Tisha B’Av: Reflections from a Reform Jew

By P.J. Schwartz

The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av has come to symbolize a day of tragedy for the Jewish people. Tradition tells us that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on Tisha B’Av, and history has shown that other prominent events resulting in catastrophe for the Jews occurred on or close to this day as well: the Jewish expulsions from England and Spain, the declaration of war on Germany leading to World War II and the Holocaust, and the mass extermination at Treblinka of Jewish deportees from the Warsaw Ghetto. As a result, the ninth of Av is a day of mourning and remembrance of all tragedy that has befallen the Jewish people throughout history.

What I find most striking about Tisha B’Av is that Rosh Hashana arrives seven weeks later. Our New Year and the High Holy Days represent the opportunity for us to reflect upon on our wrongdoings throughout the year and commit to bettering ourselves in the year to come. Tisha B’Av appears to ask us to do the opposite: instead of thinking about what we have done to others, we remember what others have done to us.

One of the most essential Jewish values that guides my own growth is acharayut, the concept of taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. When others have wronged us, the best we can do is take responsibility for how we respond. We all have heard about taking the higher road and not stooping down to the level of those who have wronged us. The Talmud tells us that the disasters in Jewish history are the result of our injustices, sins, and acts of idolatry. Even though I do not believe that the tragedy in our lives is a result of our sins, I do believe that the Talmud alludes to the idea that in order to repair the world, we must begin with ourselves.

On Tisha B’Av we are reminded that we are moral exemplars. This is a day for us to take action, to become aware that part of bettering ourselves is what we do. For me, the ninth of Av is the day we forgive what others have done to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, as well as what others have done to us, our families, and our friends. In addition, this is the day for us to take a responsible stand and perform g’milut chasidim, acts of loving kindness. Therefore, we are taught on Tisha B’av that we are models for others. Through our benevolence, we can make the world a better place. In doing so, perhaps there can be less tragedy, less catastrophe, and less disaster. No longer does this day have to be one of mourning, but rather one based on the pride each of us has in improving ourselves, performing righteous deeds, and inspiring others to help perfect the world around us. This pride represents the same hope our ancestors had surrounded by destruction and calamity: the hope for a better and brighter future.

P.J. Schwartz is entering his final year at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH. In addition to his rabbinical studies, P.J. earned a Masters in Educational Administration with a specialization in Jewish Studies at Xavier University. He has served congregations in Marion, IN and Ishpeming, MI and is currently a rabbinic intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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19 Responses to “Tisha B’Av: Reflections from a Reform Jew”

  1. avatar

    ” . . . the declaration of war on Germany leading to World War II and the Holocaust . . .”? Let’s remember what they did to us, but let’s remember the facts, please. The Nazis rise to power was fueled by an anti-semitism that was just beneath the veneer of European sentiment everywhere; hence, when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, and eastern Soviet Republics, the conquered were, with some righteous exceptions, all too ready to join in the murder.

  2. avatar

    I reject the suggestion (and question whether our tradition supports it at all) that one person can or should forgive a wrongdoer, especially a murderer or mass murderer, for wrongs done to others, although judging by what is frequently broadcast on local television news, what Mr. Schwartz suggests seems to be a concept that many Christians have eagerly adopted. We, however, encourage forgiveness when preceded by repentance, and the process requires a victim who is able and willing to forgive as well as a wrongdoer who requests it after making the victim whole. So although I don’t spend time hating the Romans, nor the Grand Inquisitors, nor Hitler, neither do I have any plans to forgive them.

  3. avatar

    This is a most refreshing take on how we as Reform Jews can experience Tisha B’Av as something relevant for our lives. The act of mourning doesn’t resonate with young Jews. Taking action to lead by example and improve the world around you does. I’m not sure about your suggestion that we forgive, but I do feel strongly that remembering the past is an empty expression unless it is paired with positive action. Thanks for this.

  4. avatar

    Who can successfully argue against our Movement’s emphasis on our vision of tikkun olam and doing deeds of loving kindness? But as my fellow student of Torah, Loren Goodman, reminded me these are values that we are expected to live every day. I suggest that our challenge as Reform Jews who want to make Tisha B’av meaningful is to find a link to a Jewish tradition that is specific to this day, goes beyond generalities,and makes sense to us. Why not consider an approach that is common in another part of the Jewish world: Study and discuss the rabbinic teaching that the Second Temple was destroyed as a result of causeless hatred among our people, and learn ways to reduce the frequency of two of the most prevalent causes of friction between people–gossiping and making erroneous assumptions that can easily lead to gossiping. Few deeds are kinder than refraining from gossip, and with less gossip there will be less repairing to do.

  5. avatar

    I gravely appreciate the conversation on Tisha B’av. I think that it is often a neglected holy day. I do share a perspective that, while our ancestors made sense of the world through the belief that the destruction of The Holy Temple was due to our sins, I do not believe in a punishing God.

    However, I do believe that while God might not be behind the suffering, there are lessons to be learned from our suffering.

    One of the rationales for the destruction of the Second Temple was Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred. Rav Kook taught that we need to respond with Ahavat Chinam, an endless love or a causeless love. In other words, if hating for no reason can Cause such grave harm and destruction, then we must counter with giving people the benefit of the doubt, by assuming that they intended something for good, that they are decent at heart.

    That can be the change we need to see.

    Forgiveness…? I am not able to do so.

    Mourning…? I think it is crucial to remember and to share with another generation what has been among the greatest catastrophes our people has ever experienced. And yet, all the while, we can return to Hope. So we don’t wear tefillin in the morning but put it on in the afternoon. We have special readings for the haftarah of rebuke leading up to Tisdha B’av, but seven weeks of haftarah readings of consolation afterwards leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

    It all teaches me to remember and to hope.

    • avatar

      Rabbi Greene,

      Thank you, along with PJ, for helping me to realize the importance of Tisha B’Av and its relevance for Reform Jews. As a Classical Reform Jew who is more apt to quote Dr. Kohler than Rav Kook, I bristle at the neo-traditionalist attempts of many in the Reform blogosphere to advocate for a sense of manufactured, or structured mourning on the Ninth of Av. It conjured up images of people working themselves up into a hysterical tizzy over things that happened centuries ago, beating their breasts in forced grief.

      Now, I see that it can be about many different tragedies, and is totally appropriate even from a classically reform perspective. While I strongly feel that we ought NOT to mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples, AT ALL, you have made some great points about more recent tragedies.

      Just out of curiosity, though, what is it exactly that you can’t forgive? I can sort of understand about the Shoah, but what else? It would seem that barring the most extreme incidents, we ought to be fostering forgiveness as part of collective healing.

      • avatar

        Thanks for your comment, Jordan. I can appreciate your commitments to your Cmlassical Reform orientation. However, as one of those on the traditional side of the Rform movement’s spectrum, I can say that while it might not satisfy my spiritual and intellectual needs, I have a true respect for what Classical Reform has offered our movement and world Jewry. Perhaps you can receive some of what a more traditionalist orientation can offer too.

        Rabbi David Einhorn taught: “The one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to thy honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe.”

        It is a powerful idea. I can certainly see his perspective that offers those in the Diaspora (or galut/exile for our traditionalists) an authenticity of doing God’s work and living out the Mission of Israel outside of the Land of Israel. But I do believe while he might be arguing for a vibrant and authentic Judaism outside of Israel, I think it emerges from the traditional idea of HOPE after a destruction. I think Einhorn was right. It doesn’t mean that we don’t remember a catastrophe against our people. I may not mourn in a traditional way. I don’t fast because for me, it implies guilt. Even though the rabbis teach that it was due to our sins/crimes, I reject that. But I can’t reject the event and I have to search for a way to find a truth that emerges from it.

        As for forgiveness…it is academic. Will I forgive the ancient Babylonians or Romans or nazis? I don’t think I will. Do I believe in the power of forgiveness and returning? I do. I believe that God wants us to turn to others and return to God. I agree with you that forgiving and being forgiven is a tremendous part of healing. But of such collective traumas, it doesn’t seem necessary.

        Thanks for the sharing and the learning. May the memory of our ancestors drive us to strengthen our hope.

        • avatar

          Thanks for your very nice and thoughtful reply, Rabbi Greene! A few responses:

          “Perhaps you can receive some of what a more traditionalist orientation can offer too.”

          I am not one of the “original”, graying, old-line Classical Reform Jews. I am a college student who was raised first in the Conservative Movement, and then in a Reform Temple on the very traditional end of the spectrum. I accidentally discovered Classical Reform in college, and am now committed to what has become known as neo-Classical Reform Judaism, which is not identical to the historical manifestation. I intend to join the Rabbinate in order to advocate for this (and to pursue a broader calling). But my point is, who I am as Jew has been very much shaped by my upbringing in a “traditional” orientation, and I believe I’ve squeezed every ounce of meaning out of it that I possibly can. I owe my initial formation as a passionate, religious Jew to the “traditionalists”.

          Regarding the rest of your message, I think I misread your initial comment and was under the impression that you were more “traditional” than you actually are. I didn’t at all mean to imply that we shouldn’t foster organized collective remembrance of historical tragedies–and the somber tone and mournful organ music to be heard on Holocaust Remembrance Day in every Classical Reform Temple is a testament to that. It might even be said that the Classical Reformers perform an extra mitzvah of honoring the six million because we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in the Ashkenazic pronunciation, as did most of those who perished!

          Actually, if I’m reading you correctly, the only difference between our observance of the Ninth of Av is that you fast and I don’t. I can see no reason not to embrace every other dimension of it that you described, and I will suggest to my contacts in the SCRJ that they develop a suggested Classical Reform minhag for it.

          Also, for the record, fasting on Yom Kippur was never rejected by the Reformers. Any “laziness” was, and still is, on the part of the laity, which seems to be a problem in the Conservative Movement as well.

  6. avatar

    Of course, I meant to type “greatly” in my comment above…

  7. avatar

    I feel the need to respond to the assertion made above that “the act of mourning doesn’t resonate with young Jews.” What young Jews are referred to here — the ones who never have suffered grief, and never will?

    To reject mourning is to be unable to accept loss or feel sadness, and to be unable to deal with loss is to reject the fullness and reality of life. Leave eternal cheerful optimism to other faiths; it is not a Jewish practice or value, because it is true neither to our history as a people nor to our personal experience.

    Tragedy is woven into the fabric of life in an imperfect world, a world of tenuous connection to divine spirit and purpose, the world we actually live in. No one knows this better than the Jew; it is the source of our wisdom and basis of our culture. Sanity is the willingness to reside in the real world, rather than a world of comforting ideas, which so often reduce to banality, providing in the end only the false comfort of denial.

    Only those who feel the spectrum of emotion, and do not intellectualize their feelings, are capable of empathy and compassion for others. Tisha b’Av represents the spiritual willingness to plunge into grief, to take into oneself for a short time the sadness and horror that is one aspect of history. It is a confrontation with the shadow, with the awareness that we do not dream ourselves into existence, but are the products — on one level — of all that has come before.

    We must take this in, acknowledge its truth, and then move forward. At that point, grounded and humbled, we are capable of taking not just “positive action,” but right action, action that reflects a deep understanding and acceptance of why we are here, right here, right now.

    • avatar

      “Only those who feel the spectrum of emotion, and do not intellectualize their feelings, are capable of empathy and compassion for others.”

      I’m afraid that’s one of the more concerning things I’ve read on the Reform Jewish blogosphere. Since when does “intellectualizing” one’s feelings de-enable one to feel compassion or empathy? Part of being a mature, functioning member of society is filtering emotions and tempering them with logic and rationality. If you don’t do this enough, you can be too emotional and irrational. If you do it too much, you can be insensitive and robotic. But clearly, you must do it to a degree, and it does not need to negatively affect one’s capacity for empathy or compassion.

      What seems to me rather robotic and cold is the thought that one can willingly “plunge oneself into grief” and ride a roller coaster of manufactured, artificially-conjured emotions just to observe a particular season or holiday. That is unnatural and inorganic. While I certainly think holidays like Tisha B’Av have their place in the Jewish year, it is just not productive or helpful to have such a cut-and-dry compartmentalization of emotion. We can choose to talk about certain things and raise certain issues and collective memories on a certain date, and then ritualize whatever emotion naturally arises, but this should never be forced, and I think that an overwhelming majority of Jews do “force it” on Tisha B’Av and Yom HaShoah. That just isn’t healthy. The rituals should express organically-triggered emotion rather than being seen as vehicles to force emotions that aren’t naturally there. Some may accuse me of pilpul, but I think it’s a very fair and relevant distinction.

  8. avatar

    There seems to be a fear of emotion and spirituality driving this discussion — but that unfortunately defines the classical reform situation, which is ambivalence on steroids.

    Empathy and compassion are a function of emotional resonance. If one is not in touch with the full range of one’s deepest feelings, which are rooted in the unconscious and more so the body, then one cannot connect to another’s suffering. Yes, I agree totally, it is necessary to feel mindfully and think feelingly. But to say that “the act of mourning doesn’t resonate with young Jews” is to project one’s own flattened and deadened affect onto others, which does them no favor at all.

    Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur are powerful emotion and spirit channeled into a ritual and group context that prevents them from sinking into hysteria. But without the emotion and spirit, they are nothing at all. The emotion is there for the taking in the texts, but it must be absorbed and expressed to the congregation. To overly intellectualize or channel it is to turn these days into the vacuous fraudulence that sadly is what many Jews expect and experience at shul.

    The essence of being a Jew is to connect with other Jews (and humanity) both laterally and vertically — both to the living community and the historical one. If one cannot identity with and experience some degree of grief at the fundamental and defining traumas of Jewish history, then one is a disembodied, holographic Jew, a spectator and not a participant.

    Agreed, these feelings don’t come “naturally” within the context of an ahistorical, essentially narcissistic American culture. That is the function of religious leadership; to draw people into themselves, to make them feel things that are quite alien to the universe of Disneyworld and HBO and Newsweek.

    How is it that sludgy, awful Hollywood melodramas draw tears from “young Jews,” but our own story of exile and loss does not? There’s a blockage there, some sort of defense mechanism, that prevents us from seeing ourselves and identifying with our own history. Tisha B’Av, it seems to me, is the perfect opportunity to probe that blockage, to make people uncomfortable, to emote rather than to contain.

    • avatar

      It seems we have opposite views of the nature and ethos of Classical Reform. I find that it is far warmer and more emotionally healthy, and even in the midst of a certain minimalism, possesses deep, life-transforming, breathtakingly beautiful spirituality. I think you know that there is no “fear of emotion and spirituality driving this discussion”. The “vacuous fraudulence that sadly is what many Jews expect and experience at shul” is the result of the transition AWAY from Classical Reform.

      “The essence of being a Jew is to connect with other Jews (and humanity) both laterally and vertically — both to the living community and the historical one. If one cannot identity with and experience some degree of grief at the fundamental and defining traumas of Jewish history, then one is a disembodied, holographic Jew, a spectator and not a participant.”

      I agree completely. Please don’t set up a false dichotomy which positions Classical Reform as “ambivalence on steroids” or the opposite of the above statement which I agree with. That is not accurate, and not nice to claim on a public forum like this. I think it’s bordering on hotza’at shem ra, a rabbinic concept which I, a Classical Reformer, am familiar with. Are you?

  9. avatar

    The tone of the above response suggests that the speaker has little confidence in his own ideas … and so must engage in posturing. I’m just speaking my mind, with no agenda. Are you?

    For the record, there was nothing personal, slanderous, malicious or untrue in my earlier message — this lashon hora crapola is just a form of bureaucratic censoriousness, not nice to engage in on a public forum like this. I’m engaging in open, heartfelt discussion of my thoughts and concerns, as an individual and not an institutional gatekeeper or ideologue. Are you?

    That said, I’m interested in your point that it’s the abandonment of classical reform that’s led to the emptiness that many reform Jews feel. Can you support this thesis with an argument? I would listen closely and respectfully, although possibly not uncritically. That is a tradition in Judaism, one that I, as a thinking human being, am familiar with. Are you?

    One thing you’ve been avoiding: Do you agree with the statement, “The act of mourning doesn’t resonate with young Jews”? I found this absurd and insulting, as it implies that young Jews are insensitive morons — i.e., It’s not the rabbis’ fault! It’s the Young Jews!

    Also, it would be nice if someone else would participate in this dialogue. If no one does, this will be my last posting.

    • avatar

      I didn’t accuse anybody of lashon hara–I mentioned hotza’at shem ra, which is far worse. I am willing to accept that there was no personal attack, but there was indeed mischievous slander regarding an entire school of thought that has its basis in some of the best Jewish scholarship that has ever been undertaken.

      I am not an institutional gatekeeper–God forbid–but I am somewhat of an ideologue. I have fallen in love with a worldview and set of practices which have fallen from normativity, and which I believe are unfairly swept under the rug. Just as I believe that Judaism in general is not contained in outer forms and rituals, I believe that the essence of what has become known as “Classical Reform” is not contained in the pages of the 1940 Union Prayer Book or in the sweet strains of choral and organ music. It is the spirituality that these things express that is timeless, and can be expressed in other ways depending on relevance to the intended “audience”. I do feel that in general, but with some exceptions, the transition away from Classical Reform has produced a normative minhag which is very shallow–focusing on outward practices and arbitrary, legalistic ritual without enough attention given to deeper spirituality and intellectual substance. Many will bristle at this because they have integrated both traditional ritual AND vigorous spirituality. That is great–they are the exception, rather than the rule. The “emptiness” one feels may have something to do with the fact that even as we have become more “traditional” in practices, we have become so liberal theologically that very few continue to believe in a real, present, living, loving, personal God with whom prayer is a very real communication. In Judaism, we are not in the business of policing what people believe, but it shouldn’t be heresy to note that certain beliefs, especially when they reflect ontological reality, have immense power to improve and enrich people’s lives. I am tired of vapid ethno-cultural “Yiddishkeit” as a stand-in for a religious commitment which works regardless of whether one considers oneself a celebrant of Jewish culture.

      I have come to realize through intensive reading and interaction with certain individuals that because of complicated sociological phenomena, a popular belief has arisen that Classical Reform was cold, uninspiring, unspiritual, not authentically Jewish, and even irreligious! While some of what remains of that establishment has unfortunately become a distasteful caricature of itself, most of those charges are false, and even where they have some basis, Classical Reform does not HAVE to be that way. It can be made to “work” for today if the aesthetics are updated. I won’t waste my time parroting back the countless well-written articles in its defense here. A simple google search or visit to renewreform.org should take care of that.

      As to your question about whether I agree with the statement “The act of mourning doesn’t resonate with young Jews”, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, my instinct is that if it doesn’t, it SHOULD. People, especially young people like me, need very badly to stop being numbed by the desensitizing din of modern culture. They should naturally feel horrific grief and outrage at any human suffering. That is an essential Jewish value. Yet, I am concerned that attempting to force what hasn’t happened naturally by throwbacks to ritualized mourning isn’t the best solution to the problem. In an age where being serious about anything is “uncool”, it is important to foster a sense of reverence in young people, and that would include reverence for the dead by participating in communal tributes and commemorations. As you can see, I constantly go back and forth and contradict myself on this. I suppose I agree with you in principle, but am allergic to some of the in-practice solutions to this problem. It’s a good thing to brainstorm.

      By the way, despite historic Classical Reform’s rationalistic aversion to traditional practices that might seem to be in the direction of idolatry, old editions of the Union Prayer Book and its Home Edition are full of gorgeous prayers to be recited at the graves of the deceased. There are separate prayers for friends, relatives, teachers, and “great people”. They added an entire paragraph to the Mourner’s Kaddish making it explicitly a prayer for and about “departed souls”. I think a sense of reverence for the deceased is a value we share.

  10. Kate Bigam

    Let’s keep it civil and respectful here, please, folks. As a reminder, our Terms and Conditions of Usage can be found at http://urj.org/about/union/terms/.

  11. avatar

    I agree — sorry to have gotten a bit shirty — buttons were pushed on both sides. I will take it down a notch, if anyone else wants to keep the discussion going.

  12. Larry Kaufman

    Although I try (not always successfully) to limit my comments here to the post itself rather than to what others are saying about it, I feel compelled to enter the discussion, if only to assure Jewavarman’s continued participation.

    So – Tisha B’Av. As it happened, I formally first affiliated with the Reform movement in a historically Classic Reform congregation, which I joined only because I had been assured that the new rabbi would be moving it into the mainstream (the lay leadership having come to the recognition that failure to do so would be suicidal). Two early innovations were Selichot and Tisha B’Av — the first succeeded and the second has never really caught on, any more than it has as the congegation I now belong to. Nor do I think that Reform ideology or the historic discomfort with the idea that we might be perceived as praying for the restoration of the Temple are the cause. I’ll propose a number of possible reasons:
    1. August, when programming has essentially been recessed.
    2. Inappropriateness of an oneg, or other food service.
    3. Absence of a compelling liturgy.
    4. Lingering ambivalences like those revealed in this discussion.
    5. Preoccupation of clergy either with their camp stints or their HHD preparations.

    As a marketer, I think congregations would be well served to use Tisha B’Av as a platform not so much for prayer as for education and discussion of where the Reform movement has been, where we are today, and where we are going, with Tisha B’Av a symbol of the change.

    Meanwhile, Jewavarman rightly challenges Jordan on the assertion that it’s the abandonment of classical reform that’s led to the emptiness that many reform Jews feel. Obviously, the converse is the case. Reform Jews abandoned Classical Reform because they were finding it sterile, pompous, and out of tune with the times.

    There have been two — possibly three– developments in Classical Reform in the last few years which may have given it a new lease on life. First, the breakaway of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism from the moribund American Council for Judaism, to concentrate on religion rather than politics. Second, the development of a relationship between the SCRJ and HUC-JIR. And third, the recruitment of Jordan Friedman, as a knowlegeable, articulate, and feisty spokesman, who also brings down the average age of CR adherents considerably. The question is whether he and his contemporaries will be able to sell their product 35 years past its de facto expiration date.

    • avatar

      I thank Larry for his very kind compliment and flattering shout-out. May it be God’s Will that my grumpy ramblings should positively affect the neo-Classical Reform revival movement.

      What Larry has failed to grasp (or at least to admit) is that Classical Reform was never and still is not monolithic. Just like everything else, it varies from community to community and generation to generation. Just because in the past few decades some factions have become a caricature of themselves and earned the charges of being “sterile, pompous, and out of tune with the times”, does not mean that neo-Classical Reform must necessarily be that way. I would argue that it MUST NOT be that way if it is to survive, and if it is to be a force for good in the world. I have hope that it can live up to its potential to be a wellspring of EXACTLY the kind of relevance, warmth, spirituality, and intellectual nourishment whose absence initially caused the shift away from Classical Reform worship style and synagogue culture. I am not grasping at straws here–CR is a compelling alternative to the neo-traditionalist mainstream, and is rightly re-inventing itself as a niche alternative rather than vying for the mainstream.

      While it is true that when I first got involved in 2010, I was the only person my age advocating for CR, the past two years have found numerous individuals and couples between the ages of 18 and 40 coming out of the woodwork as CR.

      I am surprised that Tisha B’Av hasn’t caught on in the Reform Movement as much as S’lichos. If I were in charge of a congregation’s programming for the 9th of Av, I would draft a compelling Liturgy, program appropriate music, and give some sort of lecture about the meaning of Tisha B’Av for Reform Jews–not being afraid to boldly proclaim what it should NOT be about for us, but also leaving open multiple possibilities for what it COULD be about. I don’t see why an Oneg would be inappropriate for a Reform setting. I think it’s uncontroversial to expect that Reform Jews will only fast on Yom Kippur. If we were to fast on Tisha B’Av, then we would also be obligated to fast on Yom HaShoah, and that would change some established traditions for that day. How much are we willing to bend over backwards and move things around just because it’s “more traditional” to do so?

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