Category: anti-semitism

Reflections on Eicha, Tisha B’Av and Jewish Meaning-Making

Reflections on Eicha, Tisha B’Av and Jewish Meaning-Making

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a reading of Eicha for the first time in two years. Recited each year on Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day in memory of the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Jewish people’s Exile, Eicha is more popularly known in English-speaking culture as the Book of Lamentations.

COVID had kept me away, and in returning I found myself reading with new eyes. Rediscovering a religious text is supposed to be a profoundly spiritual experience. But my immediate reaction was quite different. Despite my best efforts, I found myself recoiling in disgust. Eicha is a very graphic representation of the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. Listening to it as liturgy is hauntingly beautiful, but the text itself is disturbing, deserving of a trigger warning for painfully detailed description of slaughter, famine, cannibalism, and wanton destruction.

Aside from the violent imagery, Eicha also makes extensive use of the traditional interpretation of the Exile: as divine punishment for failing to abide by G-d’s law. “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.”

This is a common theme in Jewish liturgy: “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil”. It represented the dominant interpretation of the Exile for most of Diaspora Jewish history. In some ultra-Orthodox sects, the Holocaust itself is blamed on the Jewish people prematurely seeking to return to the Land of Israel prior to the messianic age, a horrific divine punishment for failing to maintain obedience to this holy decree.

Of course, to any modern eye, this explanation stinks! The destruction of the Temple and subsequent Exile was the result of larger geopolitical circumstances, including the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire and the particularly ill-timed Judean revolt led by Simeon ben Kosevah (messianically dubbed by his supporters as “bar Kochba”, or son of the star). It had nothing to do with acts of sin – only hard realities of poor politics and superior military force. This is precisely the sort of victim-blaming that modern discourse winces at.

Nonetheless, the narrative makes a great deal of sense in the context of rabbinic Judaism’s status as a diasporic religion. Faced with little secular authority and the need to encourage religious observance on the part of a scattered people, the destruction of the Temple was framed as a moral failure. This was practically useful and psychologically necessary. Having experienced a cataclysm that could not be fully recovered from, it was necessary to ascribe it meaning to construct a future from the wreckage.

Once we start to think about religious texts in this critical light, it is difficult to stop. The deliberate construction of moral lessons – meaning-making – is one of the most important roles of religion. Consistent with the instrumental purpose of ascribing causes to Exile, different generations of Sages offered wildly different explanations for the destruction of the Temple, likely dependent on the changing lessons they wished people to take from it. Various Sages place blame on sinat chinam (baseless hatred), inadequate religious observance, lack of shame for engaging in sin, failure to pay adequate respect for one’s social superiors and – in one somewhat self-interested explanation – insufficient deference being given to Torah scholars.

My favorite explanation brings us back to politics. For an ancient text of rabbinic law, the Talmud can be surprisingly practical, directing particular ire on those who prioritized religious zealotry over badly needed pragmatism.

When the Romans besieged Jerusalem, the Talmud tells us that the city’s storehouses held supplies to sustain the people for twenty-one years. The rabbinic Sages urged making peace with the Romans, fearing their superior military might. This proposition was refused altogether by the zealots of the city. Filled with the confidence of their righteous cause, they wished to leave the city’s walls to do battle with the superior Roman force.

“You will lose,” warned the Sages, suggesting they wait out the siege at the very least.  But confident of divine deliverance, the zealots refused this prudent course of action. To force the people to fight, they burnt the storehouses, destroying the food supply and beginning a devastating famine.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, predicting Jerusalem’s fall, sent for the leader of the zealots, Abba Sikkara. He came to him, whereupon Rabbi Yohanan asked, “Until when will you do this and kill all through starvation?”

Abba Sikkara, like many radical leaders aloft on events they no longer fully controlled, sought to absolve himself of all responsibility: “What can I do? If I say something [to my fellow zealots], they will kill me!”

Rabbi Yohanan asked Abba Sikkara to smuggle him out of the city, whose exits were now guarded by zealots committed to prevent any from fleeing to safety. He justified this request on the grounds that “it is possible there will be some small salvation” if he might escape to keep the rabbinic tradition alive. This Abba Sikkara agreed to, and together they hatched an ultimately successful plot to remove Rabbi Yohanan from Jerusalem disguised as a corpse.

This is a remarkable story, made even more so by the fact that the authors of the Talmud identify with Rabbi Yohanan! He is the hero of our story! Not the zealots, committed to bravely fighting for freedom against the Roman Empire’s legions. No, the Talmud bids us to see ourselves in the intellectual, who lets himself be carted out of the city while playing possum. Even by modern standards, Rabbi Yohanan is far from a traditional protagonist. 

Continuing in that spirit, at least one Talmudic author defends the later tactical decision of Rabbi Yohanan, offered his choice of gift by the new Roman Emperor Vespasian, to make the relatively modest request that the Romans spare the academy at Yavne, from which the rabbinic tradition of present-day Judaism emerged.  Had Rabbi Yohanan instead asked Vespasian to abandon his military campaign against Judea altogether, we are told, such an outlandish request might not have been granted, and the chance for even this small salvation would have been needlessly lost.

An exercise in meaning-making, yes, but these sections of the Talmud also represent a very cogent reflection on the nature of power and strategy in the face of overwhelming, unbeatable odds.

The rabbinic tradition is usually skeptical of conducting oneself with the expectation of direct divine intervention. Having experienced the disastrous failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, the rabbis of the Talmud counseled a very practical approach towards power relationships, free of the suicidal messianism that had led to the Exile. With very few exceptions, Jews are expected to keep both ourselves and our tradition alive, not deliberately seek martyrdom. There is much to learn from here. The grubby practicalities of disappointing but productive compromises are better than romantic failure in pursuit of a perfectly righteous cause.


There is a deep physicality to Tisha B’Av, especially this year. Eicha opens late in the evening. I am seated – very uncomfortably – on the wooden floor of a dark room. I have joined others to read by candlelight about gruesome acts of violence. My back aches, my eyes squint and I must constantly slap my legs to keep from them losing feeling. I am here because it is the first in-person egalitarian Jewish service I know of since the onset of COVID. My own synagogue is not yet doing in-person services, Zoom does nothing for me, and though my relationship to religion is complicated, I am starved for spiritual connection.

Speaking of hunger, the hot and muggy temperature of the room reminds me that I have just begun to abstain from food and drink. As the sweat rolls down my forehead, I start arguing with myself about whether to maintain my fast for the traditional 25 hours or instead resume eating and drinking in the next afternoon, as some do in acknowledgment of 1948’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Is it appropriate to place religious significance on a comparably recent political event? Shouldn’t some acknowledgment be made of partial restoration of what was once lost? Religion is supposed to be timeless! But relevant to the present day!

Thinking back fondly to the two slices of pizza I had eaten before sunset, I feel utterly incapable of weighing the matter in a truly impartial fashion. I am already exhausted. And yet, as the recitation begins, there is something stirring in me.

Whether or not one fasts, the physicality of Tisha B’Av is a powerful experience. We render ourselves vulnerable to meaning, making our minds a canvas onto which we paint significance intended to stay with us throughout the year. This observance is best understood as a delivery vehicle, a capsule that can be filled with a different payload in each Jewish community and in each generation. Intensity of experience makes the soul receptive – without any specifics as to what we are receptive to.

There is nothing inherently manipulative about this – or if it is manipulative, it is not necessarily a bad thing that it is so. Observance offers a container for personal growth – how we define that growth depends on what meaning we pour into that container. This is how we decide what kind of Judaism we want to practice. The law is alive, subject to interpretation and, by interpretation, change. In choosing which of many competing Jewish sources, communities and leaders to place our trust in, we select what meaning to expose ourselves to. Some are healthy and some are hateful. It is in choosing which is which that we express our values.

Good meaning-making, like good ritual, serves a purpose. It is a mistake to think that religion holds no practical function. We turn to it not just for spiritual fulfillment, but also in order to frame decisions that have implications for our day to day lives: how we relate to each other, how we relate to the larger world.

In modern day America, religion is often made use of as an offensive weapon, to force the dictates of a single sect onto the rest of us through aggressive policymaking and culture war shaming. The reaction against this tendency has led many of my class and social background to feel understandable discomfort with letting religion play a role in so-called regular life.

Even most Jews, whose religion is particular to our tribe and seeks no observance from the gentile majority, often feel uncomfortable with being too explicit about religious inspiration for day-to-day living. This is thought to belong to the ultra-Orthodox and the Christian Coalition. Religious experience is seen as safe only when cordoned off into its own sphere, severed from the realities of modern life. Only thus can we protect ourselves from the harms of excess zealotry and the rejection of liberal modernity’s many wonderful gifts.  

I think this is a mistake. To be clear, I have nothing against the fine and illustrious traditions of Jewish atheism and agnosticism. Indeed, I applaud the spectacular ability of so many of my people to take G-d out of religion without becoming anything the Christian world would understand as secular. To be a Jew is to confound modernity’s categories! But I believe that specifically religious forms of Jewish meaning-making offer something valuable and are perfectly reconcilable with the tolerance and inclusivity we prize in modern liberalism.

In experiencing religion – truly experiencing it, as a force with relevance to our daily existence – we can choose what kinds of meaning we make. The container can be filled with the fiery passion of resistance or with moralistic preaching against personal immorality. It can be used instrumentally, to encourage obedience and promote social cohesion. Or it can be used as an end-unto-itself, in pursuit of that continuity which is its own kind of fulfillment. We can pour into it any set of values we wish – so long as we are prepared to live with the consequences.

We make ourselves receptive – be it for personal growth, communal expression, or self-sacrifice to a larger cause. What we use religion for should be our choice. But we must take seriously the tremendous burden that comes with a tool capable of shaping our inner life and that of others.


Today, for me, Tisha B’av is an opportunity to ponder the merits of pragmatism. It makes me think about my father’s parents, who were born into a country that epitomized the nature of Exile. Romania was the last European country to emancipate its Jewish population, opposing doing so until after World War I. It was only when the Paris Peace Conference required Romania to offer citizenship to its Jewish population as a precondition for receiving new territory that this changed – despite intense Romanian resistance. My grandparents were born just as this reluctant reform came into effect.

What followed was a period of great change for Romanian Jewry. Having received citizenship, Jews started to enter professions that had previously been forbidden to them (backlash ensued). In time, Romanian Jews became involved with politics. Under the Romanian Monarchy, one of my grandmother’s cousins, a sixteen-year-old boy, was executed for his involvement with the Communist Party. Somewhat ironically, when the Communists later came to power, other members of my family were arrested and jailed for Zionist activism.

All the while, Jewish life became more and more untenable, leading to the Second World War, when Romania stood as Nazi Germany’s ally and collaborated enthusiastically in the murder of between 280,000 to 380,000 Jews in territory under Romanian control.

My grandparents lived through this time. They survived the war. Finding the new Communist regime as inhospitable to Jews as many that had come before it, they finally left Romania. After a brief period in Italy, supported in part by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (please donate!), they made their way to the State of Israel and there set about starting anew in their forties.

I think about the ingenuity of that generation, who collected languages and passports in the knowledge that any one of them might save their lives and that of their children – and knew that, in Exile, no single one of them could be counted on to do so.  I think about their pragmatism. My grandparents were not zealots. They simply wanted to build a better life for their family. In pursuit of that goal, they started over with nothing in a new country. They rebuilt themselves in middle age, like so many others of their time, because they wanted their children to live with something other than the ever-present fear that defined the Romanian Jewish experience. I admire that.

There is a school of thought, popular in the first half of the twentieth century, that says that my grandparents’ departure was a betrayal. They should have stayed and fought for a better Romania, goes one version of this argument, calling on them to educate the people who persecuted them so that they could all greet each other as comrades. Leaving Romania was a failure of solidarity, so to speak.

Alternatively, it was the view of the Romanian government that emigration constituted desertion of the international Communist project. Having received a publicly funded education in Romania, they were legally obligated to stay and help build the worker’s state. It was for this reason that my grandparents and other Romanian Jews were only permitted to leave after the State of Israel and the international Jewish community purchased their freedom with cash, shipments of heavy equipment and – perversely – pigs and other livestock. This was also the reason my grandparents were required to leave behind almost everything they had when they left the country. To be a Jewish refugee from a Communist country required paying for the privilege.

I don’t think my grandparents owed anything to Romania or Communism or any combination of the above. I have a hard time believing any Jew owes anything to any part of that blood-soaked soil called Europe. But even if I did, I think I would still admire their pragmatism in placing a better life for their children over the propagandistic calls of national and international solidarity. I admire them for this, as I admire the many Jews who came before them, who put survival over the ecstasies of martyrdom in a holy cause. This is the pragmatism of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakki. The pragmatism of those who reject zealots.

In life, even amidst the security and comfort of modern day America, there are times that call for martyrdom and times that call for pragmatism. It seems to me that religion should be prepared to offer something meaningful to each of these difficult moments. It is a mistake to turn to religion only when we are ready to die for a cause – sometimes, religion can teach us how to live for one – or even how to abandon one not worth fighting for.

Jewish life and Jewish ritual offer Jews a pathway to shaping our own souls – but it is still up to us to choose what kind of Judaism we will select to do so. There are many options. My Judaism tells me that, even in heartbreaking calamity, our responsibility is to chart a path towards a real and living future.

Reclaiming Evil: Why do people blame political violence on mental illness?

Reclaiming Evil: Why do people blame political violence on mental illness?

Over the past few days, I’ve struggled with the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. As a Jew, I mourn the loss of eleven irreplaceable Jewish souls. As an American, I am incensed at the irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric from the Trump Administration and its allies that brought us here. And as a disability rights advocate, I am worried about the tendency of many to blame every mass shooting, no matter how clearly political, on the same consistent scapegoat: people with mental illness.

After each major violent attack on a marginalized group, we hear commentators say that the perpetrator must have been crazy. In the hours after the synagogue shooting, President Trump pronounced the murderer “a madman, a wacko” while plenty of commentators took to social media to similarly attribute the gunman’s actions to psychiatric illness rather than his stated murderous ideology. I’ve heard from many fellow disabled Jews how painful it has been to go to vigils seeking comfort, only to be traumatized again when speakers blame mental disability for what is clearly a hate crime.

These kind of comments are relatively commonplace on the political right, which seeks to shift the conversation to mental illness to avoid discussion of gun control. But such thinking is also common elsewhere on the political spectrum, where many look at racial or religious prejudice as so incomprehensible as to require the shooters to be sick and irrational. I’ve long criticized such reactions, mainly because they empower those who exploit these atrocities to restrict the rights of those who actually do have mental illness. But recently, it occurred to me that blaming mental illness causes an even bigger problem: it leaves us unprepared to address the actual causes of political violence in our society.

In modern times, large swaths of America seem to have given up on the idea of “evil” in political life. We want to believe we all come from a common moral universe, that the things that divide us are misunderstandings – or at very worst corruption. When faced with people who advocate things that are morally alien to us, like racial or religious hierarchy, we assume that they are merely misinformed about the facts. “If they knew what we knew,” we think, “they couldn’t possibly believe that.”

The idea of people who subscribe to a moral universe that is truly counter to our own, that consider what we believe to be good as evil and what we consider as evil to be good, is so foreign as to be incomprehensible.

“Evil” is seen as something that only religious zealots believe in. In a perhaps understandable reaction to prior generations’ moral absolutism, educated opinion disdains moral judgment about others’ worldviews. People want to believe that all our differences can be reconciled through dialogue, that to understand the other is always to end in a position of greater sympathy. But what do we do when we see the other and find ourselves repulsed because of their sincerely held beliefs? What if evil is just a word for people whose morality is hateful to our own? And what if, in moments like this, evil is still a useful concept, one that we made a mistake by turning away from?

Increasingly, our society has turned to mental illness as the explanation for what previous generations would have called evil. We want to believe that no sane person could have committed acts like this weekend’s synagogue shooting, last week’s attempted attack on a black church (and subsequent racist murder at a grocery store), and similar acts of politically motivated violence. But often, those who commit such crimes make clear their political motivations. It does not take a psychiatrist to figure out what motivates a man who shoots up a synagogue while shouting “All Jews Must Die!”.


If we find violence motivated by hate unimaginable from sane people, it is only because we have forgotten the majority of human history. Short of retroactively diagnosing large swaths of past humanity with mental illness, it is difficult to justify the idea that hate requires mental pathology. Some do seek such a retroactive diagnosis, but such an approach seems to define mental illness down to simply mean “people who do abhorrent things”. The Nazis were not mentally ill. The KKK is not mentally ill. The campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq and in countless other places throughout history were not motivated by mental illness. To believe otherwise hurts those who actually do experience mental illness – and it leaves us unprepared to fight evil, because we refuse to believe it actually exists.

The only purpose of redefining past atrocities as mental illness is to try and declaim responsibility as human beings for the darkest moments of our past. Interestingly, the desire to escape responsibility is also at the core of efforts to attribute mental illness to modern day perpetrators of political violence. If we believe that the killer was just a lone “wacko”, we don’t have to confront the ideology that motivated him or the people still spreading the incitement and hateful rhetoric that set the stage for his actions.

Maybe that’s why people rarely attribute mental illness to extremist ideological violence that comes from abroad. We don’t need to separate ourselves from the actions of al-Qaeda, Daesh or other Islamic extremists. Americans aren’t generally implicated in what they do – and so we don’t need the mental illness explanation to insulate ourselves from it. When a terrorist emerges from white Christian society, however, large portions of our country feel the need to separate themselves through accusations of mental illness. Nobody wants to acknowledge that violent ideologies are being incubated in our own country.

We want to believe that the hate that motivates mass violence is just an individual character flaw, not attached to any larger structure or political program. This is the purpose of mental illness in these discussions, to atomize the killer, to separate him from the social and political ties that led him to his violent actions.

If these acts can just be attributed to the crazy, we can treat them as simple natural disasters, to respond to with thoughts and prayers and little else, allowing us to move on afterwards. We don’t have to face the idea that we may be in more serious trouble. We don’t have to acknowledge that, increasingly, we find ourselves facing enemies. Not people whose actions can’t be rationally explained nor people who need their misinformation rectified through dialogue, but real and true enemies. People whose moral universes are such that loyalty to our own morality requires us to understand it and them as evil.

Over the last several years, we have seen the resurgence of a number of hateful ideologies in the United States and internationally. Ideas about inherent racial hierarchies that many of us thought were relegated to the ash heap of history have acquired new energy and influence. This worldview goes by many names, some new, some very old. Whether we’re discussing the “alt-right”, neo-reactionaries, neo-Confederates or just plain neo-Nazis and Klansmen, the far-right has been emboldened in recent years. The mainstreaming of racist and anti-immigrant conspiracy theory among elected Republicans has sent a clear message to the fringe: you are not so unwelcome in America as once advertised.

Most prominent leaders within these ideologies will nominally disavow vigilante violence – but the nightmarish vision of black and brown hordes manipulated by Jewish puppet masters prime their supporters to take matters into their own hands. It is not an accident that the man who shot up the Tree of Life Synagogue wrote, “Screw your optics, I’m going in” moments before his attack. Once he had accepted the idea that immigrants posed an existential threat, he needed no instructions as to how to respond. Those who convinced him of the threat enabled his violent response.

The good news is that we have the tools available to neutralize this threat. Most of our society still opposes the far-right’s worldview. Efforts to remove incitement and hate from social media platforms and disrupt the logistical and financial architecture that allow these ideologies to organize offer effective tools to counter the networks that spawn ideologically-driven shooters. Most importantly, we still have the tools of a democratic society available to us. We can hold accountable the politicians and pundits who spread conspiracy theories and dog-whistle prejudice from more mainstream platforms. We can boycott advertisers. We can protest enablers. We can vote.

To do these things, we must first recognize the nature of the problem. Those who espouse a rigid hierarchy of race are not mentally ill. Rather, they are advocating an atavistic return to a mode of thinking that has characterized much of our species’ time on Earth. Many people dedicated their life’s work to reform these impulses, to try and drag our species to a point where we no longer saw ourselves as engaged in a zero-sum game between different racial teams. Now, as in prior generations, we face those who want us to turn back and return to what we once were. They are not ill, but they are – we hope – badly out of date.

To deal with these threats, to defend the liberal values of human equality we orient our own moral universe around, our society must resurrect the idea of evil in our culture. We must acknowledge our morality as one among many – not for the usual purpose of questioning our values, but instead to defend them against competition that we should justifiably consider hateful to us. Only by understanding ourselves as a society grappling with violence emerging from a competing moral ideology, rather than from mental illness, can we hope to win that contest.