2017-07-19 / Religion Column

Moving from persecution to perspective on Tisha B’Av

RABBI RICHARD HIRSH
Congregation M’kor Shalom

This Shabbat (July 29) comes before the observance of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the fall of the first (586 BCE) and second (70 CE) Jerusalem Temples. It is called Shabbat Hazon after the first words of the haftara reading: “Hazon Yishayahu, the vision of Isaiah.”

Isaiah’s prophecy is of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, replete with castigation of sinners and the consequences of sin. It is an appropriate, if depressing, anticipation of the somber setting of the fast of Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av was at one time the compelling point of convergence for Jewish tragedy. The negative nuances of the day attracted associations ranging from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to a variety of pogroms and persecutions.

In the years following the Second World War, there was much debate as to whether the Holocaust should be absorbed into the observance of Tisha B’Av or whether it should be commemorated in an independent manner.

The emergence of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Commemoration Day, resolved that debate, but also contributed to the decline in the observance of Tisha B’Av. The destruction of the ancient Temples became a distant defeat, while the raw reality of Yom HaShoa became more resonant as a time devoted to Jewish tragedy.

There remains a curious and troubling debate as to the place of suffering, loss and tragedy in the construction of Jewish identity. There is even a term for defining Judaism as a series of tragedies: The lachrymose theory of Jewish history.

Viewed from this perspective, Judaism is a lurching from one catastrophe to another: From the destruction of the first Temple to that of the second, from the failed Bar-Kokhba rebellion to Roman oppression, from the Crusades to medieval expulsions to pogroms, to the Holocaust and then on to the many wars fought by the State of Israel.

While it is necessary for a community to commemorate loss, it is also reasonable to ask what price we pay for defining ourselves only as victims. Perhaps more crucially, what is the message of a negative Jewish identity to those Jews who hover on the border of the Jewish community?

In a debate now more than half a century old, our community continues to vacillate between two symbols of Jewish identity: Auschwitz or Sinai. From the first perspective, we are either victims, children of victims, or potential victims. Our history is one of tragedy interrupted by periods of false security. The best we can do is to defy those who persecute us, and stay Jewish to spite them.

From the second viewpoint, we are children of the Covenant. Our history is defined by the Exodus and Sinai. We have indeed suffered serious tragedy, even destruction, yet we do not abandon our values, our teachings, and our commitment to God. The best we can do is to strive for holiness and to remain firm in our devotion to the perfection of the world under the rulership of God.

Tisha B’Av is an opportunity to replace a sense of persecution with a sense of perspective. Surely we must mourn, and certainly we must not forget. We can observe the fast. We can read the Book of Lamentations. We can discuss how defeat and destruction have shaped our identities as Jews. But we should also discuss how to avoid defining Jews and Judaism as if the only reality of our history was a negative one. There is too much we have inherited, and too much at stake, for us to fail to find the positive reasons to remain Jews. 

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