Tonight at sundown the Jewish people will be marking a day of national tragedy- the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Those destructions also marked the end of the priesthood and the sacrificial system. The end of the “unity” of a people with one national shrine, one national ritual, one national way of worshipping.
All during my teenage years I fasted on Tisha b'Av because it fell during summer camp, and the UAHC Eisner camp always had us doing some meaningful role-play or activity as if we were there, right there as the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Later at Kutz Camp I helped create those melodramas and watched as the kids would cry and turn Tisha b'Av into a Holocaust Remembrance Day because the destruction of the Temple was ancient history to them, but their grandparents still could talk about the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.
During Rabbinic school I fasted, frankly, to be holier-than-thou, more religious than my already right-leaning classmates.
As a young Rabbi I fasted to be a role model of a Reform Jew who took Jewish history seriously.
But I don’t fast anymore.
Why am I not fasting? Aren’t I sad about all that loss?
I’m not fasting because the oldest symbol of that so-called “unity”—the Western Wall—is a battleground for religious pluralism, and I imagine that if the Cohanim were still around they would be on the side of the Haredim, not on the side of those women who, like me, want to be full participating Jews with tallit and a Torah. I’m not fasting because I’m afraid of what it would look like for women if we rebuilt the Temple.
And I’m not fasting because ultimately the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism, wresting power and authority out of the hands of an elite and then corrupt priesthood and placing it in the hands of scholars and then Rabbis who represent the people. Eventually, in our day, all Jews have the authority to be their own priests, to hold holiness in their own hands, to read their own Psalms as they ascend the stairs of their synagogue, to lead their own prayers, and even to make their own halachic decisions. I celebrate that democratization. It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are Cohanim and would, in the time of the Messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me.) I don’t mourn the loss of a hierarchical, inherited caste of priests—I would, however, mourn the loss of democracy.
In a way, the very existence of the Rabbis and the Talmud undermined the Temple. To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, interpretation over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Saduccees.
And I’m not fasting because I believe we are already living in the third period, in the time of the sovereign nation of Israel, and though the Temple doesn’t exist anymore, Israel certainly does. I am a Zionist. I don’t mourn the loss of our sovereignty, because we finally got it back. I feel blessed to live in the era of the “flowering of the seeds of our redemption.” With all it’s faults, still, Israel is the living reality of a people who couldn’t have imagined it in 68 CE—but I don’t have to dream it or long for it, because it’s as real as my right hand.
To be sure, there are Jewish groups who “re-imagine” Tisha b'Av. It becomes about the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust or about personal loss, or a day of brokenness and sadness. That’s the way we modern Jews try and make sense of a fast day that doesn’t speak to those who do not feel they are “in exile.” Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But if Tisha b'Av can only be about mourning the loss of the Temple, it won’t speak at all to me. From the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of Rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.
Now I won’t be going out to a fancy restaurant. I’m not going to put down anyone who is fasting. I won’t make a luxurious meal. But I will be spending the day reflecting on how to build a Judaism based on pluralistic, democratic values; a Judaism strong enough to survive into the future without needing one “unified” way of being Jewish.
While we are mourning the destruction of a mythical “unity” we are blinded to the reality of destructive narratives in both Israel and the Diaspora today. A corrupt male priesthood still exists in the form of a Chief Rabbinate. Social castes still abound. The destruction of the Temple should be a metaphor for the destruction of all that really divides us. Now, without a Temple burning, those destructive forces are turning inward.
There is a midrash in Avot deRebbe Natan (4:5) about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai walking in Jerusalem with his student Rabbi Yehoshua. They see the ruins of the Temple and Rabbi Yehoshua says “Woe to us, that this place where the sins of Israel were atoned for is destroyed.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai answers, “My son, do not fear. We have another atonement which replaces it: gemilut hasadim, deeds of lovingkindness.”
The Rabbis in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Yoma 1:1) say the Temple was destroyed because people loved money and hated each other. If we were really sad about the destruction of the Temple, we’d be living differently today. We’d be living with abundant gemilut hasadim. Otherwise the empty stomachs tomorrow will be, I fear, like when I was a teenager in summer camp: just for show.