Sunday, August 10, 2008

Out of the ruins

I found this "talkback" at (naturally) Ha'aretz today in response to an article about "progressive" attempts to make Tisha B'av more "relevant." (Huh?) It's from someone named Eyal in Rehovot.

Tisha B`Av is one of the most beautiful days in the Jewish calendar, commemorating our emancipation from the backwardness of a sacrifice cult run by a priestly class using religious law to extort tithes from the citizenry and to freeload.

The end of the Beit Ha`Mikdash was the birth of Judaism. Those who call for the reinstatement of the Beit Ha`Mikdash are calling for the end of Judaism, the end of everything that was worthy in our teachings. Sacrifices to one who does not want nor need them.

As the famous story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai goes:

Once, Rabban Yochanan was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua, a disciple, followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins. "Woe unto us!", Rabbi Joshua cried, "that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste."

"My son," Rabbi Yochanan said to him, "be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. It is acts of loving-kindness. For I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice."

Actually, I happen to share his view, though I'd phrase it somewhat differently. I've always had this problem with Tisha B'av. Not that I don't understand the importance of solemnity and reflection on this anniversary of so many tragedies that have befallen our people. I do. It's unfortunate that too many Jews don't acknowledge or even know of this day of commemoration. But I'm skeptical of the various rabbinical proscriptions that have been heaped on top of that. (Actually, yes, I'm pretty skeptical of rabbinical proscriptions in general.)

Like Eyal, I tend to see the destruction of the Temple as the catalyst for the birth of Judaism as we know it today. The fact is that back in 587 BCE, this Judaism really didn't exist. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed back in 722, and all that remained of the Israelites were the residents of the Kingdom of Judah (Yehuda), who came to be known as Jews (Yehudim). Their lives were centered around the Temple in Jerusalem and its daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycles of festivals and offerings, feasts and sacrifices, all orchestrated by the Kohanim under the watchful eye of the monarchy. It was a life few of us can imagine leading.

It's unlikely that this small civilization, its language, its literature, its rituals or its values would have been preserved in any form even into the next millenium if not for the catastrophic events of the Temple's destruction and the people's exile. Out of that devastation grew the Talmud and the ascendancy of our prophetic, rabbinic and liturgical traditions. Minor themes at first, those innovations came to form the core of the Jewish belief and practice that sustained us after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. And continue to sustain us today.

Or at least that's one way to look at it. It's not the fundamentalist way. It's not even the traditional way. But every year at this time, I meditate on what we lost and what some pray we'll regain. Numbers 28: 1-6:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Command the children of Israel, and say to them: My food which is presented to Me for offerings made by fire, of a sweet savour to Me, shall you observe to offer to Me in its due season. And you shall say to them: This is the offering made by fire which you shall bring unto the LORD: he-lambs of the first year without blemish, two day by day, for a continual burnt-offering. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at dusk; and the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for a meal-offering, mingled with the fourth part of a hin of beaten oil. It is a continual burnt-offering, which was offered in mount Sinai, for a sweet savour, an offering made by fire to the LORD.

This was, in essence, the "Judaism" of 587 BCE. Not something I mourn the passing of. Not something I aspire to return to.

For all those who do, I wish you an easy and meaningful conclusion to your fast.