Monday, July 27, 2009

The Ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av): Shall we fast?

On July 30, according to the Jewish calendar: the ninth day of the month of Av, Jews are commanded to fast for a day of remembrance for the destruction of the first and second temple of Jerusalem. The first temple was destroyed by king Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon in 586 BCE. The second temple was destroyed by Roman general Titus in 70 CE. According to biblical history, the first temple had been built by king Solomon, sometime in the 10th century BCE. The second temple was built by Jews returning from Babylon under the Achaemenid Persians in the late 6th century BCE. Remnants of the platform that once supported the second temple are still visible today. They were restored by Umayyad Caliph Abd al Malik in 688-91 CE, who built the Dome of the Rock, the first monumental building of Muslim civilization, that until today graces the Herodian platform that Jews call the Temple Mount and Arabs know as the Haram ash-Sharif.

What is it that Jews mourn when they fast on the 9th of Av? Jewish history is replete with destructions that occurred on this particular date. According to rabbinic tradition, it was on this date that the Israelites were told that they could not enter the Promised Land but had to wander in the desert for another forty days. On the same date both temples burned, though these events are separated by six hundred and fifty six years. The first expulsion of the Jews from a European state (England 1290) and their last expulsion (Spain 1492) are said to have occurred on Tisha b'Av.

Should we fast? It is true: had the Romans not destroyed Jerusalem in 70 and crushed the last great rebellion of Simon bar Koseva (the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132-135 CE), we might still have a temple. We would not have gone into exile. The vulnerability of exile might not have been our fate. Modern Zionism hoped to end this vulnerability. It declared exile, which pious Jews had learned to carry as a divine mandate, a mistake to be rectified, a mishap whose reversal was within human reach: Wenn Ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen! as Herzl put it.

Not fasting but rebuilding Zion was the goal of Zionism. And rebuild they did. And yet, pious Jews are still fasting, are commanded to fast, until such time as the weeping for the destroyed temple is turned into jubilation over the temple to be rebuilt, "speedily and in our days."

At this point, if one were to write a sermon, one would need to make a decision. Are we still to fast, and if so, what are we fasting over? Only the past? And is such fasting a mandate to hope and pray for the restoration of the temple? Given the fact that Abd al Malik long since rebuilt the temple, how can we wish for another one without wishing harm on our brothers and fellow-Abrahamites? How does fasting over the destroyed temples not turn into hateful nationalistic egotism and hurtful fantasies of revenge? Is not the temple supposed to be a house of prayer for all people? How can it be if it is restored at the expense of the erasure it would require of what is there now? How can we wish for the age of mourning to be over without imposing mourning on others? Could this be the secret of the messianic age?

Can we imagine a ritual that does justice to the mourning of the Jews without merely, "keeping the hatred green," as Elie Wiesel wrote once, a long time ago? Is the current fear and hatred of the Jews, that is so common not just among our Arab brethren, not also nourished by the notion that somehow the Jews deserved their state of exile, that the Romans were merely the instruments of divine punishment on the Jews, as the Christians have always believed? Triumphalism is always evil because it teaches us to be resentful even when we are the ones dominating others. We are all guilty as charged. Perhaps, to remember this, it maybe worth fasting.

1 comment:

  1. I don't see why Jewish mourning needs to be referential to other groups, who share no part in it. If it is the logistical issue of where would a Jewish Temple go, since the plaza is inhabited by mosque and courtyard already, it seems somehow trivial. Since very few Jews advocate establishing a new Temple there NOW, it is indeed an issue for the Messianic age, or at the least the age when Jews would want build a Third Temple. Can we not imagine that there might be enough room for a Temple and a mosque on the hillsides of Zion? Or perhaps many things that we cannot imagine will have changed by then. Why can't a Jew even cry on Tisha Bav for fear of disenfranchising someone else? By this thinking, how many cubits are left in the world for the Jews?