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Why I’m not “celebrating” Tisha b’Av this year

07/20/2010

Today is Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, a day that commemorates almost every majorly rotten thing that has happened to Jews in the last 2500+ years:

  • The destruction of the 1st Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
  • The destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
  • The crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132 CE.
  • Expulsion from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.
  • The mass deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.
  • The bombing of  the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 86.

Destruction. Exile. Deportation. Understandably, we mourn. We keen. We read the Book of Lamentations, verse after verse describing the fate of Jerusalem and her inhabitants — how the walls burned and mothers ate their children, how our enemies overpowered us. The Book of Job is also read in some congregations for good measure.

Folks, I’ve tried to embrace the 9th of Av, but I just can’t. My spouse Bruce says it’s good to remind yourself at least once a year what it is like to lose everything. Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, finds meaning in the holiday thus: (W)e go down as a community into that pit of despair — in order to remember devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe… has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow.

Try as I might, though, I just can’t make it work:

1. The theology. The Temples were destroyed (with God’s help) because of our bad deeds. For national sins and forsaking Torah, the 1st Temple came down; for causeless hatred the 2nd.  The reasoning behind causeless self-hatred appeals – we should lose our shirts if we can’t play nice –  but not enough to make up for the rest of the cause & effect theology.

2. Modernity. Yes, what happened to our ancestors was horrific. Yes, the destruction of the Temples (every other calamity was tacked on to the original observance) was heart-wrenching. But without this destruction and subsequent exiles, we would not have rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud, and most of what we have come to think of as “Jewish.”  Much as I love Leviticus, I have no desire to go back there. Not interested in building that 3rd Temple.

3. Victimology. So much of Jewish communal life centers around “they’re out to get us.” And they have been, still are from time to time. But, if you measure Jewish life in 2010 by the email, snail mail fundraising solicitations, and YouTube videos I receive, we are on the verge of falling prey to virulent anti-Semitism, nuclear annihilation, and being pushed into the sea at every moment. It’s miserable being a Jew. There’s a hell of a lot more words written about the (next) Holocaust & Hamas than Shabbat & Torah.

4. The news. I don’t need to read Lamentations to see that life is precious and precarious. I just have to read The New York Times or Ha’aretz or any home town newspaper. Terrible things happen to people every day and for no good reason. Jews or not-Jews, it stinks.

I think about loss every day. Maybe it’s my temperament. Maybe it’s why I’m a poet. (Google “death” and “poetry” and you’ll come up with 9.8 million results.) Maybe I’m not typical, but I go into every High Holy Day season with mortality on my mind. Another year has passed, another 365 days of time now lost to me. If I were to observe Tisha b’Av, it would be to grieve in a more universal fashion a la Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s dirge for the environment. But, truthfully, that feels like just another excuse to acknowledge that a) people are stinky and b) the world is going to hell in a hand basket — thoughts I think almost every day, holiday or not.

I’ve kissed my husband and had a fruit smoothie this morning (neither allowed). I’m writing and walking and making plans for tomorrows which might not come. Call me contrary, but that’s what I’m doing today.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Price permalink
    07/22/2010 1:56 pm

    Okay, you’re contrary; but I already knew that.

    I have to ask what unites us and what divides us? That is both “us” as Jews, and “us” as humans. A compelling shared story unites us as Jews, but a shared human story is harder to pin down. Shared suffering, as you allude, is a common human condition that can overpower that which divides us. A generic “suffering,” however, doesn’t serve to move us; we can acknowledge it, but then we yawn and move on. The particularity of our suffering, our tragedy, enables us to internalize it and only then can we genuinly empathize with others. Time and again the Torah admonishes us “remember you were slaves in Egypt.” Surely, our annual Seder, our Tish B’Av observance, a few choruses of “dayeinu,” and heaps of Jewish mother induced guilt have helped make us world leaders in the fight against injustice.

    The flip side is our deliverance. From tragedy after tradegy we have emerged, not victorious, but redeemed. The treasure of redemption is sweeter for the memory of the pit. Once again, this shows us that redemption is possible. If it can happen to us, why not the world? In this I sense that you and I are headed toward the same place; redemption requires a vision of what a redeemed world would look like, but also the memory of a broken one.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      07/23/2010 12:33 pm

      Dan, you’re right. A shared “human” story is harder to pin down — which may be why we treat people who aren’t “us” even worse than we treat each other. I’m not sure that I believe that our own suffering enables us to genuinely empathize with others – at least 50% of the time, suffering makes us mean & defensive. It often convinces us that we’re the only true victims (and by “us” I am not talking just about Jews).

      I’m all for learning from tragedy. I’m all for redemption (a long and involved topic), believe in it deeply, have to believe it’s possible in order to keep fighting for what’s right. So yes, we are headed toward the same place. We just may have a different sense of how to get there.

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