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Pondering the Meaning of Tisha B’Av

This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

Traditional Perspective

Traditionally Eykha, the Book of Lamentations found in the Bible, is chanted on Tisha B’Av. It records the horrors inflicted on the Israelites in 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the land and destroyed the First Temple.1 Its theology is straightforward: God inflicted this terrible punishment because Israel was sinful.2 3 Many rabbis of the talmudic period described the destruction as a result of hastarat panim, the hiding of God’s face, in response to Israel’s sinfulness.4 Traditional Jewish theology holds that if Israel faces its wrongdoing and repents, God will restore at least a remnant to Israel’s rightful place. Many contemporary Jews do not experience the world as reflecting a direct causal effect between human wrongdoing and cosmic punishment. Our theological differences should not interfere with our confronting the reality of the collective losses of the Jewish people and mourning them.5 Remembering our history, mourning our losses and resolving to fight the forces of evil in the world make the observance of Tisha B’Av a powerful annual event.6

The 19th- and early-20th-century Reform movement did not observe Tisha B’Av because early Reform thinkers understood the destruction and exile as necessary to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people—to disperse across the world and bring the Jewish vision of ethical monotheism to all humanity. After the founding of the State of Israel, the Reform commitment to Zionism grew, and today the observance of Tisha B’Av exists in some form in many Reform congregations.

Some have suggested that with the advent of the State of Israel, Tisha B’Av should no longer be observed, that we should put mourning for the loss of Jewish sovereignty behind us.7 8 But many reasons to observe Tisha B’Av remain. Tisha B’Av marks the pain that flows from avoidable cruelty among people and among nations, as well as from war and from the flaws in social systems that prevent many people from experiencing personal liberty and social justice and from having their basic needs met. The advent of the State of Israel has not ushered in messianic days; Israel is still far from achieving its messianic vision of justice, plenty and peace. We still have much to mourn on Tisha B’Av, and the resolve to make things better is no less important.9

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b), the sin that caused the destruction of the Second Temple was sinat ḥinam, baseless hatred among Jews; the rabbis viewed sinat ḥinam as an egregious offense.10 One dimension of Tisha B’Av is concern with the way we treat those around us in both speech and deed. In connecting Tisha B’Av with sinat ḥinam, the rabbis made this an occasion to contemplate the mitzvot beyn adam laḥavero, between individuals and those around them. We have almost endless ways in which we can treat each other well and harm each other. However, the rabbis were teaching that transgression is not only a question of action. It is also about the destructive ill feelings toward others that we carry around in our hearts. These feelings are corrosive to the person who has them, and they leak out, damaging others in unintended ways.11

The Israelite corruption described by the prophets in the Bible was not only personal; it was national. So are many of the problems the world currently faces—hunger caused by war and environmental abuse, homelessness resulting from the shredding of governmental safety nets, a lack of minimally adequate healthcare because of the unfair distribution of resources, business and government corruption driven by greed and lust for power. We may not fear divine retribution, but we have reason to fear the actions of governments, nations, corporations and groups. Tisha B’Av provides an opportunity to confront such issues and to resolve to take action on a regular basis to try to make things better.12 Those designing the observance of Tisha B’Av today face the challenge of moving beyond ritual for its own sake in order to motivate participants to change their personal lives and to act for the good of broader society, particularly around the issue of sinat ḥinam (baseless hatred).13 14 15

Contemporary Significance

A key prophetic idea is that religious practice ought to lead to ethical living. The religious failure involved in observing ritual while shirking moral responsibility is a central concern of Tisha B’Av. When the observance of Tisha B’Av consists only of fasting and prayer, it fails to satisfy this core concern. What might ethical actions look like? A congregation could organize volunteer projects aimed at feeding the hungry and housing the homeless or at supporting civil rights. It could hold a teach-in on social issues, such as sex trafficking or the repression of certain ethnic groups. If individuals cannot bring their congregations to undertake such ethical actions, those individuals can act on their own. Observances similar to those of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day of service, are appropriate to Tisha B’Av.

One of the questions that arise is whether the beneficiaries of our tzedaka and social action should be limited to Jews or to one’s country of residence. While the tragedies marked by Tisha B’Av are all focused on Jews, the message of Tisha B’Av is far broader than this might lead one to believe. (For a more extensive discussion of tzedaka priorities, see A Guide to Jewish Practice: Volume I—Everyday Living, pages 424–449.)16 Mourning our losses should inspire us to become co-creators of a world where no one experiences such losses. Construing the response more narrowly may well involve the sin of sinat ḥinam, of furthering baseless hatred. The rabbis sometimes expressed the hope that the end of Tisha B’Av would someday mark the beginning of messianic days; it is up to us to bring them. The fast we are asked to keep is one that protects widows and orphans, feeds the hungry and frees those who have not yet attained their freedom. Mourning what is lost should inspire us to build a better future for our world.17 18

  • 1. Collective mourning for the Jewish past, especially for the Temple, with its animal sacrifices and priestly class, runs counter to our modern sensibilities. It is a constant challenge for progressive Jews to find meaningful ways of commemorating Tisha B’Av while at the same time remaining true to our core beliefs and values. —S.C.R.
  • 2. Many of the biblical prophets believed that God could control the actions of the ancient nations and empires. They prophesied about the ways in which God would maneuver the enemies of Judea to attack Jerusalem as a punishment for the sins of Jerusalem. —T.K.
  • 3. While some passages in Eykha invoke covenantal transgression as the cause of Israel’s suffering, the majority of the book does not. Rather, most of Eykha sympathizes with Israel and protests the extremity of her suffering while portraying God as a brutal, enraged and destructive force. The haftarah read on the Sabbath following Tisha B’Av reiterates the excessive nature of Israel’s suffering, declaring that Israel has “received at the hand of God double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:2) —E.R.S.
  • 4. The prophet Ezekiel (11:22–23) described a vision in which he saw the presence of God, the kavod, lifting itself up and out of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. The presence, appearing as a cloud, floated over to the Mount of Olives. As soon as God departed from the Temple, the structure became vulnerable to enemy attacks. —T.K.
  • 5. A balanced view of history indicates that, contrary to popular belief, Jews have not always been victims. Nevertheless, the tragic occasions of Jewish history are deserving of recollection. Though Tisha B’Av is a minor holiday, not only in traditional terms but also in its rare observance in the liberal Jewish community, it provides one day a year to remember the saddest events of our past. Whether these events actually took place on this calendar date is irrelevant. For those whose experience of Judaism is overwhelmingly joyful and fun, Tisha B’Av is an essential corrective.
  • 6. Acknowledging our own suffering helps us to empathize with the suffering of others—to experience news of war, oppression and genocide as if they were happening to us. —J.J.S.
  • 7. A close reading of the Bible makes it clear that under the rule of the Israelite kings, including David and Solomon, things were not ideal. The hope that the establishment of the State of Israel is a step on the way to messianic restoration is unrealistic and misguided. We work to right wrongs and injustice because by definition we do not live in a perfect world. —J.J.S.
  • 8. At the Conservative movement summer camp where I grew up, some promoted a tradition of breaking their fast after minḥa (the afternoon service) in an effort to resolve the cognitive dissonance between historic destruction and the establishment of the contemporary State of Israel. —J.G.K.
  • 9. From its earliest days, the Zionist movement drew upon and modernized the ancient Jewish belief in messianic redemption. This impulse continues to infuse elements of contemporary Israeli policy and politics, even as it blends uneasily with the realities of a modern nation-state in a highly politicized region of the world. —D.W.
  • 10. What about outrage that has a basis? The rabbinic teaching that we should avoid sinat ḥinam is often misused to silence real, heartfelt disputes among Jews with regard to what is right, just and sacred. We should not shrink from criticizing other people, including Jews, but we should be attentive to our tone and motivation. We may be angry, but we should seek change, not gratuitous hurt. —J.J.S.
  • 11. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook inspired contemporary Israeli bumper stickers that read “b’ahavat ḥinam yibaneh,” “with generous, unwarranted love it will be built.” The metaphor of building the messianic age through love remains even for Jews who do not believe in a literal rebuilding of a third Temple. —J.G.K.
  • 12. For centuries, some Jews have practiced ḥesed (loving kindness) meditation, sending blessings to all of Creation, orienting their hearts to kindness and good will. Many find that the practice makes them better able to regard and treat others more benevolently. —J.J.S.
  • 13. When the Temple stood, Yom Kippur was an opportunity for purification on three levels: of the Temple itself, of the nation Israel and of each individual. With the destruction of the Temple, the first two purifications lost their mechanism and their meaning, and Yom Kippur has become exclusively focused on personal atonement. Tisha B’Av now serves as a framework for collective reflection and repentance. —D.W.
  • 14. The rabbis’ emphasis on the role of sinat ḥinam in the destruction of the Temple is a challenging legacy. While many liberal Jews reject the literal truth of this assertion, it can be embraced as an invitation to do the work of musar—of examining our own hearts, attributes and inclinations as we interact with others from day to day. Meaningful observances for Tisha B’Av or for the nine days or three weeks leading up to that date might involve personal musar work as well as communal tikun olam efforts. —L.T.P.
  • 15. The Jewish community today is seemingly in constant upset over discussions about Israel and its search for peace with its Palestinian neighbors. The relentless external threats to Israel’s survival raise such powerful emotional issues for many Jews that they have generated a modern equivalent of sinat ḥinam — expressions of hatred by one Jew against another simply because of differing political positions on Israel and its domestic and foreign policies. —S.C.R.
  • 16. The appropriate focus of social justice work and ameliorative activities—whether directed toward an individual, a community or issues on a broader level—is an ongoing debate among liberal Jews. In premodern times, our ancestors lived in segregated communities, so their g’milut ḥesed activities were almost always directed at fellow Jews. We liberal Jews live in integrated communities and share concerns and commitments with non-Jewish friends and neighbors. When the prophets railed that we should feed the hungry, were they talking about the Israelite hungry or anyone who is hungry? Where should Jewish time and money be directed? For a discussion of these issues, see the pages from –A Guide to Jewish Practice: Volume I—Everyday Living cited above.
  • 17. One way to commemorate the destructive power of sinat ḥinam, “baseless hatred of Jew against Jew” is to use Tisha B’Av as an annual Day of Reconciliation, bringing together Jews of different political opinions (especially related to Israel) to demonstrate civility and the real meaning of being part of a caring community. —S.C.R.
  • 18. Another possible approach to the issue of sinat ḥinam is to create an opportunity for interfaith dialogue between clergy and lay members of all faiths. Such experiences lay the groundwork for a truly modern vision of the messianic age, when all people recognize the godliness in the other. —S.C.R.

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