Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tishah B'Av

Here are some thoughts about Tisha Ba'av. Perhaps overly sad and scary. But Tisha Ba'av asks us to confront the worst possibilities in Jewish and human history.

This is an edited version of a conversation that took place on the Reconstructionist email list.

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Eric: Lets start looking again for insights re Tisha Ba'av for this year. Let's not get mired in the detail of fasting or other ritual function, or in the smug politics of Judaism survived because the Temple's destruction permitted the Prushim (rabbinic) Jews to finally liberate themselves from the Tzdokkim (Temple cult Jews) or the old Zionist's idea that 1948 eliminated the need for Tisha B'av, or the idea that Jewish history is only Historia Dolorosa and Tisha B'av observances its major sancta. Let's try and draw out some real meaning for ourselves.

Me: Well a question that leaps to mind (at least my mind) is: If indeed - biglal chataeynu gaalnu - because of our sins we where exiled, then what will happen as a result of our sins in Israel today? : corruption, greed, sexual exploitation, a growing social gap nd underclass, mistreatment of foreign workers (including but not limited to Palestinians), systemic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and of course the many crimes and multiple oppressions inflicted by the occupation. And what should be the attitude of these who see these sins and see the dangers.

Remember that Jeremiah, not only wrote the book of Lamentations, he also warned about the destruction prior to it happening and urged - to no avail - a change of course. And also let us not forget that Jeremiah, as a symbolic act, purchased a tract of land in Judea - even though he could not occupy it after the Babylonian invasion - as a sign that someday - after the Jews repentance and forgiveness - he or his descendants would return.

Then he went down to Egypt to help build a strong diaspora community there.

It also occurs to me that Israel may be a 2nd Maccabean State. Necessary, for sure, for the revitalization of the Jewish people and its long term survival, but seriously corrupt and riven by dissension and about the essence of what it means to be Jewish, and ruled by subsequently weaker and weaker and more and more corrupt leaders, till eventually it becomes a vassal of the great power of the day, and then ultimately is destroyed as an independent political entity, with great suffering to the Jews living in the Land. There likely would not be a Jewish people today if the Maccabees had not succeeded in their revolt, but nor would there be Jews if the Maccabean State had long survived in the pattern they soon established.

And it also crosses my mind that all the Diaspora suffering that we commemorate, as an add on - to Tisha Ba'av, is also real, and that the one of the hopes of a renewed Jewish State was to end that Jewish suffering. And now Israel is the centre of most Jewish suffering and existential threat.

Mark: I was with you right to the end, Syd. The historical analysis seems right. But the very last sentence seems a challenge. I'd agree that Israel is AT the centre of most Jewish suffering and existential threat. (Though not all. Religious bifurcation is a cause of much suffering, and assimilation is another big existential threat.) But I'm not sure it IS the centre.

The Maccabean state existed for generations before it collapsed. Corruption may have set in early, but as you say, the system served a purpose for a time. I'm inclined to think the modern state hasn't outlived its usefulness either. I'd like to see it transformed. I think it's useful to think of the Maccabean state as an object lesson. The current, embarrassing richness of corruption is a warning. But it's as wrong to deny the relief of Jewish suffering wrought by Israel as it is to deny the wealth generated by capitalism just because of Conrad Black.

The practical question is: How do you convert a state from wrong to right? The first part of the answer has to be to envision the state we want. Not a small challenge right there.

Ben: I think Mark has misspecified the practical question. The challenge is NOT to envision the state we want, but to envision the political arrangements we think will best lead to the future we want.

We need a radical change in our thinking. Regarding Israel, we have to stop thinking in terms of supporting a state and more in terms of supporting a set of political arrangements and structures we want and need. Perhaps reorienting our way of thinking is best facilitated by reminding ourselves of the following:

The Zionist movement did not embrace the political demand for a state until the Biltmore Conference in 1942. From an ideological and values-based perspective, the demand for a "state" was not essential. It became a political demand only when practical circumstances made this political demand a tactical -- but very definitely NOT moral -- imperative. The state that has emerged is the result of political compromises that nobody particularly liked.

Lee: "The state that has emerged is the result of political compromises that nobody particularly liked."

Since most modern states emerged from the result of such compromises, I'm not sure how useful it is to remind ourselves of this fact. Perhaps a more useful fact to keep in mind is that the State of Israel exists regardless of whether you like it or not.

Me: This discussion started on the topic of T'isha Ba'av, not practical geo-politics.

As a religious group, dedicated to articulating, promoting, and passing on our transcendent values, we need to be careful not to slip too quickly into the practical political mode. (That has its place, but it must always be the 2nd place.)

Israel is a compromise, as are all existing States. That is why we should not embrace, promote, idolize, or hold up as our goal any State. I would no more want to see an Israeli flag on the Bima of my synagogue as a Canadian Flag. States come and go. Sometimes they do more good than harm, sometimes more harm than good. We should not worship States, including the State of Israel.

I actively wish, hope, pray, and work (not as much as I should) for a world where Jews can live freely and have a flourishing and morally just culture, wherever they live, and especially in the land of Israel. I also wish this for other people and peoples.

On Tisha Ba'av we might wish to see that God (the normative Jewish Consciousness through many generations) decrees that a sinful people is not worthy of sovereign political power in its homeland. That righteousness must precede (in both senses of the word) power, and not vice versa.

This attitude may or may not change Israel's policies. But it will give us some integrity in our religious life, and may be more valuable for the preservation and thriving of Judaism and the Jewish people than a religious fixation solely on the survival of the State.

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For some similar thoughts in the mainstream Jewish press see this article from the JTA.


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