Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Looking Back on Tisha B'Av

DH tells me that he decided to begin fasting on Tisha b'Av when he first paid attention to the words of Eicha. It was not the laments over the loss of the Temple that moved him, but the descriptions of human suffering: people falling by the sword, dying of starvation during the siege, mothers eating their children. When I have cried on Tisha B'Av, it has not been for the Temple, either. It has always been for the same parts of Eicha, and for the kinot that we read in the morning, about the victims of the sack of Jerusalem, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust . . . It is a lot to handle in a single day.

I wrote about this aspect of Tisha b'Av a while ago. But after reading the book of Eicha this year, after reciting the kinot (lamentation poems), and, of course, after reading a few thoughtful blog entries, I began to see things a little bit differently. Tisha B'Av is fundamentally about Jerusalem and the Temple. To turn it into a day of general reflection on human suffering -- or even on Jewish suffering -- is to neglect what was the heart of Tisha b'Av for millennia.

Our present situation is very different from that of past generations of Jews. They could dream of the resettlement of Jerusalem, which would, naturally, be accompanied by the rebuilding of the Temple and bring an end to all their suffering. Today, it is possible to listen to Eicha in a beautiful, rebuilt Jerusalem, full of Jews. At the same time, it is evident that our troubles have not come to an end. Traditional Jews have redirected their focus from the resettlement of Jerusalem to the rebuilding of the Temple, which, it is believed, will usher in the messianic age. But most of us -- even those who truly believe that the Temple will one day be rebuilt -- are not particularly energized by the idea. (I must admit, the very thought of the infighting that would ensue when we tried to reinstate the Temple service makes me shudder.)

This is not only an issue on Tisha B'Av. One of the central themes of the Jewish liturgy is our hope for the restoration of the sacrificial order, and our sadness at having to substitute mere words for cows and goats. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist prayer books alter, downplay, or omit the portions of the liturgy that emphasize this theme, but the idea is too pervasive to be completely eradicated.

Out of Step Jew asks, "can we still cry for Jerusalem? And if that answer is no – then have we lost some of our Jewishness?" Perhaps. But I would rather think that this aspect of our "Jewishness" has simply changed in nature. If we are unable to pray for redemption in exactly the form that our ancestors envisioned it, what can we pray for instead? What should we mourn for on Tisha b'Av? And what is the role of Jerusalem in all this -- real, physical, contemporary Jerusalem?

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