By the waters of Babylon
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By the waters of Babylon

Local scholars look at the horror and the beauty of Tisha B'Av

Tisha B’Av, which always falls during golden summer, is the darkest day of the Jewish year. It marks the times when our enemies triumphed, and those tragedies echo through our history.

It’s the day, our tradition tells us, when both Temples fell, when Jerusalem was conquered, its inhabitants massacred, and the Jews who survived herded away.

This year, Tisha B’Av, which begins on Monday evening, has an added resonance because of the nightmare in Israel and Gaza, which began soon before the three weeks that usher in the period of mourning that climaxes in Tisha B’Av and has grown only more intense.

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Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick, left, and Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Diamond

Two local scholars, Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick and Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Diamond, both of Teaneck, agreed to talk about Tisha B’Av, its history, its relevance, and the relationship between the beauty and horror inherent in its liturgy. Rabbi Chernick was ordained and earned his doctorate at Yeshiva University; he teaches Talmud at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Diamond was ordained at Yeshiva University, and he teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is a professor of Talmud and rabbinics.

The Romans destroyed the Second Temple because “the Jews were a pain in the neck,” Rabbi Chernick said. That was in 79 C.E.; the Bar Kochba revolt followed in 132. “You would have thought that they would have got it by that point, but no. There was another revolt, in Sepphoris, in 351,” he said.

“So what was going on that caused the Jews to revolt as many times as they did?” he asked. “They revolted many more times than any other group in the Roman Empire.” It’s not just because they resented their overlords, as all conquered groups did. “No, it was because they found it theologically unacceptable that the Romans should have domination over the land of Israel.” When the Romans acted as conquerors – when they placed their standard, with the image of an eagle, on the gates of the Temple – “That’s all the Jews needed.” They fought back and, invariably, eventually they lost.

Although it is likely not the case that both Temples were destroyed on the ninth day in the month of Av – Tisha B’Av – Jewish tradition applied some creative anachronism. There is also a midrash saying that the spies returned from casing the Land of Israel during the beginning of the Israelites’ stay in the wilderness and reported it to be desirable but unconquerable, thus dooming an entire generation to wander and die outside the land, on Tisha B’Av. The Sephardim date the expulsion from Spain to Tisha B’Av. It is not a good day for Jews.

Although summer in Israel is hot, it is still a time of fecundity, Rabbi Chernick said, when trees bear fruit and their aroma is in the air. “It is a jarring time to be mourning,” he said.

In the Ashkenazi tradition, mourning for the disasters of Tisha B’Av lasts for much of the summer, with the three weeks and the eight days before demanding increasing levels of self-denial.

There is a custom not to say the blessing over anything new, and therefore not to eat, use, or buy anything new, so that there would be need to say that blessing, the Shehecheyanu, he said. “There is all that good summer fruit that Eastern European Jews would avoid. There is a sense that the tragedy is intensified by some Jews, who push away every enjoyment that you could have in the summer.”

The three-week period starting on the 17th of Tammuz, which is said to mark the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls, begins with a dusk-to-dawn fast, and of course Tisha B’Av is a full fast. The period shows the difference between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi world views, Rabbi Chernick said. The intensity of the period fed the Ashkenazic tendency toward asceticism that began in the Middle Ages, which led some Jews to fast on Mondays and Thursdays – Torah reading days – either during part or even throughout the year. “If it hurts, it’s Ashkenazic,” Rabbi Chernick said.

The Talmud says that a person’s joy should increase during the month of Adar, which includes the no-holds-barred holiday of Purim. But joy should diminish during Av. “The Ashkenazim took that to mean that you don’t eat meat and you don’t drink wine, except maybe on Shabbos,” Rabbi Chernick said. “The nine days menu tends to be a lot of dairy, and it stretches many cooks’ imaginations. The Sephardic community observes those restrictions only starting on the week in which Tisha B’Av falls, so this year they start on Sunday and end Monday night.”

Rabbi Chernick said that he once went to Tisha B’Av services at Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that is the oldest in New York City. “It is one of the most beautiful services on the face of the earth,” he said. “It is intense, but there is no yelling or crying. It’s very austere. The synagogue is set up with dim lights, just candles, and the ark has a black curtain in front of it. The kinnot – the dirges – are sung to a lot of different melodies, very frequently with congregational participation.

“You can really have the sense that 1492″ – when the Jews were expelled from Spain – “happened about three minutes ago.”

The book of Lamentations – Eicha – is chanted on Tisha B’Av; its verses of horror and despair, thought to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah, are sung to a melody of haunting beauty.

How long does it take for horror to be remembered with beauty?

One of the psalms associated with Tisha B’Av is 137, which begins “By the waters of Babylon” and is set after the destruction of the first Temple on that day. “Our enemies ask us there to sing the songs of Zion, but how can we sing those songs in a foreign land?” Rabbi Chernick said. “We are supposed to picture the people going into Babylonian exile, and if they are saying that they couldn’t sing the songs of Zion, at that moment they probably couldn’t. The Talmud says that after the destruction of the Temple, songs that had been sung at weddings were prohibited, as was all instrumental music.”

But that ban could not last for more than one generation. “It was found that the people couldn’t resist music, so the rabbis said OK, we have to back off from there. There is a limit to how much you can demand from people, and there was a tendency in rabbinic Judaism to demand from people only what they could do.

“Music is a palliative for horror,” he continued. “Sometimes a beautiful setting is an attempt to blunt the reality of all this stuff.”

The conversation came back to the nightmare in Israel and Gaza. “I saw a heartrending YouTube video,” Rabbi Chernick said. “It’s not really about beauty – but maybe it is.

“It shows kids with their teachers in a safe room in Israel. All sorts of things are going off overhead, and these little kids – 6, 7, maybe 8 at the oldest – and they’re all singing this song, with hand motions, about what’s going on. It’s done to decrease the fear and terror that they are feeling. You see them smiling. It’s a game – the let’s-get-into-the-safe-room-because-it’s-dangerous-out game – and there are motions, like my legs are shaking.

“They made a game out of this horrendous situation. I think that in some ways the music is to keep people from feeling the intensity of the historic reality.

“Sometimes some of the music is almost inappropriate, in that it’s kind of happy. You really sense that someone put these words to this music to make them seem less powerful. Almost as if to say that it couldn’t really have been that bad.”

There is some ambivalence about Tisha B’Av in the modern world, Rabbi Diamond said. The condition for which the liturgy seems to yearn is the restoration of the Temple, and “there is a feeling somewhere between ambivalence and distance from the sacrificial cult,” particularly in the liberal Jewish world, he said. “There are plenty of people who pray for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash” – the Temple – “but I am not always so sure that in their heart of hearts that is what they want. And anyway it would be a tall order.

“The sense in which Tisha B’Av does have a hold is the narrative of us as an oppressed people,” he continued. “Whereas Pesach is the optimistic story of coming out of oppression, Tisha B’Av is a look at all the times when liberation has not come.

“Traditionally, the importance of Tisha B’Av from a religious perspective is that is sees the destruction of the Temples as punishment from God.

“It is better to see it that way than as just something that happened – the enemy being a superior military force. That would mean that history is not part of the divine plan, and that God is absent, or really is not concerned with us.”

Although it is a day of mourning, it is also a day of reflection and repentance,” Rabbi Diamond said.

Another way to look at Tisha B’Av is that destruction is brought about by sinat chinam – senseless hatred – in this case among Jews, “when we haven’t stood together as a people,” he said. “When you put something in the background, what you have left moves to the foreground.” Because liberal Jews do not see Tisha B’Av necessarily as God’s punishment, they are more likely to see it as a response to hatred. They often tie it as well to the prophets’ call for social justice; it is a similar although not identical theme.

A third approach to the day comes from the Conservative movement, where some people “have taken on the idea of fasting for half a day. If you are not tied to the rebuilding of the Temple, then what takes its place is the establishment of the State of Israel.” Fasting for half a day acknowledges both our history of exile and our return to the land.

Recently, Rabbi Diamond said, Tisha B’Av has been tied to the Holocaust. That is particularly true at summer camps. The day falls during the camp season, after all, and it poses a great challenge to administrators and staff. But that connection comes with its own built-in contradictions. “I think once you associate Tisha B’Av with the Holocaust, then you really are bringing up something new – the tragic nature of Jewish history.

“You are thinking about the evil that dwells in the human heart, but now it’s not sinat chinam, not about Jews, but instead it’s about the Other.

“If you ask most Jews in the country about what’s most important about their Jewish identity they will mention the Holocaust,” he said. Although that seems to be a circular argument – the reason to remember the Holocaust is to remain Jewish, and the reason to remain Jewish is to remember the Holocaust – it is a popular one. “But it’s really moving far from the original sense of Tisha B’av.”

Rabbi Diamond said that the elegiac music of Tisha B’Av indeed is beautiful, but it does not contradict the words. And the words, he said, are not full only of horror, but also of anger. “The prophet is turning to God, and saying ‘How can you allow this to happen?'” he said. “Eicha is extremely complex, in a way that I find beautiful and meaningful.

“It is somebody stumbling around, trying to make sense of what is happening. At the beginning, there is a picture of desolation, a description of sinfulness and the cruelty of other nations.

“And then the prophet begins talk to God.

“In the beginning, it’s all at a distance, in the third person. And then the prophet breaks in, as if he can’t take it any more. He turns to God, and says, ‘Whatever we did, this is just unacceptable. It is cruel. It is totally out of proportion.’ And then, especially in the third chapter, there is the theme of God as the enemy. And then you have the theme of reconciliation. And throughout there is the call for vengeance.

“There are a number of themes, and that’s what’s so great about the book.

“At the beginning, you could think that this is a neat package. ‘I am born to destruction, and I acknowledge that it came about through our sinfulness’ – but it’s not that simple. We want to return, and we want you to return to us. That is the side of light. And then the dark side is the call for vengeance.

“This may be apologetics, but the way I interpret that call is that for Jews, the world should be – has to be – a just place. If people do the horrible things that they do, and in particular they do the horrible things they do to the Jewish people, and there is no retribution, that means that we are living in an unjust world.

“Some of the calls for vengeance are just visceral, but I think that in there is something saying that God has to be just.

“One of the themes of Eicha is asking where is justice. We were punished way beyond what we deserve. Where is the justice? How did the people who did this get to walk away and go on living their lives?

“I am very interested in liturgy,” Rabbi Diamond said. Quoting an Elton John song, “Sad Songs Say So Much,” he said that “‘When every bit of hope is gone,’ it becomes OK liturgically to attack God in some daring ways.” Meir of Rothenberg, the 13th century French scholar, wrote a kinnah in reaction to seeing Torah scrolls burnt in a town square. “He says, ‘Maybe, God – tell me if I have got this right – maybe you are allowing these Torot to be burned to say that we should lay aside the old covenant and pick up the new one.’

“He is really trying to provoke God, using anger and sarcasm.”

This tone is not found often – and when it is, it is Ashkenazi – “and it is striking to me because in general we see very little complaint in our liturgy. The kinnot are one of the few places where at least some liturgical poets allow them to be angry.

“It’s like Job, when Job has nothing left. Then he is ready to say, ‘You know what? I don’t accept this.’

“He is not going to be a good boy anymore. He is not willing to go as far as his wife, who tells him to curse God and die.

“Why should we accept that God has a plan? We have nothing now. God has taken everything away, so there is nothing left but anger.”

Eicha allows the anger to surface, and then, at the very end, there is some room for hope. The book’s movement is no more simple and clean than the story it tells, but it does not end with despair.

May that be a model for the world today.

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