Out of the flames comes hope

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, July 14, 2013
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Fires — and Tishah Be’Av.

Images of the terrible role of fire in Jewish history passed strangely through my mind as I sat with the Bravanese Muslim community recently. They had gathered to celebrate the close of their educational year with songs, speeches and recitals from the Koran. The event took place in a business park because their own community centre was recently burnt down in what was allegedly a racially inspired attack.

Fire rages through the history of Tishah B’Av, the solemn fast day that we will mark on Tuesday. The second book of Kings describes how the Babylonians, led by Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, “burnt the house of the Lord fire”. Almost 650 years later, in the battle for Jerusalem, Roman soldiers set the Second Temple alight. Josephus provides a terrifying account of what ensued: “You would have thought that the Temple hill was boiling over from its base, being everywhere one mass of flame, but that the stream of blood was more copious than the flames.”

Fire also marks the medieval history of the day. “Inquire of she who was burnt in the flames”, asks Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg in his elegy over the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242: “How can it be that you, given in God’s devouring fire, were consumed by the fire of mortals?” In 1240, Nicholas Donin, an apostate Jew, had asserted that the Talmud contained blasphemies against Jesus and was thus the reason why Jews refused to accept Christianity. King Louis IX ordered a public disputation in which Rabbi Yehiel and three colleagues were given the impossible task of defending the Talmud.

It was eventually determined that, though the allegations were not proven, the Talmud was “a tissue of lies”. The burning of 24 cartloads of volumes set the precedent for such attacks in France, Spain and especially Italy through the Middle Ages.

It was on Tishah B’Av 1942 that the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka began. History has proven true the words of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine: “Where they have burnt books, they will end in burning human beings.”

But what preoccupied me on that Sunday with the Bravanese community was different. I thought of how my grandfather, Dr Salzberger, for 30 years rabbi in Frankfurt-am-Main, was summoned on the day after Kristallnacht to the great synagogue on the Boerneplatz. The building was in flames but the fire service was nowhere to be seen. No one dared intervene.

Yet in London, after the attack on the community centre, one civic leader after another spoke out. The police and local councillors were certainly not compelled by duty to forgo their Sunday to give due voice to their formal support. Their words expressed real sorrow and warmth: “How could anyone do such a terrible thing to this peace-loving community with whom I’ve lived side-by-side for 20 years?” and “We’ve stood together in the past. And we’ll stand together in your new building, which will be even better”.

How different, I thought, from my grandfather’s experience, and what a privilege to live in a country that truly abhors racism. What a responsibility we have towards that society.

At once another aspect of Tishah B’Av came into my mind; the tradition that on this very day of destruction the Messiah is born.

Admittedly, the story originates in a tenuous Midrash. A farmer whose ox bellows deeply is informed by a passing stranger that the animal is sorrowing for the Temple, which is even at that moment burning down. “Unyoke it,” he says: “Let it mourn.” But when it bellows again, the stranger tells the farmer to replace the yoke. Its second cry is for the Messiah, who has just been born. The story is fanciful but the idea is powerful. Out of destruction emerges the resolve to create a fellowship so strong and so inclusive that together we will transform the world into a place “where they shall neither hurt nor destroy, for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”.

Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London Synagogue

Last updated: 3:45pm, July 14 2013