Monday, 15 July 2013

Why I’m Not Fasting this Tisha b'Av

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.


  1. Amen! Well said.

    Certainly the prophets call us to do better than simply to wail for a building and the ceremonies it housed, and even the voice who cries out in the Book of Lamentations cries for the suffering people, not for a structure.

    I'm with you, no fasting here. For me, Tisha B'Av is a day for social action.

  2. So much of what you have said is based on the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform.

    " we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."

    So what you are saying makes absolute sense according to this doctrine.

    You will choose what the laws that you want. You will reject a the other laws that have no meaning to You. The Torah is will bend to whatever your lifestyle is - not the other way around. The human mind is the most elevated of all and therefore You can decide what is best for the world and what is not.

    So you can reject the fast of Tisha b'Av like Reform has rejected kashrut, Shabbos, the oral Torah and so much more. I mean what difference does it make really?

    You say Reform is the Judaism that survived and flourished?

    By surviving to you mean inter-marriage of over 46% among Reform Jews?

    Or by surviving you chose to leave out of your article that Mendelsohn has no Jewish descendants?

    Let me ask you one question that bothers me the most about your article, and about Reform in general.

    You claim in your article your are a Zionist. But explain this exert from the above mentioned Pittsburgh Platform

    "........We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state".

    Instead of a nation, the Pittsburgh Platform envisions Jews as a religious community within a nation. For this reason, there was an explicit rejection of Zionism, which was viewed as unnecessary because American Jews were at home in America. The platform seems to acknowledge the concept of Jewish chosenness accepting in the Bible "the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God."

    The Frankfort-on-the-Main Conference of Rabbis on July 15-28, 1845, decided to eliminate from the ritual "the prayers for the return to the land of our forefathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state."

    So how as a Reform Rabbi can you be a Zionist???

    Oh wait I understand! According to your doctrine you can just chop and change anything when it suits you or when it comes into fashion.

    Now I understand.

  3. So, basically, you're validating what the people who are fighting against the Women of the Wall and other like-minded philosophies are saying -- you're not serious about Jewish tradition or Jewish law.

    You pick and choose whatever suits your fancy at any moment.

    If, for instance, you would say that the fight for pluralism and gender equality has brought you to fast for those rights, I might regard your decision differently.

    But what I read is that, because you have trouble with some of the things that are going on right now within the Jewish world, you're not willing to skip breakfast. Connecting with a 2000-year-old tradition that brings us to mourn for our people isn't worth missing your morning cuppa.

    Truthfully, I've been conflicted about the whole WOW/W4W issue. I want to see women enjoy the same rights, regardless of whether I personally would feel comfortable joining in one of their services.

    But your post has basically conformed what the right-wing W4W has been saying which is that the WOW women aren't serious about Jewish tradition and simply want to disturb those who are.

    Enjoy your lunch.

  4. Thankyou for such a thoughtful and thought provoking post. I too have problems with yearning for a Temple and a return to a priesthood and sacrificial system that would concomitantly mean an end to rabbinic Judaism with its brilliance and its openness to the world, and which has developed Judaism into a continually interpretive process engaging with the world and with the lives of real people.
    This day is one of mourning for the calamities that historically affected the Jewish people, but where is the day of mourning for the terrible hatred shown within the Jewish people? And who is addressing that? This should be our priority.
    I do hope the comments above which misunderstand both the reality of Reform Judaism and of the WOW -both of which are extremely serious about Jewish tradition - do not affect your day of reflection.

    1. Sylvia, to answer your question "where is the day of mourning for the terrible hatred shown within the Jewish people?", that day IS Tish B'Av. The gemara calls this hatred 'Sinas Chinam' - baseless hatred. That is what this day is all about.

    2. and yet there is no understanding of the sinat chinam happening right now!

  5. Thanks for your very brave and important words.

    I believe that it is just as dangerous to accept blindly our traditions as it is to discard them without consideration. Being an observant Jew, being serious about Jewish tradition, does not have to mean one 'thing'.

    Your argument is not about Reform Judaism in particular but about living a Jewish life. In my current learning through Daf Yomi, it is exceedingly clear that there have always been many ways to live a Jewish life. There is huge value in that tradition of questioning. Our fear of losing our ritual traditions should not supersede our questioning. In my mind, educated, thoughtful questioning is critical when we are serious about our Jewish practice.

  6. Dear Elyse:

    Thoughtful and provocative as always.

    As your student and friend, I have a sincere question: to what Jewish holiday could your reasoning not be applied?

    Surely Tisha B'Av is less objectionable from this perspective than Hanukkah, which not only celebrates the renewal of the Temple service but the Jewish civil war which preceded it- a civil war of right-wing (to use modern parlance) Jews against those with modernizing and syncretizing proclivities- that is, a civil war against folks like us.

    Surely if Tisha B'Av is so tightly correlated to the Temple service and hierarchy that it cannot be an appropriate observance for liberal, feminist Jews, then, kal v'homer, Hanukkah has gotta go too, right?

    Let's not even get into the Days of Awe or Shavuot here, all of which are deeply, deeply connected to Temple rituals- here- I ask naively, why object to Tisha B'Av but not Hanukkah?

    yours in shakla v'taryah,


  7. Reform rejects the Oral Torah. Correct?

    If so I am once again confused.....

    The details that specify how to do the mitzvot of tefillin and Tallis, which the WOW are moaning about, are ALL based in the Oral Law!!

    Please someone help me out here

  8. It is amazing that one with enot have an understanding of the enough education to use the title of rabbi would not understand the history and mechanism of rabbinic Judaism. The Saducees, the Tzadukim, were defeated because by rejecting the Oral Law they rejected manifestation of the G-d - Man partnership. They rejected the idea of authoritative law from a Supreme being, and this always removes one from accepting the written Torah as well. When you cut a living organism in half it dies. This is also why those who dissected their Judaism turn to other ideologies looking for life. The system during Temple times was the same system of Rabbinic Judaism we have today. The Saduccees wanted then to subvert it as well. Decisions were not centralized unless they made their way though lower courts. There were small Sanhedrins in even the smallest towns. In towns where there was only one chacham, he could adjudicate. the local authority decided when a matter had to be referred to a higher court.the temple was built exactly to G-d's specifications and the sacrifices are clearly outlined in the Written Torah. When the values formed in the non Jewish world superceed those given by G-d themn one is serving society. When my observance is determined by my preferences then one is serving himself.