Last Saturday evening, a group of us gathered to commemorate Tishah B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. It was on the 9th of Av in 586 BCE that the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, along with the first Temple. Significantly, centuries later, the Romans put the second Temple to the torch in 70 CE on the 10th of Av.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the first rabbis transformed the 9th of Av into Tishah B’Av, a date on the calendar to be commemorated by the Jewish people, for all time. Two further dates connected to Tishah B’Av were also added to the calendar: the 10th day of Tevet, which falls in the winter, when the Babylonians began laying siege to the city, and 17th of Tammuz, three weeks before the 9th of Av, when the conquerors breached the city walls. [1]

Tishah B’Av became a fast day, later centring on the reading of Eichah, the Biblical Book of Lamentations, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem in searing detail. Eichah, is one of the Chameish M’gillot, the ‘Five Scrolls’ set aside for reading at particular sacred times. [2]

We are most familiar with M’gillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, read on Purim, which tells the tale of a genocidal plot against the Jews of an ancient eastern empire, and how it was foiled. But as it happens, Purim was not observed by Liberal Jews until a brief liturgy was included in the 1967 edition of the prayerbook, Service of the Heart.[3] Meanwhile, Tishah B’Av did not enter the Liberal liturgy until the current 1995 edition, Siddur Lev Chadash.[4]

We don’t have time today to explore the changing Liberal approach to Purim. I will return to this theme next year nearer to the Festival. So what is the Liberal issue with Tishah B’Av? From the outset, continuing to this day, unlike traditional Judaism, Liberal liturgy does not include prayers for the reinstitution of Temple worship. From a Liberal perspective, the system of sacrifice belongs to the Jewish past and has no place in any Jewish future. As it happens, the first rabbis were responsible, in the post-Temple reality in which they found themselves, for replacing Avodah, sacrificial worship with avodat ha-lev, ‘service of the heart’. The 1967 Liberal prayer book of that name includes a quotation from the Talmud, opposite the frontispiece, which defines ‘service of the heart’ as ‘prayer’.[5] For Liberal Judaism, prayer has replaced sacrifice once and for all. It follows from this stance that if we are not praying for the re-building of the Temple, it does not make sense to mourn the loss of the Temple, either.

The logic of classical Liberal Judaism is faultless. But Liberal Judaism in Britain developed at the dawn of the 20th century, at a time when it seemed certain that reason had triumphed over superstition and progress was the order of the day. That certainty was pulverised in the trenches of the First World War, and then extinguished in the gas chambers of the death camps, and in every succeeding decade, it became less and less possible to resurrect our faith in human progress.

Against the background of the horror stories of the 20th century, it should not surprise us that a liturgy for Tishah B’Av was included for the first time in the current 1995 edition of the Liberal prayerbook. Importantly, what we are doing when we observe Tishah B’Av as Liberal Jews is acknowledging our people’s history of churban, ‘destruction’ across the centuries, not simply the destruction of the Temple. And we also mourn for all the peoples destroyed and traumatised across the world. Nevertheless, as we do this, we recognise that although suffering and mourning are universal human experiences, each churban is particular, with its own unique features and impact. In the booklet I put together for commemorating Tishah B’Av, we recall our people’s experiences of churban, one by one, focussing on those events that occurred on or near Tishah B’Av – because, of course, our tormentors were also aware of the date: and so, for example, the expulsion of the Jews of Spain took place on Tishah B’Av in 1492. The booklet also includes those particular events in the wider world that took place during the 20th century around Tishah B’Av, namely, the outbreak of the Great War at the beginning of August 1914, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively. The particularity of a single date in the Hebrew calendar, and the particular details of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, recorded in Eichah, the scroll of Lamentations, reminds us to pay attention to each and every churban.

Of course, we know that the history of churban for our people and for other peoples did not end with the close of the 20th century. For this reason the Tishah B’Av booklet also includes another very particular date that has ushered in a new catalogue of churban in the 21st century: 9/11; the terrorist assaults on key locations in the United States on 11 September 2001.

As soon as I mention 9/11 I know that almost inevitably, this new 21st century date conjures up images of that singular day that have become iconic. And also, because of everything that has transpired since 9/11, this most iconic date of the new 21st century provokes a visceral response in us. The power of a date in the calendar: When we think of 9/11, the sense of sorrowful reflection on the harrowing devastating events of the past, represented by the historic date of the 9th of Av, is overtaken by our sense of fear and terror, concerning what might happen next

It seems that the commemoration of Tishah B’Av by Liberal Jews may be here to stay. But there is something else about the traditional Jewish understanding of Tishah B’Av that makes our Liberal Jewish observance of the date distinct. In the three week period from 17th Tammuz to 9th Av, the haftarah reading on each Shabbat – that is the reading from N’vi’im, Prophets, the second section of the Hebrew Bible that follows the Torah reading – focuses on the sins of our ancestors that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians. From the perspective of biblical theology, the calamity that befell the people of Judah was of their own making, and in choosing these particular prophetic passages for reading during this three week period, our sages reinforced this message. Of course, to have explained the destruction in any other way would have been to concede that the conquerors were more powerful than the God of Israel. So, ultimately, the destruction was God’s work, and the three ‘haftarot of affliction’ as they are called, prior to Tishah B’Av predict Divine punishment.[6] And then, after the punishment has been exacted: the healing; words of comfort and the promise of renewal. The Shabbat after Tishah B’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, ‘the Sabbath of Comfort’, because the haftarah, Isaiah chapter 40, begins with these words: Nachamu, Nachamu ami yomar Eloheychem – ‘Comfort, oh comfort, my people, says your God’ (40:1). Verse 2 continues:

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and declare to her that her (term of) service is complete and that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has taken from the hand of the Eternal double punishment for all her sins.

Today is Shabbat Nachamu and we will read Isaiah chapter 40 this morning, but the words of comfort are not for us – not unless we accept the theological message. The unknown prophet, known as Deutero-Isaiah addressed the Babylonian exiles; his words of comfort were for them. After the destruction of the second Temple, the rabbis, themselves affected by that calamity, moderated the message of punishment and healing for their own generation, with a vision of the Sh’chinah, the presence of God, going into exile with Her people.[7] But this theology, too, is not our theology. We are the generation after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Just as it is unthinkable for us to see God’s purposes at work in the death camps and mushroom clouds, we also are less inclined to feel God’s presence with us. For some, God died in Auschwitz;[8] for others, God hid the His face.[9] Most of us do not actually get to the point of working out where God was during the Sho’ah. However, of one thing we feel certain: God could not be responsible for the annihilation of so many millions. But if it is unthinkable for us to see God’s purposes at work in Auschwitz, it is also unthinkable for us to see God’s purposes at work in any churban, at anytime, anywhere. So we abandon faith in an almighty God, and submit to the power of men; there seems to be no other choice.

Liberal Jews and others, who can no longer accept traditional theological understandings, find ourselves relating to Tishah B’Av on a historical and sociological level, and have no tools for making sense of churban in any other way. So what are we to do? Of course, we can become atheists. Or, we can apply our scepticism to the binary presentation of God as supreme purveyor of punishment on the one hand, and comfort on the other, and search out the intimations of Divinity in the Jewish source texts that offer other ways of making sense of the spiritual dimension of existence.

One of the most powerful examples of a more elusive God is found in the story of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, when he was tending his father-in-law’s flock achar ha-midbar, ‘behind the wilderness.’[10] In a dimension beyond the wilderness, in the midst of a desert bush that burned but was not consumed, a voice: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, ‘I am that I am’: Ehyeh: barely consonantal.[11] The message to Moses – the message for all of us – is that the Divine is ineffable, and essentially ungraspable; forever beyond. But that does not make the Divine less real. In place of the image of a majestic yet mechanical Super-sovereign omnipotent God, we are offered the possibility of encounter with the Eternal. That is the other message of Moses’ experience ‘behind the wilderness.’ Because the Eternal cannot be grasped does not mean that the eternal cannot be experienced. But we cannot just wait passively for a meeting. The Torah relates that it was only when Moses noticed the unconsumed burning bush and turned aside from his daily tasks that he encountered the Eternal.[12]

I mentioned a few moments ago that the unknown prophet’s words of comfort in today’s haftarah are not for us. So, where do we find our comfort in the face of churban – the destructions of the past – and the present: right now, two million people in the besieged city of Aleppo are trapped in a devastating churban.[13] And then, there are our fears concerning what may yet happen in the future? What next for Aleppo? For Syria as whole? For Iraq? Turkey? The list goes on…. Are we capable of feeling comforted in the face of the unknown? From a Jewish perspective, in the absence of the possibility of any kind of certainty about what may happen next, passivity and fatalism are not options. Let us remind ourselves of what is at the heart of Jewish teaching: the obligation to act in the world, despite its terrors. The comfort of knowing ‘all will be well’ is not available to us. In place of that comfort, the responsibility to engage in tikkun olam, to do what we can here and now to work together to repair this broken world – and to do this, in the full knowledge of our limitations and frailties as human beings. We read in Pirkey Avot, the Chapters of the Sages appended to the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200 CE:[14]

Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor, v’lo attah ven chorin l’hibbateil mimmennah.

It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

As we continue to live our lives in a torn and uncertain world, may the wisdom of these words encourage each one of us to play our parts in the on-going work of healing and renewal. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom V’rei’ut

20th August 2016 / 16th Av 5776

  1. See Mishnah Ta’anit 4: 6, 7. Note that the sages identified ‘five calamities that befell our ancestors’ on 17th Tammuz and 9th Av, respectively.
  2. The Chameish M’gillot are in order of reading: Shir Ha-Shirim, The Song of Songs, a springtime pastoral idyll, in which the young lovers were understood by the sages to represent God and the people Israel, for reading at Pesach; Ruth, which tells the story of the Moabite woman who joined the Jewish people, for reading at Shavuot; Eichah, Lamentations, on Tishah B’Av; Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, a book of Wisdom literature that reminds us that ‘to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven’, for reading at Sukkot; and, finally, Esther, the story of the foiling of the plot to destroy the Jews of the empire of King Achashveirosh, for reading at Purim. At the time of the Mishnah only Esther was read publicly – see Mishnah M’gillah. In the Talmudic period Lamentations was read privately. Ruth, the Song of Songs and Lamentations became part of the liturgy only in post-Talmudic times – see Soferim 14. 3 – edited in the 8th century . Ecclesiastes is found for the first time in Machzor Vitry – composed by Simchah ben Samuel of Vitry (died 1105), a pupil of Rashi (p. 440): “The entire congregation while seated read the book (seifer) – not scroll – of Ecclesiastes.” For an essay on the Five scrolls, see:
  3. Published by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, 1967.
  4. Published by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, 1995.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a.
  6. The three haftarot of affliction, in order: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3; Jeremiah 2:4-28;3:4; Isaiah 1:1-27.
  7. Midrash Rabbah, Lamentations 1. 5:22.
  8. Richard L. Rubinstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology and Contemporary Judaism. (John Hopkins, 1992)
  9. Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After the Holocaust (Ktav, New York, 1973).
  10. Sh’mot/Exodus chapter 3: 1 ff. I explore the intimations of Divinity in the Jewish source texts in one of the chapters of the book I am currently writing, with the working title, ‘Beyond Binary Tyranny.’
  11. Gabriel Josipovici, points out that: ‘The phrase, ehyeh asher ehyeh… is as near as we can get in language to pure breath, non-articulation, non-division.’ See: The Book of God. A Response to the Bible (Yale University Press, Yale and London, 1988, p.74). See also: ‘Beyond the Divine Autocrat. Speaking of God Today’ in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, London, 2012).
  12. Exodus 3: 3-4.
  13. The UN Refugee Agency (UNRA), Save the Children, Oxfam, Muslim Aid and others have all organised Syria Crisis Appeals.
  14. Mishnah, Pirkey Avot 2:16.