Thursday, July 30, 2009

Destruction and Restoration

Arriving in Israel just the day before Tisha B'av, the somber fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples, I was struck with the fact that everyone noticed, and everyone commented, on our timing. "Just in time for Tisha B'av" the cashier at the organics store said. "Wow-just before Tisha B'av" our new neighbor mentioned. Even the most secular Israeli knows the Jewish calender—but more than that—relates to it as a marker of time in their daily life. Yes indeed, we arrived just the day before Tisha B’av, which meant that not only did we get the chance to observe it in the very city where it happened, but also got to experience the mad rush for groceries in the supermarket occasioned by the upcoming fast.

How to deal with Tisha B’av? To fast and cry about our victimhood and remember “they tried to kill us” while we are living in perhaps the most miraculous time in Jewish history ever, when there is a sovereign Jewish state? To mourn the loss of a Temple, priesthood, and cult of animal sacrifices, and pray for the day when they will be restored (and don’t even go there as a woman and vegetarian…)? Had the Temple not been destroyed, there might be no Rabbinic Judaism, no Talmud, no yeshivas, no Kabbalah, no Chasidim, no modern Judaism at all, and we would likely have gone the way of other ancient religions that did not adapt to new realities, a blip of history’s memory, a civilization lost. The diaspora created the Jewish people, and thus exile and return are both part and parcel of Jewish identity. To pray for the Messianic time when the Dome of the Rock will be replaced by the Third Temple? Maybe, as Arthur Waskow suggests, the Third Temple IS the Dome of the Rock- meaning that the Messiah will come when there is true interreligious cooperation and understanding. Or maybe the Third Temple is our longing for it. Or the Third Temple will be a virtual Temple, one built brick by brick every time a Jew joins the community in some way. Oh, and one more thing about Tishe B’av. Can I feel real pain over a loss 2,000 years old when the Holocaust is still fresh in my generation’s memory? Do I want to make Tishe B’av more “relevant” by turning it into another Yom Hashoah?

But (there’s always “on the other hand” in Judaism) Tisha B’av is also about how we have lost the connection with the Shechinah who was in our midst every day when we had the Temple, about how we have lost the “grounding” and unity the Temple once gave us, about how we lost the Temple due to Jewish infighting that so plagues us today, and about all the destructions we bring upon ourselves and upon others with our power. Totally relevant from that point of view.

So, we went on a walking tour with Beit Shmuel, the Reform movement’s centre in Jerusalem. The theme of the walk was “Destruction and Restoration” and it presented a really interesting take on Tisha B’av: we looked at buildings in which the original facade was preserved but the inside of the building was new and modern. An apt metaphor for this whole city, which is a conglomeration of seemingly old structures (you can still see Ottoman Turkish writing on walls, ancient arches inside upscale clothing stores, and museums of “Theodore Herzl slept here” inside cafes) and incredibly up-to-the-minute Moshe Safdi architecture. Isn’t that what our Judaism is (or should be) in the modern period: the old facade—i.e. traditions, rituals, life cycle events— with a new inside—the service itself, Reform/ Conservative/ Reconstructionist/ Renewal prayerbooks, egalitarianism, Shabbat elevators??? The tour started with two readings, one from the Tanach and one from the poet Yehuda Amichai- again, a great metaphor for the mix of old and new that make up our lives as Jews.

What a scene in the Old City! Families walking in socks or barefoot (the prohibition against wearing leather) carrying low stools on their shoulders (like shiva, the tradition is to sit low or on the ground) and streams of hundreds and hundreds of people walking toward the Kotel while the muezzin calls Muslims for their evening prayer. Guys wearing literally sackcloths and ashes, lying on the ground weeping. And also lots of hippies in turbans and socializing youth groups.

Tisha B’av itself we spent as a day of meditation and reflection, talking about what we saw, what we felt. Tishe B’av gives us all alot of “food for thought” whether we fast or not and was a great beginning to our families “year of living thoughtfully.”