Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

August 14, 2005

Tisha B’Av

Filed under: — Different River @ 5:39 pm

Today is Tisha B’Av — the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, and the most profoundly sad day on the Jewish calendar. It was on this date, 2,591 years ago, that the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezar. It was also on this date — something that is not regarded as a coincidence — 1,930 years ago, that the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans under Titus. If you wish to understand the psychological impact of this date on Jews, imagine the effect of September 11 on Americans. Then imagine that on 9/11, it was not three thousand but thirty million people who were killed, that Washington, DC was completely destroyed, that in the wake of that event many other cities throughout America were destroyed. And then imagine that years later, when America had only partially recovered, the whole thing was repeated — also on a September 11.

The most powerful message of Tisha B’Av — at least to me — is that the conditions that led to these disasters are still present to this day. In reading the historical accounts of the Second destruction available in the Talmud (Gittin 55b-57b, Tannis 28b-31a) and in the works of Josephus (who was there when it happened but whose point of view is regarded by many as somewhat suspect), one thing is abundantly clear: If the Jews had not been fighting among themselves as much or more so than the Romans, things would not have turned out nearly as bad.

The Romans, though clearly capable of committing acts of unspeakable cruelty, were sometimes content to leave there subject people more or less alone as long as they paid their (perhaps oppressive) taxes and didn’t rebel. The Jews were divided in to those who wanted to submit to the Romans in the hope of peace, and those who wanted to fight for true freedom and independence. That division might not have been enough to seal the defeat of the Jews, but those who wished to fight were further divided and fighting among themselves, some of whom — for no reason I can possibly understand — deliberately undermined the Jewish position militarily in order to motivate the population to fight. For example, when Vespasian (later replaced by Titus) had Jerusalem under siege from, three extraordinarily rich men in Jerusalem offered to sustain the people from their private storehouses, and together they had enough food and fuel to sustain the entire population of Jerusalem for twenty-one years. It is questionable whether even the Roman legions would have maintained a siege for that long. But they didn’t have to — after three years, a radical group inside the city, known as the baryonei became frustrated with the slow pace of the war against the Romans and perhaps feared a peaceful settlement. So, they burned the storehouses to create a famine in their own city. The idea was to create urgency to convince the people to attack the Romans. The actual result was that the Romans easily defeated the famished defenders, indiscriminately slaughtered the remaining residents, burned the Temple, and rampaged through the rest of the country repeating the performance. And many of those who escaped the sword died of starvation.

Nobody knows what would have happened if the Jews had been united. If they had been united in their determination to withstand the siege and fight only when necessary, it’s possible that the Romans would have decided that a small distant province wasn’t worth tying up so many legions for so long, and would have left. It is even possible that the Jews would have miraculously defeated the Romans, as they had miraculously defeated the Syrian-Greeks 235 years before (the holiday of Chanukah celebrates this victory). If the Jews had been united in their desire to pacify Rome, it is possible — though by no means guaranteed — that the Romans might have spared the Temple and the populace, and permitted the Jews to practice Judaism in peace. But what actually happened was not so much that the Romans defeated the Jews, but that the Jews defeated each other.

And this, sadly, continues to take place to this day. In Israel, non-religious and religious Jews are in a constant state of conflict, with two diametrically opposed notions of what it means to have a “Jewish State.” This is a philosophical debate with real-world, life-and-death consequences. As if that weren’t enough, both groups are divided as to the best way to secure that state. Those on the secular left seem to believe that the way to peace is to hand over money, guns, and vast tracts of land to people who have sworn to throw every last Jew into the sea at the earliest opportunity. Those on the secular right believe in maintaining security through military strength, but they seem unable to articulate the purpose of what they are securing. The religious camp is divided between those who believe that the Jewish people are mandated and destined to have sovereignty over the land promised by God to Abraham, and those who object to the secular nature of the Israeli State and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the state within which they live — despite the fact that the army of that state is the only tangible thing standing between them and those who wish nothing more than to annihilate them. There are, of course, multiple permutations and multiple middle grounds, and few seem willing to give an inch to any other quarter.

In the last decade, there have been numerous acts of pointless destructive internecine conflict, of a lesser degree but the same kind as the burning of the food storehouses by the baryonei in the besieged Jerusalem. Secular leftist Jews sued in the Israel Supreme Court in an attempt to outlaw bris milah, the circumcision of newborn Jewish boys — which has been regarded as a Jewish religious obligation for nearly 4,000 years. The last time anyone attempted to outlaw this in the land of Israel was almost 2,200 years ago — and it was the Greeks, not Jews, who were trying to outlaw it. Thankfully, the attempt failed — but the Israeli Supreme Court seriously entertained an antisemitic lawsuit that would have been thrown out of any American court posthaste. Then there was the much-publicized boycott of kosher food in Israel led by Tommy Lapid of the Shinui party. Every once in a while, some American white-supremacist antisemite floats the idea that kosher certification of food is some sort of Jewish conspiracy to extort money from American corporations. And everyone who’s not a white-supremacist antisemite ignores the idea because its preposterous. Yet, Lapid — a Holocaust survivor who lost his father to the Nazis and found refuge in Israel — seems to have internalized some of their ideas and found and audience for them in Israel.

And now, of course, we have the impending Gaza “withdrawal.” In any other part of the world, the forced expulsion of a group of people on the basis of their religion would be condemned as “ethnic cleansing,” a crime against humanity. And, the expellers would, no doubt, be of a different people than the expelled. Indeed, Jews have been forcibly expelled, not only from their own land by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans, but from the lands to which they escaped. Prager and Telushkin compiled a list:

Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and 1394, Hungary between 1349 and 1360, Astria in 1421, numerous localities in Germany between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Lithuania in 1445 and 1495, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1497, and Bohemia and Moravia in 1744-45. Between the fifteenth century and 1772, Jews were not allowed into Russia, and when finally admitted, they were restricted to one area, the Pale of Settlement. Between 1948 and 1967 nearly all the Jews of Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, though not officially expelled, fled this countries, fearing for their lives.

They might also have added that Jews were expelled from more “remote” locations — Brazil in 1654, Mexico in 1649, and the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Damão, and Diu on the southwestern coast of India, in 1560 — and that the expulsion from Spain in 1492 came into effect on Tisha B’Av that year.

In short, Jews have been expelled from nearly every country in which they have lived, except the United States, which was the first country to recognize religious freedom as a right, Canada, the Netherlands, and India (unless you count the expulsion of Indian Jews from the Portuguese colonies).

Israel was founded, in a large part, to be one country to which Jews could always go, and from which they could never be expelled. Yet, now Israel is expelling Jews from their homes as well. And this is based on a decision by a Prime Minister elected on the promise of never expelling Jews, and opposed on the suspicion that he might even expel Arabs. This is as politically upside-down as if Ronald Reagan, who was elected President in part due to his opposition to Communism, and who was opposed in part because some thought him too belligerent towards Communism, had suddenly announced that he was turning over Alaska to the Soviet Union, sending in the U.S. Army to forcibly remove Americans from Alaska, and was planning to negotiate with the Soviets precisely which parts of the Pacific and Mountain time zones to give them next, and how much military aid he would give them.

Tisha B’Av has long been the day on which we Jews mourn nearly all of our communal disasters — not just the destruction of the Temples, the destruction of hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives and the enslavement of countless more, and the two exiles from the Holy Land that resulted, but also many subsequent massacres and exiles of the Jews, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, most of which were not, as far as I can tell, so occasioned by internecine conflict.

And now, it has become the day when some of us pray that we are not making the same mistakes all over again.

The traditional Jewish teaching is the the Almighty allowed the First Temple to be destroyed because the Jews committed the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. After that, the Temple was rebuilt starting only 70 years later. He allowed the Second Temple to be destroyed because the Jews committed the sins of sinat chinam (causeless hatred) and loshon hara (slander, literally “evil speech”). And it has been 1,930 years, and the Temple still has not been rebuilt. Sometimes this teaching is interpreted to illustrate how serious these relatively amorphous sins are, and sometimes to point out that perhaps these sins are still with us. Recent events certainly support both interpretations.


KesherTalk has a Tisha B’Av blogburst, and OU.org has a list of seven historical tragedies that took place on Tisha B’Av.

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