The Destruction of the American Temple: A Spiritual View of Tisha B’Av

Each year, I find the Jewish holidays are a little different. It’s not that the holidays have changed, of course, but I have. This year, Tisha B’Av is speaking to me differently than it has in the past. (For a look at what I have thought about Tisha B’Av in the past, see  here or here).

Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. It is a day of mourning and lamentation. It is a day that I often have trouble relating to, seeing as I don’t actually want to go back to a Judaism that is based around the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet this year, the sense of mourning  destruction is resonating with me.

I find myself feeling like there are a lot of us mourning a vision of our world that seems to have been destroyed. There was an optimism to American life and worldview that seems to have gone, and many of us are beginning to wonder if it will return. There is a sadness present, both in those searching for work, and those who are employed but remain fearful of what the future will bring.

We are facing an unknown future, as did the Jews following the destruction of the Temple. They didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish without a Temple in which to make sacrifices. We aren’t sure what it means to be  American without a limitless economic horizon stretched before us.

Yet Judaism transformed, and became something far more vibrant than it had been. And America also has the potential to be revitalized. It does, however, require a willingness to accept that the world is changed.

Sorry, Can’t Lament Now, There’s a Cat on My Lap

I was about to write a really good Tisha B’Av post. I even had something to say that’s different from what I said four years ago or what I said two years ago. But then I ran into a problem. There’s a cat on my lap.

Dancer (who is being renamed to Giles), chose this morning to get on my lap, and hang out with me. For the first time. Ever. And he’s purring. Which leaves me unable to get into a proper lamenting state of mind. Which makes it hard to write a good Tisha B’Av post. Which leaves me explaining to you all why I’m not writing this post, rather than writing it.

Oh well, several days left for me to actually write  a lamenting post.

Rethinking Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’av is coming up on Sunday, and as I’m thinking about it this year, I find I’m thinking about it in a new way.   Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from the land. Over the course of about 2.5 millenia, lots of other terrible things have happened on that day also, so they have been added  into our sense of mourning and fasting. Yet, as I think about the origins of the day, the original event, I find myself asking, “where would we be without the destruction?”

There are very few peoples who have maintained a culture over 2500 years, yet Judaism has. Obviously, there have been many changes, but we have maintained a root sense of being part of one people. And I believe that part of the reason that we have lasted so long is that we are a people without a land, that we are a people of exile.

When the Temple was destroyed, first in 587 B.C.(E.) and then again in A.D. 71 (C.E.), Judaism was faced with the prospect of ceasing to exist. Instead, a new form of the religion was created which was not based on Temple worship. Especially in the aftermath of the second destruction by the Romans, this new form of Judaism went on to become the only form of Judaism, which we practice today. Without the destruction of the Temple, Judaism as we know it today would not exist.

There are those who would say that without the destruction, we would still be practicing as the ancient Israelites did in the Temple in Jerusalem with animal sacrifice. I doubt it. Other peoples who at the time practiced animal sacrifice no longer do. In fact, most of those ancient religions have given way to other, newer religions, most often Christianity or Islam. Yet Judaism remains.

Judaism continues because we’ve been able to adapt to changing times and beliefs. We’ve been able to continue to renew Judaism in each generation, creating something which addresses the spiritual needs of the day. Yet without the destruction of the Temple, would we have been pushed to make that first critical step, breaking with a location based cult worship at the Temple? I tend to doubt it.

Maimonides teaches that Temple Worship was a “phase” of Judaism, which was used to wean the Jewish people from the sacrifice-based worship they had been used to before we receieved the Torah. That we were never intended to continue sacrificial worship, but to transcend it with the shift to prayer (which of course took place in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, roughly 1,000 years before Maimonides). I love this teaching, in that it says “that was right for that time, but this is right for now.” In fact, it feels very Reconstructionist to me. If we look at the destruction in this way, it becomes a necessary step, albeit a painful one, in the evolution of Judaism.

I am not seriously proposing that we transition Tisha B’Av from a fast day to a feast day. Regardless of the outcome of the destruction, we have only to read the Book of Lamentations (traditionally read on Tisha B’Av) to understand how awful the destruction must have been in terms of human suffering. And so I am caught between celebration and mourning. The process was truly horrible, but out of the destruction Judaism was reborn.

For my thoughts on Tisha B’Av two years ago, see here.

Tisha B’Av begins at sunset on Saturday August 09 and continues through sundown, Saturday, August 10, 2008.

Finding meaning in Tisha B’Av

The middle of the summer tends to be a bit of dead time in the Jewish year-cycle. Synagogues tend to be emptier, rabbis tend to be on vacation, and this “holiday”, Tisha B’Av, shows up. Tisha B’Av is not so much a holiday as a commemoration–a remembrance of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. It is a day of mourning on which Jews traditional fast and read the biblical book of Lamentations. Not a fun, happy, joyous holiday, and often ignored.

Part of the reason so many of us are inclined to ignore Tisha B’Av is that it is mourning something we don’t particularly miss: a Judaism which focused almost exclusively around sacrifices offered at a central Temple in Jerusalem maintained by a hereditary priesthood. This was  a Judaism which was far more carnal than that practiced today. While some of the sacrifices were baskets of fruit or grain, many of them were sheep, goats, birds or cattle. Blood was shed, sprinkled, drained, and depending on the type of the sacrifice, varying amounts of the animal were burned entirely, and in most cases some was assigned as food for the priestly caste, while some amount was returned to the individual offering the sacrifice for a barbeque. This was not a religion built around individual or communal prayers, home rituals and the like, but rather was a big, noisy, messy (though communal) religion. It’s hard to get truly nostalgic for that time and way of doing things, at least for most of us.

So how do we understand Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the end of this style of Judaism, the destruction of the Temples, which is supposed to be mournful, but most of us probably see as a step forward? I want to suggest that we think less about the destruction of the Temple, per se, and instead think of the Jews of that time period, and what it must have felt like to have had their entire religious structure come crashing down upon them. The Jews of the time did not have the option, when the Temple was destroyed, of heading to the temple in the next town to continue their religious practice in more or less the same way. Their entire understanding of what it meant to be a Jew, to worship the Divine, had to undergo a massive transformation.

I cannot imagine what would be a parallel shock to us today. Perhaps if suddenly God were to speak to all of humanity as we are told happened to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai? Sure, we believe in God as a “force of nature,” or perhaps the underlying principle of the universe, or as that entity whose very existence encompasses our existences, but how many of us believe in a Deity that can speak through a mouth of its (or I suppose, in this case I should say “his”) own? What if we were to be told that all those specific rules in the Torah were not metaphors, not humanity’s attempt to interpret their understanding of Divine or natural law, but were rather the literal word of God? What would it mean to us in terms of our understanding of the world? What would it mean in terms of our understanding of Judaism?

I think we would be left without any sense of comfort from the Judaism we had practiced–indeed, I think that Judasim would cease to be workable for us. Everything we had done all of our lives would be wrong. We would need to redefine Judaism from scratch.

Clearly, I don’t believe that this will happen, or that this is the nature of Divinity. I believe that contemporary Judaism is true and valid (though not with an exclusive monopoly on truth). But by imagining what would happen if we were so very wrong, we begin to understand what it must have been like when Judaism changed from a single centralized sacrificial religion to the home and synagogue based religion we practice today.

We begin to have an understanding, perhaps, of the bravery of those individuals who were able to carry on, to envision a new form of Judaism, despite the crushing destruction not only of their worldview, but also of their country and people. We may remember with honor those who picked up the pieces and continued on after the destruction of the Temple. Often we recall those who barricaded themselves in Massada following the destruction of the Temple and chose to die there; Tisha B’Av calls us to remember those who chose the harder path…those who lived through the destruction and created a new way of belief, a new way of life, that allows us to continue to affirm ourselves as Jews 1,935 years later. That is something that I feel called to honor, called to remember.

Let us mourn for the pain of those who lost their religion, their country, and in all too many cases, family members in the destruction, but who have left us a legacy that lets us continue to declare our Judaism in a meaningful way today.

Tisha B’Av begins at sundown on August 2, 2006 and continues until sundown of August 3rd. For more information on Tisha B’Av, see MyJewishLearning.com: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/TishaBav.htm

Edit (8/06/2008): For my post about Tisha B’Av for 2008, see here.

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