This year, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, begins on the evening of July 25.
The core concern of Tisha B’Av is not merely commemorating the Temples’ destructions; it is beseeching Yahweh to restore the Temple through, for example, the recitation of the book of Lamentations, which focuses on the sinfulness of Israel and asks for restoration:
Cause us to return, O Yahweh,
To you, and we shall return;
Renew our days, as of old. (Lam. 5:21)
Traditional observance of Tisha B’Av makes concrete the idea of a world turned upside down: the large tallit (prayer shawl) married men traditionally wear is not put on in the morning, there is little light in the synagogue (only candles are lit), etc. The idea behind the “world upside down” practice is that the destruction of the Temples turned the Jewish world upside down by ending the sacrificial system that drove pre-rabbinic Jewish life. Like the lived-out aspects of Passover, then, there are significant changes in everyday practice that accompany Tisha B’Av.
But again, underlying all this is the assumption that the end of the Temple’s sacrificial cult is something to be mourned. This is not the assumption that undergirds the approach of Secular Humanistic Judaism to Tisha B’Av.
While we’re in the discussion, a number of other significant tragedies in Jewish history are said to have occurred on Tisha B’Av, including the final military defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in 133, and the expulsion of Jews from Britain in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.
By grouping these historical tragedies with the destruction of the Temples, traditional practice (which is not only part of Orthodox traditions but is largely preserved by the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements) communicates in its context that the historical tragedies that befell the Jewish people were some form of divine punishment. The historical events give a bit of the answer as to why and how Secular Humanistic Jews might commemorate Tisha B’Av–and the traditional message of Tisha B’Av, which many liberal Jewish movements continue to communicate, explains what is problematic for Secular Humanistic Jews.
Because Secular Humanistic Judaism is nontheistic, Tisha B’Av’s significance as a religious event is quite small. But its significance for Secular Humanistic Judaism is considerable for historical matters. Rather than lament the destruction of the old order, Secular Humanistic Jews often look at Tisha B’Av as a holiday that can squarely address the question of our obligations to one another and the power of humans to aid one another in times of crisis. Doing this opens the holiday to more meaning than simply lamentation of and desire for restoration of the past: Tisha B’Av can be used to incorporate perceived tragedies of the present at a dedicated time of the year.
This approach is far from limited to Secular Humanistic Judaism, of course, but there is a significant impact upon the ways in which Secular Humanistic Jews will view and commemorate the holiday when Tisha B’Av’s traditional religious claim is not taken as authoritative. Secular Humanistic Jews will generally not personally–and certainly will not communally–address Tisha B’Av as a matter of divine punishment and a desire for restoration as encapsulated in the book of Lamentations.
In many ways, this way of commemorating Tisha B’Av actually fits with how many–perhaps most–liberal Jews view the Temples. Would most liberal American Jews really want to see the Temple cult, with large numbers of animals slaughtered and burned each day, restored? Quite probably not.
In a way, then, Tisha B’Av gets at a core difference between Secular Humanistic Judaism and other streams of Judaism: we view what happens in the world, to the Jewish people, and to all people as a matter largely in our hands–but one that is not in the hands of a divinity. As Erich Fromm observed, an authoritarian view of religion deprives humans of their agency; Secular Humanistic Judaism asserts that only we have agency.
Humans as agents for change, and as sources of support and comfort for one another in times of tragedy: would that we all could recognize this principle speedily, in our days.