Today, on the ninth of Av, Jews mourn the Two Holy Temples’ destruction – and the scourge of anti-Semitism for millennia. As someone who has to endure a 25-hour summertime fast in hot Israeli weather, who believes that Judaism devotes too many days to grieving, and who lives in a rebuilt Jerusalem, I am tempted not to fast. Yet, I take this day of mourning seriously. We need to remember – and should apply yesterday’s lessons today to improve tomorrow.
Being Jewish did not just make me a historian -- I have a hard time believing how you can be Jewish and not be an historian. We are steeped in our past, consecrated by our heritage, ennobled by our stories. I love that popular legend about Napoleon’s surprise when he saw some Jews keening and fasting on Tisha Ba’av. Told they were lamenting losing the Holy Temple in 70 CE, Napoleon supposedly replied: “a people that remembers for so many centuries is a people that will last forever – and will see the Temple rebuilt.”
Judaism understands that if remembering remains cerebral, it risks becoming sterile; Jewish memories are reenacted, ritualized, brought to life. We don’t just remember the liberation from Egypt, we play it out with an elaborate Seder meal. We don’t just remember the huts we lived in while wandering the desert, we rebuild them every Sukkot. We don’t just remember the days of purification before getting the Torah, we only eat dairy during Shavuot. Similarly, we fast on Tisha Ba’av – feeling empty as if the Temples were just destroyed, while mourning the continuing impact of those losses.
Popular culture similarly taps into the lure of repetition and ritual. Leonard Nimoy aka “Spock” created “Star Trek’s” iconic Vulcan sign by remembering the priestly blessings he received in synagogue. He told the director “there should be some Vulcan thing that Vulcans do when they greet — like humans shake hands or military people salute each other, Asian people bow to each other. We have rituals…” That tradition has been echoed in Robin Williams’ “Nanu Nanu” from “Mork and Mindy,” Joey Tribbiani’s “how you doin’” from “Friends,” and Barney Stinson’s “legen – wait for it – dary,” from “How I Met Your Mother.”
My grandfather taught that Jewish history’s vigor also stemmed from its progressive vision, seeing life as evolving toward a more just future while broadcasting moral messages. Modern Jerusalem epitomizes Tisha Ba’av’s reassuring, inspiring arc from destruction to redemption. Fasting in a rebuilt Jerusalem does not deny the positive present. Instead, it triumphs over our miserable past. We celebrate our freedom to choose to mourn, as a now-powerful people who saved ourselves from our seemingly-perpetual powerlessness.
Tisha Ba’av today is not just about feeling empowered by our current success, it is about feeling humbled by our failures, past and present. The prayer “MiPnai Chateynu Geelenu MeArtzeinu,” our sins caused our exile from our land, teaches that essential lesson. We take responsibility for our shortcomings carefully, thoughtfully, aware that acknowledging multiple sources of causation does not exonerate evildoers. While denouncing our tormenters’ evil, we refuse to see ourselves only as victims. If Palestinians could learn, as Zionists did, to be more self-critical and less self-pitying, more responsible for your own failings and your own fate, peace would be easier to achieve.
Jews remember that the sin which destroyed the Second Temple and launched our exile was “sinat chinam,” unbounded fraternal hatred. We should take that historical warning seriously in Israel – and throughout the Jewish world. When I look too far left, I see a stunning lack of patriotism feeding the constant criticizing of Israel, with little appreciation for its complex challenges. I learned in graduate school that it is easy to knock down someone else’s work and harder to build your own argument. In politics and society too, criticism is cheap and plentiful; constructive solutions are rarer. When I look too far right, I see an equally stunning myopia, a dangerous self-absorption and self-righteousness fueling racism and fanaticism. Nationalism need not be xenophobic but too frequently is. We need a Jewish nationalism tempered by liberalism and a liberalism championing nationalism, all humbled by history.
Ultimately, then, Tisha Ba’av has another arc, which in some ways contrasts with Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, many of us go from the personal to the communal. In repenting for our sins, we also repent for the community’s shortcomings. On Tisha Ba’av, we go from the communal to the personal; accounting for our collective failures compels us to stretch ourselves individually, ethically.
Judaism abhors those who love humanity yet hate human beings, as well as those who love humans yet hate humanity. Tisha Ba’av challenges us to cultivate both communal and personal virtue – creating an ever-escalating cycle of goodness with individual and national righteousness elevating one another.
Therefore, this Tisha Ba’av, I will continue mourning. As a Jew I feel historical time in the present. As my stomach growls and my mouth dries up, I will be smelling the embers of the burning Temple, dodging the fallen rocks of the crumbling Jerusalem walls, hearing the cries of our medieval martyrs’ flayed flesh, touching the ashes of over one million Jews murdered in Auschwitz. I will remain abashed by the sins of communal hatred, self-hatred, and hatred of others that were partly – but not wholly -- responsible for our suffering. But I will also rejoice in the modern miracles of our Altneuland, our old new land, tasting our newfound freedom. This autonomy and responsibility challenges us individually and collectively to become better people and build an even better liberal democratic Jewish state in harmony with its glorious past, its redeemed people, and its (hopefully equally humbled and transformed) neighbors.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!