Tisha B’Av: Ask the Laity

Jewish religious leaders I know struggle for three weeks every summer. These are the three weeks that span the time between the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar on the 17th of Tammuz, 586 BCE and the 9th of Av, when the First Temple was destroyed.

Most of those leaders are in some process of mourning for the pain of our past. In the meantime, the laity, temple affiliated or not, are spending these weeks squeezing in their last vacation time. They are going for a swim at a nearby pool, generally relaxing in the steam of a summer’s day.

Most American Jews I have met have never heard of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) and do not know that this day marks not only the destruction of the First Temple, but the destruction of the Second Temple as well by Roman forces in 70 CE. They are unaware that the second destruction destroyed any semblance of Jewish sovereignty (not that there was so very much of that under the Romans) and that the crisis ushered in two thousand years of oppression and homelessness for Europe’s Jews. They do not know the litany of miseries many Jews experienced that occurred on this self-same day – expulsions, massacres, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

One method of handling the fact that American Jews don’t “relate” to Tisha B’Av, its accompanying reading (the Book of Lamentations), or its rituals (a day long fast, among other things) has begun to drive me crazy.

It goes like this: Look for the light around the edges of the shadow.
  Find the blessings in the pain.

This approach mostly relies on making the case that if it weren’t for the destruction of the Second Temple, there would be no such thing as rabbinic Judaism, and that without the rabbis, Judaism would have died on the vine.

The argument goes that classical Judaism emerged from the life-saving work of rabbis who wrote down the Oral Tradition, made law into yet more literature in the Mishnah, composed the Tosefta, the Midrash, and the Talmuds that would function as the basis of a reconstituted Judaism, instituted the synagogue worship, and democratized the study of Torah.

But scholars like Seth Schwartz and Daniel Boyarin have long since demonstrated that the rabbis of the first three or four centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple were marginal to Jewish existence. Coinage demonstrates that a number of Jewish communities worshipped Greek gods. Burial sites feature pagan symbols and are nearly bereft of Jewish ones. Documents from the period demonstrate that rabbinical law is not governing marriage or trade agreements. It is not a subject for everyday life. Neither is Torah mentioned.

Archeological remains from synagogues of the first centuries after the destruction demonstrate that rabbis were widely ignored. Synagogues do not face the “correct” direction, entrances are in the wrong location, and the mosaics on the floors and walls demonstrate a remarkable love for pagan motifs. There is little to no evidence of a structured liturgy led by rabbis. Synagogues are used primarily for fundraising and festive meals (efforts mostly led by non-rabbinical village officials). The rabbis themselves don’t seem to be all that sympathetic to synagogal life, in any case, preferring, in the Mishnah, to write about and record a Temple cult that no longer existed.

Historians have known for decades that the rabbis had little to no power to make Jewish communities do much of anything. The rabbis were given their first real power by an institutionalized Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries. Priests and bishops, now the representatives of the state religion, chose the rabbis as their complimentary functionaries. In significant measure, the rabbis owe their position in Jewish communities to Christian clergy.

So why is the actual material culture of our post-destruction ancestors relevant to our understanding of Tisha B’Av?

The Jews of Late Antiquity are proof that the am ha’aretz can be trusted. We have them to thank for the work of renewal.  Somehow, despite giving their children Greek and Roman names, somehow despite their happy recital of incantations that evoked not only Adonai Tzvaot but other area deities, they held on to their ancestral identity.

We have to believe that American Jews at the pool and on vacation will do the same thing.  They are, in fact, doing just that. What can Tisha B’Av mean? Let’s ask them. They will have answers. 
They always do.

We have already met with the worst that can be done to us short of a wholly successful act of genocide. Judaism will survive, no matter how our am ha’aretz morphs and changes and renews what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism.  Jewish renewal is actually an ancient thing.

It doesn’t depend on rabbis.



Last week, Jews marked our annual commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem set afire, and Israel’s leaders exiled.  The text of Lamentations is our assigned reading on Tisha B’Av. 

It is a text of anguish.  Each of its five poems shatter equanimity; they refuse to offer easy answers.  In its opening chapters, Daughter Zion, who represents God’s abused people,   accuses God of murderous abandonment.

Years ago, I wrote a lament in honor of women who have been cruelly and brutally mistreated.  I dedicated it to a woman who had told me her story, who had crawled out from under the weight of eighteen years of domestic violence.

In the day just before Tisha B’Av, a woman told me of a friend who had been sexually abused by her father.  The day of Tisha B’Av, in a small congregational study group, women spoke of suffering they had known.  I knew the backstory in each case.

I have grown into my middle aged life hearing laments from too many women, laments that have their source in the emotional and physical and sexual mistreatment they have known from men. 

There is much to lament in our world.  There is too much to lament in our world.

Yet we must lament, to honor our sorrow and our pain.  We must lament in order to have a prayer at healing.

Yet, I longed last week, as I do again and again and again, for a world in which no child is harmed, in which every woman is safe, in which each man is at peace.  I want humanity to be simply good.  I refuse to lose my childish confusion; I insist that kindness cannot be so very hard. Generosity should be as easy as smiling.

The rabbis say that one good deed so gladdens our souls and spirits that after the doing of a mitzvah, we will want to do another right away.

I pray for the doing of mitzvahs.

Lamentations 1: 1-5

Cheryl’s Lament, by Barbara Thiede

How lonely is she now,

  the once crowded city!

Widowed is she

   who was mistress over nations;

The princess among the provinces

   has been made a toiling slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night,

   tears upon her cheeks,

With not one to console her

   of all her dear ones;

Her friends have all betrayed her

   and become her enemies.

Judah has fled into exile

   from oppression and cruel slavery;

Yet where she lives among the nations

   she finds no place to rest:

All her persecutors come upon her

   where she is narrowly confined

The roads to Zion mourn

   for lack of pilgrims going to her feasts;

All her gateways are deserted,

   her priests groan,

Her virgins sigh;

   she is in bitter grief.

Her foes are uppermost,

   her enemies are at ease;

God has punished her

   for her rebellions.

Her little ones have gone away,

   captive before the foe.

How alone I am!

  Once I believed you my love.

You called me bitch

  the night we married;

Just hours after I fairly danced

  to meet you under the chuppah.

I weep when you sleep;

  you will not have another reason to

  deride me.

Who would believe me

  if I said it aloud?

(I whisper to myself:

  He wants to kill me.)

I was confined behind four walls,

  shut down, shut in.

My mother told me,

  I must lie in the bed I made.

I stayed for eighteen years;

  they were death, not life.

You made it clear:

  No family, friends, or guests allowed.

Our house was filled

  with threats and fear instead.

The children and I crouched in corners;

  we tried to be quiet.

I left when they were grown,

  but you still control me.

Look: my son does not see

  how he lives my life!

And my daughter, too, is caught

  in the terror of your devising.