I Don’t Want to Observe Tisha B’Av This Year

As we turn the calendar this weekend to the month of Av, the observance of Tisha B’Av (the “ninth of Av”) is upon us. This is a day of mourning, in which it is customary to fast, read the biblical Book of Lamentations, and reflect on the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. The root of the observance is remembering the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem which, in the Jewish religious imagination, is one of the earliest major catastrophes.

It always falls in the summer, which seems like a cruel joke of the calendar–at a time of year that we are enjoying the outdoors and warmer weather, we are called back inside to focus on communal loss and grief. It is always especially interesting when Jewish summer camps confront the day, needing to stay true to their mission of developing a strong sense of Jewish engagement and connection at a place that is also based on fun and games.

This year rather than most it feels more difficult to get into the spirit of Tisha B’Av. I am finding it quite a joyful and relieving fact that the distribution of vaccines and the re-opening of society and community is happening at summer time. Here in Washington State, the onset of summer is generally a time that we shrug off nine months of rain and overcast skies to enjoy the beauty of nature and the bright, warm, burning orb of gas in the sky. To have that line up with the shrugging off of 15 months of isolation and withdrawal gives particular resonance to the season.

Of course, we know we are not completely out of the woods. Vaccination rates are slowing. Children under 12 still can’t get vaccinated. The Delta variant is spreading. We still need to be mindful and cautious with masking and handwashing and going out when we are not feeling well.

And at the same time we can balance that with hope that we are moving past this incredibly difficult chapter of our lives, even as we continue to deal with the echoes of it.

Which is why I am asking myself now, why do we need a day of collective grief when we have been engaged in collective grief for the past 15 months? Why do we need to remember the destruction of our communal institutions when we have witnessed that for the past year and half? I don’t need more grief right now, I want to focus on the hope and redemption that comes after a destructive act. I don’t want another day of turning inward and hunkering down, I want to be outside celebrating life and community.

Traumatic events persist, we know, and on Tisha B’Av we are meant to mourn not only the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem but also the fact that that event and others continue to impact us. At the same time, we know that what emerges from destruction can be better than what was. The Judaism that we know was only able to evolve because of the destruction of the Temple. And now we hope that new approaches to health care and the social safety net and racial and environmental justice and communal obligation will come from what we have specifically learned from and experienced during the pandemic.

Holidays are important; they provide a focus on issues and values and ideas that are essential to us as humans. And yet sometimes we are in the throes of something that we don’t need a holiday to remind us. Or, the holiday takes on new meaning because we are in the throes of something. (I anticipate the High Holidays this year will be a celebration of coming back together in addition to marking the new year and personal teshuvah [repentance] work.)

We know the grief from the pandemic continues. We know that the suffering continues. And now add to that survivor’s guilt. And the communal lack of control we all experienced. And the uncertainty of what it means to “re-enter.” And the work it takes to build multi-access community. And the reexamination of social norms and expectations.

I know this won’t be every year, but this year I may take a break from Tisha B’Av. For what will truly be restorative, what will remind me of the our communal grief and loss, is not a day of fasting and lamentations, but another day in the sun, celebrating life, safely going maskless, and noting the fact that while yes traumatic events happen, they also end and we also heal.

Build It All

On the Jewish calendar, we are in a period known as the “three weeks.” It is a three week (!) period that stretches from the 17 of Tammuz (July 24) to the 9th of Av (August 14) that commemorates and memorializes the destruction of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. The three weeks are a period of liturgical mourning culminating in the 9th of Av, which is a fast day.

While we are far removed from the Temple, and its system of animal sacrifice and hereditary leadership is not something we desire, the continue to mourn because of the symbolic nature of that location. It was a central location for the community at the time and served as a gathering place and point of spiritual connection. Its loss was devastating to the community at the time.

It is interesting that while we commemorate destruction, I look around our city of Olympia and see that there is much construction currently underway.

Several building projects are going up around town, mostly related to housing. A recently completed seven story housing project sits on Columbia Street downtown, while a low-income housing building is going up by the Transit Center. Townhomes are being built on 11th near state offices and more apartments are under way on Adams near the newly renovated Thurston County Bank building (which also includes new apartments). [All this in addition to new stores opening and other renovating and moving, and the new state office building going up across from the Capitol Building.]

As these projects were getting underway, there was and continues to be debate in local media, on Facebook and other places as to what this all means, especially with relation to housing. The question is, what type of housing we need, and what does it mean for our community.

On the one hand, the argument against market rate housing is that it ignores the real need for homeless services and just prices out those who can not afford it. Terms like “gentrification” are used. At the same time, those who want to build up downtown argue that what is needed are people who are willing to live, shop and work in our city center, and this is what market-rate housing brings.

I’m sensitive to all these arguments, and in response to all of this I feel the answer is: Yes. Build it all. We need it all.

Market-rate and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive. We should most definitely not ignore the real needs for social services and affordable housing at the expense of market-rate housing. At the same time, we should welcome all those who wish to live downtown. Having all would lead to a vibrant and diverse downtown and not exclude one population for the sake of another.

And, to be frank, nonprofits rely on charitable donations. We should welcome in those of greater means who are willing to invest in our community, not just by living and shopping downtown, but by supporting the myriad of services and nonprofits that rely on donations. State and city funds are not enough. Turning away potential funders and supporters will just hurt our social service network in the end.

So while we are building, we need to keep building: we have needs for more shelter beds, better access to services and the new day center—the Providence-helmed Community Care Center—that should be opening this fall. The warming center we helped host at Temple Beth Hatfiloh this past winter demonstrated some of the real needs and lack of services in this community. We need to continue to have the will and the desire to make all of this a reality.

The Temple in Jerusalem meant many things to the community at the time, so much so that its loss is a devastation that echoes through the centuries. We mourn its loss while at the same time hold out hope to recreate what it represented—a place for everyone, regardless of status or station.

Is This What Sinat Chinam Looks Like?

It was at the end of my time away, which included a spiritual retreat and vacation time with my extended family, that I opened up my email to get caught up, only to learn that our building has been once again targeted by graffiti. Someone had scrawled “Free Palestine!” on one of the large columns to the left of our main entrance.graffiti

I was returning in a day or two, so I asked that nothing be done in the meantime—I wanted to see it for myself. Upon my return to Olympia I looked at it, took photos and dutifully went off to the police station to report the vandalism. As it was last time this happened—a year ago when someone wrote “What About Palestine?!” on our readerboard—there was little the police could do to find the person responsible, but they were appreciative of the report so they can track vandalism and see if any patterns emerge. I thought it important that there is a formal record of the synagogue being selectively targeted.

Because that is what it is, the synagogue—a visible Jewish structure—being targeted with a message meant directly for us. This wasn’t a tag of a name, or an artistic rendering . It was a message meant to target, upset, challenge and unnerve Jews. And to deliberately target a minority group with the express purpose of challenging and unnerving them, through violating their private space, is an expression of “malicious harassment” (as our Washington State law terms it).

The irony of this act of graffiti is that, in my own way, I support the message. I believe that we as Jews need to be concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, and need to confront head on the role Israel has played in the perpetuation of an unjust and oppressive system. I want Palestinians to be free. What I don’t support, of course–and what no body should support—is the transmission of that message through harassment, through the violation of Jewish space.

I will grant that the message in its content does not directly target or threaten Jews qua Jews. But the means of conveying the message can inspire fear and vulnerability. Plus the message conflates American Jews and Israelis in unhealthy and oftentimes erroneous ways, makes assumptions about political attitudes that may not be founded in reality, treats Jews as some monolithic “other” and trades on classic anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish dual loyalty.

This act of graffiti is another reminder of our potential vulnerability. As we Jews rightfully join the fight for racial justice, we also remember that in the Charleston shooters manifesto, Jews were second on the list behind African-Americans.

This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, a holiday set aside to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples in Ancient Jerusalem. These buildings hold an important place in the religious imagination of the Jewish people because of their importance and centrality in the life of our ancestors, and because of the spiritual power contained within. Their destructions—first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE—are marked by mourning and lamentation. It has become a day to mark not only these specific events, but the idea of communal destruction in general.

While outside armies toppled the buildings, the rabbis in the Talmud decades later sought to determine reasons for the destructions. In their mind, the external destruction must be in response to an internal weakness. The first destruction, they suggested, was because of sinful nature of the Israelite community in their lax observance of ritual law and sexual practices. The second, they suggested, was based on ethical lapses, primarily the prevalence of sinat chinam among the community.

Sinat chinam is an interesting term, and it is usually translated as “groundless hatred.” That is, hatred that does not have any basis in reality, hatred without cause. Maybe there are those we dislike for good reason—they wrong us or hold incompatible views. Sinat chinam is just hatred for the sake of hatred, hatred because of who one is, rather than what one does or says. The Jewish community at the time was factionalized, write the rabbis, divided by this groundless hatred, which gave an opening for the destruction of the Temple.

I want to suggest another understanding of sinat chinam. Sinat means “hatred.” Chinam has the connotation not only of “groundless” but of “freely given.” Indeed, the word chinam in modern Hebrew is most commonly found in stores and markets as it means “free,” i.e. “without cost.” Something that is freely given is casually doled out, as free samples in stores, or outdoor festivals or outside ballparks. So what is hatred freely given?

I think our graffiti is an example of such. It is a malicious act done casually, without thought, and without any intention of positive outcome. It does not seek to constructively advance a cause, it rather casually seeks to destabilize others in pursuit of that cause. It is an act done without deep thought which seeks to further alienate and “otherize” an already vulnerable minority population. It is hatred casually doled out. And this can be destructive.

On my way to the police station yesterday I happened to be run into a friend and we shared a quick lunch. I told him about the graffiti. He was sympathetic, and he mentioned that the positive in this incident is that it means that the Temple is a visible, engaged member of the community, and underneath the act of graffiti is a desire to connect, even if the means are misguided. While I still feel shaken and unnerved by the idea of being targeted, I do take some strength from this idea.

Because unlike millennia ago, this act of sinat chinam will not result in the destruction of the Temple. We will continue to be a visible presence in the Olympia community. We will continue to defy and challenge what “the Jews” are supposed to think and feel, providing a model for a dynamic Jewish community. We will wrestle with Israel, with Palestine, with politics. We will continue to observe traditions and deepen our spirituality. And we will continue to be a platform for social justice and peace. We will continue to be a place where people are able to connect—with Judaism, with me and with each other.

The graffiti will be painted over. The column will still stand.

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.

We Acknowledge the Past, But Don’t Live There

This Tuesday coming up is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, a day of sorrow and commemoration for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. There were two Temples, the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE. Tradition teaches that both were destroyed on the same date.

These events were seen as highly traumatic for the Jewish people. With the destruction of the Temples Jewish sovereignty came to an end and the people were exiled as the central institutions of Jewish practice were abolished. Tisha B’Av is a day set aside for mourning these events, usually marked by fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations.

destruction of the templeWe still maintain the Temple as an important place in the religious imagination of Judaism. It is seen as the place where Israel and God were closest, and we turn to face its location during our prayer services. Yet Judaism has changed and evolved away from Temple practice It was out of these ashes that the Talmud was born and Judaism as we know it—as opposed to one centered around the Temple-based sacrificial system—was developed. We therefore approach the destruction with mixed emotions: we mourn for its loss and the trauma that brought, while at the same time we don’t hope for its actual rebuilding.

We look back and acknowledge the past, while at the same time recognize how that past brought us to where we are today. There is a wonderful story from the Talmud (Baba Bathra 60b) about the aftermath of the destruction:

It was taught: when the Temple was destroyed, large numbers of Jews became ascetics, not eating meat or drinking wine. Rabbi Joshua asked them, “why do you not eat meat or drink wine?”

“They replied, ‘how can we eat meat, when we used to bring meat as an offering on the altar which is now destroyed? And how can we drink wine, which was poured out as an offering, when we no longer do that.”

Rabbi Joshua said, “in that case you shouldn’t eat bread, since we used to offer meal offerings and don’t any more.”

“You are right,” they said. “In that case we will manage with just fruit.”

“But you shouldn’t eat fruit, because we used to offer the first fruits of the harvest at the Temple, and we don’t do that anymore.”

“Ok, well, we can manage with different fruits.”

“And,” Rabbi Joshua said, “we should not drink water, because of the ritual of water pouring that was practiced in the Temple.”

With that, the people were silent.

Joshua said, “You are right to mourn, it is necessary to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But to mourn too much is also also impossible, for it is too much to bear.”

Afterwards the rabbis made a rule: When a person builds a house, he should leave one corner unfinished, in memory of the Temple. If a person is preparing a meal, he should leave out one small ingredient, in memory of the Temple.

[This idea is also the source of the custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding—we take a happy event and add a bit of sadness.]

What this story teaches is that first and foremost we are survivors. When we experience destruction or loss, it is not that we must become ascetics and give up our lives as we know it. Rather we must continue to build houses and hold feasts. We must continue to enjoy meat and wine, bread and fruit and water.

At the same time, we acknowledge the losses of the past and how they impact how are lives are lived now. They are very real, and not to be ignored.

Taken together, what the Talmud is teaching us is, while we must acknowledge our pasts, we can not live in them. Indeed, all of our experiences make us who we are today, so while we take the time and space to mourn our personal losses destructions, we also acknowledge who we have become because of those losses and destructions. Those difficult aspects of our past have some redemption in the fact that they have brought us to who we are in the present.

This Tisha B’Av, we acknowledge the past hurts and destructions in our lives. And we celebrate our ability to rise out of those ashes and begin anew.

Destruction and Rebuilding this Tisha B’Av

On Tisha B’Av we mark the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It was such a calamity for the Jewish people, as the Temple was central institution of the community at the time. Since then, we have mourned its loss with fasting and the recitation of the book of Lamentations, as well as adopting a general attitude of sadness.

While the Temple no longer exists, it still plays a central role in the Jewish religious imagination. We turn to face east during worship, marking our connection to that location and its spiritual energy. “The rebuilding of the Temple” becomes a metaphor for the act of redemption, and prayers for its restoration are meant to invoke the hope that all that was once lost will be returned.

And today when we mark Tisha B’Av we bring to mind the general idea of how important our communal institutions and centers are to us, and the brokenness of the Temple reminds us of the brokenness of our own society.

But sometimes, institutions need to be broken in order to come to a new place. Which is why the destruction of the Temple is ultimately bittersweet. For while the destruction of the Temple was tragic, the fact of the destruction brought about a new era of creativity and spiritual growth. It brought about the focus on text and interpretation, the creation of new ritual, an end to the hereditary hierarchy of leadership and the beginning of a new era. This era, the rabbinic era, is what developed the Judaism that we know. The development of the the Judaism we practice is because of, not despite, the destruction of the Temple.

So while we mourn the loss of our important institutions, I invite you too to think about those institutions you wouldn’t mind smashing. With the news out of Florida what comes to mind for me are the institutional racism we still carry within us, the culture of gun violence and unjust laws that favor one over the other and provide legal justification for behaving badly. These are institutions which should be destroyed.

On Tisha B’Av we mourn. But we also remember that out of the ashes of destruction can come something new and better–and sometimes destruction is what is necessary for a society to move forward.