Is There Anything Interesting About Tisha B’Av?

I’m going to discuss the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av (begins at sundown July 19) with Dr. Kirschbaum this evening on my live cam and Monday at 7 pm PST with Rabbi Rabbs.

Dr. Kirschbaum writes long ago for Tikkun magazine:

There is a well known teaching that appears several times in the Talmud and Midrash (JT Yoma 1:1, Yalkut Tehillim 886), which states that “any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is considered as if that generation had itself destroyed the Temple.” Certainly this would seem to be a rather severe judgment, for as the Sefat Emet points out, many generations containing many great and righteous people have passed without the Temple being rebuilt, and it would be fairly extreme to say of them that they had personally destroyed the Temple. Actually, it would be fairly harsh to say of any innocent people that they had committed crimes of such magnitude in a reckoning of a non-event, that is, in the Temple not being rebuilt. Thus, the question for us, is whether there is some other way to understand this teaching, that might perhaps give a whole new way of looking at the Jewish tradition of historical mourning?

To some extent, this question is provoked by some of the more standard approaches found in some Jewish popular writings. For example, in this week’s LA Jewish Journal, a Rabbi affiliated with one of the outreach programs writes:

“The fact that Tisha B’Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. Gd deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes…”

In other words, Tisha B’Av is not about remembering the trauma of war and destruction, not about the huge number of people murdered by an invading empire (some scholars estimate the number of dead during the second Temple destruction at about one million dead), not about human suffering at all, rather it serves the purpose, as, in this argument, does all religious practice, of being a divinely inspired “bummer” to prevent you from having too much “fun” “fun” being obviously be a pretty bad thing if Gd needs to make orphans of so many children just to be a killjoy. Thus, we can say that the answer to the questions of our relation to the history of human suffering is not to be found in this approach.

An answer to our initial Midrashic questionis proposed by the Sefat Emet, and answer that fits well into an approach to history in general presented by an almost Hasidic thinker, who was himself in the end a victim of the same class of tragedy commemorated by Tisha B’Av, Walter Benjamin. The Sefat Emet proposes that verb “rebuilt”; in the original quotation is not a one time affair. The rebuilding of the Temple, as it were, is a continuous process that transcends any one generation. Rather, he states: “…The merit of each generation adds a bit of building to the rebuilding of the Temple, and this building continues for all the years of the diaspora, as the prayer states, "who rebuilds Jerusalem" (in the Hebrew the verb is in the present tense).”

Thus, there is some contribution by every generation, and as the Sefat Emet himself extends the reading, there is a brick in the wall contributed by every individual.

We can universalize this teaching, with the help of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, argues that the role of history is one of rescue, where the injustice perpetuated on the victims of history can be identified, learned from, and thus prevented in the present and future, thus serving as a kind of redemption of the past. The victims “have a retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.” His approach to history “…wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… the Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins…”

In summary, the goal of history, or for our purposes, the commemoration of historical events as a praxis, is meant to give meaning to, to rescue and redeem, the hopes and dreams of those who were trampled by the victorious, those ruling classes who are also those who generally get to write the “standard” histories. By remembering and commemorating them, we are “endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.”

Dr. Kirschbaum writes about the Torah portion beginning Deuteronomy:

When I taught this particular shiur in Jerusalem a few years ago, I reflected how religious society had responded in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination. Up until that point, there was the well known rhetoric of the religious right, that was so popular in the Dati Leumi world, the whole terrible “Rabin Boged” and the “Rodef” bit. Very few had the desire to stand up and challenge this establishment; even in Katamon, among all the spiritual Jewish meditation types these ultra right sentiments were common, partly, I think, because no one really took the ramifications seriously. It was the kind of infantile raving we were all used to hearing from high school rebbeim, all of us knowing that deep down they are “good guys” (those of us from the NY yeshiva world know what that phrase usually means), and it didn’t really mean anything- bogus tough talk from the disempowered. Then Yigal Amir murdered Yitzhak Rabin. Suddenly at that moment, it seems, people woke up. The legitimacy of more left wing diversity among the erstwhile monolithic Dati Leumi world became apparent, as seen in the rise of Carlebach minyanim, the descent of the centrality of Mercaz Harav and Gush Emunim in religious discourse, etc. This, I hoped, was a contemporary parallel of R. Zadok’s teaching. The next week someone from the shiur related that as a result of this teaching he was moved to take the bus over to Har Herzl and visit Rabin’s grave. This was the moment of which I am most proud in my teaching life.

Unfortuately, there is still so much work to do. R. Ovadiah Yosef continues with his remarkable statements, and now, suddenly, there is a reawakening of violence from the religious right. Turning to other dark elements in religious society, I’m reminded of R. Avigdor Nebenzahl’s public shiur a year ago, which was printed up in its entirety in the Israeli press. He is a “revered figure”, thought of as a saint of the Dati Leumi (national religious) world, and his perashat hashavua book is very popular, found in many an educated Israeli dati home. In this speech, aside from the predictable wild eyed right wing polemic, he introduced some rabid racial statements, claiming that it is obvious to everyone that the Blacks are at the bottom of the human race, naturally justified by the curse of Noah to his son, Ham. I was, well, a bit stunned. When I commented on this to people at the Carlebach minyan (the full text of the sermon was posted on the wall of the synagogue) in Givat Shemuel, I got a lot of the old, well, you know, deep down he’s really a good person, and he didn’t really mean it like that, etc- the same justification so familiar from the pre-retzach Rabin days.

Perhaps at this time, just before perashat Devarim, at the time of Tisha B’av, we must demand from ourselves and our community a new kind of tochacha, a continued introspective presence. We must emerge out of thepersecuted position and take responsibility for our speech. We must learn to face each other, and the entire world, from a newly re-examined perspective, one which recognizes the intrinsic humanity of every human being, regardless of theological perspective, race, gender, or personal choices, de-emphasize socially problematic texts and perspectives, and re-emphasizes those that lead to solidarity with human suffering of all sorts among all peoples we come face to face with. I believe that this is the lesson of the book of Devarim; it was necessary at the birth of our nation just upon taking the responsibility of living in the Land, and it is no less relevant today. Perhaps, then, we will actualize the tochacha which leads to mutual respect, love, and the courage to strive for peace.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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