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Survey of the month

My Tisha B’Av Problem

My Tisha B’Av Problem
04.06.2007
In traditional Judaism, the three weeks leading up to and including the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av (which this year comes out on July 23-24) are characterized by an increasing severity of mourning for the destruction of the Temples.  For me, these three weeks also serve as a sober countdown to the one day of the year when it is extremely difficult to reconcile ethnic-based observance with the actual practices of the Jewish people.  
Israel tries its best to be sensitive to the religiously observant on Tisha B’Av.  Israeli law says that each municipality may decide whether or not to prohibit "public entertainment" on Tisha B'Av, and in practice the night of Tisha B’Av is pretty quiet.  Officially, "public entertainment" is defined as "plays, movies, concerts, discos, dances, ballet, night clubs, circuses, games or sports, and any entertainment such as these."    Before the Knesset went on its summer break a few weeks ago, a sub-committee considered whether or not coffee houses should be considered “public entertainment.”  Last year, Tel Aviv coffee houses were closed on Tisha B’Av, but afterwards the Tel Aviv Attorney General ruled that coffee houses were not “public entertainment” and should not have been closed--whereupon the Mayor of Tel Aviv declared that his coffee houses would stay open this Tisha B’Av.  So the Knesset decided to take up the matter.  (This sort of political debate happens all the time in a country with no separation of religion and state.) 
The quiet, public spaces may encourage people to go to synagogue on Tisha B’Av to hear the beautiful, poignant chanting of Lamentations.  Indeed, the Israel Association of Community Centers published a booklet to be used for this evening at Centers all over the country (many Israelis are not comfortable going to a synagogue and so the local Community Center will sometimes host holiday ceremonies).  The booklet contains Hebrew poetry, Lamentations (with modern Hebrew glosses), and other selected readings, traditional and contemporary.  
But a huge gap separates an evening listening to Lamentations with the most challenging ritual observance of Tisha B’Av: a 25-hour fast.  While on Yom Kippur there are some non-observant Israelis who fast out of ethnic identity, I have yet to meet an Israeli who fasts on Tisha B’Av for this reason.  On Shabbat and Jewish holidays people like me, who base their religious observance on ethnicity, can say: “Everyone is celebrating; some do it in less traditional ways, and I choose to do it in more traditional ways.”  Fasting is another matter.  You either fast or you don’t.  The only people who observe the fast of Tisha B’Av are religious Jews, a minority of the Jewish people.  If one primarily observes Jewish traditions because they are the “folkways” of the Jewish people (as Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism, referred to them), a “folkway” that has been abandoned by the majority of the Jewish people will not seem particularly inviting—all the more so if that folkway involves going without food and water for 25 hours in the middle of the summer.
There is another important reason why fasting on Tisha B’Av is challenging for a person whose religious observance is based on a connection to the Jewish people rather than to a commanding God, and this has to do with one’s attitude toward the Temple.  True, the Temples were destroyed and these were national tragedies, but the Jewish people has moved on from there.  Yet built into traditional mourning (including fasting) for the Temples’ destruction is the traditional hope for the rebuilding of a Third Temple.  The ethnically motivated observant tend to shudder rather than rejoice at the prospect of a return to animal sacrifice. 
According to Jewish tradition the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.  And the really good news, for the purposes of my Tisha B’Av problem, is that once the Messiah arrives Tisha B’Av will become the first day of a week-long Jewish festival.  Let’s just hope for a liberal interpretation of an accompanying teaching: “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit the future vision of her joy.” 
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger