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Why we still need Tisha B’Av

What would happen if America could name its national sins?

(RNS) — Once upon a time, I thought God took the summer off.

I had no idea there were summer Jewish holidays — or, at least, observances — until my first summer at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was the summer of 1969, and it was to be the first time I ever heard of Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av is the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. It begins on Saturday evening (Aug. 6). It is a fast day commemorating the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

It is also the day, by sheer historical coincidence, on which almost every other bad thing in Jewish history occurred:

In 135 C.E., the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba revolt, essentially ending Judean independence. In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the first Crusade, which in its first month claimed the lives of 10,000 Jews. In 1290, King Edward I signed the Edict of Expulsion, which expelled the Jews from England. In 1492, the Jews of Spain departed from their homeland, beginning the Sephardic Diaspora.

No matter how you slice it, the ninth of Av is a bad day in Jewish history.

Jewish summer camps revived Tisha B’Av. How could they not? It was the only Jewish holiday that occurred during the summer months (though observant Jews also mark the three weeks prior, going back to the seventeenth of Tammuz, when the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem).

In fact, the revival of Tisha B’Av was one of the most important contributions that Jewish camping made to the Jewish calendar.

We loved it. It was a paradox: a dark day in the midst of a light-filled summer; enforced glumness; a dumping of every Jewish historical tragedy in one day, which gave numerous programmatic ideas to our counselors, who spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with ways to scare us all to death and make us grateful for being in America — where Jews would never need to be afraid again.

When it comes to me and Tisha B’Av, I will quote the personal status some people post on Facebook: “Relationship: complicated.”

On the one hand: I take Jewish history very seriously. I believe in remembering and mourning the painful moments of our history. I believe in mourning the fact that the Romans exiled us from our land.

When I am in Jerusalem on that date, I love to go to the Western Wall plaza and hear the chanting of the Book of Lamentations. I have heard every ethnic group of the Jewish people chant Lamentations in their own melody. It is a sacred cacophony of the Jewish people.

On the other hand: The irony also embraces me. As I turn my back to the Kotel and lift my eyes, what do I see?

I see the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. In 1948, the Arab Legion of Jordan came into the Old City and forcibly expelled its Jewish inhabitants before systematically destroying the Jewish Quarter.

Today, when you walk through the Jewish Quarter, you do not see destruction. You see renovation and even resurrection. You see destroyed synagogues that have risen from their ashes. More than this: Jerusalem is a prosperous, booming city. The price of real estate in some neighborhoods approaches that of Manhattan.

So, I find myself asking the question: Do we modern Jews still need Tisha B’Av?

If you were to ask historians why the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and Judea, those historians would be very clear. The Judeans had revolted against the Romans. The Romans had to stop the revolt. End of story.

But that is not how Jews think. We think that if something bad happens to us, it must be our fault. And so, the ancient rabbis came up with a moral laundry list for why we lost our independence.

Jerusalem was destroyed … (Talmud, Shabbat 119b): Because people desecrated Shabbat. Because they omitted recitation of the morning and evening Shema. Because they neglected the education of school children. Because people had no shame before each other. Because the small and the great were made equal.

Because the people did not rebuke one another. Because they disparaged the Torah scholars in it.

Other reasons: Because they did not make a blessing prior to learning the Torah (Talmud, Bava Metzia 85b). Because they ruled according to the letter of the law (Talmud, Bava Metzia 30b). Because of “sinat chinam”baseless hatred (Talmud, Bava Metzia 30b).

Notice, please: The reasons range from the neglect of ritual matters to the neglect of ethical matters.

If I were to call for a widespread American Jewish revival of Tisha B’Av, I would do so not because I believe that we need to continually mourn our ancient destructions and heartaches. Rather, I would do so because we need to ponder the sins that led to the destruction and resolve to change those behaviors.

We already have Yom Kippur, you are saying. But that’s for personal sin. Tisha B’Av should be about communal sin.

But, not just the Jews. Here, we have something to model for America.

Revisit the ethical sins that led to the destruction of Jerusalem: Because they lost their sense of shame. Because they did not admonish each other; they turned their faces away and saw no evil. Because of sinat chinam — baseless hatred.

Each of those sins exists in America today.

We have lost our sense of shame. We need to regain our shame — of what our country has become. We have become a culture of entitlement, in which we insist on the very letter of the law when it comes to our rights and ignore our responsibilities for the common good. We engage in sinat chinam — gratuitous, free-flowing hatred.

Consider that force in our nation, and in the world, that is the most vulnerable to distortion — nationalism. Nationalism is normal, and even desirable. But, ultra-nationalism becomes toxic, because it can lead to fascism.

Nationalism often sees the enemy outside our borders. This is not necessarily unhealthy. Ultra-nationalism only sees the enemy within our borders. Those who are Other — racially other, religiously other, sexually other. When our violence turns inward and toward our own, we are a culture and a society that has begun the wretched road to the conditions that gave rise to the destruction of Jerusalem.

For those of you who are fans of “Star Wars”: Luke Skywalker needed to understand the dark side of the force. America needs to understand the dark side of the American force — and that dark side has always been white supremacy and the hatred of the other.

I turn to the words of the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.

She spoke these words in 1950:

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the principles of Americanism. The right to criticize. The right to hold unpopular beliefs. The right to protest. The right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us does not? Otherwise none of us could call our own souls our own.

Let us call our souls our own.

And, let us heal the soul of this nation.

For those of you who fast, may it be easy, meaningful and redemptive.