Approaching Av... and Ramadan

On the Jewish calendar, next week we'll enter the month of Av. Av is a month of introspection. On the 9th of Av we observe a communal day of fasting and mourning in remembrance of the two fallen temples in Jerusalem and in remembrance of our communal suffering from the crusades to pogroms. Some see Tisha b'Av as a day to recognize the brokenness of creation writ large. And from there, we count 49 days until Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. These seven weeks, taken together, offer a picture of what the Hasidim call "descent for the sake of ascent" -- from the spiritual depths of 9 Av, we are newly able to make the spiritual ascent into and through the month of Elul to the Days of Awe. From Tisha b'Av to Rosh Hashanah unfold seven weeks during which we can do the internal work of tefilah, teshuvah, u-tzedakah -- prayer, repentance / turning-toward-God, and giving to the needy, which our liturgy teaches us can sweeten the severity of divine justice in our lives.

On the Muslim calendar, the lunar month which will begin next week is the month of Ramadan. Ramadan too is a month of introspection; of fasting, prayer, and giving alms to the needy. A time during which Muslims strive to align themselves with the will of God and to become conscious of God's presence in the world and in their lives.

Ramadan and Av do not always coincide. A few years ago, when I was blessed to attend a Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, Ramadan coincided with the month of Elul, which immediately prececes the Days of Awe. (I wrote an essay about that: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan & Elul.) Both the Muslim calendar and the Jewish one measure months by the moon, but the Jewish calendar is metonic; seven years out of every nineteen we insert a "leap month," which keeps our calendar more-or-less aligned with the solar one. So our high holidays always fall in the northern hemisphere autumn, and Pesach always falls in northern hemisphere spring. (The rabbis who designed our calendar were, alas, not thinking about the needs of Jews in the global South!) The Muslim calendar doesn't have this kind of correction mechanism, so Muslim holidays move around the solar calendar; this year Ramadan begins around August 1, next year it will begin around July 20, the year after that around July 10, and so on.

In the confluence of our calendars this year I find a powerful reminder that we and our Muslim cousins -- descendants, our tradition says, of the half-brothers Yitzchak and Yishmael, Isaac and Ishmael -- are walking parallel paths toward the Holy Blessed One. During the coming lunar month, as the moon waxes and wanes, both communities (in our varied forms -- Jews whose practice ranges from Reform to Hasidic, in Israel and in Diaspora; Muslims of Arab, South Asian, African American, and every other descent, all around the world) will be engaging in prayer, in fasting, and in giving generously to those in need, in order to more wholly align ourselves with God's will.

I love that our two religious communities share a vision of how we can make use of the practices of prayer, fasting, and tzedakah / zakat in order to realign ourselves toward God. And I love that this year, Jews and Muslims the world over will be entering into a sacred season of doing this spiritual work at the same time. May we give one another strength and blessing in the weeks ahead!

Recommended reading for the season:

  • 30 mosques - a Ramadan road trip to 30 different mosques all over the USA. A beautiful set of anecdotes and photographs which illustrate the diversity of American Muslim life and practice.

  • Prayers for the Ninth of Av - Reb Zalman's prayer, meant to be offered on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av when our grief begins to give way to hope for transformation. I especially like how his prayer touches on Jerusalem / Al-Quds.

  • Hungry for Ramadan - My friend Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim blogged daily through the month of Ramadan in 2007; these are his posts on Beliefnet.

  • New moon ritual for Elul - An earth-based Jewish ritual for the new moon which will come 3 weeks in to our 7-week journey from 9 Av to the Days of Awe.


Tisha b'Av and sounds of sorrow

The fallen stones date to the destruction of the second temple.

Tisha b'Av begins tonight at sundown. 

At the end of last year's post about the day -- Three scenes from Tisha b'Av -- I touched on the teaching from Talmud (tractate Yoma) that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam / senseless hatred (usually understood as hatred between Jews) and listed some of last year's egregious examples. It saddens me that I can reprise that teaching now with some of this year's instances of Jews being hateful to Jews: Anat Hoffman's recent arrest in Jerusalem for the "crime" of carrying a Torah scroll near the Kotel, the passage of a new conversion bill in the Israeli Knesset which gives the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate increased authority over who is considered a "real" Jew in the land of Israel. (That bill has troubling implications indeed.) Obviously we haven't solved the problem of sinat chinam quite yet.

My classmate Jonathan Zasloff has written an essay entitled What are you doing for assarah b'av? (Assarah b'av is the 10th of Av, the day which follows the mournful 9 Av.) He writes:

The time has come for us to acknowledge the dirty little secret of Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the Temple was one of the best things ever to happen to the Jewish people.

His essay is intentionally provocative, I think, but he's right that many blessings have arisen out of the paradigm shift occasioned by the Temple's fall. I've written before about the wondrous flowerings of post-Temple Judaism: rabbinic Judaism, diaspora Judaism, today's many-splendored variations on our religious theme. These are among the births which that death made possible. I have no yearning to restore temple sacrifice.

But I still find meaning in Tisha b'Av. Because we've all experienced the fall of walls and the destruction of something we loved. And once a year, together, we relive that experience -- we go down as a community into that pit of despair -- in order to remember that devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe and strive to make teshuvah (to re/turn toward our Source), has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow. Judaism calls us not to shy away from what hurts, but to confront it, to go deep into it -- and then to make our way out of it. This is part of our spiritual life too.

The destruction of the Temple so long ago may not feel relevant to some of us today, especially to we who prize the Diaspora Judaism which arose as a result of the Temple's fall. It's easy to argue that the fall of the Temple was a necessary birth-pang of the new paradigm. But I don't think Tisha b'Av is "just" about what happened then. Buildings fall and suffering continues in our own day, too. Via this post at Jewschool last year I learned about Rabbi Irwin Kula's recording of 9/11 voicemails -- from those on the planes, from those at the World Trade Center -- using Eicha trope [mp3], the traditional cantillation used for the Book of Lamentations which we read today in our 9 Av commemorations.

Above is an embedded media player which will allow you to listen to R' Kula's voicemail chanting. If you're reading this via an aggregator or via email and can't see the embed, you can go directly to the recording here.

Part of what makes the recording so devastating is the profound ordinariness of the messages. The little things we say to one another when we don't know the end is coming. Of course, I'm primed to find this melody especially poignant -- but I imagine it might resonate even for those who've never heard Eicha before. And these messages of sorrow, chanted in Eicha trope, give me a different perspective on the deaths chronicled in Lamentations -- and the needless deaths happening even now.

May listening to these words add power to your Tisha b'Av observance. May we together descend into darkness...and find our way again, by tomorrow's end, into the light.


Three scenes from Tisha b'Av

1.

Five people are sitting on the sanctuary floor; three are still in their chairs. The lights are dimmed: it's bright enough to see our prayerbooks and our little booklets containing Lamentations and several poems, but the room is noticeably dark. Outside, torrential rains pour down.

We take turns reading Lamentations aloud. At the beginning of each chapter, one person chants the first half-dozen verses according to the haunting tune only used on this one day of the year; then we go around the room, reading the poem in English.

Jackboots have marched in the Temple where barbarous hands have besmirched the sacred objects and fouled the holy places where fear and respect should have kept them away.

It's "jackboots" that gets to me. Intellectually I know that this chapter, like most of the poem, is an alphabetic acrostic and the translator needs to ensure that each verse begins with a new letter. Between the I verse and the K verse comes the J verse. But emotionally, that doesn't matter. The image of jackbooted thugs walking cavalierly into sacred places, kicking things over, trashing what is loved, will not leave me.

Continue reading "Three scenes from Tisha b'Av" »


More resources for Tisha b'Av

Rabbi Jill Hammer, of Tel Shemesh, has written A Midrash on the Month of Av, newly-published at Zeek, which speaks of the womb as the holy temple:

The temple is in exile, and this may be why midwives are scarce, birth takes place in the realm of the sick, and healers know better how to cut open the womb than to deliver a baby from it.   Many labor without delivering: the gate opens too slowly.  The heart rate plunges, the emergency unfolds, the exit from the womb comes with a breach in the wall.  One-third of all births are Caesarean births.  We have lost the keys to the temple.  

We have lost the sounds of the temple, the murmuring of the rituals and the voices of prayer.  Women become pregnant and they tell no one, for fear they will have to tell that there was a miscarriage.  They feel joy and do not speak.  They are sick, they vomit, they do not explain.  They go to work, they care for others. There are no stories of birth on television, only stories of doctors who bravely catch babies as they emerge from somewhere.  The temple is silent.  Who will open up this silence? 

Her essay speaks to me in powerful ways, for reasons which are probably obvious. Beyond that, I admire her radical revisioning of what it might mean -- especially for women -- to be in mourning for the temple we have lost.

And Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, teacher of my teachers, offers Prayers for the Ninth of Av. He notes that during the afternoon mincha service, when tradition holds that the transformation begins to be possible, we add a special prayer for Jerusalem to the amidah (central standing prayer.) He offers a new prayer in place of the traditional one. In English, his prayer begins:

Comfort, Yah our God,
all who mourn your sacred house,
who grieve the holy wholeness it contained.
Comfort especially those who live most closely
in the shadow of its memory,
amidst the shattered sacredness of Your Holy
City, the city of many names and owners;
Yerushalayim,
Capital of the state of Israel,
the beginnings of our redemption,
Al Quds, the apple of the eye of Palestine...

I appreciate that his prayer acknowledges Jerusalem's dual identity. If peace is ever to come to the Middle East, we will all need to acknowledge that "our" holy city is also "their" holy city, and that we and they need to find a way to honor her through living side by side. Anyway, whether or not you'll be praying a formal mincha amidah tomorrow, I recommend Reb Zalman's prayer, which you can read in Hebrew and in English at his blog post.

And finally -- if you're not in a place where you can listen to the chanting of Eicha/Lamentations on Tisha b'Av, you can hear the whole poem sung in Hebrew according to the haunting melody used only on Tisha b'Av here at VirtualCantor.com or here at Len Fellman's website. Len has also set Simon Zucker's "Lamentation on the Holocaust" to Eicha trope -- a beautiful example of setting an English-language text to fit the carrier-wave of classical cantillation.


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Preparing for Tisha b'Av

Tisha b'Av begins tomorrow night at sundown. Jewish tradition holds that five major catastrophes have fallen on this date, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

The authors of the mishna (the name means "repetition" or "second" -- it is the kernel at the heart of Talmud, and was redacted around 200 C.E.) lived after the Second Temple was destroyed, and they were preoccupied with the cause of the calamity. They tell us that the First Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE because of the community's high rate of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 CE, they wrote, because of sinat chinam -- causeless hatred.

In later Talmudic sources, the rabbis offered a variety of other explanations for the Temple's fall: the community failed to keep Shabbat, no longer recited the shema with appropriate intention, treated scholars with contempt, and so on. Each of these arguments tells us something about who the sages of that era were and what mattered to them -- and it's telling that it doesn't seem to have occurred to them that the Temples fell because the Babylonian and Roman armies were simply too strong to fend off. They were looking for theological reasons for the destruction, because if it were our community's sin which brought about the destruction, then surely our teshuvah (repentance/return to God) would cause us to be raised up again. (My thanks are due to Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, who articulated these teachings in a recent e-bulletin from the Conservative Yeshiva where I studied last summer.)

My own theology differs from that of the sages of the Mishnaic era. I see the fall of the temples as the incredibly painful birth pangs of a new era. Without the temple at our tradition's heart, we evolved rabbinic Judaism: a creative -- and portable -- transformation of our paradigm for communal living, prayer, and connection with God. From the vantage point of modernity, I can see the blessing which we were able to wrest from the rubble. I wouldn't go back to what we had before. But I find value in gathering with my community once a year to mourn our old losses, and to mourn the brokenness of the world in which we still live. To dive into the reality of human suffering, and to grapple again with the question of how to give our suffering meaning.

Take note of the place where this holiday falls in our festival cycle. This is the low point of our year. From here we begin the slow climb up to the month of Elul (an opportunity to spend four weeks in spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe) and then come the big holidays of (northern hemisphere) autumn, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In some ways, 9 Av is the very beginning of the road to those celebrations. We're eager for the rejoicing of the festivals we know are coming, but we can't get there without being here first. This is our day for mourning galut, exile -- not only (or maybe not at all) exile from the site of the Temple, but the existential exile of living in an imperfect and disconnected world. That's spiritual work we need to do each year before we can be ready to move into the high holiday season.

Tomorrow night at my shul we'll read from Eikha (Lamentations) and we'll read contemporary kinnot, poems of lament. Along those lines, if you're looking for appropriate reading for 9 Av, don't miss Aryeh Cohen's gorgeous and heartbreaking new contemporary Kinah; you might also find value in Rabbi Daniel Brenner's Third Temple meditation, and in Rabbi Daniel Seidenberg's Laments: A Fresh Translation of Eikhah, available as a PDF and as a DavkaWriter file. Whatever form your observance may take, I hope you find meaning in it.


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Lamentations Rabbah: demanding God's mercy

In my last midrash class at the Conservative Yeshiva, in preparation for Tisha b'Av, we studied a midrash from Eicha Rabbah which blew me away. Here's a very simplistic retelling, which I offer in the spirit of Tisha b'Av, the day when we remember the Temple's fall and mourn the brokenness of the world.

It's a gorgeous midrash, featuring quite a cast of characters who argue with God about the injustice of God's actions at this point in time. Most of the arguments try to prevail on God's sense of justice, but the one that finally sways God is an argument arising out of compassion. It's the female voice in the story that ultimately calls God to righteousness. May we walk in her footsteps, that the world may be healed in our day.

Find previous years' 9 Av posts here.


When the Temple was destroyed, Abraham came to God, weeping and wailing and rending his clothes. Even the ministering angels joined him in mourning. How, Abraham asked God, could You allow this to happen to my people?

Israel has transgressed my laws, God replied.

Says who? Abraham asked.

The Torah will testify against them, God said, and the Torah came forth. But Abraham convinced her not to testify, reminding her that when God brought her into the world, only the Israelites accepted her. [That's a reference to another midrash, in which God offers the Torah to every nation in the world but only the Israelites say "yes."]

Then God called the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet -- considered the building-blocks not only of Torah but of creation itself -- to testify. And Abraham convinced them too not to testify, reminding each of its place in the Torah and in our hearts. To the aleph he said: you're the first letter of the first commandment God spoke to us! To the bet he said: you're the first letter of the Torah! To the gimel he said: you're the first letter of the commandment to wear tzitzit, which only we uphold! And each letter was reminded, and chose not to testify against the house of Israel.

Abraham argued further with God: I was willing to sacrifice my beloved son for You. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Isaac added: I was willing to be sacrificed. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Jacob added, I spent my life tending to my children, the house of Israel, in service of Your plan. Won't You remember that, and have mercy?

Moses added, I was a faithful shepherd to the house of Israel for forty years. In the desert I ran before them like a horse, and You didn't even let me enter the land with them, and now You're allowing them to be exiled and killed? Won't You remember, and have mercy?

Moses and the prophet Jeremiah [author of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha b'Av] went to see the destruction with their own eyes. It was hard for them to walk because the roads were so filled with the bodies of the dead. And they saw people being killed left and right, death and suffering everywhere, fathers forced to kill sons in the presence of their mothers, and they returned weeping.

Moses cursed the sun, saying: Sun, why didn't you go dark when this happened? But the sun said, I tried, but I couldn't. Moses bemoaned the Temple's fall. He told the Chaldeans not to be cruel, and yet they were cruel.

And then Rachel spoke.

God, she said: You remember that Jacob loved me exceedingly, but my father chose to give him Leah in my place. Jacob and I had worked out a system of signals, so he would know whether or not it was really me in his bed. But then I had pity on my sister and I taught her the signals so he wouldn't realize it was her. I even lay beneath their bed, and when he spoke to her, she was silent and I responded in her stead.

If I -- a creature of flesh and blood, made of dust and ashes -- could overcome my jealousy in order to be kind to my sister...why are You, the sovereign of all existence, jealous of the false gods with whom the Israelites dally, false gods who aren't even real?! How can You let Your jealousy cause your children to be slain and exiled?

And the mercy of God was stirred by Rachel's argument. And God said: for your sake, Rachel, I will restore the house of Israel to their place. Have hope for the future. The exile -- not just physical, but existential and spiritual -- will come to an end.


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To see what hurts

Maybe I should start observing Tisha b'Av by volunteering as an emergency room chaplain. On this day, of all days in the wheel of the Jewish year, we're meant to connect with our own brokenness; with suffering and loss; and with the terrible things we do to one another around the world, hatred and violence and damage caused by our own human hands.

Eicha is beautiful poetry, and when we read it last night in the darkened sanctuary of my shul I was gently moved, but the story it tells is so distant. Besides, I have so many complicated feelings about the Temple (what it was, what it means now) that often I can't relate to the ways this holiday has traditionally been understood. But Tisha b'Av is about more than the loss of the historical Temples in historical time.

Tisha b'Av asks us to stop distracting ourselves, stop putting a good face on things, stop focusing on the bright side and actually allow ourselves to be aware of how much we can hurt. It demands a willingness to face suffering. It insists that there is theological and spiritual importance in the reality that our lives contain pain. That facing what hurts is a necessary prerequisite to the spiritual work of discernment and transformation that we are called to do. On Tisha b'Av we're supposed to see what hurts.

Do we want to live in that place all the time? Hell, no. It's not healthy and it's not wise and in general I do not advocate it. But Jewish tradition holds that, one day a year, it's not only useful but critical for us to look honestly at brokenness. To own our brokenness, communally. To acknowledge how our actions, and inactions, make us complicit in all kinds of damage. War. Famine. Poverty. The poisoning of our planet. The fall of Jerusalem 2,593 years ago, and fighting in East Timor and Afghanistan, Darfur and Somalia, the Middle East and Iraq, in recent memory and today.

On both physical and psychological levels, we know that ignoring what hurts is not a way to make it go away, and yet that's so often precisely what we do. Of course, we know also that dwelling on pain -- poking at an open sore -- can prevent the source of the pain from healing. But on this one day of our liturgical year, Jews are called to notice the pain. To let go of our coping mechanisms, stop self-medicating with food or alcohol or fantasy, and face the broken world as it is, for at least a little while.

Because only through facing that brokenness do we have any hope of making repair. I blog every year about the beautiful teaching that moshiach, the embodiment of redemption, will be born on Tisha b'Av. Only in acknowledging our brokenness can we begin the process of healing -- and when we do this wholeheartedly, we can really change our world, if we will only believe.

The hospital where I used to work was a profoundly holy place, not despite the tragedies that unfolded daily within its walls but because of how we tried to respond to them. Real compassion and love require honesty and open eyes. I can't minister to someone if I'm cringing away, trying to protect my worldview from the reality of her suffering. At Yom Kippur we each stand alone before our understanding of God, but at Tisha b'Av we are called to slog through this together. To wrestle with loss as a community, to allow ourselves a brief period of what may even be hopelessness --

-- trusting that by the end of the day, the hopelessness will begin to lift away. That when we face the inconceivable breadth and depth of human suffering together, we will also inevitably find the inconceivable breadth and depth of human love and compassion, too. That only in opening ourselves to loss can we find our way beyond it. That the only way out is through.


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Exploring Eicha

Tonight, when Tisha b'Av begins, we'll read Eicha, the book of Lamentations -- what Shaye Cohen has called "the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future."

The authorship of Eicha isn't definitively known. We know that in 586 B.C.E when the first Temple fell, only ten percent of the Israelite community (the elite) was exiled. We know that they took the implements of the Temple with them, but did not build a new Temple in Babylon. They began instead to develop services and prayers which could exist independent of Temple sacrifice -- to turn a national identity into a religion, to shift focus from a place which could be destroyed to a story which we carry in our heads and hearts.

(After the Babylonian exile ended, historians tell us, again only ten percent of the community picked up and moved; 90 percent remained in Babylon. Those who returned to Jerusalem were restorationists, invested in rebuilding what had gone before. What they had lost.)

The tradition tells us that Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) was the author of Eicha. We know he wrote other kinnot (songs of lamentation), including one about the death of King Josiah. We know that he stayed in the land when the Temple fell, and Eicha seems to be spoken in the voice of someone who stayed behind. Scholarship today suggests that Eicha is actually five separate poems stitched together, and that each chapter was written by a different poet.

For those of us who will be reading Eicha tonight and tomorrow, I offer the following set of questions. (Reb Laura brought these to our theodicy class, and the process of working through them was really valuable for me.) As you read each chapter of the poem, consider: how would you characterize the speaker(s)? What aspect of the catastrophe does the speaker emphasize? Who does the speaker blame? What stance does the speaker take towards God? And what are your reactions to the speaker's views -- how does each section of the poem make you feel?

Continue reading "Exploring Eicha" »


Tisha b'Av roundup, and a story

Tisha b'Av is the one day of the year when most Torah study isn't permitted -- at least not in the traditional Jewish understanding. We can study Eicha or Eicha Rabbah, or Jeremiah or Job, but we're not supposed to delve into parts of Torah which might bring us joy, since joy is dissonant alongside the awareness of suffering that this day represents.

I often see blogs in terms of the lived Torah of human experience, the holy texts of our lives as they unfold. So is reading one's blog aggregator antithetical to Tisha b'Av? I'm in no position to decide that for anyone -- but should you be online today and browsing the blogosphere, and wishing for reading that explores the themes of Tisha b'Av, here are some links to blog posts I'm finding valuable today:

Elf at Apikorsus Online has a comprehensive roundup of Tisha b'Av-related posts from the last few years. She links to folks across the religious spectrum: here are posts from rabbis and laypeople who practice Judaisms ranging from Orthodox to Reform, exploring the day through a wide variety of lenses. It's especially useful, and interesting to me, that she breaks the roundup into sections: first "general" (a miscellany of excellent posts), "the contemporary problem" (how commemorating 9 Av is different in the modern world than it used to be), "liturgy" (how and why the traditional liturgy is fraught for many modern Jews), and "personal reflections."

At Radical Torah, Aryeh Cohen offers a view of Lebanon through the lens of Tisha b'Av, exploring the midrashic notion that God looks to us in order to learn how to mourn, and asking difficult questions about the ethics of what's happening in Lebanon these days.

And at Soferet, Avielah offers a transcript of a teaching by Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein entitled The transformative call of Tisha be-Av 5766. I was particularly struck by how R' Marmorstein links a teaching about the words רעה (ra'ah, wicked) and טוב (tov, good) in the Biblical story of the spies to the Baal Shem Tov's teachings about the need to love one's shadows. (If that's a little dense for you, Avielah's recent post Crush is more personal and perhaps more accessible.)

Speaking of personal and accessible, a story. Last night toward the end of the study session which followed our service, a congregant asked an unanswerable question about how we can respond to suffering. In response, I said something like this:

It's always my temptation, at times like these, to find a way to look on the bright side. I want to find a way to make things better, to turn from despair to hope, to argue that everything's going to be okay and that we can make the world a better place. But I don't think that's the right answer for tonight. On erev Tisha b'Av, we can't go there yet. Our obligation tonight is to witness the brokenness of the world. Maybe by late tomorrow we can begin moving toward a place of hope, but for now all we can do is sit with the awareness of what's broken.

As today wears on, may we find ourselves capable of sitting with the sorrow of Tisha b'Av without yielding to the temptation to put a band-aid over the suffering. Today we are all hospital chaplains, ministering to the world with presence and the willingness to face what hurts even when it hurts more than we think we can bear. And by tonight, may we find a way to move through this, and to rededicate ourselves to the work that awaits.


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The nadir of the year

I've never been comfortable with Tisha b'Av. When I was growing up, my family didn't observe it; I knew it only as a figure of speech, one that suggested an eventuality unlikely to come to pass (as in, "yeah, sure, that'll happen -- maybe after Tisha b'Av," a phrase we used year-round.)

In my adult life I've come to understand the holiday intellectually, but it still challenges me emotionally. I understand why the destruction of both the first and second temples was devastating, but I see that tragedy as the catalyst which allowed Rabbinic Judaism to arise and flourish -- a painful death, in its time, but one that gave rise to a new birthing of Jewish life and potential. After the temple fell, we learned to see ourselves as a theophoric people, bearing God with us wherever we roam. Today we sanctify not space, but time. I wouldn't return to the days of the temple; how then can I legitimately grieve its destruction?

That's been my line, the last several years. But one of the best things about being a rabbinic student is that I am often called to question where I stand and why, and to push the envelope of my comfort zone. Because my rabbi is on sabbatical at the moment, I'm responsible for leading Tisha b'Av services at my shul this week. It's time for me to stop equivocating, and to find a way to relate to this uncomfortable day, because I need to be able to lead my congregation into a meaningful observance.

Continue reading "The nadir of the year" »


Beyond genocide

The four prints are large, roughly two feet by two feet, and exquisitely-detailed. The first, "Afghanistan," features Islamic arches and calligraphic detail; the second, " Armenia," shows lush riverbanks and distant Mount Ararat through a kind of round windowpane. The third ("Bangladesh") features lotus blossoms, tigers, masks; the fourth ("Cambodia") evokes its story with faces, dancing figures, a mandala of color. They are the first four in a series of twenty-five proposed pieces exploring genocide, using the text of the kaddish yatom (the mourner's kaddish, Jewish prayer for the dead) as a starting-point. The series is by Amy Fagin, and it's called Beyond Genocide: illuminations for our era.

And indeed, each includes lines from the kaddish, written in classic Hebrew calligraphy. (Fagin has spent decades crafting custom ketubot, and her mastery of Hebrew is clear.) But the Armenian print also features swirling lines in Armenian; the print focusing on Bangladesh (and the violence that mars Indian/Pakistani history) offers script which looks to me like Hindi; the Cambodia print offers text in what I assume is Khmer. Fagin learned the intricacies of three new alphabets in order to make these pieces which simultaneously honor the dead and call us to engage with the living. She writes:

Each illumination is a visual story which represents a culture or civilization which has been threatened or extinguished by the violence of genocide....These penetrating illuminations recognize the greatest achievements of humankind and our most violent crimes. They help the viewer to see a personal and individual reflection of our common legacy of genocide. They inspire us to look deeper into the lessons of our past so that we can free ourselves from perpetrating this massive violence upon one another in the present.

As the globe draws closer to true understanding of our inter-being, we recognize that each individual desires to live in peace, without fear of domination, neglect, or annihilation. Each one of us can live with dignity and honor by cultivating genuine appreciation for each other, respect and awe for the astounding beauty and complexity of the world we live in.

Limited-edition prints of Fagin's work are on display at Congregation Beth Israel for the next four weeks; she will speak about them tonight, after services (service at 7pm; talk around 8:15). Their installation was timed to coincide with Judaism's communal day of mourning, Tisha b'Av, which begins tomorrow night at sundown as soon as Shabbat ends (and which I blogged about earlier this week.)

The rabbis teach that Tisha b'Av can be seen as a counterpart to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we stand before God as individuals, cementing our own process of teshuvah (re/turning or repentance) in order to repair the personal distance we may feel between ourselves and our Source. But before we can do that as individuals, we need to do it as a community, and Tisha b'Av offers the opportunity to stand before God as a group and collectively mourn the loss of connection-with-God which the fall of the Temple represents.

For me, our disconnect with God is manifest in the many ways that we harm each other. And the more violence we create, the more entrenched we become in our separateness from our Source -- and the harder it becomes to remember that things could be, should be, any different. There is no purer or more powerful sign of that disconnect than the kinds of genocide Fagin chronicles and memorializes in her artwork.

If you are near western Massachusetts, or will come here in the coming month, stop in and spend a while gazing at these exquisite and powerful pieces of art...and regardless of where you are geographically, I hope you will join me in taking Tisha b'Av as an opportunity to mourn not only the past suffering of the Jewish people, but also the suffering of everyone wounded by the inhuman violence of genocide, through history and now. May we bring an end to genocide, soon and in our days.


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Mourning and redemption

The saddest day in the Jewish year is approaching: Tisha b'Av begins Saturday night at sundown and lasts until nightfall on Sunday. The day commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E., and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and a host of other tragedies besides.

For many, the mourning process begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, three weeks prior, which commemorates the breaching of Jerusalem's city walls as the precursor to the Temple's destruction. The customs of mourning intensify as 9 Av draws nearer. (During the Nine Days leading up to the holiday, many Jews refrain from any activity which would give cause to say the shehecheyanu.) And then on the day itself, it is traditional to eschew everything which brings pleasure -- food, wine, sex, studying Torah (except for depressing bits like Job and Lamentations) -- as we mourn the destruction of the Temple and our condition of exile from God.

Some communities place more emphasis on the first of those; others, on the second. It's a difference that matters tremendously to me.

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Realities television

I'm a big fan of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. My friends and I watch it every Tuesday night. We love the way the Fab Five tailor their suggestions to each individual straight guy, and we enjoy the genuine affection that grows, each episode, between the straight guy and the Fab Five (who we call the "adulthood fairies"). It's heartwarming, plus it's snarky and fun: a perfect antidote to the news, and to most reality TV shows. Most reality TV strikes me as either annoying or exploitative; I favor shows where good things happen to nice people through the hard work of caring craftsmen, where houses are spiffed up or gardens are redesigned or hapless guys get new leases on life.

But this story in the Christian Science Monitor reminds me that reality television can be even more than this. It can genuinely make a difference in people's lives:

"Labor and Materials" is Iraq's...first reality TV show. In 15-minute episodes, broken windows are made whole again. Blasted walls slowly rise again. Fancy furniture and luxurious carpets appear without warning in the living rooms of poor families. Over six weeks, houses blasted by US bombs regenerate in a home-improvement show for a war-torn country.

"The main point isn't to rebuild the house, but to show the change in the psychology of the family during the rebuilding," says Ali Hanoon, the show's director. "The rebuilding has a psychological effect on the families -- their memories, their lives, are in these walls." (Read the whole story, which moved me to tears.)

Today is Tisha b'Av, when Jews around the world mourn the destruction of the Temple and the brokenness of the world. Surely this Iraqi television show is a rebuilding in the physical world of assiyah which manifests, engendering joy, in the world of atzilut. Our world is broken everywhere: may blessings rain down on those, like the creators of "Labor and Materials," working to mend it.


Wrestling with 9 Av

Tisha B'Av, which began tonight at sundown, challenges me. I have a tendency to want to universalize the day's particular commemoration of suffering; I'm more comfortable mourning the broken world in general, our sorrowful distance from God, than I am mourning the destruction of the Temples all those centuries ago. (The tradition also tells us that several other pernicious acts were committed against the Jewish people on 9 Av, though the dual destructions of the Temple are usually considered the worst of these.)

Continue reading "Wrestling with 9 Av" »