The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av in our Time

Delivered on July 16, 2010 • Parashat D’varim
Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation

It’s a confusing time to be an American Jew.

From Monday evening to Tuesday evening (July 19-20), Jews observe the holiday of Tisha B’Av.  Literally, the name means ninth of the month of Av.  I think most American Jews are unaware of this holiday and its content, such as that it’s a fast day and part of the lead-up to the High Holidays.  According to our tradition, Tisha B’Av commemorates many things:  first, the punishment of the Exodus generation for their faithlessness upon hearing the scouts negative reports of the land.  They were condemned to die in the desert, says our tradition, on Tisha B’Av.  Then, the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, by Babylonia in 586 BCE and by Rome in 70 CE, respectively.

Later historical events also came to be understood by Jewish tradition as coinciding with Tisha B’Av.  For example, the expulsion of Jews from England (1290) and Spain (1492), as well as the beginning of the 1942 deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, are all believed to have occurred on Tisha B’Av.

Tisha B’Av is especially confusing for Reform Jews.  One of our early American Reform Rabbis, David Einhorn, had a unique interpretation.  Einhorn lived and worked in the mid-to-late 19th Century in Baltimore and then Philadelphia.  In his prayer book, he included Tisha B’Av as a celebration!  In his view, the destruction of the Temple was the day that we Jews went out into the world to spread our prophetic message of universal justice, and thus to be a light unto the nations.  Nowadays, I think we have a little more humility about the prospects for universal redemption.  The world is far from complete and whole, and we acknowledge there are reasons to mourn, and to commemorate destruction and brokenness.

There is also confusion within our tradition about the reasons for the two Temples’ destruction.
In the Talmud (Yoma 9b), we learn that the First Temple was destroyed because the Israelites were engaging in idolatry, incest, and bloodshed -- the three worst sins.  For the Second Temple, the reason given is sin’at hinam, baseless hatred.  Despite that the Jews of the time occupied themselves with mitzvot, it was their needless enmity that caused the Temple’s devastation.

Another voice in the Talmud offers a different interpretation.  Rabbi Yochanan (Metzia 30b) says that the reason for the destruction was that the rabbis “gave judgments in accordance with the Torah.”  As you can imagine, his colleagues are taken aback (I’m paraphrasing):  “What?!?  Should we have had unqualified amateurs giving rulings???”  So then Rabbi Yochanan clarifies: the problem, he says, was that they were so strict to the letter of the Torah that they disregarded the needs and merits of individual cases.  They were unwilling to go beyond the letter of the law to address present realities and preserve the dignity of people.

So we have these two reasons given for the Second Temple’s destruction: Sin’at Hinam and Excessive strictness in Torah. These are striking reasons. The most obvious answer would have been: Rome’s army was stronger.  However, Jewish tradition says no for two reasons: (1) God is in charge of history, and (2) more relevant for us, a Jewish “house divided cannot stand...”

This last point takes us back to our theme: it’s a confusing and troubling time for Jews.
The aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla incident showed once again that there are those who hate and blame Israel regardless of the facts.  There is an information war full of bias and falsehoods.  In many ways, Israel needs our help now more than ever.

And yet, there are two things Israel is doing now that fly in the face of that need for Israeli-Diaspora partnership.  They relate to the two reasons the rabbis mention for the Temple’s destruction: excessive strictness with Torah and sin’at chinam...

There was a bill making way through the Israeli Knesset that would dramatically change the way conversions are handled in Israel.  It was originally meant, I’ve read, to streamline the conversion process, e.g. to help the thousands of not-yet-converted Russian immigrants by granting more local control to community rabbis to oversee and approve conversions.  Instead, it consolidates power over all conversions in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.  This could have far-reaching effects on the question of “who is a Jew?” and who decides.  It would effect the Right of Return, as well as whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Unaffiliated conversions are recognized by Israel.  It raises no less than a question of whether Israel is ahomeland for all Jews, or only a narrow category determined by the Chief Rabbinate.  And it has certainly been feeding the Israel-Diaspora rift.

Second, Anat Hoffman, the director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested at the Western Wall. She was there with a group called Women at the Wall, who periodically gather on the women’s side to pray together.  This is a problem at the Wall, because it is managed as an Orthodox synagogue, such that women aren’t allowed to pray out loud.  In the past, the group has endured heckling and verbal abuse, as well as occasionally having things thrown at them in protest.  This time, Anat Hoffman was leading the women prayer and carrying a Torah.  This cause such a ruckus that, perhaps fearing a riot, the Israeli police forced her away from the Wall and arrested her.  Again, this raises the question: is Israel a Jewish homeland for ALL Jews?  Is the Western Wall, as a central symbol, open to all Jews to exercise their Judaism?

As I’ve said already, this is confusing and troubling.  Israel needs our help and support, yet we feel pushed away.

So let me try to offer some clarity in the midst of confusion, some comfort amidst all this tzuris.

Let’s look to Torah. In the first line of our parashah, D’varim, the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, it says:
Eileh haDevarim asher diber Moshe EL KOL YISRAEL be’ever haYarden baMidbar mol suf...  
These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan... (Deuteronomy 1:1)

I point this out because it is the first occurrence of “Kol Yisrael” (All Israel); before this, the Torah calls them “B’nei Yisrael” (Children of Israel). [1]

Something is different after the Exodus. They are no longer just the children of Jacob.  Their bond extends beyond family.  They are becoming a nation, a people, a civilization.  They -- we -- are a collective with a shared sacred history.

That shared sacred story links us.  Whether we’re on this or that side of the Jordan River -- whether we’re Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or no label at all --
We are Kol Yisrael, ALL of us, Jews.

Now, I’m not so naive as to expect us to speak in a unified voice.  In fact, it could be argued that our nature as Jews results in precisely the opposite.  So rather than that, I believe we should affirm our right to speak with different voices and STILL BE CONSIDERED JEWS.

Israel does need our help. But in TWO ways, and neither works alone:
Not only to survive, but also to remain a home for KOL YISRAEL, for all Jews.

In that spirit of Kol Yisrael, linking us together as Jews despite vast differences in practice and belief, I’ll conclude with a short Shabbes story.  I was told this story earlier this week by Rabbi Mendel Mintz, our local Chabad Rabbi.

At Mendel’s father’s Shabbat table, there was arguing, discussing, disagreeing on some point of Torah or politics.  But there was one unbreakable rule, he would always say:
“You don’t badmouth another Jew at my table. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.”
As Mendel tells it, his father would interrupt anyone, even his kids, if they were saying something negative about someone else.

How dearly we need a dose of this wisdom today.

As we wish each other Shabbat Shalom tonight, and always,
I hope we can also be agents of Shalom --
of peace, of wholeness --
to our Shabbat table, to Jews everywhere,
and, we pray, to the world.


1. R. Ephraim Landschutz [= Leczyca, 1550-1619] in his commentary Kli Yakar (to Dt. 1:1), as cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Excellent presentation on Tisha B'Av

  2. AHA !! The difference between the children of Israel and all Israel was made very clear. I have often wondered about the prejudice among our own people...Orthodox not considering Reform as Jews at all. In fact, I experienced it years ago when I was involved with an Orthodox Family. They were lovely people but called me, "the little Chicksa". (sp)Couldn't understand it then and can't understand it today. Division within?!?!
    Sermon was effectively thought - provoking !!

    Love to all, Leslie

  3. Interesting follow-up to the conversion bill issue, written by Natan Sharansky in the Jerusalem Post:

  4. Most interesting! You are so smart!


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