Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? All around the Jewish Internet, and around the Jewish world, we are asking “Why?” I asked “Why?” last year too. Why do we mourn on Tisha B’Av? What relevance does it have today? Who wants a Third Temple anyway?
Traditionally, we believe that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on Tisha B’av, hundreds of years apart, the First for idolatry, and the Second for baseless hatred among Jews.
Though we typically say that the First Temple was destroyed because of our sin of idolatry, the idolatry of the day was not a matter of private worship. Religion was an organizing principle of government, social interaction, law, and ritual practice. To worship Molech meant to immolate young children. To worship Ashera meant to participate in orgiastic rape rituals with temple slaves. Idolatry was really a matter of competing lifestyles and ideologies, of competing sects seeking to define Israelite life, culture, and worship.
The same is true of life in the Second Temple. Hellenists, Jewish Christians, Sadducees, Pharisees, Sicarii, Zealots, Essenes, and other sects were characteristic of a highly fragmented social, political and religious milieu. These groups fought between and among themselves, to devastating consequences. But the question remains, why do we call this baseless hatred (Sina’at Hinam) ? The ideological differences between these groups were massive! Issues at stake including how many gods were to be worshipped, whether god was corporeal, what was the role of written text of Torah versus oral traditions of Torah, was religious leadership hereditary or earned, what was the appropriate practice of the Sabbath, and who controlled the Jewish calendar. There’s nothing baseless about the bitter rivalries and conflicts that played out over these issues!
A further question. On Tisha B’av we mourn the destruction of the Temple because the Temple was supposedly the symbol of Jewish unity. Yet the Temple was the very site of the political and religious power struggles described above. The Talmud is replete with stories about violent confrontations and devious machinations occurring in the Temple itself. The building that was destroyed, Herod’s Temple, was an enormously controversial project when Herod, considered and Edomite non-Jew and Roman puppet by many of his subjects, built it only a few decades prior to its destruction. I can mourn over Jewish hatred, but why mourn the destruction of the very forum in which they played out? It took the destruction of the Temple for Jews to consolidate and unite around Rabbinic Judaism, which sustained it for 2000 years!
In the last 2000 years, Tisha B’av has become a catch-all day of mourning. Kinot (mournful poems) are recited for the Crusades, pogroms, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust. The last, in particular, has become an important part of the modern Tisha B’av, because it is both so enormous in scale and so recent as to be quite relevant and relatable. People can still find tears for the Holocaust that they cannot find for a 2000-year old Temple ruin. But the problem with Tisha B’av as a Holocaust memorial is that first question I asked, “Why?”. We have reasons for the destruction of our Temples, but what reason do we have for the Holocaust? Last year, I wrote:
We are still mad from the Holocaust. We can find no meaning in it, we are estranged from God, from ourselves, and from our destiny because of it. We drink in all of its memories, we recite very name, stare at every photo, and listen to every story, but we never master it. We cannot bring ourselves to name its causes, to assign responsibility for it, or to reframe our relationship to God around it. And until we don’t change that, the creeping numbness that inflicts us every Tisha B’Av will grow, the distance between our values, our work, our God, and ourselves will lengthen, and we will become a faceless, speechless people with no lesson for the world but silence.
This year, I will try to formulate the beginning of a response.
The Temple is understood as a symbol of unity, even if in practical terms that unity proved elusive. Yet that unity is expressed in some contradictory ways.
- The Temple is meant to be a house of worship for all people and nations, but its precincts are restricted. Non-Jews could not enter the main sanctuary at all, and increasing levels of restricted access governed the courtyard, sanctum and inner sanctum.
- The pillar of smoke rising to Heaven from the altar symbolized the intimate connection between Man and God, but the smoke itself was produced in the basest way, by burning slaughtered animals.
- Priests were to wear gleaming white difficult-to-clean linen garments, symbolizing purity, but would soon be spattered in impossible-to-remove bloodstains shortly after they started their sacrificial work.
- The Temple was a site of pilgrimage, where you would gather to see and be seen by God, but when you got there, the closest you could come was the front lawn.
- Though the Temple is the site of worship for every Jew, nowhere are the status distinctions between Jews more pronounced. Priests, Levites, and Israelites played very different roles. Wealthy Jews brought different sacrifices than poor Jews. Judges and scholars played official roles. Though all belonged at the Temple site, none were created equal there.
- The courtyard of the Temple housed the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people, which sat in between a bazaar and a slaughterhouse.
- Although the greatest prohibition in Judaism is idolatry, sitting in the Holy of Holies, on top of the Ark of the Covenant that had held the Ten Commandments, was an idol! The center of all Jewish worship and intention was a statue of two cherubs facing one another.
The Temple’s lesson about unity one of the greatest lessons of Jewish wisdom. Unity is not about universal adherence to one idea or ideal. Judaism proposes that unity is about being able to hold many contradictory ideas in our minds at once, and to be able to express them in our lives. The point to aim at, the point where God’s presence could be said to rest, is between the two cherubs. The universe, and our relationship to God, is fundamentally complex. Life is not a morality play or kabuki theater, where obedience to the form defines right and wrong. But life is also not a solipsistic play, where our own egos and intellects determine morality for the entire universe.
To hold contradiction together requires diversity. One person, alone, cannot, contra Walt Whitman, contain all the multitudes. Judaism requires many sects, many tribes, many schools of Halacha, Hashkafah, and Haskalah. We’ve always had them, and together, as a milling and teeming mass of intellect, spirituality, zealotry, piety, and artistry we’ve expressed our love, awe, fear, passion and intimacy for our Father, Master, Teacher, King, and Beloved, the Breath of Life, the Universal, the Unmoved Mover, the Unknown and Unknowable, and all the other seventy names for God.
Last year, I talked about how the Satmar Rebbe blamed the Holocaust on Zionism, while the Zionists blamed the Holocaust on the Jew of Exile, who could not shake himself out of his existential misery, shake off the shackles of his religious tradition, stand up, declare himself a nation and not a faith, and redeem himself. Both are wrong, but both are right. The answer is not to unify around one pole or the other. Had all Jews abandoned Judaism to move to Palestine, we would have lost the very soul of Judaism in exchange for a piece of dirt and a UN membership. Had Jews not taken to the Zionist dream and built what was to be the State of Israel, the Holocaust might well have ended the Jewish project entirely. And they are not the only ones who are right and wrong. The Reform, who cast away law in favor of ethics, and the Orthodox, who cast away ethics in favor of law, and the Conservative, who cast away principles in favor of compromise, and secular who cast away history in favor of culture, and all the other sects, groups and denominations of Modern Judaism, they are all wrong, and all right, and all need to learn not just to tolerate, but to dignify the other as necessary, as valid, as honored.
Diversity ensures our survival. Without it, we have no mechanism for finding new ideas, for defining new ways to express our core values in a changing world, or for striving for our own improvement and drawing closer to our ideals and our vision of the Divine. Tisha B’av teaches us that baseless hatred is baseless not because there are no core issues at stake between groups, but because each group is striving for a common goal. Each group is working ‘lishma’ for a pure purpose, even as differences abound about how to pursue it or even what it is. Our challenge is to wrap our arms around all of this stiff-necked people with its squabbling and bickering, to love it, to nurture it, and to lead it it to achieve its promise as a light unto the world. So long as we have not achieved that, I’ll have reason to fast on Tisha B’av.