Monday, August 8, 2011

The Three Weeks: A Muse

On July 19, 2011 I flew El Al to Israel. It was a remarkable flight not only because it was less than half full but also memorable because of the musings it generated during the flight. For many this date is significant because it happened to coincide with the 17th of Tamuz, a fast day marking the beginning of the “three weeks”, culminating with the 9th of Av, a day that has gone done in infamy in Jewish history. The 9th of Av (better known as Tisha B’Av) marks the final destruction of the two Temples as well as numerous calamities that the sages claim happened on the 9th of Av, including expulsion of the Jewish community from Spain in 1492. Because of these historic calamities and the initializing of the Diaspora on this date, it would have been poetic justice had I left Israel on the Tisha B’Av.

In reality, Tisha B’Av is an anachronism in the Hebrew calendar. The other holidays on the Hebrew calendar are religious in nature reaching back to our scared texts, based upon ritual practice as practiced during and around the Temple service. Chanukah and Purim, which are post biblical, are celebratory in nature and have become part of the calendar because of the religious nature assigned to them by the rabbis and sages. With the exception of the Fast of Gedaliah, the17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av aren’t positive religious experiences but rather are national calamities that point to the negative national, social and religious impact on the people. These two fasts then, bracketing the “three weeks” were and are national in character and thus making the rabbis as uncomfortable about them as they were about celebrating Chanukah as a national holiday rather than as a religious event. In line with this reasoning the rabbis texturized this three-week period with overlays of religious practice and detailed halachic proscriptions.

The conundrum in observance of these two fast days is that by marking these days essentially we are celebrating powerlessness. The destruction of the two Temples was the ultimate and supreme expressions of what powerlessness can bring. The destruction of the two Temples and our two thousand year sojourn in the Diaspora was the result, the rabbis argue of “sinat chinom”, unjustified and unqualified hatred, the balkanization of the Hebrew nation in to factious groups with the inability to stand united (The first Temple was destroyed according to the sages because of the flagrant violation of three principle sins: adultery, murder and idolatry). In fact however, the destruction of both Temples were as a result of the Commonwealth’s loss of political power. In both cases the Temples were corrupted long before they were destroyed; their priests were unfit and in fact no longer met the needs of the people they were ostensibly there to serve. Thus to mourn the destruction of the Temples is to mourn the destruction of a corrupt political/religious system which was powerless and existed only at the mercy of other regional powers. By marking these two days as seminal markers of our peoples destiny by fasting and self flagellation, we are in fact praying for the restoration of a Temple service that was not only corrupt but didn’t meet the national/religious/social needs of its citizens. The sages knew this, thus allowing for the Pharisees too wrestle power away from the Sadducees, the keepers of the Temple and the ritual associated with it.

These were some of my thoughts while flying to Israel on the17th of Tamuz, the seat of Jewish power and the arbiter of our fate as a people. Unlike the two previous Commonwealths this State actually has the power to decide its future regarding its foreign policy as well as determine what kind of a state it wishes to be. It has the democratic tools, governmental and non-governmental institutions available to make intelligent decisions regarding the welfare of its citizens. It is a country that gives full expression and meaning to the idea of “peoplehood” by virtue of its independence in its homeland.

There are those of the opinion that living in the Diaspora and observing Jewish ritual, including observing the halachic minutiae of the Three Weeks in some way brings them in line with the trajectory of Jewish history. It’s the opposite: By celebrating these two fasts and everything bracketed in between is a rejection of the modern State of Israel, and at best believing the State can be greatly improved upon by prayer and fasting for the reestablishment of the Temple service. It would appear that these people haven’t learned the lessons of history, thus placing themselves on the wrong side of history.