Tonight begins the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the Jewish collective day of mourning. All the great calamities of Jewish history are collectively ascribed to this day, beginning with the sin of the Golden Calf, continuing through the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and onward to the expulsion from Spain. Traditional observance includes a 25-hour fast, plus observance of the other rites of mourning (no bathing, no wearing of leather shoes, no sex), plus the extraordinary prohibition of most Torah study (because studying Torah is a joyous activity).
Once upon a time, I found Tisha B’Av deeply moving. Chanting the Book of Lamentations on the floor of my synagogue, I felt the kind of primal connection with other generations across time and space that is so central to Jewish religiosity. Tisha B’Av was a time of longing for a return to wholeness that I longed for on a personal level as well – but also an important corrective to narratives of national grievance and triumphalism, a recognition of essential vulnerability, that God’s will cannot ever truly be known, His favor ever truly assured for any particular moment in time. Lamentations, after all, is just that: a lament, a cry of pain, not an accusation or a confession or a call to arms. And the sole traditional rabbinic text studied on the day is an account of the destruction of the Second Temple that begins with a dispute over a mistaken invitation to a party. Such a narrative is perhaps the subtlest way to undermine the perspective of the zealots of Jerusalem, that all that was needed to prevail was faith and will.
I haven’t been observing the past few years, though, and I don’t expect to be observing this year either. That’s part and parcel of a general falling-away that has accelerated of late. Partly it’s a sense that, in our day, with zealotry back on the agenda, lamentation feels inadequate. I feel more sharply the teeth of Vespasian’s unanswered retort to R. Yokhanan ben Zakkai in the rabbinic text I linked to above: “If there is a jar of honey round which a serpent is wound, would they not break the jar to get rid of the serpent?”
Moreover, they say those who fast assiduously will merit to see the reconstruction of the Temple in their day. I am not sure I want to seek that merit, nor am I convinced that fasting is actually the way to earn it.
If you want to understand what I mean by that, take a look at this marvelous article by my good friend, R. Joshua Gutoff, about the excommunication and rehabilitation of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the titans of early rabbinic Judaism. The piece presumes a certain degree of knowledge about Jewish sources, but I think it would be rewarding even to a total neophyte. I love it for the portrait it paints of these men, for the extraordinary empathy of his reading, neither exactly modern nor traditional, but really trying to enter the text as if it were alive. And I weep for the recognition of its truth that liberation and loss are two aspects of the same phenomenon of modernity – even if the modernity in question is nearly 2000 years old.
And its conclusion strikes me as extraordinarily hopeful – and important:
Rabbi Eliezer as outcast remained loyal to rabbinic Judaism at least as much as he had been as a disputant member of the Sanhedrin. Angry? Bitter? Resentful? To be sure. In disagreement? To the end. But by remaining a model of the true excommunicate – outside of the normative community but still tied to it – he may have done the people a greater service than did any of his colleagues. For as Judaism passed from the apprehendable world of God immanent to the chaos we know all too well, it needed an outlaw. Eliezer was that outlaw, and his excommunication did what trials do all too rarely in real life: it allowed the community to see itself, understand itself, define itself, in a way that would last until . . . Well, until the next great transition.
Outside the normative community but still tied to it: it’s a tough balancing act for an outlaw to pull off. But every community needs such outlaws – traditionalist and modernist alike.