Last night and today we observed Tisha B'Av, a Jewish holy day of mourning, fasting and sadness. Tisha B'av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, in 586 b.c.e and 70 c.e. respectively. Over the centuries since then, many other horribly devastating events are said to have taken place or started on Tisha B'Av, including events connected with the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion of Jews in 1492, the Chmielniki Massacres of Jews in 1648 in Poland Lithuania and events of the Holocaust, particularly in 1942. Tisha B'Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, although the Israeli-observed days of Yom Hazakaron (Day of Remembrance of Soldiers and Victims of Terror) and Yom Hoshoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) are also very difficult days of loss and remembrance.
Unlike other Jewish "holy days," Tisha B'av does not prohibit "working" or doing the various things that are normally prohibited on Shabbat. But it is a day of mourning, fasting and many other prohibitions.
I thought I would write a few of my own reflections on the day and how I observed it this year.
I didn't grow up in a home that observed Tisha B'Av. After my Bar-Mitzvah, I began to take an interest in the various holy days in the Jewish calendar, especially some of the ones that our family did not observe. We had always observed the major holidays - Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and the "minor" holidays of Chanukah and Purim. But we were less observant of others. On a USY trip to Israel in 1982, our group observed Tisha B'Av fully and since then, more or less, I have been observing the holy day, though not necessarily in the strictest and most traditional way.
The holy day, like all Jewish holy days begins the night before, just before sunset. We eat a pre-fast meal before sunset and try to drink a reasonable amount of water. Those who observe Tisha B'Av traditionally do not eat meat (or chicken) for nine days before the holy day other than on Shabbat. So normally, the meal before the fast is vegetarian - often lentil soup, a hard boiled egg, some vegetables and other vegetarian food. Although spicy food is not normally recommended before a fast, we had lots of homemade Indian food left over from Shabbat and most of it was vegetarian. So I wound up having a pre-fast home cooked Indian buffet. It worked out fine. After that, of course, it would be no food or water for about 26 hours.
I debated going to religious services in person in the evening but decided to join my shul's Zoom service. The evening service ("Maariv") includes the reading of the book of Lamentations (Eichah) one of the five Megilloth (scrolls) that are part of the collection of Jewish holy books. After that, we had a study session discussing the classic Jewish commentators' explanation of why the temples were destroyed. Our presenter (thanks Shoshana) selected five different parables from our sources to provide the answer. And the answer, in short, is..."intra-community baseless hatred." Yes, that is the traditional answer to the Jewish question of these horrible tragedies. How do we reconcile the concept of an omni-benevolent, omni-powerful, omi-present and omni-prescient God with such terrible suffering? For the destruction of these two great Temples and the societies that housed them, our sages have concluded that the answer was "baseless hatred" among the Jews - the hatred of one another which destroyed the fabric of our society internally and led to destruction. This internal strife led to our demise, the murder of tens of thousands of Jews and our exile from the land of Israel (for almost 2,000 years) - in short, a very severe punishment.
Yet, I, for one, have never really found this answer satisfying. Can we really blame ourselves for being invaded and conquered by a foreign army, much stronger than us? Is that what consoles us and causes us to renew our faith in God - that essentially, "we deserved it?" I find that hard to take and not very persuasive. Our Rabbis will argue that this answer compels us to try and act more appropriately with one another - that it is a challenge to our behaviour that demands ongoing vigilence and response. That may be something worth striving for, certainly, but it does not seem to explain or excuse these events, certainly not to me. Nevertheless, in the spirit of inquiry, we raise these questions and argue about them over this time period. Jewish holy days are always filled with topics to question, discuss and argue about.
So after the Synagogue study session, we decided to check out some of the Tisha B'Av programming on Israeli TV. Now this is probably not something that many of traditional Tisha B'Av observers would do, even though the use of electricity is not strictly prohibited on Tisha B'Av, but there were some really fantastic programs on that wrestled with many of these issues. Indeed one of the big advantages of being in Israel on any day of importance on the Jewish calendar is releavant and interesting tv programming.
Of the many different choices, we chose a program on Israeli channel 11 called "Question and Answer." The program was an eight-part series - each episode involving a dialogue between two people. In each case, one of the people was a person who was born and raised in a very religious (observant) family and later became secular. These people are known in Israel as people who "returned to a life of questioning" (from the Hebrew "Hozer l'sheilah"). The other person in each episode was a person who was raised secular and later become religious, known in Israel as a person who "returned to the answers" (from the Hebrew "Hozer b'Tshuvah"). The idea was to match people up who would make for interesting conversations with some shared interests - and then to hold animated but respectful conversations of about 45 minutes. In these discussions, the participants wrestled with their life stories, their change from one religious viewpoint to another - and various texts, sources, poems and songs that inspired them, while contrasting the conclusions that they arrived at with those of their co-participant. The series was created as a Tisha B'Av series - to bring people together with different viewpoints but to overcome "baseless hatred" and find some common ground. In many of the episodes, this worked out quite nicely. This is the link to all of the episodes but it is in Hebrew and I am not sure that a translation is available yet. We have watched 6 of the 8 episodes and really enjoyed it.
Some of the participants are very well known. For example, one episode featured the author Yochi Brandeis, who is a Torah and Talmud scholar who grew up in a very observant home but is now no longer a "halachic" Jew. She writes fictional novels based on characters of the Bible. I should say that she sometimes attends our shul Hod VeHadar in Kfar Saba. She was matched up with an author who had grown up secular but was now a member of the Breslev Ultra-Orthodox community. Another episode featured Rabbi Kalman Samuels, who grew up as a secular Jew in Vancouver, Canada. He came to Israel, became observant and eventually founded "Shalva" an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities in Israel. As an educator, Rabbi Samuels was paired up with another educator, the principal of a secular high school in Israel, who had grown up in a very observant family but become secular.
This was not the kind of TV program that one sees every day. It was quite philosophical, with lots of food for thought, even on a fast day where eating is prohibited. After most of the episodes, I thought that I woud really enjoy sitting and chatting with one or both of the participants. Through the various episodes, there was lots of discussion on some of the most challenging theological issues. For example, how do observant Jews deal with and explain tragedy and disaster? Of course no one had any conclusive answers to this question but the exchanges were fascinating. A very relevant question of course, especially on Tisha B'Av.
One episode featured quite a bit of dialogue about the role of women in observant Jewish life, especially Orthodox Judaism versus the secular life that one of the women moved to - and the other abandoned. This was probably one of the common themes, even in episodes that involved discussions between two men - the different approaches to women and women's rights between the "observant" and the "secular" and what effect that had on the lives of each of the participants. No one, ultimately, had any answers to these questions but the discussions were very thought provoking. I will leave this topic for another blog.
Although the series was called "question and answer," I would not say that it set out to provide any "answers." The main purpose was to bring people together, explore differences and watch them leave the discussion room together recognizing that people can have differences but still live together in the same country, work things out and respect each other. A very important lesson these days, not only in Israel with its intense and gaping political chasm but of course in many other countries as well.
Tisha B'Av morning services are a bit different than other Jewish holy day services. Since it is not considered a "Yom Tov," it is a day where observant Jews put on Tefillin and a Tallit. But since it is such a sad day, and we are occupied with mourning, we do not put these on in the morning (like most other days - other than Shabbat and holy days). Instead, we sit on the floor, in the dark and read "kinot" at the morning services, which are essentially sad poems, written throughout the centuries, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in different ways.
As I said, we tend to do things a bit differently, though we are not the only ones. When I am in Israel on Tisha B'Av (I am often in Toronto this time of year), we try to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Many Israelis have the same idea. The Museum was quite full today - or at least up to its Covid capacity. You must book in advance but there is no charge to visit.
Yad Vashem is a very difficult place. Its multi-media exhibits trace the rise of the Nazi party in Germany from 1933 (and preceding events) and include increasingly horrifying exhibit rooms with pictures, movies, testimonial videos from survivors and Holocaust era items. You move from the the initial pogroms and kristallnacht
in 1938, a date on which synagogues and Jewish owned shops across German were vandalized and destroyed, Jews were attacked and killed and books were burned - to the development of Jewish Ghettos, Nazi concentration camps and ultimately the history, development and operation of the death camp system. It is graphic, shocking, upsetting and brutal, no matter how many times you see it. It is simply unfathomable that the Germans set up a whole system of death camps, crematoria, railway lines, ghettos, a whole industry and process for the systematic murder and incineration of six million Jews while the world was silent - and most countries outright refused to accept any refugees or Jewish emigrants that would have dramatically lowered the number of murdered Jews.
Yad Vashem approaches the Holocaust, in general, from a particularist rather than a universalist viewpoint. It is very much focused on the history of the Jewish people, before during and after the Holocaust, who helped save Jews and who didn't and what can be done, in particular for the Jewish people to ensure that this does not happen again. It may be no surprise, since Yad Vashem is located in Israel, that the Yad Vashem answer, ulimately, is that only a strong Israel can ensure that the Jews are protected from a recurrence. I won't get into this now in great detail, but this does contrast with the much more universalist message of the Washington D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum which focuses on universal tolerance as the answer to the question of how to avoid and prevent genocides. Although I have been very impressed by the Washington museum (I have visited it three times), I have felt that it de-emphasizes that Jewish aspect of the Holocaust, excessively in my view.
But getting back to the tie-in and the question of why visit a Holocaust museum on Tisha B'av - the theme that I return to - the most theologically challenging - is the same theme that we contemplate on Tisha B'Av. Why did this happen? How could it happen? Can we answer it by saying "baseless hatred" and live with that answer? That sounds all too easy to me, on the one hand, and on the other hand it sounds like it blames these six million people for the fate that befell them at the hands of murderous external forces. Can we really say that the Jews of the Temple period were massacred by the Roman army because of "baseless hatred" within the Jewish community? And can we say that the European Jews were murdered en mass by the Germans and their collaborators because of "baseless hatred?" That sounds like a very lame answer to me. I think it is one of the paramount challenges to faith for Jews everywhere. What kind of God would let this happen if there was a such thing as an "interventionist" God?
This is one side of the equation but for many Jews, there is a another side as well. The Jews, this group of people, which numbered somewhere around 15 million just before the second World War, had survived the exile from the land of of Israel and remained a people for more than 2,000 years, albeit a people spread out across the world. Hitler's goal was to annhilate and destroy the Jews everywhere - our books, our traditions, our Torahs and ritual objects and our philosophy and religious beliefs. For some survivors, descendants of survivors and other family members, the Holocaust and the six million murdered Jews meant that "God was dead" and they couldn't imagine continuing to be Jewish or believe in anything after these events. They could not fathom that any type of traditionally conceived God would allow such events to take place. From some conversations with one of my grandfathers, Yerachmiel (Z"L), I would say that he was, at least partially in this camp. His parents were murdered in August 1942 by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators - who happened to be the children of some their neighbours in Kamajai, Lithuania.
For others, and this is the other side of the equation, there has been a sense that so many Jews were murdered because of their heritage and a very rich bundle of tradition, philosophy, religious practice, scholarship, liturgy, community and music - as well as so many other things. How can we just abandon this inheritance that has been passed on to us from generation to generation, over more than 2,000 years? Don't we owe it to our ancestors to stand up and say - "we are still here" and to honour at least some of the legacy that they passed along to us? And what does it mean to preserve, honour and continue these traditions without genuine belief? Or are there ways to redefine God and Godliness that still preserves the notion that humankind is subservient to a higher purpose? Such difficult questions. For the many of you who know me well, of course it is not a surprise that I am in the latter of these camps. And I have at least one cousin and a number of friends as well in the same camp. But it is something to wrestle with all the time and especially on days like Tisha B'Av.
Perhaps I should add that there are some in Israel, and around the world, particlarly many who are very observant, who believe that the rebirth of the land of Israel was a divine miracle and that the answer is that we simply don't understand or can't comprehend God's overall plan. So they may not say "baseless hatred" is the explanation for the Holocaust but in their view, God gets a free pass since we mere mortals do not understand the overall plan. I think that this can be viewed as extremely disrespectful to the many who were murdered but I'll leave it at that for now.
In case you are wondering, Yom Kippur, coming up in less than 6 weeks, is much easier, emotionally. It is not really a "sad" day. It is one of solemnity and observance that involves fasting. But is is also a day of singing, prayers, discussion and togetherness that often brings people more towards renewal and hope than sad days like Tisha B'Av that leave us searching for answers to horrific events.
We concluded Tisha B'Av by attending Minhah (early evening service) and Ma'ariv (last evening service) in person at the shul and then came home to eat. We actually watched two of the 8 episodes of "Question Answer" after the holy day ended and we have two left.
But as I have tried to illustrate - the TV episodes each covered the struggle between a religious and a secular person, trying to make sense of what it means to be Jewish, on Tisha B'Av, while wrestling with these pentultimate questions that are particularly poignant some 76 years after the end of the Holocaust and the end of World War II. Perhaps I liked it so much because I saw different sides of my own personality and philosophy engaged in a live debate over the course of 6 different episodes. I may not have related to a few of the characters but of the 12 participants that we have seen so far, I would probably say that at least 8 of them had things to say that resonated deeply.
And so, ultimately, "Questions and Answers," the name of a TV series, is also an apt title for Tisha B'Av as it is for many Jewish holy days. Many questions and perhaps, not enough answers. But lots of engagement and vibrancy. And that is what challenges us, gives us pause and engages us in thinking about so many of these all consuming topics.
Lots more to write about - the current Covid Delta outbreak in Israel and everywhere, the Israeli political situation and some other Israeli news items. But I have to leave myself material for future blogs. As always, I hope that you have enjoyed reading this and wish everyone the best of health.