Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
Our U.S. government recognized Jerusalem as capital of Israel on May 14, 2018, and dedicated its embassy there, moving it from Tel Aviv. I don’t understand how we can continue to commemorate the 9th day of Av as a sad fast day that memorializes Jerusalem as a destroyed desolate city, when the facts of today totally contradict that. Doesn’t the reality of today’s circumstances make it time to abolish the fasting and mourning of that day?
Puzzled in Paramus
We need to ask in general — why should we cede to religion the ability to legislate our emotions? What is the benefit of making people sad and mournful through rituals? Religion can do this, to a degree. By requiring fasting, by forbidding weddings from taking place, banning music for three weeks, by prohibiting haircuts and shaving, religion can try to manipulate moods and motivations. But why?
For many Jews who choose to become less observant, Tisha B’Av fasting and lamenting are among the first religious practices that they will abandon when leaving rigorous practices behind. After all, they may rationalize that it is a rabbinic rather than a scriptural practice. And it’s not relevant anymore, now that Israel has been rebuilt.
And yet, in spite of such arguments and developments, intelligent, learned Orthodox clergy stand steadfastly behind the commemorations and the rituals associated with them. What do they see that you don’t see — and that I at times have not seen or agreed with? Is there some profound wisdom in making laws for fasting and mourning and recalling destructions?
Rigorous practitioners will say yes, there is, because the sacred locus of Judaism was taken from us by force and violence.
We lost our holy place — the Temple — the address where God dwelled.
But you might argue, should we not get over that? Should the sages not recognize that they themselves created vibrant alternatives to fill the sacred void? Look at all our synagogues, temples, and yeshivas.
Perhaps then there is another more powerful message and purpose for Jews embedded in the collection of mourning, fasting and lamenting actions for Tisha B’Av.
The stark fact we learn from the past is that evil exists — that eventually our enemies will practice evil to attack the core of our spirit and to try to destroy it, and us along with it. We have seen it in terrifying instances of our history. We should not forget. We must not forget. Because evil can and will happen again.
We keep on seeing it in the annals of our people. For us as Jews: Pogroms. Persecutions. The Holocaust. For us as Americans: Pearl Harbor. 9/11. And more.
Our enemies will target our sacred places, where they target us as Jews. Where they attack us in our secular America, they will go after our core institutions of commerce, military might, and symbolic political meaning,
So yes, we need to memorialize our memories of evil and suffering in our sacred tribal rituals. It is a matter of essential self-preservation. The ways we do that — trying to manipulate emotions — may seem crude and superficial — but that is what we have.
You may argue that through education and monuments and cultural events we can reach the same end. We don’t have to fast and ban haircuts. Perhaps that is true. But this is what we have, and perhaps we ought not abandon the practices and lessons inherent in them.
I am sure that if we turn our backs for one hour, our enemies will not just harm us. They will assail the core of our inspiration. They again will burn our temple, plow over our sacred city to teach us that they have defeated us, to demoralize us to our essences.
They will fly into our tallest buildings, blow up our planes, terrorize our cities, to undermine the security of our lives.
That is how evil thinks. We have seen it. We memorialize it in ritual practice. We teach it. We must do that to preserve ourselves as a people, as Jews. We must do that to preserve ourselves as free Americans.
Fasting and mourning are some of the means we have to keep the sad gruesome realities of the world in front of us so that we may avert the next potential effort by the forces of evil to cruelly assault us for being who we are. It will happen again. We need to remember that and be ready.
But at the same time we must be truthful in what we say in our liturgies and rituals.
Thirty-two years ago, on August 13, 1986, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Jerusalem Post saying that Jerusalem is not desolate. My underlying point was that when we pray, it’s false to say that Jerusalem today is in ruins.
The title that the editors assigned to the op ed was, “Some prefer to give it a new meaning,” although that’s not exactly what I said. Here is the editorial:
“I shall be fasting this week [for Tisha B’Av]. But this year, more than ever before, I feel silly mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem. I really do not know what to do when it comes time to listen to and recite for myself the classical laments for the fast of Tisha B’Av. Much of what we say about Jerusalem in the synagogue is just not true anymore.
“It is obvious to anyone and everyone that Jerusalem does not lie in ruins. On the contrary, this is my fourth extended visit to Jerusalem in the last seven years. Over the last seven years I have watched as buildings spread out from the center of town to the new neighborhoods. Now Jerusalem sprawls across the hills of Judea, south and north from Gilo to Ramot and beyond.
“On the ninth day of Av this year the observant Jews of Jerusalem will congregate in synagogues throughout the city to mourn and lament. What they say inside these halls will not reflect the reality immediately outside them.
“And so this year I have resolved to add a few silent paragraphs to my prayers. Then when I leave the synagogue and step out into the rebuilt city of our people, I will feel that I have been candid in my meditations and forthright in my worship. I shall say something like this:
“‘Jerusalem is not desolate. It stands glorious above our Land. Our capital looks down on the miracle of the modern state of our people, rebuilt by the sweat and labor of our brethren and sisters. A thousand settlements testify to our return and we are homeless no more.’
“‘The inhabitants of Jerusalem are not homeless. Beautiful buildings abound, apartments, condominiums, villas, large and small. Hotels and hostels, old and new. Whosoever wishes may come and live here. Whosoever is hungry shall find sustenance here.’
“‘Enemies do not govern our land. The Knesset, the site of our self-government, stands at the center of our new metropolis, a vibrant testimony to our freedom. Independent and sovereign, we struggle with each other and with the states of the world, and somehow, we manage to live in harmony among ourselves, and to survive in the swirling community of nations.’
“‘Yes, the Temple was destroyed. Buy we have built other edifices in its stead. Long ago, in another age, our national center was taken from us by forces we could not resist. But now we have built new structures where we symbolize and express our spirit, our minds and our creative energies, and most of all, our freedom.’
“‘A great synagogue and many more stand in our capital. They serve as the many beating hearts of our spiritual organs. In dozens of yeshivot, teachers build the religious minds of our youth. Schools abound. When school is in session, wherever you turn there are children on their way to classes from kindergartens to high schools, soaking up the knowledge of our world.’
“‘A great Hebrew University answers to the essence of our wider educational appetites, in the capital of our nation. In its laboratories, classrooms and libraries, students try to unravel the mysteries of nature and society and strive to construct a new and better order.’
“‘The Israel Museum, the Bezalel School, the Jerusalem Theatre and other institutions small and large. cater to our cultural needs. In Jerusalem we display our past and our present. We sing and dance and we mourn no more. We paint and draw and sculpt and adorn the urban hub of our people, the crown of our land.’
“‘As we watch, day-by-day, luxury hotels go up and up. Lush green gardens bloom before us. We repose in parks and swimming pools. We find our needs in supermarkets, bakeries and department stores. And we indulge our extravagances in shops and markets, elegant restaurants and offbeat cafes.’
“‘The city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt. Still, the work is never done. And the struggle will not end. But: our city is not desolate. How can we mourn? We must, yes, we are obliged, indeed, it is the highest duty, for us to celebrate. For with God’s help, but in accordance with our own will and with our own hands, we have raised Jerusalem beyond its highest heights. Never before in all of our history has this city attained such glory.’
“‘And so that is what I shall add as I conclude my lamentations on Tisha B’Av this year. I shall be cheerful this year, and I will not mourn. But I shall do so silently, because this is my own private devotion. Will others join me?’”
That was my message three decades ago. Today, we witness the embassy move and the amazing infrastructure changes, including a modern light rail, and new buildings and businesses and population growth and so much more in Jerusalem.
We must not ignore the past and we cannot predict the future. But we should not ignore the present.
So I’m not quite ready to abolish Tisha B’Av, but surely I would recommend that we modify the liturgy we recite so that it describes present day Jerusalem more accurately.
Tzvee Zahavy has been a professor of advanced Talmud, halachah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern and Jewish studies, and religious studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He is a prolific author who has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.