Sunday, July 29, 2012

It's Still Temple Judaism: Why Tisha b'Av is So Central

Today is Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. It is the nadir of our year: the rock bottom of our spiritual cycle.

Many of the worst moments in our long history have happened on or around this date. But the worst by far are the destructions of the First and Second Temples, both of which took place on Tisha b’Av, around five hundred years apart (the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE).

It’s only in the last few years, as I’ve been working in the general Jewish community, that I have found out that a lot of Liberal Jews don’t observe Tisha b’Av, which we traditionally mark by reading the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), and by fasting from sundown to sundown. At first I was astonished by this, unable to understand why this observance should be rejected. As I asked people why they did not observe it, their answers began to make things clear:

“Why should I mourn the destruction of the Temple? I don’t want there to be a Temple: animal sacrifice is barbaric, and having an all-controlling dynastic priesthood is archaic and oppressive. Frankly, I’m just as glad it got destroyed.”

A lot of these people, having clearly discerned my own observance of Tisha b’Av, and the clear value I place on it, are surprised to hear that I also don’t care for the idea of animal sacrifice, nor do I desire the ultimate religious authority in Judaism to be hereditary, either in the hands of kohanim or in anyone else’s hands.

But the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple) was more than animal sacrifices, and I don’t believe the priesthood always held ultimate religious authority.

The Beit ha-Mikdash was the place where Heaven and Earth touched. It was the spot at which all concerns and distinctions between individuals fell away, and there was only Israel and God, whose only business was love for one another, and the praise of one another’s wondrous uniqueness. It was a space dedicated solely to service of God, but it was more than that: it was an embodiment of hope. The highest levels of ritual purity were maintained there, because to go there was to demand a focus on spiritual harmony and clarity. The times of day, of season, of year were marked there with great scrupulousness, so that it might serve as our national reminder that every moment holds within it the potential for sacredness. The Ark of the Covenant, which was kept within the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies) at the heart of the Beit ha-Mikdash was a physical reminder to us that Torah is the beating heart of the Jewish People. The menorah (which, contrary to our depictions, actually resembled an almond tree bearing flowers of fire), always lit and unchanging, was a reminder that revelation never ceased with us: it is ongoing, so long as we let it into our lives, so long as we look for it. The Beit ha-Mikdash was, in that sense, an echo of the Sinai experience, continuously repeated: a place we could only go when ritually pure and holding proper intention, with Torah at its center, and the panoply of revelation surrounding that center.

In that place, yes, our ancestors did offer sacrifices. That was the universal method of prayer in those days, and they could hardly be expected not to do so. But other things were offered besides animals: wine, grain, oil, water, incense-- all of these were offered on a regular basis, and the offerings of the first fruits of the season were also brought and offered at due times. And prayer also was offered, both spontaneous prayer and the liturgy of psalms.

It is said that no person was ever turned away hungry from the Beit ha-Mikdash. No one who came there seeking justice was turned away-- it was a place of refuge for those who needed refuge, and at times also the place where the Great Sanhedrin (our ancestors’ equivalent of the Supreme Court-- the real ultimate religious authority) met. Tzedakah (charity money) was collected there, and distributed there also. Any who came seeking God’s presence were given help, and any who sought to learn Torah were taught. There was always room for everyone. It was the place wherein we tried to best exemplify the ideals that God taught us through His prophets and messages.

It was also the place where we frequently failed at doing just those things. We failed so comprehensively, so utterly, that our punishment was to have the Beit ha-Mikdash destroyed from our midst: our inability to create-- even in one small, contained space-- a place that was truly holy, truly just, truly peaceful, truly a meeting of Heaven and Earth, was so complete that we actually took that place and made it into a mockery of what it was supposed to be. So even the chance was taken away, until we could earn it again.

The First Temple was destroyed because of our ancestors’ inability to abjure their penchant for idolatry. Failure to understand that only God is God, and only God is worthy of worship is bad enough: worshipping in God’s stead both people and the things they make is worse. Doing so fosters societies that are indifferent to the suffering of the innocent and which value goods and wealth over justice and truth. This is because such societies raise some people up over others, to be venerated as gods, thus denying the basic truth that we are all equally made in God’s image: reflections in fragmented miniature of the One who created Everything; and because when objects are worshipped, objects take on divine value, and so greed is served, and opulence, and honor and preference is given to those who have wealth and can give that wealth for the making and maintenance of objects to be worshipped.

The Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam (reasonless hatred): we understood that only God is God, and worshipped only Him, but we could not recognize the spark of the divine in all of us, and the potential within every Jew to find devekut (cleaving close to God) along the path of Torah. We denigrated one another, and fought with one another, instead of reasoning with and respecting one another; and instead of solving our problems with tolerance and shared service of Heaven, we deceived and betrayed one another, and sold one another out to the enemies of our people.

We mourn the destruction of the Temples not because we wish that Temple Judaism had never evolved into the Rabbinic Judaism we now know, or because we necessarily want a Third Temple to be exactly like the first two Temples. We mourn the destruction of the Temples as reminders of what we should have learned better, but did not. We mourn their loss as the confirmation of our greatest failures as the Jewish People. And in mourning those losses, and remembering what should have been, what could have been, and what was not, as well as those few shining moments when we got it right-- we commit ourselves again to doing better. We re-commit ourselves to mastering those lessons in truth.

And when we hope for a Third Temple, to be built when the moshiach (messiah) comes, we don’t necessarily hope for sacrificed animals. The animal sacrifice was called avodah (service), the same word we use to denote prayer. Between prayer and the other, non-living things that are brought as offerings, there is no reason to think that a Third Temple could not embody the ideals and greatest potentials of the Jewish People as we understand them in the future-- without any animals being killed. The hope for a Third Temple is the hope for the chance to create a place where the hungry are always fed, the helpless are always helped, the threatened are always sheltered, those in need of justice always given it, and where every moment of every day is lived in deep awareness of God’s presence, of Torah in our lives, and of our shared nature as tzalmei elohim (images of God). And not only amid the Jewish people, but as Isaiah prophesies: ki beiti beit tefillah yikarei l’chol ha-‘amim (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Is. 56:7).

To observe Tisha b’Av is to mourn for our failure to do our best to shape even a small corner of the world into the kind of place that truly embodies Torah: completely valuing justice, chesed (lovingkindness), respect of other people, and awareness of God as Creator and as our partner in the Covenant-- valuing those things and putting them into constant action.

To observe Tisha b’Av is to not only respect the bitter losses our ancestors suffered as they failed to learn those lessons, but it is to commit ourselves to never forgetting that we failed to learn them.

To mourn the passing of the two Temples, and open our hearts to the hope of the Third yet to come, is to commit ourselves to making the ideals of Torah as real as human beings can make them, in at least one spot in the world, and to creating a Jewish society, and a world society, where those ideals are lived out more often than they are failed or ignored or unknown.

These ideals have yet to be met, in any great degree, in any segment of Jewish society. It is not only Liberal Jews who ought to mark Tisha b’Av with observance and rededication to learning these lessons, but Orthodox Jews also, who must contemplate anew what it means to rededicate themselves to such learning. Because it is not enough to know that Hashem is God and none other. We have to learn to respect and value one another also: human beings at large, as tzalmei elohim, and other Jews in specific, because we are all equally partners in the Covenant with God, and avodat shamayim (service of Heaven) doesn’t always look the same in every person and place.

Tisha b’Av has come and gone for thousands of years without us adequately learning these lessons. Will this be the Tisha b’Av where we decide that has to change?

Julie and I wish you all an easy fast.


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