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.