Tisha B’Av Dilemma: Day of Solemnity or Celebration?
Traditional Jews mark Tisha B’Av by fasting, reading from the Book of Lamentations and observing rituals of mourning.
Not all congregations observe the solemn day, however. Tisha B’Av at The Valley Temple, a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, took on a less somber demeanor last year. Temple Sisterhood members spent the holiday busily hosting their annual rummage sale, sorting through piles of household goods, toys and clothing and hawking them to prospective buyers.
In all fairness, the scheduling of the rummage sale on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls this year at sundown on Aug. 2, was not deliberate. But the fact that Sisterhood members were not aware of the holiday, according to one spokesperson who asked not to be identified, reveals that Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar for Jews, is also a nonevent in some, usually Reform, congregations.
It also reveals how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in both 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. and which Tisha B’Av commemorates, resonates differently among various denominations.
“There’s a challenge for Reform Jews around the observance of Tisha B’Av, and communities make all kinds of choices,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of worship, music and religious living.
The Valley Temple was not the only Reform synagogue last year to host a rummage sale or new member brunch on Tisha B’Av. This is not surprising considering that references to the Temple’s rebuilding have been moved from the Reform movement’s liturgy. Granted, Reform Judaism does not deny the existence of the Temple or its historical role.
“But the difference theologically is that we’re not looking for restoration of the Temple and Temple sacrifices,” Wasserman said.
Some Reform Jews, as did 19th century Rabbi David Einhorn, actually see the holiday as celebratory, crediting the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews with enabling the Jewish people to survive and become “a light unto the nations,” as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6).
Tisha B’Av is observed in most Conservative synagogues, according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
“The question for Jews like us is what does it mean to celebrate Tisha B’Av at a time when Israel is ours and Jerusalem is ours,” he said.
His congregation, in fact, tackled this question at a Tisha B’Av discussion several years ago, where, drawing on the Shavuot model of study, they spent two hours learning and debating. Afterward, they read the Book of Eicha, as Lamentations is called in Hebrew, and prayed.
Valley Beth Shalom traditionally partners with Adat Ari El in neighboring Valley Village for Tisha B’Av services. While both Conservative and only 10 minutes apart, the synagogues embody very different cultures, reflected in opposite approaches to the fast’s observance. Valley Beth Shalom engages in discussions; Adat Ari El, which is hosting this year’s service, favors a more emotional approach. This year, the service, in addition to reading the Book of Lamentations, will consist of some modern dramatic readings and the lighting of six candles, to commemorate the Holocaust and other tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av, according to Rabbi Moshe Rothblum.
There doesn’t seem to be a basic theology or ideology concerning the role of the ancient Temple in Conservative Judaism, according to Feinstein. He believes that the age of animal sacrifices, appropriate at one time, has been superseded by an age of prayer, relegating the Temple to a symbol.
“When I read the prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple, I interpret that to mean the unification and redemption of the Jewish people,” he said.
At Reconstructionist Temple Beth Or in Miami, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian observes the eve of Tisha B’Av with her 125-family congregation. Usually the program includes a reading of excerpts from Eicha, followed by a contemporary take on Tisha B’Av, such as a discussion of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” a novel that unfolds during the time of the Temple’s destruction.
This year, Lillian is taking a slightly different approach. Tisha B’Av eve will include readings from Eicha, as usual. The following evening, congregants will focus on Darfur and modern genocides, a project of the temple’s social action committee.
“The destruction of the Temple was in many ways a genocide, killing Jews and kicking them out,” she said.
References to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem have been removed from Reconstructionist liturgy. But because the movement is decentralized, individual synagogues have ample leeway in terms of how they celebrate various holidays, Lillian said.
There’s no ambivalence in the Orthodox world, however, concerning the role of the Temple.
“We pray [for its rebuilding] three times a day,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox community.
Orthodox congregations across the spectrum continue to commemorate Tisha B’Av in traditional ways, such as observing a 25-hour fast from sundown to the next night, not wearing leather shoes, sitting on low stools or on the floor during the evening service and reciting Eicha and other elegies.
It is a day of absolute mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem’s two Temples. For many Orthodox Jews, and increasingly across the denominational spectrum, the day also encompasses other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on the ninth of Av, including the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, in 135 C.E., the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the Jews’ deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.
Additionally, many in the ultra-Orthodox community memorialize the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av rather than on Yom HaShoah, the traditional day of commemoration for most Modern Orthodox and other denominational congregations. This is due, in part, to a reluctance to add new holidays or days of mourning to the calendar. More importantly, according to Shafran, “The illustrious rabbinical leaders of a quarter-century ago felt that nothing short of Tisha B’Av could suffice for a tragedy as great as the Holocaust.”
But in the ultra-Orthodox, as well as Modern Orthodox, communities over the past few years, on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, a revolution of sorts has been taking place in many of the nation’s largest cities. Instead of what Shafran describes as “sleeping or sitting around and suffering,” groups of Jews are gathering by the thousands in large halls to hear dynamic speakers expound on relevant topics such as senseless hatred or hurtful speech.
“It’s become a mass movement of Jews from one hall to another, and it’s become a very dynamic day,” Shafran said.