Seeing Tishah B’Av as a Day of Inspiration

July 22, 2015Rabbi Meir Azari

Let me start by being very clear: I don’t yearn for a return to sacrificial rites, holy priests, or incense-burning in the Temple. I don’t miss the Temple itself, nor is the Western Wall a particular source of inspiration or empowerment for me.

In fact, some of the inspiring figures of Reform Judaism – Isaiah, Amos, and the first generation of rabbis – were prophets who criticized the corruption and evil that came from the Temple culture. Today, every Reform rabbi knows well the words of Isaiah 1:10-17:

“Hear the word of the Eternal, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me? says the Eternal….When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

As a believer in the words of the prophets, I do not view the destruction of the Temple as a disaster. Rather, I believe it allowed the Jewish people to rebuild itself as a community committed to education, connection to the world, and the search for holiness in every person. It enabled our people, too, to create the siddur (prayer book) and the Haggadah, to establish the synagogue, to elevate the work of the beit midrash (house of study), and to shape sacred communities throughout the world.

Today’s Reform Jews are divided on whether we ought to observe the holiday of Tishah B’Av. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a well-respected, early 20th-century Reform rabbi, said, “The grief for the destruction of the city and the Temple that was marked in the spirit of our nation, even in the Middle Ages, in days of persecution, became after the emancipation, useless.”

Unlike Wise, though, I think we do need to mark Tishah B’Av – but not by mourning and calling for the rebuilding of the Temple.

Rather, Tishah B’Av serves as an opportunity to discuss the sources of our inspiration, the importance of just leadership, the meaning of religion, and our Jewish responsibilities in the modern era. Erasing Tishah B‘Av from the Jewish calendar – and with it our chance for such key conversations – would be a mistake.

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, a 19th-century German rabbi who led the founding of Reform Judaism, once wrote, “Stop crying for Zion in Jerusalem; God is building the wall of the eternal Jerusalem forever.” In saying so, he meant that we should forget the city of Jerusalem and the notion of the Jewish state. For him, Jerusalem and the possibility of a Jewish state were history, and he wanted to focus, instead, on bringing the concept of Jerusalem and holiness to every corner of the world.

On this matter, though, I again disagree. For today’s 21st-century Jews, Israel is a fact, with more of us living there than any other place in the world. But, Jerusalem is still fighting internally, and her people are still striving to fulfill the mission and the dream of the prophets and the founders of Zionism.

At Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, we see Tishah B’Av as a day to reflect upon the past in a large spiritual gathering. Our community mourns the loss of life and tries to understand what brought our mothers and fathers to the political decision that led to the useless rebellion against the Roman Empire. We remember the work that was done in the Temple – but without looking toward renewal, as so many others do.

Instead, we reflect on classic stories that might enlighten us about what we can do today to make life richer and more meaningful. For us, Tishah B’Av is not a source of inspiration for renewing the Temple. Rather, it is an opportunity to secure the State of Israel, as well as democracy, tolerance, pluralism, women’s rights, and human rights.

Tishah B’Av starkly divides today’s Israeli society, pitting those who wish to renew the Temple, resume sacrificial rites, and abolish democracy and modernity against those who embrace modernity, democracy, and the rights of all people. For me, Tishah B’Av reflects this chasm, and the clashes it causes in our country today.

As we prepare for this special day, let us focus not on the dream to rebuild the Temple, but on creating a more just Israeli society.

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