General Jewish Spirituality spirituality

Rethinking Tisha B'Av

Tisha B’av is coming up on Sunday, and as I’m thinking about it this year, I find I’m thinking about it in a new way.   Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from the land. Over the course of about 2.5 millenia, lots of other terrible things have happened on that day also, so they have been added  into our sense of mourning and fasting. Yet, as I think about the origins of the day, the original event, I find myself asking, “where would we be without the destruction?”

There are very few peoples who have maintained a culture over 2500 years, yet Judaism has. Obviously, there have been many changes, but we have maintained a root sense of being part of one people. And I believe that part of the reason that we have lasted so long is that we are a people without a land, that we are a people of exile.

When the Temple was destroyed, first in 587 B.C.(E.) and then again in A.D. 71 (C.E.), Judaism was faced with the prospect of ceasing to exist. Instead, a new form of the religion was created which was not based on Temple worship. Especially in the aftermath of the second destruction by the Romans, this new form of Judaism went on to become the only form of Judaism, which we practice today. Without the destruction of the Temple, Judaism as we know it today would not exist.

There are those who would say that without the destruction, we would still be practicing as the ancient Israelites did in the Temple in Jerusalem with animal sacrifice. I doubt it. Other peoples who at the time practiced animal sacrifice no longer do. In fact, most of those ancient religions have given way to other, newer religions, most often Christianity or Islam. Yet Judaism remains.

Judaism continues because we’ve been able to adapt to changing times and beliefs. We’ve been able to continue to renew Judaism in each generation, creating something which addresses the spiritual needs of the day. Yet without the destruction of the Temple, would we have been pushed to make that first critical step, breaking with a location based cult worship at the Temple? I tend to doubt it.

Maimonides teaches that Temple Worship was a “phase” of Judaism, which was used to wean the Jewish people from the sacrifice-based worship they had been used to before we receieved the Torah. That we were never intended to continue sacrificial worship, but to transcend it with the shift to prayer (which of course took place in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, roughly 1,000 years before Maimonides). I love this teaching, in that it says “that was right for that time, but this is right for now.” In fact, it feels very Reconstructionist to me. If we look at the destruction in this way, it becomes a necessary step, albeit a painful one, in the evolution of Judaism.

I am not seriously proposing that we transition Tisha B’Av from a fast day to a feast day. Regardless of the outcome of the destruction, we have only to read the Book of Lamentations (traditionally read on Tisha B’Av) to understand how awful the destruction must have been in terms of human suffering. And so I am caught between celebration and mourning. The process was truly horrible, but out of the destruction Judaism was reborn.

For my thoughts on Tisha B’Av two years ago, see here.

Tisha B’Av begins at sunset on Saturday August 09 and continues through sundown, Saturday, August 10, 2008.