Yes, we still need to fast on Tisha b'Av

July 16, 2010 14:05

My colleague Anshel Pfeffer has written a thought-provoking piece in Haaretz, in which he argues that we no longer need to fast on Tisha b'Av (which falls next week) because we have returned from exile, and because - he says - it would be perfectly possible to re-build a temple nowdays, if only there was the political will and religious interest (which there isn't).

He concludes:

Mourning on the Ninth of Av in this day and age flies in the face of both secular Zionism and religious Zionism. It contradicts the right of Jews around the world to decide where they prefer to live. The exile is over, and the temple has not been rebuilt because we don't want to do it.

The only ideologies that can justify continuing this observance are those that see democratic Israel as a heretic entity defying the majesty of God on earth. But if you are not a member of the Eda Haredit or a settler from Yitzhar, how can you mourn on Tisha B'Av in good conscience?

Well, let me explain why I still fast on Tisha b'Av - beyond the fact that it is a religious obligation - and why I believe it is still a fast which is relevant for each and every Jew, no matter where they live, what their religious or political orientation and whether they are interested in the return of Temple life or not.

For me, Tisha b'Av is not about the destruction of the Temple and the exile per se - but about the reasons why both these things happened. Traditionally, we ascribe them to needless hatred, as well as to idolatry, adultery and murder. But if you look closely at the biblical sources, there is something else at play.

In several different convenants with God, the Jewish people are given the mission of building a just and moral society, where the needs of the weak - the stranger, the orphan and the widow - are paramount and which can serve as a 'light unto the nations'. The land of Israel was given to us as a place in which to build this society; the Temple, in which God dwells, is the centre of all this.

We are thrown into exile when our society is corrupt. Indeed, a close reading of Jeremiah, before the destruction of the first temple, makes it abundantly clear that the Jews in the land of Israel before the destruction of the temple (the majority were already in exile many years beforehand) were what we would consider today 'frum'; they were dedicated to the Temple, they brought sacrifices, celebrated the festivals etc. However, they were unethical, and this is ultimately what forced them out of the land and brought about the destruction of the Temple. God, Jeremiah explicitely says, does not want sacrifices from such people.

These themes were explored in detail in a fascinating course by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag on exile and return, which I took recently at the brilliant London School of Jewish Studies. But Rabbi Shlomo Riskin expresses much the same sentiments:

So what is it about the loss of the Temple which engenders such national mourning? I would submit that the Holy Temple was inextricably intertwined with our national mission: to be God's witnesses, and thereby serve as a light unto the nations, bringing humanity to the God of justice, morality and peace. Our prophets saw the Temple as the living example from which all nations could learn how to perfect society. With the loss of the Temple, we ceased to be "players" on the world stage; we lost the means by which our message was to be promulgated. And a world without compassionate righteousness and just morality - especially with the possibility of global nuclear destruction - is a world which cannot endure.

Read the whole thing here.

Ultimately, what we should be mourning on Tisha b'Av is not the effect - the exile - but the cause, our failure to build a society where justice and morality are the guiding concerns, and our misguided emphasis on religious practice without the accompanying ethics.

Surely this is as relevant as ever today?

July 16, 2010 14:05

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