Tomorrow is Tisha b'Av, the traditional day of fasting and lamentation for the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the sorrows of Jewish history. But ours is a moment of unprecedented Jewish sovereignty and unparalleled Jewish prosperity. And so, many are asking, why bother?
It's not a new question. The Bible records a query put to the prophet Zekhariah by Babylonian visitors to Second Temple Jerusalem: "shall we weep in the . . . month [of Av]?" The prophet reminded them that the point of fasting was not merely to abstain but to internalize the moral imperatives that sustain community: "Judge truly, do kindness and mercy, every man to his fellow." In the end, he said, Tisha b'Av and other, so-called minor, fast days "will become joy and gladness, festivals of cheer; therefore, love the truth and peace."
The Talmud offers a characteristically close reading of Zekhariah's words, to wit, when there's joy and peace, no fast; in the absence of joy and peace, fasts continue. It also records a nuance in the name of a later sage, Rav Pappa: in times characterized neither by peace nor by persecution—which is to say, most of the time—the minor fast days may be optional. Tisha b'Av, however, commemorating as it does the destruction of both Temples, as well as the ruin of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, must always be kept. Medieval authorities largely agreed.
Does the existence of the state of Israel change things? One might say the answer depends on what the prophet meant by "peace." If he had in mind a rebuilt Temple and/or universal brotherhood, which is how most traditional commentators understood him, the answer is obviously no. But what if, as some have thought, he simply meant the presence of Jewish sovereignty or self-rule?
In 1968, Joseph Soloveitchik, the towering Modern Orthodox authority, offered his own view of the matter. Not only had the Temple not yet been rebuilt, but there was a good reason why Tisha b'Av had been observed even when the Second Temple still stood: "the ghost of the [First Temple's] destruction still stalked the land." People then fasted not in mourning but in hopeful prayer that the terrors from which they had emerged would never repeat themselves. Which they did—and may yet again.
Another reason for continuing to observe Tisha b'Av was offered much earlier by Berl Katznelson, one of the founders of Labor Zionism. The day commemorates not only the destruction of the Temples but the death, destruction, and suffering of many Jews and Jewish communities throughout history. Without Tisha b'Av and the historical memory it enacted, Katznelson maintained, there would have been no Zionism. His point applies generally today as well, in the Diaspora no less than in Israel.
All this leaves open the issue of how the day is to be observed. In the summer of 1967, in the flush of Israel's stunning military victory, a small group of liberal-minded Orthodox academics undertook to address that issue. The Chief Rabbinate had ruled that the fasts were to remain in place. Very well—but why not, for starters, introduce some changes into the liturgy for Tisha b'Av that would reflect the era's profound historical shifts?
There was wisdom in the suggestion . The prayers written in the long centuries of Jewish powerlessness are an essential part of the memory that Tisha b'Av seeks to build. The remembrance of exile is still precious in this time of Jewish statehood, reminding us of the fragility of what we have. But the moral introspection, the "arousal of the heart to open the ways of repentance," which according to Maimonides is the essence of Tisha b'Av, requires awareness also of power and its responsibilities. The liturgical task today is to find an active voice that will wed the necessary memory of exile to the necessary awareness of the meaning of freedom.
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