Last year, I did something I had never really done before. I observed Tisha B’Av, the solemn fast day commemorating and mourning the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, the “exile” from the Land of Israel, and various other tragedies which supposedly occurred (according to legend) on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Traditionally, Jews observe the day by refraining from food and drink, studying and praying, sitting on low chairs or the ground, and observing other traditional mourning practices such as the tearing of clothes. So, how is it that I am writing about such an observance in a Classical Reform publication?
This year, on the fifth of August, which happened to be the ninth of Av, I had dinner at the home of a retired administrator from the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College. Naturally, the evening was full of lively conversation about Judaism and current events. After I left, however, I realized that nobody had mentioned that it was Tisha b’Av even though everyone present was very Jewishly educated. The mildly humorous absence of mention of the day combined with the fact that we had a dinner party on a traditional fast day made me recall my very different experience a year ago, and prompted me to reflect on the possibilities for meaningful observance of the solemn day in a qualitatively Classical Reform way.
Despite the numerous ways in which the very concept of Tisha B’Av and its underlying narrative and purpose would seem to conflict with fundamental assumptions of progressive Judaism, especially Classical Reform, it has nevertheless developed a noble, moving dimension over the centuries. The Rabbis of the Talmud held that the scattering of our People after the destruction of the Temple was a punishment for sinat chinam—a Hebrew term for “baseless hatred”. For traditional Jews, exile from the Land of Israel is the ultimate punishment from God. Traditional Jewish narrative is full of stories of horrible, agonizing, collective punishment (such as the forty-year sojourn in the desert) for infidelity to the commandments of God. However, it is extremely significant that even in traditional Judaism, the ultimate punishment was brought about because of “baseless hatred”—not failure to observe the Sabbath perfectly, not failure to uphold the minutiae of dietary restrictions, and not even for blasphemy or disrespect for God. We were punished most severely, according to legend, for hatred and unkindness toward other people. Toxic behavior, and not ritual infraction, was what finally made God angry enough to exile the Jews from the Holy Land. For this reason, many progressive Jews have sought to reclaim Tisha b’Av as a meaningful observance highlighting the razor-sharp ethical focus of Jewish Tradition throughout the ages, as well as mourning tragedy.
Last year, therefore, I visited a friend who is used to marking the solemn day in semi-traditional fashion: by fasting and contemplating all historic tragedies that have befallen our People, and, more broadly, crimes against humanity. He is a proud Progressive Jew who desires neither a rebuilding of the Temple nor the re-institution of the sacrificial worship cult. Even though as a Classical Reform Jew I was somewhat ambivalent about the 9th of Av, I visited my friend to support him in his fast and to pray and study with him. The experience was profoundly meaningful, and extremely powerful. It should not be surprising that in our post-modern age, many see fit to reclaim old traditions previously rejected in an attempt to embrace modernity as fully as possible. Many of us who would call ourselves Classical Reform Jews respectfully disapprove of the scope and content of some of those endeavors. It may be a stretch for many dyed-in-the-wool Classical Reform Jews to conceive of observing the Ninth of Av, but most don’t know that the precedent for such observance goes back to the foundational history of Classical Reform.
Very early in the history of Reform Judaism, there was a significant, but now forgotten, attempt to build an authentically Reform practice for Tisha B’Av. In the mid 19th century, Rabbi David Einhorn included in the rubric for weekday worship a lengthy reading and prayer “For the Anniversary of the Destruction of Jerusalem”. This was highly unusual and “unorthodox” for Reform at the time, but in genius fashion, it turned the whole concept of Tisha B’Av on its head, expounding a positive theology of the Diaspora as a progressive Providential development so that we might be a “Light unto the Nations.” The Diaspora can be thought of in much the same way that traditional Judaism regards the various plagues in the Exodus narrative—we can mourn the loss of innocent life while simultaneously celebrating the overall effect of the historical event.
It is no accident that Einhorn titled his radical Reform prayerbook Olat Tamid—“A Perpetual Offering”. It is likened to the burnt sacrifice and its “odor pleasing to God” (Numbers 28:26). This was the ultimate symbolic and rhetorical proclamation that authentic Reform Jewish worship was indeed a “substitutionary sacrifice” of the “offerings of our lips” in prayer—a permanent replacement of and superior form of worship to the sacrifices in the Temple. I would like to see the development of a new Reform Liturgy and ritual for Tisha B’Av along the lines of Einhorn’s beautiful experiment 150 years ago. Rather than merely emulating the mourning for the loss of the Temple, we should focus on the perils of sinat chinam, and in the words of Einhorn, we should be gravely thankful that “the one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless Temples might arise to God’s honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe.”