Thursday, August 03, 2006

A reason to keep mourning on Tisha B'Av

Ha'aretz published a typical anti-religious op-ed yesterday about Tisha B'Av. Here is a large part of it:
After the Six-Day War in 1967, a few important rabbis from the national-religious camp proposed making changes to the Nahem prayer recited on Tisha B'Av. The idea was that since we had established a sovereign state and resumed control of Jerusalem, it was no longer appropriate to continue to speak about "a desolate and vacant city... laid waste and deserted." Most Orthodox rabbis, however, wanted to continue to mourn the destruction, even when Jerusalem was quite rebuilt, and were unwilling to lend a hand in even this small and very sensible reform. It is unlikely that anyone thought about turning this day of mourning into a festival.

Tonight, many non-observant Israeli Jews will be wondering why the cafes are closed. Yes, indeed, tomorrow is Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning over the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and the dispersion (as well as a long list of other calamities). It is interesting to consider how many of our readers knew that it is tomorrow, how many will feel themselves to be in mourning, and how many of them even deem it significant. It is doubtful that anyone should even feel bad about this, with the possible exception of the rabbis, who have not bothered to make the fast day relevant.

It is no accident that so many non-observant Jews feel no connection to Tisha B'Av. Some people say it is because it falls during summer vacation, so children do not learn about it in school. But the source of the resistance seem to be deeper. In many ways, Tisha B'Av is the negative of Independence Day. Everything that a secular Zionist could wish for -- an independent, sovereign, democratic, Jewish state, the in-gathering of the exiles of the Law of Return, a strong army, model academic and scientific institutions -- already exists. That is why Independence Day is celebrated.
Is it really possible to create a secular alternative to Tisha B'Av?

Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg proposed changing Tisha B'Av, making the first half a time for mourning and the second half a meal of thanksgiving, in a combination that echoes the rapid succession of Israel's Memorial and Independence days. But Burg's proposal cannot be implemented without cooperation from the Orthodox. You cannot celebrate while many of your co-religionists are mourning, even if they are mourning an exile that has ended, and even if it is unclear whether they are mourning for the Jerusalem that was destroyed or for the ruins that no longer exist and to which they cannot say goodbye.

And anyway, the religious community does not need to celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av. It has demonstrated a remarkable ability to celebrate Jerusalem Day as if there was no Tisha B'Av, and commemorates Tisha B'Av as if Jerusalem had not been liberated.

Until a logical, current, relevant and Zionist way to mark Tisha B'Av can be found, perhaps the right way to behave on that day is exactly the way that most non-observant Jews do: to ignore it, as if it did not exist. But even those who ignore this day of mourning find it difficult to ignore the fact that our religious brethren insist on behaving as so many of the things that are so important and precious to us are not even worthy of their attention.
I cannot give the author a good reason why secular Israelis should commemorate Tisha B'Av, for the same reason I cannot give him a reason for them to light Chanukah candles or not work on Saturday. By definition, if you reject the religion, the importance of matzoh on Pesach is exactly the same as the importance of turkey on Thanksgiving, and if you think hard about it there really isn't much reason for Jews to keep identifying as Jews, except in the quaint sense that Irish-Americans show pride for their heritage by drinking green beer on St. Patrick's Day.

But I will answer his implicit question as to why religious Jews continue to mourn over a Jerusalem that is rebuilt. The answer can be seen in a Haaretz editorial from June that I quoted (original is not online):
Israel is having trouble formulating a logical and consistent stance with regard to East Jerusalem, and therefore it has been taking inconsistent and hypocritical steps. The decision to allow East Jerusalem residents to participate in the PA elections is part of this same duality. East Jerusalem's residents live here, vote for the PA and are citizens of Jordan. Instead of removing Palestinian parliamentarians from the eastern part of the city, it would be better to remove East Jerusalem from the State of Israel and transfer it to the Palestinian Authority.
In the Israel that Haaretz writers occupy, Jerusalem has no inherent value, and it can and should be traded for the same kind of peace that Gaza was traded for. In that mindset, the fact that Jews cannot ascend to their own holiest site in a city that they say they control is smart politics, not a tragedy.

Tisha B'Av commemorates many tragedies besides the destruction of the Temples, and unfortunately we can add the deaths of 12 more today to that list. But perhaps the biggest recent tragedy is that the modern state of Israel never truly acted as if all of Jerusalem is ours. The center of Jewish longing has been the Temple Mount for two thousand years but the Jews that this author represents - the ones in charge of Israel today - discount all of this with a wave of the hand, as their new, "improved" Zionism has replaced the old, antiquated Judaism that they despise.

This is indeed a reason to mourn on Tisha B'Av.