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The Tenth of Av, the building is still burning

Your Humble Blogger had another thought that was indirectly connected with that last post, but I wound up splitting into this post because I realized I hadn’t written anything about Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the memorial day for remembering the Destruction of the Temple; our Tradition tells us that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on the ninth day of the month of Av. Whether this is historically accurate or not, Tisha B’av is a fast day for remembering the Destruction as well as many of the other most horrendous events in Jewish History. A day of Lamentations.

So the obvious connection here is in an iconic building coming down in the midst of death, the emotional devastation that goes with it, and the eventual memorialization and ritualization that happens. There’s a story that Napolean was in Paris on Tisha B’Av and heard the lamentations and grief pouring from the synagogues. He asked what had happened, and was told they were lamenting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Taken aback, he asked when that had occurred, and was told, of course, seventeen centuries ago. The grief is ritual, and it is real, and it is transmitted through the generations by the ritual. I don’t mean to suggest that we need a 9/11 ritual observance (frankly, the destruction of the World Trade Center just wasn’t that big a deal), just thinking about the Sarah Palin Tweets and their language of stab … in the heart, too raw, too real, catastrophic after nine years.

But there is something else that occurred to me, and I’m not altogether sure how it fits in.

You see, most Reform Jews, and I would say many if not most Conservative Jews (and I am guessing almost all Reconstructionist Jews) do not observe Tisha B’Av. They don’t fast, they don’t go to shul, they don’t refrain from bathing, sex and sitting on cushions. I would guess that there are many, many Jews who don’t even know it was Tisha B’Av yesterday. I have never observed the fast, I believe; my recollection is that at Camp Ramah we observed many aspects but as children we were neither obligated nor permitted to fast.

Digression: The internet makes it easier for me to be reminded of the days I don’t generally observe. I know it is Tisha B’Av because (a) I now read a blog that helpfully reminds people of the beginning and end times of fasts, and (2) Google Calendar has a helpful Jewish Observances option. I get emails from my Synagogue that (if I read them) remind me of upcoming events as well. As recently as, oh, five years ago, I could easily forget that Shavuos was coming; now I know where we are in the Omer day to day. I don’t know if that will make Jews like me more observant, but (f’r’ex) I had a conversation over lunch with my Perfect Non-Reader about Tisha B’Av, why I wasn’t fasting, and what else we were supposed to forego that I wasn’t foregoing. Which is more than I ever had with my father on Tisha B’Av. End Digression.

Why don’t we observe Tisha B’Av? Partially because us non-observant Jews are non-observant; we don’t celebrate most of the Holidays. Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, and Passover, and Hanukkah. That’s about it. Maybe Purim if the kids are in Hebrew School. Keep that in mind when we talk about why most American non-observant Jews don’t do this or that, as the interesting thing is when we do get into the shul to do something. And if we are going to observe another Memorial Day, it will be the Holocaust one, Yom ha-Shoah, or maybe Kristallnacht in the Autumn. Tisha B’Av is mourning for the Temples, and I for one (and without claiming to speak for anyone, I think most of us from Reform to the left feel this way) do not mourn either the Temples or Temple Judaism. We don’t want to sacrifice animals at the altar, and we don’t want anybody else to do it either. We think of the Temple period, and are taught to think of the Temple period, as a kind of adolescence of Judaism, as an unpleasant if necessary phase before we started davening and shukling like real Jews. Well, and that’s extreme—we certainly don’t think we think that way, but I think we largely do; in Hebrew School I was taught very little between, oh, the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of the twentieth century. I see much the same at my Perfect Non-Reader’s Hebrew School.

The connection that I am trying to eventually get to is the way that modern Americans have managed to compartmentalize our thinking into religious stuff and non-religious stuff. That is, while we may find that our religious beliefs influence our political beliefs, they remain two separate spheres. This is, of course, a Good Thing in my opinion, because I am an American and my opinions are American opinions. It’s hard to remember, though, this is not the viewpoint most people throughout the world hold, and that many people not only disagree but find the viewpoint incomprehensible. Moammar Qaddafi writes in his Little Green Book about this: if your religious beliefs have political implications, then they are political beliefs, and if your political beliefs have religious implications, then they are religious beliefs. To make a law that goes against religion would be to make an unjust law, as justice is an inherently religious idea—and why would the State want to make unjust laws?

We tend to think of Al Qaeda as a religious group, that is, a group of radical religious extremists, and as a terrorist group, that is, a group that uses terror tactics and is willing to kill civilians and innocents. There’s a sort of blindness to Al Qaeda as a political group, a group that has certain political aims. While I tend to (in my Western, positivist, rhetorical way) divide these aspects up, doing so gives a misleading picture. Their political goals are religious goals; their religious goals are political goals.

The connection, then, is to both the rebellion of Bar Koziba and his followers and to Rome and its armies. The Judean revolt had a political goal (separation from the Roman Empire) and it was a religious movement. Rome had a political goal (the stability of the Empire) and was a religious movement as well. Both sides felt that allegiance to the other was blasphemy, or heathenish, anyway. Rome had a religious destiny, as did Jerusalem. The Expulsion from Jerusalem (which seems more raw to me than the Destruction of the First Temple these days, what with my having spent the last thirty months or so with the Rabbis of that era) (and because there’s such a good story—how is it possible there has never been a movie or miniseries about that war?) was a religious and a political event, and was so for both sides (albeit, obviously, more important for the little end than the big end).

As I say, my preference is that it’s better when people keep political and religious spheres separated—not that religion shouldn’t influence people’s political decisions, their votes and affiliations and policy preferences and all that stuff, just that we keep in mind that it is one thing influencing another, not all the same thing. This is because I am an American, mostly. But it’s also, I think, because I am a Jew. The Destruction of the Temple in 70, and the Expulsion that ensured that it would not be rebuilt, meant that the Jews became a Diaspora people. While the Zionists have succeeded in making a Jewish State (vaddevah dat means), I am a Diaspora Jew, and half or more of the Jews in the world are Diaspora Jews. And Diaspora Jews have always benefitted from people who were able to separate their religion from their politics. The Destruction, to me, and even more so the Expulsion (which is one of the Five Calamities observed—the Destruction of the First and Second Temples, the destruction of Betar and then the Expulsion from Jerusalem in the Revolt, and also the Report of the Twelve Spies in Numbers) are the markers that end Temple Judaism and begin Diaspora Judaism, that begin Judaism as a minority religion and culture.

So while I do try to take Tisha B’Av as a day of Lamentations—whatever one thinks about the Temples, the death toll is worth memorializing—I wind up also taking the day as a moment to cling to the new thing that was created out of that destruction. To me, a mosque at Ground Zero (not that there is such a mosque proposed) would be such a symbol, of something new and valuable coming from destruction and death. It is my hope that at some point, perhaps, most of the Moslems in the world as well as the Moslems in America and the non-Moslems in America as well as the non-Moslems throughout the world can look at a memorial observance Nine-Eleven as a memorial for death and destruction, yes, but also a symbol of a time when we began to make a separate and privileged space for politics, that is, the art of living together.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Sending my best wishes on rosh hashanah. Happy rosh hashanah everybody.

[This appears to be spam, so I've removed the link, but there's no reason Gentle Readers should not have a nice Rosh Hashanah anyway. Thanks, -V.]

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