The Lamentable Demise of Tisha b’Av

Summer in America usually means good times: vacations, sun, swimming, ice cream, picnicking, dancing.  It shouldn’t be about fasting and sitting on the floor chanting dirges and laments.  Is it any wonder then that the holiday of Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and a host of other tragedies, has fallen out of fashion with most American Jews? Summer is when our synagogues revert to a summer worship schedule, when even God heads for the water.

Tisha b’Av is probably the least observed major Jewish holiday.

But it’s really too bad Tisha b’Av doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because, of all the Jewish holidays, it is best suited to give voice to Jewish post-Holocaust grievances with God.

Traditionally, Tisha b’Av is observed by chanting medieval poem-prayers of lament, called kinot, in Hebrew; by reading the biblical book “Eicha” (Lamentations); and also the book of Iyov/Job.  Although many of these texts echo the dominant theological explanation for Jewish suffering—“we have sinned and God punished us so that we would return to following the mitzvot”—Tisha b’Av also has, to its credit, more than a little undercurrent of anger and protest.

And it is here, in this stream of protest, that the possibility of using the holiday to articulate our own protest against apparent divine apathy might be found.

Eicha/Lamentations in its central chapter combines a confession of guilt but also takes God to task for the disproportionate suffering endured by the people after the Babylonian conquest, accusing God of inaccessibility and extreme anger:

We have transgressed and rebelled,
But You have not forgiven.
You have clothed Yourself in anger and pursued us,
You have slain without pity.
You have screened Yourself off with a cloud,
That no prayer may pass through.
You have made us filth and refuse
In the midst of the peoples.

The book of Iyov/Job offers an even more pointed protest.  Iyov is a righteous man who is afflicted by God and HaSattan (the Adversary or Prosecutor) as a test of his faithfulness.  When Iyov protests against his unwarranted suffering, his erstwhile friends take him to task for not confessing his sins and acknowledging that God is in the right, even in his case.  This, not surprisingly, leads Iyov to even more vociferous protests against God’s unjust treatment of him and ultimately to Iyov taking a series of oaths designed to force God to appear, in court as it were, to explain his conduct.  God does appear, as a voice in a tempest, and challenges Iyov to explain how Creation operates. The book of Iyov/Job says that if there is justice in Creation and an explanation for why bad things happen to basically good people, it is something beyond human comprehension—but God never addresses Iyov’s complaint directly. Iyov humbly acknowledges his lack of knowledge although he never recants his harsh critique.

In the context of Tisha b’Av, the reading of this book serves as a strong counterpoint to the “for our sins have we been punished” theme that predominates on this holiday and, indeed, throughout the Torah and siddur (prayerbook).

Most of the kinot—the rabbinic poem-prayers of lament—echo this standard theological explanation for suffering but, here and there, an occasional voice of protest may be found. Consider these lines from one of Kalonymous ben Yehudah’s elegies for the communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, all martyred during the First Crusade in 1096:

I have set my mind searching for the reason of such happenings,
yet I know that His judgments are just and right…
My mighty ones are overthrown and humbled to the lowest depths, fallen as one falls before bandits.
O how long will You be like a warrior who is powerless to save?
Make known in our sight the avenging of the blood of Your servants.

In kinot such as these, the protest against divine inactivity nonetheless affirms the expectation that someday God will return to champion the people Israel’s cause, punishing those who afflicted them and redeeming the surviving remnant of those who suffered so grievously.

One cannot but marvel at the wisdom of those ancient rabbis who put two such contradictory theological positions side by side, leaving it to each individual and each generation to figure it out for themselves which is the preferable stance: piety or protest, or both.

And this brings us to our generation and our time.  As traditionally observed, Tisha b’Av is but a historical holiday, an occasion for bringing to mind all the tragedies that have befallen our people.  Prior to the creation of Yom HaShoah, there was even a movement in some circles to include the Holocaust in the tragedies associated with Tisha b’Av, the better to integrate its horrors into a continuum of suffering and thus diminish its theological challenges.

But if one were to open the holiday up to post-Holocaust expressions of protest then Tisha b’Av could become the most meaningful of contemporary holidays.

Many Jews today struggle with the apparent contradiction between the active God described in the Torah and prayed for in the siddur and the experience of the Holocaust.  Simply put, for many Jews today the expectations our ancestors had of God went up in smoke during the Holocaust.  If ever God were to intervene in history, then the destruction of much of European Jewry should have been the occasion.  That God did not intercede, leaves the traditional God open to charges of indifference, cruelty and worse.

So, as a first step, we should call God to accounts, using our own words and the words of authors and poets like Elie Wiesel, Jacob Glatstein and others.  We need to shout, in the words of the Jewish playwright Paddy Chayefsky, “ We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more!”  It’s unlikely that our prayers of anger and protest will be any more effective than any others down through the centuries, but it will help us spiritually to vent.  It will unclog the arteries of our soul to speak to and about God in an honest way. Tisha b’Av is an appropriate occasion to do this.  And then we need to let go and move on.

We need to consider if the God depicted in the Torah and the God of the siddur—the two really aren’t the same—are anything more than conceptions of God from times past.  We need to discuss whether we want to persevere in clinging to these images of the divine or add to them our own impressions of what God is and how God operates in this world of ours.  Only then will God become real (again) to our people and prayer, whatever prayer is, might become meaningful to more people once again.