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Making Tisha b’Av relevant to our time

Rabbi Michael Hilton of Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community reflects on how this date in the Jewish calendar is relevant to a Reform community.

Alas! Lonely sits the city Once great with people: Bitterly she weeps in the night, Her cheek wet with tears

With these words Jeremiah began his great lament for the destruction of the first temple by the people of Babylon. On Tisha b’Av this lament (known as the book of Eicha) will be read in many of our synagogues. Will the synagogues be full? Unlikely. Jews in Britain are not famed for their meticulous observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av. Many Reform Jews object to it altogether. “Why on earth should we fast and pray”, they say, “for the destruction of the Temple? We have Israel back, we have no desire to rebuild the Temple. Enough of Tisha b’Av!”

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in his book The Jewish Way has an interesting way of making Tisha b’Av relevant to our time. In his whole description of this, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, he doesn’t mention Jeremiah at all. Greenberg concentrates on another event, some 650 years later, the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans. Greenberg gives extracts of contemporary accounts of murder, rape and starvation, accounts which both in horror and in detail remind us of the Holocaust.

But then he goes on to talk about how the few rabbis who remained rebuilt Jewish life.  The century after that Roman destruction was an astonishingly creative time in Jewish life, as worship moved from the temple to synagogue and home; our prayer book and our seder service began to be written and rabbinic Judaism as we know it was born.  Greenberg’s point is an obvious one.  Tisha b’Av reminds us that in the century after the Shoah, after the worst ever destruction in Jewish history which the Nazis inflicted on us, Jewish life can again be rebuilt and must be rebuilt. We too need and are inventing creative solutions. For me, this is precisely why this day is relevant to a Reform community.

And there’s more. This anniversary of destruction makes us think about how we relate to Israel. The Book of Deuteronomy, which we begin to read every year on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av and continue through the summer, is all about the relationship between the people, the Torah, and the land. Before he dies, Moses is filled with angst that he is not to be allowed to enter the land. He tells the younger people assembled before him to make sure they keep God’s commands. Constantly, repeatedly, the message is that keeping the mitzvot are connected with the land they are about to enter. There is a way of being Jewish in the desert and a way of being Jewish in the land and they are not the same.

There could be no more relevant message for us at this season. Nearly 2000 British Jewish teenagers are currently on Israel Tour. A significant percentage of all 16 year olds in the British Jewish community are there, and having a great time. When Israel is criticised, we Jews in Britain are sometimes accused of being lukewarm in our support.  But when it comes to sending our young people to Israel, it’s we who are in the lead. We send a higher proportion of our teenagers than any other diaspora community. And you know what? That’s precisely why we have such a wide range here of views on Israeli issues.

Get to know Israel, and that’s what you’ll find. On religion, on politics, on the peace process on terrorism, there are widely conflicting views openly expressed across Israel. The fact that Anglo-Jewry doesn’t take a single line on some issues shows precisely our closeness to Israel, our closeness to the wide range of views there and the way they do things.  Being supportive doesn’t mean we all have to have the same views – on the contrary.

Every young person on Israel Tour, as well as everyone at the Shemesh summer camps will be discussing Tisha b’Av this year and the issues it raises.  Because it so often falls during Tour, during Shemesh, our young people know far more about it than many of their parents do. But we parents can discuss the issues it raises as well. And one of them is that the fast of Tisha b’Av represents a failure of leadership.

Our rabbis never tired of telling us that the destruction took place because of sinat chinam the causeless hatred that the Jewish people developed for each other at a time of factions and in-fighting, a time when one group had no respect for another.

Sometimes we in the Jewish world seem dangerously close to that today. But at a time when so many young British Jews are in Israel, we have something to celebrate. Whether or not we agree with Tisha b’Av, whether or not we’re religious, whether or not we think of ourselves as Zionists, we all feel at home there and carry in our hearts a love of the land.  Tisha b’Av reminds us that we should not avoid controversial issues.

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