, so compelling. I guess it is because it has been the center of the Jewish universe for so many thousands of years. It is, more than any other place on earth, the homestead of every Jew on earth. Not the Temple mount, not Jerusalem itself, not any other place is really ours as much as this tiny wall in this tiny country.
But this wall is not fully mine. The wall is set up as an orthodox synagogue, run by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. There is a mechitza (divider) separating the large men’s section from the smaller women’s one. I am okay with this because I can respect that some people are not comfortable praying with those of the opposite gender. As long as there is also a place for me, it’s okay. But the Kotel is not run like a mainstream Orthodox synagogue.
Orthodox synagogues run the gamut in observance. Some are as strict as or even more so than the one at the kotel, not having a mechitza down the middle, but rather one that divides front to back, or worse yet, relegates the women to an entirely different room. But many Orthodox synagogues have found ways to welcome women even within the confines of Orthodoxy. There are women’s “minyanim” where the Torah is taken out and read. They respect the history of women like Beruriah, who was known to be a great scholar, and who also donned tefillin. The women pray, study, and sing together. At the Kotel, however, the most stringent rules are applied: women are not allowed to wear tallit and tefillin or read from the Torah, and any loud singing or prayer will be met with criticism.
When a group called, Women of the Wall, meets, they are often greeted with violent and abusive behavior from ultra-orthodox men. The men have been known to throw chairs, bottles, feces, and even punches at these women. Strange that they cannot shake their hands in friendship due to the prohibition against touching a woman who is not your wife, but they can raise their fists in violence?
The Women of the Wall have been fighting for their right to pray. Their struggle ultimately led to two Israeli Supreme Court decisions. On May 22, 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for the Women of the Wall to hold prayer groups and even to read Torah in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza. The ultra Orthodox did not like this decision and within four days were not only attempting to overthrow it, but presented a bill that would have made it a criminal offense for women to pray in “non-traditional ways” at the western wall, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although the bill did not pass, the Israeli Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision, ruling once again that women could not pray at the Kotel in the manner of their choosing. Why? Because such continued meetings represented a threat to public safety and order. They certainly did not! It was the protests that lead to the threat! The Court required the government to find an alternate site, which they did: Robinson’s Arch.
Since then, the police have been increasingly visible against the Women of the Wall. In 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a tallit… under her coat. Just this past week, Anat Hoffman was arrested for holding a Torah scroll. She was carrying the Torah scroll from the women’s section of the Kotel for services at the Robinson’s Arch, where should would be permitted to read from it, when she was arrested. The video of her arrest made me want to cry.
Anat Hoffman was fined 5,000 shekels and was given a restraining order according to which she is not allowed to approach the Wall for 30 days. It’s a sort of funny punishment in the sense that her prayer group meets at the Kotel monthly and so 30 days is exactly the next time she would appear there. Nevertheless, it seems terribly wrong to sentence a Jew by telling her that she is barred from our most holy place. Would they EVER punish any man in such a way? For ANY crime, let alone for wanting to carry a Torah?
So, as we approach Tisha B’Av, I am renewed in my feeling of gladness that we no longer sacrifice animals as part of our worship, with joy that our faith continues to evolve and grow, and with fear that we should ever return to a truly centralized religion.
I leave you with this thought. A few weeks ago, we celebrated American Independence Day. Our Constitution’s First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Our country is NOT a theocracy, and we oppose them wherever they exist because they do not tend to lead to good government. Israel is possibly an exception to that rule. They are a democracy, but as a Jewish state, they also dance on the border of being a theocracy. The Rabbinate determines rules about marriage and divorce, and would love to decide many other things. Can the Jewish state be Jewish without being a theocracy? Can a theocracy exist without impinging on the human rights of its people? Can we, as American Jews make a difference in defining what Israel will become? Do we have a right to try?
I am a Jew. I am as much a Jew as those Orthodox men are. I want my Torah and my wall and I want to chant and pray loudly and with pride. I want to hear their voices too on the other side of the mechitza blending and melding with mine. Bayom hahu and on that day… There will be peace.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon.
The above was the sermon that I delivered at Temple Beth Torah this past Friday evening.