Tishah B’Av 5773 in Retrospect: Reflections from a Neo-Classical Reform Jew

by Jordan Friedman

This year, I did something I’ve never really done before in my entire life. I observed  Tishah B’Av. I went to the home of a very dear friend who is used to marking the solemn day in semi-traditional fashion: by fasting and contemplating all historic tragedies that have befallen the Jews and, more broadly, crimes against humanity in general. My friend is a proud progressive Jew who desires neither a rebuilding of the Temple nor the re-institution of the sacrificial worship cult. Even though, as a Classical Reform Jew, I am somewhat ambivalent about observing the 9th of Av, I visited my friend to support him in his fast and to pray and study with him. During my deep reflection that day, which I admit was profoundly meaningful and spiritual, I came to a rather firm conclusion about  Tishah B’Av.

I have some moral and philosophical objections to the idea of fasting on  Tishah B’Av or any holiday other than Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, the holiest and most serious day of the entire year, fasting actually accomplishes something. It has a purifying effect and helps us to be mindful of our wrongdoing, as well as the needs of others who are wronged, hungry, and in need. It is an ascetic exercise, and perhaps a form of penance for those who are comfortable with that sort of theology. It is a viscerally physical act that rises above, in importance and meaning, many traditional rituals that we have tended to reject in Reform Judaism. It is worth retaining and practicing.

However, to fast as part of a memorial or mourning day does not accomplish anything. It will not bring back those who have been killed in various tragedies and massacres through the centuries. It will not reverse the Shoah or rebuild the Temples in Jerusalem (God forbid), and it will most certainly not help us to move forward in positivity and build a better future.

Very early in the history of Reform Judaism, during a period famous for its radical liberalism and ritual minimalism, there was a significant, but now forgotten, attempt to build an authentically Reform practice for  Tishah B’Av. In the mid 19th century, Rabbi Dr. David Einhorn included in the rubric for weekday worship a lengthy reading and prayer “For the Anniversary of the Destruction of Jerusalem.” This reading was highly unusual and “unorthodox” for Reform at the time, but in typically genius Einhornian fashion, it turned the whole concept of  Tishah B’Av on its head for a refreshing new take, expounding a positive theology of the Diaspora as a progressive Providential development so that we might be or la’goyim, a “light unto the nations”. The Diaspora can be thought of in much the same way that traditional Judaism regards the various plagues in the Exodus narrative—we can mourn the loss of innocent lives while simultaneously celebrating the overall effect of the historical event. God forbid that we should ever celebrate the deaths of innocents of any nation, race, or faith, but the fact remains, from a Reform perspective, that the Temple had to go, and the Jews had to disperse throughout the world.

It is significant, and no accident, that Einhorn titled his radical Reform prayer book Olat Tamid—“A Perpetual Offering”. It is likened to the burnt sacrifice and its “odor pleasing to God” (Numbers 28:26). This was the ultimate symbolic and rhetorical proclamation that authentic Reform Jewish worship was indeed a “substitutionary sacrifice” of the “offerings of our lips” in prayer—a permanent and superior form of worship to the sacrifices in the Temple. It cemented Reform’s status as a legitimate continuation of historic Rabbinic Judaism, rooted deeply in tradition and in Torah—in the fullest sense of the word. I would like to see the development of a new Reform liturgy and ritual for  Tishah B’Av along the lines of Einhorn’s beautiful experiment a century and a half ago.

If you ask me, the best way to honor the tragedy victims we mourn on the 9th of Av is to live well. Now that we can live almost without fear, now that we are in a good place (relatively speaking), and now that we have evolved and developed into a mature, non-superstitious religious community, it’s time to mourn without fasting. We should respond to past suffering by fully realizing and enjoying our capabilities today rather than trying to re-create, re-enact, and perpetuate past suffering. We should remember the past with reverence and say a prayerful Kaddish. We should never forget, and we should discuss the meaning of everything over lunch, always remembering that in the case of the Diaspora, every Kaddish should be accompanied by a Shehecheyanu.

Jordan Friedman, Beloit College Class of 2013, is a digital media advocacy consultant Society for Classical Reform Judaism.


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3 Responses to “Tishah B’Av 5773 in Retrospect: Reflections from a Neo-Classical Reform Jew”

  1. avatar
    Susan Wolf Dudley Reply July 19, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Jordan Friedman’s commentary was wonderful reading. His ideas are worthy of consideration. Implementing his suggestions would provide a modern, beneficial, meaningful approach to our observance of Tishah B’Av.
    The fact that a young man made reference to Rabbi David Einhorn was particularly exciting to me, as my family were founders of Har Sinai, Rabbi Einhorn’s first pulpit in the United States. Einhorn’s philosophy of Reform Judaism should always be consulted whenever we consider how we want to practice Reform Judaism in the 21st century.

    • avatar

      Thanks for your kind words, Susan. I think one way to fix the problem we have is to revamp the curriculum of education in Religious School. I have a small collection of old, forgotten textbooks and other teaching materials from Reform Religious Schools in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and it’s no surprise that people who received their Jewish education in the Reform Movement during those years have such a different spiritual orientation. Those curricula proudly proclaimed the spiritual ideals of Progressive Judaism, and were unabashedly unabashedly traditional (assuming the existence of a personal God) and rigorously liberal (non-legalistic and critical of Texts) all at the same time.

      This profoundly religious outlook, which included a positive portrayal of the Movement’s early history and founders such as Einhorn, is totally compatible with modern Jewish youth education. It can co-exist with the now-fashionable ethno-cultural immersion and Zionism. There is no reason to have either/or. It would benefit Reform Judaism, and perhaps indirectly the whole world, if youths were again educated in such a way. With the classically Reform religious orientation combined with a modern emphasis on Hebrew literacy and a little more openness to the whole breadth of Jewish tradition, something beautiful could be created.

  2. avatar
    Susan Wolf Dudley Reply July 22, 2013 at 11:13 am

    I well remember my text from Sunday School. The book’s title, “When the Jewish People Was Young,” immediately provoked discussion about the oneness of our people. The primary focus was our early history. I do not recall any bias ethno-culturally or reference to Zionism. We learned a statement of facts.

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