Jewish Journal


July 27, 2012

Struggling with mourning on Tisha b’Av? Join the oh-so-Jewish club of ‎confusion



Ultra-Orthodox men praying at the Western Wall on Tisha b'Av. (Photo: Reuters)

Last week, I had lunch with President Shimon Peres at his residence. A ‎fascinating two-hour break from my usual schedule, talking mostly ‎about history and its lessons – or whether it had any. I was really a ‎sidekick at this event, the President wanted to meet a young and bright ‎Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, and talk to him about his book, “A ‎Brief History of Humankind”. The English version, just released, is ‎called From Animals Into Gods, A Brief History of Humankind – you ‎can purchase it on Amazon, enjoyment guaranteed (but no money back ‎from me). ‎

Harari had huge success in Israel with his book, which has been ‎topping all the non-fiction bestseller lists for more than a year now. ‎From being young and relatively unknown, Harari was catapulted into ‎becoming a well-known trendsetter and public intellectual. And I had ‎the joy of being the editor in charge of the book. So, when he was ‎invited to meet with Peres, I was a happy beneficiary. ‎

They both agreed that there isn’t much to be learned from history. ‎People learn history to avoid the mistakes of the past, Peres said during ‎our meeting, but added that he doesn’t see why new mistakes would be ‎necessarily better than the old ones. Harari agreed, drawing lessons ‎should not be the purpose of studying history. For him, studying the ‎past is important for human beings so that they can be freed from the ‎chains and shadows of the past. ‎

Tisha b’Av is a case in point – it was not mentioned at the table, but as I ‎was thinking about the lunch afterwards, it suddenly seemed relevant. ‎Why mourn on Tisha b’Av, the date of the destruction of the Temples? ‎And for how long should one mourn over past tragic events? And what ‎exactly are we mourning, the destruction of the Temple, the Galut – ‎dispersion of Jews, the end of Jewish sovereignty? The Temple has still ‎not been rebuilt, but I’m not sure there’s a majority of Jews really ‎longing to go back to sacrificing lambs in Jerusalem. And Jews can freely ‎come to the land of Israel and live as members of the new sovereign ‎Jewish enterprise that is Israel. No wonder Tisha b’Av is hardly a ‎consensus, no wonder that many Jews barely know when it comes and ‎don’t really care. Tisha b’Av, on which we remember Sinat Hinam ‎‎(baseless hatred), which according to tradition led to the destruction of ‎the Second Temple, stands as testimony to the fact that the Jewish ‎people is still not unified, not even in mourning.‎

There are attempt all over Israel (and in the US as well, but less so) to ‎revive Tisha b’Av, give it new meaning, that will make it resonate with ‎more people. Some, like Rabbi Laura Geller, emphasize civility in our ‎discourse:‎

The astonishing claim is that how we talk to and about each other ‎around issues that matter can destroy a city or maybe even a ‎country. Words matter. Innuendo can kill. More and more, that ‎seems to be true today, as well. Look at how the public ‎conversation around routing the Metro through Beverly Hills is ‎tearing the community apart. And notice how difficult it is for ‎those of us with strong feelings about what is happening in Israel ‎to talk with people with whom we disagree or how hard it is to ‎have a civil, thoughtful conversation about health care in ‎America.

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Others – like Steven Klein of Haaretz (but you’d expect such a message ‎to be carried primarily by Haaretz) – use Tisha b’Av to promote political ‎agendas:‎

It should come as no surprise then that the Palestinians too seek ‎to preserve hope of their redemption. Just like us, they have a ‎date. Just like us, they make maps of their destroyed villages and ‎omit modern Jewish cities. And just like us, they justify the war ‎that led to their own destruction and exile.‎

Some would like Tisha b’Av to be used for the advancement of ‎universal causes, such as the end to nuclear proliferation, or human ‎trafficking, while others draw very personal lessons from it, such as the ‎need for love for no reason, or tribal lessons, such as the need for ‎Jewish independence, or that Jewish power can prevent the ‎reoccurrence of Jewish destruction. ‎

We all attach meanings to different holidays – Passover, Yom Kippur, ‎Purim all are dates to which differing, even contradictory values can be ‎attributed. But Tisha b’Av is trickier than most others: It is unwisely ‎scheduled – mid summer is not the best time for anything; it is ‎depressing – not happy or even spiritually lifting; it is community ‎oriented – and Jews are usually better with family-oriented holidays; it ‎seems a little bit outdated – the events we mourn are, well, far away in ‎the past; and there’s no Jewish agreement of the proper remedy for our ‎supposed Tisha b’Av depression – do we really want the Temple ‎rebuilt? Do we want sacrifices? Do we want Jews to go back to being ‎ruled by Sanhedrin? Do we still believe in prophets and priests?‎

If there one thing many Jews can easily share on Tisha b’Av – it is the ‎sense of unease with this date. Tisha b’Av is when we celebrate our ‎confusion over our past and over our future. How much of our past do ‎we really want to resurrect, which parts of it we are willing to scrap or ‎readjust, what should the Third Temple – real or imagined - be like, or ‎maybe this Temple is already under construction? ‎

If you are searching for a reason to mark Tisha b’Av, here’s one ‎suggestion: don’t try to draw too many lessons from the date, just ‎mourn the sorrow of Jewish incoherence. For one day mourn the fact ‎that the Jews have such hard time finding a consensual goal over which ‎they can all agree to mourn, together - and the next day, rejoice this ‎exact same fact, that Jewish life is so vibrantly incoherent and messy.‎

‎“And ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah, 66, 13).‎

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