The Confession of a Tish’a B’Av Truther

Tish’a B’Av (or Tisha B’Av, or Tisha Bov, or…) will soon be upon us, on the evening of August 13. I’ve previously discussed the holiday a bit, and so I won’t revisit the basics here. (Revisiting the basics, especially how the holiday is viewed from a Humanistic Jewish perspective, is what the first of those two links is for. The second link is sort of connected to how the rabbis of the Talmudic period understood the causes for the destruction of the Second Temple, which to some degree plays into their understanding of Tish’a B’Av.) And perhaps the word “truther” in the title of this post isn’t the best description for what I’m about to say, but hey, we all need a little clickbait in our lives.

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

Francesco Hayez’s “The Destruction of the Second Temple”; from Wikimedia Commons

So, here’s the thing. We continue, into the 21st century, to commemorate with some form of lamentation (pun intended) the destruction of a building that literally enshrined a view of the Jewish people and, for that matter, the entire universe that clashes with our modern conceptions of these things. We don’t generally think that the large-scale slaughtering of animals, scattering their blood on a stone altar, burning some of them whole and only parts of others, and pouring wine or meal or honey on an altar effect atonement.

And yet we mourn the loss of that sacrificial cult.

Or, do we mourn Jewish independence prior to the creation of the modern State of Israel? Well…there’s probably historically no period after the return from the Babylonian Exile in which there was a truly independent Jewish kingdom. The Judean kingdom was always dancing to someone’s tune: first the Persians, then the Greeks in any of a number of forms, then the Romans. What’s that you say? The Maccabean revolt? Ah, yes, the fight against the Greeks–except that Jewish leaders from then onward had Greek names and continued to triangulate with their Greek-dominated neighbors. And even the brief period of political independence–from roughly 110 BCE to 63 BCE–was far from the idyllic independence of our imaginings: as best we can tell from what documents there are (primarily consisting of Josephus and some rabbinic materials), this period was essentially a sequence of internecine conflicts among members of the Hasmonean line.

How did it all end? Two brothers fought one another for control while Rome rapidly grew into Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt; each brother eventually tried to petition Roman leaders to intervene. The Romans did what the Romans were quite good at: playing the sides against one another and eventually seizing control themselves, leading to the installation of a series of vassal kings, who would sort-of rule until the Jewish Revolt in 63 CE.

Is this the independent government we are to mourn? The government that, at some point, gave rise to the Sadducee/Pharisee split and even the departure of some portion of the community from broader Jewish life, creating what were the forerunners of the separatist, apocalyptic Qumran community?

Humanistic Jews don’t value the sacrificial cult, and we don’t value the type of autocracy that came to dominate Judean life in the Hasmonean period. Indeed, our values line up more closely with what Jewish life was like outside the land of Israel in this period–with the general social mobility and deeply Hellenistic intellectual diversity that seems to have marked the Jewish community in Alexandria and elsewhere.

The upshot is that I, at least, simply do not mourn the loss of either Temple. I don’t mourn the upending of the assumptions associated with a Jewish identity that puts Jews at the center of world history. And in fact, even the destruction of the Temples did not put that notion to rest: the rabbis continued to carry that concept, and it was transmitted forward even into modern liberal Jewish movements. Some now speak of not a Chosen but a Choosing People, but let’s not be mistaken: a Choosing People gets to choose its role because it is somehow privileged to do so. (As David Ariel notes, “It is the Jews who are called, but it is not necessarily God doing the calling,” though curiously in this notion the Jews are called to practice Judaism–though perhaps non-Jews are not called to practice anything in particular?)

Note that chosenness and choosing are crucial to most understandings of Tish’a B’Av. Those times were vast human tragedies, and the traditional approach to the holiday expands upon that by viewing Tish’a B’Av as a literal upending of the world, its rules of personal conduct more stringent and changes to ritual even more pronounced in many respects than Yom Kippur–because the holiday is, at bottom, a way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that comes with what could have been the realization that Jews and Judaism are not the center of the world. We still, apparently, haven’t fully learned that lesson.

Despite all this, Humanistic Jews still identify as Jewish–perhaps carrying the idea of a religious identity, perhaps as a cultural or ethnic identity. I suspect you’d get lots of different answers to the question of what it means to be a Humanistic Jew if you put a bunch of us in a room. (I’m on the religion end because of my time in the academic study of religion and the definitions of religion used in that setting–but I also view Secular Humanism as being very nearly a religion, as well.) And Tish’a B’Av retains meaning in Humanistic Judaism: as a time to remember human connection in the face of large-scale tragedy, and to establish a fixed time at which to remember the staggering human losses suffered by Jews throughout history. It should be no surprise that Tish’a B’Av has over time become the central date for commemorating many Jewish tragedies, and is even said to be the date on which the Expulsion from Spain occurred in 1492. (I’ve been unable to perfectly verify this; Wikipedia says it was really the 7th of Av, but it was quite close. And as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes in his fabulous book Zakhor, time in many aspects of Jewish life is something of a flat circle upon which historical events are often simply overlaid and reworked.) And so Humanistic Judaism, while “free” to adopt or adapt or even reject Tish’a B’Av, is nevertheless somewhat bound to commemorating the date, even if not the central event.

So, will I be fasting? No. Not because I think it could be done right and we’re simply screwing it up, but because the Judaism I celebrate is the one I have now–not the one that “rose from the ashes” of the Temple’s destruction. That Judaism–rabbinic Judaism–still viewed Jewish life as the center of the world’s affairs. Though it overcame the loss of the Temple, it still mourned that loss and still envisaged a time when that Temple would stand again. It continued to explore the halakhah associated with Temple rituals. (And there’s an argument one could make that the current battling over who gets to stand where next to the Kotel is a perfect example of why we’re better off without the building and the blood.)

That’s someone’s Judaism, but it’s not my Judaism. Humanistic Judaism is not beholden to the rabbis of the Talmud. It is not a grudging diminution of the rabbinic vision of Jewish life. It does not cling to the forms of biblical or rabbinic practice in order to “look Jewish enough” to validate itself, and that is as true in its view of tragedy as in its view of triumph.

Sometimes the past wasn’t always that great, and the things lost with the Temple aren’t things I’d like to see return to Jewish life. And so, on Tish’a B’Av, I’ll briefly remember the tragedies of the past–and then I’ll turn to doing what I can to remember the human capacity to heal wounds and to make a small contribution to that broad effort.

And that’s the confession of a Tish’a B’Av truther.


2 thoughts on “The Confession of a Tish’a B’Av Truther

  1. Your article title is accurate in that you seem mainly concerned about the factual truth of Tisha B’Av traditions. We probably agree about the facts, but I think that you might be missing the other functions of Tisha B’Av and related traditions.

    It seems to me that they are less beliefs than markers of membership. Their value is not their factual content but their ability to bind Jews together as an in-group to help and cooperate with each other against external threats that are often quite serious. Every in-group thinks it’s the center of the universe, just as every person implicitly believes that his or her life is uniquely important. Those are not per se bad things to believe. They help us get through life with a modicum of serenity.

    Humans and other animals usually live in groups for the survival advantage it offers. Tisha B’Av, Yom Kippur, and other holidays are a way to build trust and community. If that is so, then the sensibility of the sacrificial cult or the truth of Jewish chosenness is neither here nor there. It’s not what makes the beliefs helpful, as it does if other kinds of belief are at issue: If I want to get to the store, I need factually correct beliefs about where it is; if I want to feel part of a community, strict accuracy is not needed.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

    • I have no issue with marks of belonging. Would I have at all addressed what I will be doing on Tisha B’Av (or would I be a rabbinical student as I presently am) if I think belonging is for suckers? It seems unlikely, no?

      That said, I’m unwilling to say, “Well, I think that account is untrue and the outcome is a bad one, but I’ll do this thing in any event because belonging matters to me.” Others have other lines of demarcation and/or reach other conclusions. That’s fine–we’re all accountable to ourselves in these respects. But it’s unnecessary to suggest one either choose a sense of historical and factual accuracy OR belonging and being willing to compromise on perceived accuracy as somehow irrelevant.

      And I’m relatively sure, as a student in a Humanistic Jewish rabbinical program that helps support thirty communities in the U.S. and Canada and provides training for other cultural and secular Jewish communities, that there *is* in fact a way of doing the synthesis and retaining ties to broader Jewish community life. In fact, I’ll be leading two sets of High Holiday services–one in Indianapolis, and one in Tucson–for two such communities.

      We have a broader Jewish community not so much because we all accept the need to comport ourselves according to the traditional practice, but because we’re engaged in the same conversation. I accept that I’m a little on the fringe of that conversation, but it’s the position that lets me prioritize both my identity and my commitment to a particular view of integrity of thought and deed. And I’m not the only one out here.

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