Posts Tagged ‘tisha b’av’

Tisha B’Av

Hello blog readers.  I know it’s been an age…

I did a sermon this past Friday evening on the subject of Tisha B’Av.  It’s the summer, so attendance at worship has been light.  We’ve seen about 25-30 on average at services.  This Friday, however, was the start of the London Olympics, with opening ceremonies due to commence at the same time as services.  We had 10 in attendance.  So, even though Tisha B’Av has come and gone for this year, I thought I’d share my sermon with you.  Enjoy.


(Sermon originally delivered at Temple Beth Torah 7/27/2012)

This weekend, Jews all over the world will observe the holiday of Tisha B’av. Tisha B’Av, which literally means the 9th day of the month of Av, is a fast day, and a national day of Jewish mourning. Both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the 9th of Av – 655 years apart. The holiday primarily recalls those terrible events, but our tradition also teaches that many of the worst tragedies in Jewish history, both ancient and more modern took place on that day. According to the Mishnah, the twelve spies sent by Moses to seek out the land of Canaan gave their fearful report on Tisha B’Av during Biblical times, The Romans crushed Bar Kochba’s revolt, destroyed the city of Betar and killed over 100,000 Jews on Tisha B’Av in the year 132. History also reveals that the first crusade began on August 15, 1096 – Tisha B’Av, Jews were expelled from England on July 25, 1290 – Tisha B’av, Jews were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 – Tisha B’av. World War I broke out on August 1, 1914 – Tisha B’Av and on the eve of Tisha B’Av in 1942 the mass deportation began of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka began.

512px-Wailing_Wall_Jerusalem_Victor_Grigas_2011_-1-50By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Because the main focus of the holiday has been on the destruction of the Temples, its observance has fallen out of favor among liberal Jews – both Reform and to some degree, Conservative. Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary said that Tisha B’Av has no appeal to the modern Jew who “no longer prays for the restoration of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem.” He felt that the day’s modern meaning came from looking at the more recent national disasters that we also mark on that day.

We learn from the Talmud (Tractate Yoma) that the reason that the second Temple was destroyed was “Sinat Chinam” – baseless hatred. And baseless hatred is also behind many of the other tragedies that we mark on this day. It seems to me that perhaps the most meaningful way for liberal Jews to think about this holiday is through the lens of the damage caused by humanity’s tendency towards acts of baseless hatred. We see Sinat Chinam in acts of terror such as the tragic ones that we all heard about last week in Bulgaria and in Aurora, but we also see it on a less violent and less obvious scale in our day to day lives.

Earlier this week, I was listening to the podcast, “Freakonomics,” and the host was talking about how our political affiliations can be almost tribal (about 33:50 into the episode), that we often side with a political party, ascribing to their point of view without even fully researching or understanding everything that we say that we agree with. Political affiliation as tribal? A fascinating idea.

How do tribal affiliations make us behave? I think there are two primary feelings that come out of being a part of a tribe – pride and fear. I often get emails from congregants with lists or videos that talk about the great accomplishments of Jews over the centuries. The things that we, as a people, have managed to do that others have not. These are examples of our tribal pride and, to be honest, they always make me a little uncomfortable. A history of Jews in science, sports, or music makes us proud. A similar history that talked about the genetic or cultural advantages of being Christian, African American, or heaven forbid, white, would make us very wary indeed!

Tribal affiliations also make us feel fear and anxiety. We worry about “the other, “and about our persecution. As Jews we fear anti-semitism. As a liberal, I hear about “the war against women,” and countless other things we have to fear from the right. Conservatives too seem to have a great deal to fear from the other side of the aisle – their rights and liberties will be taken away, government will rule their lives, they will be taxed into poverty.

Both our fear and our pride make us want to close our minds and our ears to the other. Have you ever watched a “news” or talk show where political pundits are supposed to be “debating” an issue? Almost invariably they talk over one another to such an extent that the listener can not absorb any piece of the argument from either side. It’s better that way anyway, if we don’t agree with it, we probably don’t want to hear it. This sample is a little dated, but I think it illustrates my point perfectly.

I would not ordinarily think of myself as the kind of person who would not want to hear an argument that I don’t agree with. I believe that I am open minded, that I like to hear all sides of an issue before deciding how I feel about it. To some extent that is true. I do usually research an issue before I formulate an opinion (though I will admit that some of that research will be done on websites that agree with my political affiliations.) I do try to read both sides of the story, though. Once I have decided my stance, it is hard for me to not only revisit the issue, but even frankly, to listen to the other side.

I have this friend on Facebook. We aren’t really friends. We’re colleagues – but Facebook makes no distinctions. We are polar opposites politically and he posts about politics ALL the time. And my blood pressure goes up with each and every posting. I’ve considered “unfriending” him. I’ve thought about blocking his posts. It is the mere fact that I have pondered these things that illustrates my point. It is hard for me to tolerate this person from another political tribe in my friendship circle. His arguments make me angry. And I am sure the reverse is true. Unfortunately for him, I think most of his “friends” are members of my political tribe.

Is it different face to face? Unfortunately, no. A political discussion between friends at a recent barbeque that I attended almost necessitated the calling of the police. One of the people refused to let the other even finish his side of the argument before talking, yelling, standing and towering over, and then almost physically assaulting. And over what? They disagreed politically? Really?

One of the most brilliant things about our American political system is its innate balance. A president has no real power without congress. Congress is elected by majorities in all of the states. The far left and far right are balanced (we hope) through this system. Real work can only happen when politicians put aside, as much as possible, their “tribal affiliations,” and work for the greater good, listening to what one another has to say and working for balance.

The watchword of our faith is Sh’ma – Listen. It’s a harder thing to do than most of us know, but it is the doorway to peace. When we really hear one another, we can disagree, but it’s harder to hate because you can see the humanity in the face of the other. This means being patient enough to hear their entire argument, and being willing in the end to say, “we agree to disagree.” Our tradition teaches that when we argue for the sake of heaven, the presence of G-d dwells between us.

The Temple was destroyed for Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – a feeling that can only come about with eyes and ears closed. This year as we mark Tisha B’Av let us resolve to bring the essence of Judaism, that listening, into our relationships and our politics. We can mark Tisha B’Av best by donating to organizations that work tirelessly for peace, and dialogue, and by engaging in that work ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.


No. You Can’t Take That Away From Me.

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.