Happy Tisha B'Av
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 31, 1998
Tisha Be'av night of 1828, the rabbi of a small town in southern Germany ordered the local temple brilliantly lit up and his congregants to attend in their finest clothes. When the congregants were duly assembled, the preacher mounted the pulpit to protest against the mourning and sadness traditionally associated with the day.
He accused all Jews still in mourning of treason and enmity toward the state and fatherland, and called upon his congregants to demonstrate by means of festal celebration their repudiation of the out-of-date yearning for Palestine. Jerusalem, he said, was here. Palestine was now situated on German soil.
That speech, of course, was fully consonant with the assimilationist purpose of classical German Reform, which sought to create a new religion to remove impediments to emancipation.
Only by shedding any claim to Jewish national identity and all national aspirations, it was thought, would Germans of the 'Mosaic faith' be granted full civic equality. (Ironically, long after Jews had attained a large measure of civic equality in most German states, emancipation was still only a dream in that southern German state in which Tisha Be'av was transformed into a yom tov.)
Reform prayer books were purged of all mention of a return to Zion, and Avraham Geiger, the leader of German Reform, proclaimed Jerusalem 'an indifferent city... nothing more than a veritable ruin.' During the 1840 Damascus blood libel, he opposed intervention on behalf of his co-religionists, lest by so doing German Jews betray a residual sense of national identity.
Since 1948, of course, Reform, with the exception of the die-hard American Council of Judaism, has dropped in theory, if not practice, its traditional denial of Jewish nationhood. However tenuous the identification of most Reform Jews with Israel - only 17% describe themselves as identifying strongly with Israel and less than 10% will ever visit - Israel and the Holocaust remain the twin pillars of whatever Jewish identity remains and cannot be discarded.
Yet Reform ambivalence about Tisha Be'av as a day of mourning is by no means a relic of the past. One of the discussants at a website for graduates of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinic seminary, recently posed the following question: How should we celebrate Tisha Be'av today?
Lest anyone think that he was kidding, he went on to explain that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is a joyous day because it marks the ends of the 'pagan ritualistic blood cult" that characterized the Temple service.
True, many Jews were killed in the fall of Jerusalem, the young clergyman notes, but many Jews also died during the plague of darkness prior to the Exodus from Egypt and that does not prevent us from celebrating Pesach as a joyous holiday. Let not the memory of mothers driven by starvation to eat their own children, of the tens of thousands who fell before the Roman legions or were carried away into slavery, or the expulsion from Spain dim our rejoicing at the termination of the barbaric sacrifices offered in the Temple.
In this clergyman's temple, it will be theoretically possible for two people of the same sex, only one of them Jewish, to be married on Tisha Be'av. That's progress.
NOW, of course, Tisha Be'av is no more likely to become a joyous holiday in Reform temples than it is to become a day marked by fasting and mourning.
Yet the rabbi's assumption that the Temple sacrifices were barbaric borrowings from contemporary pagan cultures - and could hold no possible meaning for modern man - is one universally acknowledged by Reform clergy and laity alike. One of the first Reform alterations of the prayerbook, almost two centuries ago, was to excise all references to the Temple sacrifices and prayers for their return.
The Conservative Sim Shalom prayerbook also omits any prayers for the restoration of the sacrifices and for the same reason: the easy assumption that the message of the sacrifices - the complete consecration of all physical existence to God - is inaccessible to modern man.
But if the Temple was the center of cultic practices antithetical to pure monotheism, does it not follow that God's presence could never have dwelt in the Temple precincts. And if the Divine Presence never rested on the Temple, surely there is no reason to believe that the Divine Presence found refuge over the Western Wall after the Temple's destruction.
Once the divine origin of Temple sacrifices is denied, then, the Western Wall and everything connected to it loses all significance.
These are not merely my inferences. A recent 'responsum' of the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel states forthrightly: 'One should not consider the Western Wall as possessing any sanctity... The approach of the Progressive Jew towards worship and prayer is opposed to any renewal of the Beis HaMikdash, opposed to restoration of sacrificial worship, opposed to granting of any special status to Kohanim, and opposed to any consideration of a Messiah... The Western Wall does not represent Jewish cleaving to God, nor the experience of prayer nor Jewish thought for our times.'
Perhaps we'll see soon on the Reform website the following question: Do we betray our deepest beliefs as Reform Jews by demanding the right to conduct our rites at the site of pagan idolatry? But don't count on it - the Wall provides too many good photo-ops to rile up the folks back home.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, The Three Weeks & Tisha B'Av
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list