Tisha B’Av Today

This week a friend confessed to me his problem with fasting on Tisha B’av. My friend is Orthodox and Israeli — an alumnus of one of the elite hesder yeshivas — and he felt that it would be wrong for him to fast this year on Tisha B’Av.

“I cannot abide the litany of persecution and victimization, which the community reads in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, all the while ignoring those who are our victims not far away in Ramalah and Qalqilyah, Daheishah and Tuqua.”

Within the American context this problem is equally bad. The annual litany of persecutions included in the kinot (poems) of lamentation recited on Tisha B’Av eve and morning are usually enhanced with readings impressing upon the congregation the ongoing, continuing, eternal oppression “we” have suffered. This stance of eternal victimhood, with the whole world as fixed and immutable oppressor easily erases differences in time and place, differences in situation. We in the United States are not under any physical threat. We are probably the most affluent and powerful Jewish community in recorded history. Anti-Semitism in the United States is a fringe phenomenon which, when it rears its ugly head, is immediately swatted by the highest levels of the government. Mistaking our situation for that of another Jewish community in history is dangerously delusional. While those who ignore the past might be doomed to repeat it, those who are stuck in the past cannot see the present, and make serious and costly mistakes that will harm us in the future.

This however is not what Tisha B’Av is about.

Tisha B’Av is the day on which we are forced to confront the radical possibility that we are unable to create an ethical polity. Tisha B’Av is the day on which we must give ourselves an accounting of how “Jerusalem” became a “den of murderers” in the words of the prophet. We must think hard about how all our cherished hopes for ourselves as a community based on ethics and a commitment to social and economic justice can — and at times have — slipped through our hands. How have we stood on the sidelines while we became allied with the forces of injustice, or the agents of oppression.

On Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor, alone; we do not greet each other. We perform the dissolution of the basic bonds of community. For one stark moment we must stand naked before ourselves and say: “How did we get here?”

For this reason I will fast on Tisha B’Av. Davka — especially in a Jewish calendar year that includes Israel Independence Day do we need Tisha B’Av. Especially in a country in which we control resources and have the possibility to allow working people to earn living wages and exist in dignity — or not — do we need Tisha B’Av. Especially here and especially now we need to stop and reflect on Tisha B’Av. In the words of the prophet: Zion will be redeemed by justice, and her returnees by righteousness.

Dr. Aryeh Cohen is chair of rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism. He is also the president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.