This week’s portion Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22), is the first in the book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew . It is a recap of everything that has happened with the Israelites since leaving Egypt and landing on the east side of the Jordan River. A whole lot of it is Moses saying “Shame on you!” to the Israelites for constantly complaining and misbehaving. To highlight this, the haftarah portion is from the book of Isaiah (Is. 1:1-27). The entirety of it is God telling the Israelites through Isaiah that they’re pretty awful and miserable people, and that they’re going to be punished and kicked out of their land.
Putting these two things together, we see a historically based accusation against the Israelites for misbehaving and bringing misfortune upon themselves. In the Jewish calendar, this portion comes at a pretty appropriate time. Tisha b’Av, the holiday where Jews mourn basically every misfortune that has ever happened to us. The name of the holiday is actually just a date: the 9th day of Av, the fifth month. The mourning is mainly focused on the destruction of the two temples, the first of which the portion of Isaiah here is alluding to, but we tend to throw it all in, claiming that both of the temples were destroyed on this day, that the expulsion from Spain happened on this day, that Hitler was born on this day, and on and on. If you check out the Wikipedia page I linked above, they’ve got a pretty good list of things that happened on Tisha b’Av. It’s just a crappy day for all of us, and we are supposed to fast and do all kinds of other difficult and painstaking things, like reading the book of Job.
I’m a little ambivalent about the holiday. This is mainly because I feel that so much of my Jewish identity has been built up around these tragedies, even outside of the holiday. As a people, we tend to focus on all of the horrible, terrible things that have happened to us throughout history as one of the (maybe even the) defining characteristics of our peoplehood. Now, I am not here to discount the huge and long lasting impact of all of the terrible things that have been done to us as a people throughout our history. They have certainly been a continual trend, and continue to this day. To focus on them as the central locus of our identity, though, leaves us in a pretty difficult spot as a people.
Throughout my childhood, I can remember a few instances of us celebrating something good happening to the Jews. We received the Torah at Sinai, and we love to celebrate that. God led us out of Egypt, which we also love to celebrate. We also love to celebrate when we end the Torah cycle for the year. These three things, though, were a mystery to me as a child. As a Reform Jew, there’s always a strange and difficult tension about religious celebrations. A product of modernity, Reform Judaism pulled off a pretty strong disenchantment of our tradition. This is particularly confusing for children. I deal with this tension daily when school is in session. Kids always ask “Did this really happen?” or “Are we supposed to really believe this?” The party line for Reform Judaism on both questions is a definitive “No.” But I don’t say that. I ask them to think about it themselves, and I try to encourage them to develop their own opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, the only concrete things we do offer the kids about history tend to circulate around the historical persecution of the Jews, and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.
This was also true for me. What you end up with as a Reform Jew is often a general lack of clarity on what we are supposed to believe or think about our religion, but a definite clarity on most of history being a terrible place for Jews, with the exception of the modern state of Israel. Of course, you eventually find out that Israel can be a pretty terrible place for Jews too, especially due to the ever-looming war and carnage. As a child, though, it’s just a wonderful place of magic and mystery where everyone is a Jew and you are welcome because you are too!
Now, I’m not going to delve into my feelings about the place of the state of Israel in contemporary Judaism. It’s too complicated a subject to do justice in this post. I will say, though, that the foundation of being Jewish that is offered to most kids (which is basically a mixture of the constant persecution of Jews in the pre-Israel world, and the magic and glamor of the world with a Jewish state), is highly problematic. What you end up with is a general sense that the world is hostile for a Jew, which bleeds into your Jewish identity in the Diaspora as being something inherently negative. I can tell you that there is certainly some truth to this. I was referred to as “the Jew” in high school (I went to a highschool of about 2100 with a population of about 5 Jews), and have definitely experienced the whole stranger in a strange land thing. My home synagogue was vandalized a few times while I was growing up, too. So yes, anti-semitism exists still today, but like any other minority identity, to allow the tragedies and the persecution to be the center locus for identity only creates an identity dependent upon our persecutors.
To create a healthy and strong Jewish identity in a form of Judaism that does not create binding religious strictures on what it means to be a Jew, we need to focus both on the positive and wonderful things that have happened throughout our history along with the negative and horrible things. Throughout history we have flourished in many places, allowing for people like Rav, Rashi, Moses Maimonides, Moses de Leon, Spinoza, and many more to continue adding to our amazing religious, literary, and cultural tradition. We can also consider our existence in America a similarly positive experience. When we talk about the Diaspora, why do we never talk about this?
On this Tisha b’Av, let us mourn the things we have to mourn. They are certainly there, and there are certainly a lot of them. At the same time, let us not forget some of the wonders that have occurred in the Jewish Diaspora. We are not simply a collection of grievances against the persecutions of our past. We are also a collection of wonderful experiences had throughout the world as Jews, that have continually added new, amazing, and positive aspects to our peoplehood. The world has not been only hostile to us. Maybe on Eser b’Av (the 10th of Av) we should celebrate our victories, our accomplishments, and the moments of peace and harmony we have experienced throughout our history.
Thank you for this thoughtful post. As someone new to Judaism I am excited to celebrate the pieces of the faith that are most meaningful to me. Also, I know that dwelling on tragedies makes for a sad life. There’s a fine line between respecting the past and staying stuck in it.