Jewish Journal


July 19, 2007

Commemorating Tisha B’Av—what to do?


'Ninth Day of Ab.' (From Kirchner, 'Jüdisches Ceremonial.')

'Ninth Day of Ab.' (From Kirchner, 'Jüdisches Ceremonial.')

We are a people who have suffered enormously. Given our experience with suffering and its regular inclusion in our calendar, Tisha B'Av ought to be easy to commemorate. But it is set at a time when we are most disinclined to mourn. Thus, Tisha B'Av becomes the most challenging day in the Jewish year, the one whose spirit is hardest to feel.

As Simon Wiesenthal has pointed out, every day marks a catastrophe in world Jewry. In the midst of this lugubrious calendar, Tisha B'Av stands out as the ultimate day of suffering.

According to tradition, on this day it was decreed that the children of Israel would not be allowed to enter Israel; both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, as was Beitar, the last stronghold of Bar Kochba; Hadrian established a heathen temple on the spot of the holy Temple, and the Spanish Inquisition moved into high gear.

Tisha B'Av is particularly problematic for modern American Jews. How much public suffering can the post-Holocaust generation permit itself? Can we allow ourselves to be completely consumed by death and destruction? Isn't Jewish life already too entangled with suffering? How many Holocaust museums do we need?

Second, how do we relate to the destruction of a temple where the form of worship was animal sacrifices performed by an elite group of hereditary priests? Is this something we really want to reinstitute?

More than for any other holy day, the tradition seems wanting in addressing modern sensitivities.

Third, more than for any other holiday, our secular calendar is tied to an entirely different universe than that of the tradition. The days are long, and the weather generally pleasant. Since we are not farmers, this is our natural vacation season, a time of play and fun: swimming at the beach, barbecue picnics, movies, baseball games, the Hollywood Bowl, weddings -- all specifically or implicitly forbidden by the tradition during the three-week period before Tisha B'Av. How do we focus on suffering when everyone around us is looking for fun?

There are no easy answers for those of us who live in that secular world. It takes a special commitment. We need to surround ourselves with a community that shares our special rituals, so that we can feel comfortable in some corner of the society and not just feel out of step.

Second, we need to make the service more relevant to our lives. The liturgy needs to be changed. The arcane medieval Hebrew poetry just does not work. Moreover, for this generation, the Holocaust and the wars in Israel are far more palpable and more painful than the distant loss of the Temple.

The dilemma is not unique to the Diaspora. Personally, I had much more difficulty commemorating Tisha B'Av in Jerusalem than in Los Angeles; the Wall was more a place to be seen than to wail.

Until some significant changes are made, instead of being central, Tisha B'Av will be marginal. Most Jews will be excluded, and the few who participate -- mostly the Orthodox -- will largely remain outside the spirit of the day.

Alan Fisher is president of the Movable Minyan and a professor of Political Science at California State University Dominguez Hills.

See also Tisha B'av 101 -- the basics

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