Why Tisha Be’av is more relevant than ever

Modern Jews sitting in the stunning city of Jerusalem sometimes struggle to mourn the destruction of the city and its Temple.

By GIDEON D. SYLVESTER
August 21, 2019 19:05
Why Tisha Be’av is more relevant than ever

‘AUTO-DA-FE ON Plaza Mayor, Madrid,’ by Francisco Rizi, 1680, illustrates the Spanish Inquisition-era ritual of public penance of condemned heretics.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Modern Jews sitting in the stunning city of Jerusalem sometimes struggle to mourn the destruction of the city and its Temple.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has called for a major overhaul of our Tisha Be’av liturgy. He’s not the first to do so. The idea was first raised almost 100 years ago when the British high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel wrote a letter to Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, pointing out that with Jews returning to the Land of Israel and building a flourishing society, perhaps the time for mourning was over. The rabbi thanked him, but informed him that the time was not yet ripe.

After the Six Day War and liberation of Jerusalem, questions about mourning for the city arose again. Sephardi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Haim David Halevy described how the sight of thousands of Jews converging on the Western Wall to observe the fast unraveled his own struggle to maintain a mood of mourning. “There was a corner of my heart which could not be punctured by the mourning. It was a corner of joy because of the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

For Halevy, the answer lay in altering just one word in the liturgy so it would more accurately reflect our situation. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who headed the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, also permitted individuals to make such changes, though he felt this should not be done by those leading communal prayers.

But Rabbi Cardozo wants more. In “A slap in the face to the Holy One blessed be He” (Magazine, August 9), he threatened to boycott synagogue on Tisha Be’av until the rabbis replace the liturgy with “reading, studying and discussing passages that call on us to become more sensitive to the needs of others, and show more respect to those we do not agree with.” Who can criticize him for calling on people to be nicer, kinder and more tolerant? The question is whether abolition of our traditional Tisha Be’av texts is an appropriate response to our current circumstances. Cardozo’s call fails on three counts: It’s divisive, it misses the meaning of ritual, and it ignores the modern significance of Tisha Be’av.

Cardozo’s proposal is divisive because it uproots thousands of years of tradition that have been unanimously accepted by Jewish communities around the world. It is ironic that he chooses the very day when we mourn the rifts and causeless hatred among our people, to create yet another splinter group, dividing our people even further.

But it’s not just that uprooting our traditions is ruinous for the unity of our people. To wreak havoc with our rituals is to overlook the great power they have to evoke ideas long after the circumstances in which they were created have changed. Let me give one example. Like Cardozo, I was privileged to grow up in a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue with its perfectly preserved traditions. Every Yom Kippur, our community would solemnly stand to recite a prayer beseeching God to “Bless, preserve, guard and assist all our brethren imprisoned by the Inquisition.”

THE SPANISH Inquisition had long since ceased persecuting our people, so its recitation may have seemed superfluous. Still, the head of Britain’s Sephardi communities, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Levy, explained that the rich history of the prayer and its powerful language had renewed relevance as an entreaty for the Jewish communities now facing the challenges of surging antisemitism.
Belonging to an ancient faith, we are blessed with an abundance of texts and traditions whose wisdom can be applied to our changing circumstances. Indeed, our entire religion is based on taking biblical stories of an ancient, nomadic family and applying their messages to our own lives in a post-modern society. Likewise, while it’s true we are privileged to live in an era when Jerusalem is flourishing, Tisha Be’av has its own relevance to life in modern Israel.

I am constantly astonished by Israel’s extraordinary achievements. After guiding groups in Auschwitz, Belzec and Treblinka, I can see why the authors of the prayer for the State of Israel referred to our country as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” Israel is an extraordinary miracle in which we should take great pride.

But while yearning for messianic times and striving to reach them is central to our faith, extreme messianic Zionism can be perilous. It can easily lead to arrogant complacency; the belief that the creation of a strong State of Israel means the Jewish people have already achieved our goals, so we need no longer worry about our morals. This dangerous approach is exemplified by those who try to transform the night of Tisha Be’av – which should be a time of introspection – into an occasion for triumphalism, waving flags and parading around the walls of the Old City as if there was nothing left to mourn.

It is precisely because we have such a beautiful flourishing city of Jerusalem that the harsh prayers and practices of Tisha Be’av are more relevant than ever. Tisha Be’av is our bulwark against obscene, fanatical Messianism.

Our country is beautiful, exciting and miraculous. But the Torah teaches that the lack of the Temple and its accompanying institutions of justice, ethics and compassion should remind us that something is still rotten in the State of Israel. While many political leaders, including representatives of “religious parties,” are under investigation on charges of corruption and the shielding of a pedophile, we cannot act as if religious Zionism has attained its goal of creating a democratic paradise.

Setting aside a day to mourn for the imperfect condition of the city and of our people is more important than ever. Remembering that we have not yet completed our moral and religious work is not, as Cardozo would have us believe, “a slap in the face for the Holy One blessed be He,” but a beautiful indicator of the idealism of our people. At a time when the prevailing culture encourages people to use spin to cover our mistakes, it is heroic that Jewish people take time to mourn our failings and reflect on the work we still have to do. These honest, religious values prevent moral complacency and ensure that we continue to improve our society until the great day when Tisha Be’av is no longer observed as a day of sadness, but becomes a joyous festival.

The writer is the British United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo responds:
It is entirely impossible to refute my dear friend Rabbi Sylvester’s arguments one by one within the confine of a few words, kindly given to me by The Jerusalem Post. His is a typical example of an outdated orthodox response in which he mixes things up, makes all sorts of observations and assumptions which are entirely mistaken. He reminds me of the person who never reads a book carefully before reviewing it so that he will not be prejudiced by it.
One recalls the famous observation by Charles Caleb: Criticism is like champagne nothing more disagreeable if bad, nothing more excellent if good.
Still, I love Rabbi Sylvester very much.    


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