This Sunday, I am Fasting for Black Churches

This Sunday is the observance of the 17th of Tammuz. More than just a date on the calendar, it is a minor fast day in the Jewish tradition. [N.B.: Sunday is actually the 18th, but because the 17th falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed one day.]

The day marks the beginning of a three week period of mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), a day set aside to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Observed by mourning, fasting and abstinence, Tisha B’Av is a day to focus on the themes of destruction, collective loss and communal strife.

The 17th of Tammuz introduces these themes. While the Ninth of Av marks the ultimate destruction of the Temple, the 17th of Tammuz marks the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem that ultimately led to that destruction. Once that line of defense was broken, it was only a matter of time until the loss was complete; once the walls fell, the Temple’s fall was inevitable. So while Tisha B’Av is the major day of mourning, the three week period beginning Sunday is itself a period of mourning.

The 17th of Tammuz is called a minor fast day because it is a sunrise to sunset fast, unlike the major fast days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) which are sundown to sundown fasts. But the designation of “minor” could also describe its place in the consciousness of contemporary Jews. The day itself, much less the fast, is not widely observed.

And I will admit I too more honor the 17th of Tammuz in the breach rather than the observance (especially on those years that it falls on my birthday.) But lately it has taken on new meaning for me. Just as the fast on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy inward on our own sins so that we are able to make atonement, so too do the fast days of the three weeks give us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy outward on our communal sins so that we are able to make atonement.

And with that intention in mind, as we face the current news, this year on the 17th of Tammuz I am fasting for black

photo by Davie Hinshaw/AP
photo by Davie Hinshaw/AP

churches. This year, in light of the shootings at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston which took nine lives, I am fasting for racially motivated violence in our country. This year, in light of the series of church arsons over the past few weeks, I am fasting to acknowledge the communal sin of racial violence and injustice which continue to this day.

On this 17th of Tammuz, we Jews are mindful that there is no greater communal violation than the violation of sacred space. And as the walls of ancient Jerusalem were once violated, and now the walls of the contemporary black church are being violated.

Fasting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is an act that should motivate us to act. This morning I was on a conference call with over 400 faith leaders from many denominations, sponsored by Showing Up for Racial Justice, to talk about white solidarity in response to the violence directed towards black churches. It was an inspiring call to stand up and show up, to share resources and work together.

Fasting for churches this Sunday is not an official call to action, it is my personal kavannah (intention). I intend to do something initially practical, and donate the money I would have spent on food to a fund to help rebuild churches. But more than that, this fast will serve as another reminder and motivation for me that we have much work to do to rebuild that which has been, and continues to be, knocked down.

Listening to Jeremiah in Charleston

Yesterday was quite a day.

Yesterday was an amazing spiritual confluence: in the Jewish calendar it was Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the first day of the month of Tammuz. For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began. And Pope Francis issued a major encyclical on the environment, which hopefully promises to change the way we address climate change.

And we woke up to news that the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC—an African American church deeply rooted in Emanuel_African_Methodist_Episcopal_(AME)_Churchhistory—was the site of a horrible racist attack that resulted in the shooting death of nine people, including the pastor (who was also a state senator).

At time in which we are deeply confronting the history of institutionalized racism and privilege—from police shootings (including the one in Olympia) to the identity adoption of Rachel Dozelal—we are confronted with this particular act of terror, this particular act of violence based in hatred.

I shared this on Facebook yesterday morning:

Today: Rosh Hodesh (new moon) of Tammuz, the beginning of Ramadan, the Pope released an encyclical on the environment, and news of a tragic shooting at a black church in Charleston. May we have the strength to overcome our fears and hatreds, and clarity of vision to put aside violence and embrace hope and peace.

This shooting struck a particularly deep chord because of the time and place: it took place during a bible study at church. The shooter apparently had joined the group an hour before he began shooting—he was thus welcomed and included in a sacred space at a sacred time. The church—meant to be a place of safety and sanctuary (in the many meanings of the term)—was violated.

[As a Jew I felt a particular sickness at this act, because of the time and place. Jews are a historically persecuted minority, and we in our sacred spaces have wrestled with trying to walk the fine line between openness and safety. More than one person has expressed to me a bit of caution, of the need to look over ones shoulder, when gathering for services or at the Temple. Indeed, just last week someone walked into the sanctuary during Erev Shabbat and loudly disrupted services, yelling, “I need to talk to the pastor!” In this case it wasn’t a violent episode, I was able to talk to her to ascertain her needs, but it was a reminder nonetheless of our vulnerability at times.]

Because of this violation of sacred space, it felt like a sacred response was needed. A few colleagues and I, with the help of Interfaith Works, hastily arranged a vigil in Sylvester Park yesterday at 5:00 p.m. It was a time for being together in grief and to renew our commitment to peace and justice. We prayed, we sang, we read the names of the dead and we offered words of Scripture. We came together as victims and allies to mark this one tragedy and locate ourselves within the larger narrative of violence and racism in our country.

It was a powerful gathering. My Episcopalian colleague the Rev. George McDonnell shared this wonderful litany she wrote. And to honor the fact that the shooting victims were engaged in sacred text study at the time of their deaths, I offered a short passage of Scripture.

With the new month of Tammuz which we entered into yesterday comes a period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. The 17th of the month is a minor fast day which begins a three-week period which leads to a major fast day, Tisha B’Av. It is on that day that we mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Through noting this historic event, we turn our attention to the themes of communal disruption, baseless hatred and disunity in the community—all reasons given by our Sages for the Temple’s fall. In other words, the physical destruction of a communal institution is a symbol for the inner failure of community.

But, our Sages also sought to remind us that hope can rise from the ashes. As a Scriptural reading for Tisha B’Av, they assigned the prophet Jeremiah concluding with these verses, which are also appropriate for this time:

Thus says God: Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, neither let the mighty glory in their might, Let not the rich glory in their riches; But let them glory in this, that they understand, and know Me, That I am the God who acts with lovingkindess, justice, and righteousness in the world; for in these things I delight, says God. (Jeremiah 9:22-3)

The work continues. Let us all come to a place in which we can bring about lovingkindness, justice and righteousness in our world, so that all peoples can delight.