Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha B'Av, Sinat Chinam, and the Relevance of Fasting in Our Time

Last Friday, I came across an article on Haaretz's English website that absolutely incensed me. To summarise, Anshel Pfeffer, one of Haaretz's columnists, writes that "It is wrong to fast on Tisha B'Av" and calls for an end to the Jewish practice of fasting on this day.

While Pfeffer seems to think that he is justified in claiming that there is no need to fast on Tisha B'Av anymore — a claim I will firmly rebutt — to go so far as to call a continuation of such a custom "wrong" is objectionable indeed. Putting aside questions such as where he his new-found religious authority comes from, this article is highly distasteful and disrespectful to the generations before us. Beyond that, it is presumptuous and founded on a fatal mistake.

The Jewish fast of Tisha B'Av is one of the most significant of the Jewish calendar. Pfeffer opens his article with the following well-known tale to illustrate just how fastidiously the Jews have observed it:

There are variants to the apocryphal story, but all in essence are the same. Napoleon Bonaparte went for a walk one summer night (it could have been Paris or elsewhere in France or his empire ) and heard voices lamenting in a strange language. They may have come from a grand synagogue or a miserable hovel. Upon asking why the men inside were sitting on the floor and mourning, he was told these were Jews grieving for their destroyed temple in Jerusalem. "How long ago did this happen?" asked Bonaparte. "Eighteen-hundred years" was the answer.

"A nation that can mourn for so long the loss of its land and temple," the emperor is supposed to have said prophetically, "will return one day to their land and see it rebuilt."

This story serves not just to introduce Tisha B'Av to readers, but also to make a point; that the Jewish nation will be eventually be rewarded and will return to the land of Israel. Unfortunately, it is at this point that Pfeffer departs from the realm of the historical and starts to interpolate Jewish history with his own suppositions.

It is explained in the Talmud, (in the tractate of Chulin I believe,) that the reason for the destruction of the temple was an episode known as the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. To keep a long story short (quite literally), the tale characterises the fatal flaw of the Jews of the time; baseless hatred. After being slighted in public, Bar Kamtza goes to Casear and, employing twisted logic, slanders all those present at the scene of his embarrassment. Bar Kamtza's deeds set in action a chain of events that eventually led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

In his article, Pfeffer claims that Tisha B'Av is "a date that has lost any relevance beyond the historical." Quite a remarkable claim to make, really. Apparently, his reasoning is that the Jews have returned to the land of Israel, and although there are those who have not yet made the move, they are not unable to, and so we cannot truly call them in exile. Moreover, he claims, the only reason that the temple has not as yet been rebuilt is because Jews don't really care enough for it to happen. Ironically, I agree with this last statement, but not with Pfeffer's logic.

"The exile is over," Pfeffer says. That is the crux of our debate, so let us consider the two positions. The gap between orthodox Judaism's stance on the exile of the Jews and the patriotic Israeli perspective is the most marked so they serve us well for drawing a comparison. (They also happen to be the camps within which Pfeffer and I fall.) The patriotic secular Israeli views the exile of the Jews from the land of Israel as a thing of the past. After all, the Jews now have a state in the Holy Land. What more could we want? Those subscribing to the orthodox Jewish view beg to differ, though. We do not deny that the existence of the State of Israel signals that the exile is drawing to a close. But without peace between Israel and its neighbours, we are still in exile. What's the difference between the Jews living in a ghetto in Europe and the Jews living in a larger ghetto called Israel, surrounded by hostile armies on all sides? We might have sovereignty and our own army, but if (G-d forbid) Israel loses but one war, it will have been defeated permanently. The exile is not over merely because we are surviving. The exile will only be over once we are allowed to flourish.

It is crucial to note that the reason for our mourning is not the resulting exile from Jerusalem and the Holy Land, though we are terribly upset about that, too. As a child, I learned that God 'explained' his actions, saying words to the effect of "I prefer pouring my wrath on an inanimate object such as the temple than having to wipe the Jews out completely." The exile is not merely that we were divorced from our homeland, the land of Israel. Over the last one hundred and fifty years, a great commotion has been raised over the importance of the land of Israel to the Jewish people, but the truth of the matter is that Judaism is not a faith which centres around the land of Israel. No, the real reason we mourn on this day is because the Jews at that time were guilty of an inexcusable sin. Moreover, it is a sin that we are still guilty of to this very day.

'Sinat Chinam,' or baseless hatred as it may be rendered in English, has sadly not disappeared. The reason the temple was destroyed, we are in exile and we have fasted on Tisha B'Av ever since is because we dispayed a lack of unity. My umbrage with Anshel Pfeffer's article is not that he correctly points out that the Jews have returned to the land of Israel and that we should be grateful for this. This is true and we would indeed do well to celebrate this. Rather, I take issue with his mistaken assumption that exile is based merely on a physical connection with the land. I can assure you that it is much, much more than that. The land of Israel is worth a tremendous amount to us, but it is not the crux of Judaism. Judaism is far greater than just this; it is a system for developing realising ourselves. It is a system for connecting to God. And it is for building relationships between ourselves with one another.

The call to drop the ages-old practice of fasting on Tisha b'Av smacks of the Zionistic desire to leave behind the "old Jew", that stereotypical, superstitious, meek European weakling in favour of the New Jew of Zionism. While it is undeniable that the Jews have indeed returned to their ancestral homeland, not all is well on these shores. There are deep rifts between Jews. Terribly bitter feelings exist between the Orthodox and the Reform. The Haredim and then we have the National Religious sector are all too often at each other's throats, as well.

Politically, we are divided too. Has Anshel Pfeffer not noticed that the attacks by the Left and the Right on one another are only growing increasingly vitriolic? Each side shouts slogans, points the finger and blames the other. And in the process, we only get further away from peace.

The call to drop the old Jewish customs of the exile is an understandable one, but it based on a false assumption. We did not go through 2,000 years of exile for nothing. As a Jew, I believe that we may glean valuable lessons from everything that happens to us in life. We would do well to consider the value of these past two millenia and not do away with our traditions too hastily.

There's a lot to these "simplistic" traditions; they aren't mere superstition. We need to realise that coming back to Israel is a wonderful start, but it is only that. We know need to learn how to live with one another. Might I suggest that this Tisha B’Av we each take some time out to think of the conflicts that exist within the Jewish nation and ponder them.

I can give one example to start us off. As an orthodox Jew, I am aware that most in my community regard the reform and conservative movements in Judaism with a degree of distrust.* I too am worried by what these streams will lead to. I don't think it can be denied that this is a legitimate concern for an orthodox Jew to have. Unfortunately though, some people seem to think that this concern grants orthodox Jews carte blanche to attack people from these branches of Judaism. But this is counter-productive, and only serves to create and fuel animosity between ourselves. Orthodox Jewry needs to consider its relationship with reform Jews and make it unacceptable to hound and harass those who belong to other streams of Judaism. While we may disagree, we need to learn to respect one another.

If we can all take five minutes this Tisha B’Av to reconsider our relationships with one another, we may be able to bridge the gaps that exist between us. The Jewish nation might be returning to the land of Israel, but only once we are happy bedfellows with one another here will we see the end of the exile. Amen.

*Please leave a comment if you find this distasteful. I will consider rephrasing this passage if it comes across as offensive in any way. My point is to highlight a genuine concern of mine, but one that I can at least act rationally upon. I take this opportunity to repeat a saying of mine; "I don't value reform Judaism, but that needn't, and doesn't, stop me from valuing reform Jews."


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