I have not observed Tisha B’Av in twenty years or more. I object to it. And I am going public.
I know how much effort has gone into preserving this commemoration. It is the only Jewish observance other than Shabbat that occurs during Jewish summer camp, which, ironically, is a tragedy. It has become a catch-basin for every catastrophe in Jewish life – we have a list the length of my arm of the disasters that occurred on this day throughout the centuries. (I suspect a similar list could be made about the 12th of Cheshvan or the 3rd of Sivan.) It is the only liturgical use for the Book of Lamentations.
But the real reason for Tisha B’Av is to mourn the destruction of the Temples, first and second, which occurred on this day almost 2000 and 2600 years ago. We mourn them because we want them back. And I don’t want the Temple back. Ever.
If you think the political and verbal battles over who gets to pray where at the Western Wall are extreme and fractious, imagine the return of a hereditary priesthood, animal sacrifice and mandatory tithes and taxes. A restored Temple would not be subject to the evolutionary practices of Reform, Conservative or even Orthodox Judaism. Synagogues, unlikely to disappear, would no longer substitute for the atonement rituals of Yom Kippur or, for that matter, of everyday sins. The rich heritage of Jewish liturgical music would disappear there to be replaced by a chorus of male Levites chanting the Psalms.
The first stone of the Third Temple would be the first shot of the Third World War. The mosques and shrines that sit atop the Temple Mount would need to be razed to rebuild the Temple. A billion Muslims would be outraged – rightly or wrongly – and some percentage of them (let’s say one percent, or ten million) would want to do something about it. Blood would flow, and not from unblemished heifers.
Why would I wish for that? Why would I pray for that?
It was the destruction of the Second Temple that liberated us from debates over whether Judaism moved into the expanding horizons of the expanding world or remained bound to the bickering over whether the Bible was to be followed literally or interpretively. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that made the individual responsible to preserve Jewish life wherever she or he lived. It was the destruction of the Second Temple that made it necessary for us to rely on ourselves and not only God to determine Jewish destiny. Those are good things, in my opinion.
And even if they are not good things in your opinion, they are, as they say in that part of the world, facts on the ground. There is no turning back the clock, however golden the good old days may have been.
It is about now that someone will make a comparison to remembering the Holocaust and ask me if I think there will come a time we should stop commemorating that destruction. It is an apt question, and I have an unpopular answer. If the purpose of remembering death and destruction is, perversely, to keep the death and destruction alive, then the time for that remembering will pass. The vitality of our lost millions is what we should seek to preserve and renew. We remember death and destruction to prevent its recurrence, not to lift it up above the victims.
The same is true of the Temple. The pageantry of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur keeps alive the glory of those days past. We remember what once was and can never be again. We promise to renew it in our own way in our own day. Seeing in the demise of the Temple a cautionary tale about climate change or pollution or bigotry or political extremism is a desecration of its holiness and an admission that its destruction is of greater importance than its function.
Lots of ink has been spilled on this topic. The people who insist that there is a value in preserving this observance and its traditions make compelling cases that are based on a predisposition to find modern justification for ancient rituals. And I am under no illusion that my contrarian position, even if widely accepted by people who mostly don’t observe Tisha B’Av to begin with, will persuade others who fast, grieve and lament.
But I myself am willing to let this one go. Like the water-drawing ritual and the dance of the unmarried women, it should be remembered, not observed. Like the Tu B’Shvat seder and Kabbalat Shabbat, new rituals should emerge if there are spiritual values to renew. But Tisha B’Av as it remains observed today strikes me as false and futile, and its use to remind ourselves that we are an “ever-dying people” stands against the evidence that 2000 years later, here we are.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession