Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha b'Av: Why we don't deserve a Temple yet.

There is mint between the stones. It grows, along with others herbs, in bunches that seem to come from within the mount, the scattered eruptions of wild weedy life bursting through the cold stone of the Kotel. It's fragrance mixes with the sweat of bodies which is faint and varied on most days, thick today when few have showered. On other days it smells like the breath of the shekhinah is mixing with that of her people; today it feels like the perfume applied to mask a corpse. Today is Tisha b'Av. Originally the commemoration of first one Temple's destruction and then another, it now stands as memorial for all the suffering of Israel. Today the Wall, a place of joy, of home, is little more than a broken wall.

Finding meaning in suffering is a trope of the Jewish tradition. When the cities had been burned, when swords have been broken, and Temples destroyed, Rabbis and Prophets fought back not by violence but by writing their oppressors out of Truth. The eternal subject of violence both for and against Israel was not the Assyrians, nor the Romans, nor the Crusaders but always G-d. The bastards didn't even exist on their own; only as agents of the Almighty. Thus Israel fell and suffered not because of any superiority of strength on her enemies' part but because G-d had decided Israel should fall. The sages sought to understand why. The Prophets are full of condemnation over the sins of Israel. The people went after idols, they worshiped what their hands could make; in doing so, they worshiped themselves. They worshiped things over reality, over goodness, over G-d.

It's no surprise that the high ideals of Torah justice vanished in the land. The Talmud cites idolatry and injustice as the charges for which the first Temple was destroyed. The people were carted away to Judah. The rich nobleman who, according to Lamentations, wouldn't give a morsel to a starving child, now starved alongside the slave in a land that belonged to neither of them. They came back from that experience chastised. No longer would they serve after other G-ds. There would be a new striving after justice. The new Israel would not act as the old. It would be a light unto the nations, a holy people. The Talmud records that the people occupied themselves with the study of Torah, Mitzvot and charity. I'm reminded of the idealism that accompanied the foundation of the modern State here. A socialist paradise where Jews would all be brothers and sisters; where they would build great modern cities founded on a higher sense of justice than the countries they had left behind, a Jewish sense of justice. That idealism is still here but it has been rephrased in the terms of ugly triumphalism. The future is less often spoken of now. The future is a vaguely defined time of war, of imperilment, of paranoia. The past, the imagined present, these are now the times of moral greatness.

Of learning. Israel invented the cell phone. At the same time some of the greatest academics of our time are banned from entering the country.

Of mitzvot. When the state may soon reject the Jewishness of thousands, the validity of their mitzvot.

Of charity. When there are mass movements calling for the deportation of foreign workers, their children, refugees.

The ancient shivat tzion, the return to Zion was accompanied by ethnic cleansing. The people of Israel who had stayed, who had not shared in the transformative experience of exile, who could not claim the same priviledge of suffering were cast out of the nation; they became the am ha'aretz, the people of the land. Just as the am ha'aretz of this time in the land, who did not live through the Holocaust nor were a part of it are punished for it. But there was more. The Jews who had married foreign women, had to, like Avraham long before, expel them and their children, send them back into the exile the nation had so recently escaped from.

I imagine a witchhunt. A time when anyone could be seen as an agent of the Enemy; either in reality, or by veering too far from the new and narrow definition of Jewishness. To veer too far might lead to idolatry, might cause Hashem to take back their newly regained national existence.

This anxiety around security, identity did not fade. The Maccabis fought what was at once a war for national autonomy and a civil war over the purity of identity. With the same fervor that the Inquisition sought out Judaizers, they sought out those who tried to syncretize Judaism and Hellenism. As the Second Temple period drew to a close, even the "pure" Jewish establishment began to divide against itself. Essenes withdrew from what they perceived to be the desecration of the Temple by the Romanizing Zadokites. The latter saw accommodation with Rome as necessary to the survival of the cult, even if it came the cost of the people's welfare. The Pharisees, men like Jesus, Yohanan ben Zakkai and Akiva sought to resist Rome and transform Judaism, into a religion of the soul or of study or of the law. Each group saw the other as collaborators with or provokers of the forces of destruction, now no longer with G-d, but with the Other.

The Talmud says that for all the Torah learning and charity of Israel, the Temple was still destroyed, because of baseless hatred, sinat hinam. Jews hated Jews because they were a politcal threat, a religious or moral threat or simply because they were not Jewish enough by someone else's standards. It was easier to justify hatred when the nation had Torah and mitzvot and charity, when it could imagine itself a light unto the nations. In Jerusalem, where I try to spend as much spare time as I can, there is of course, great Torah learning. There are mitzvot. And there are great institutions of charity. And at the same time, if you wander in the wrong area wearing the wrong thing, you can get stoned by Torah scholars. In the East of the City, servants of the Mitzvot push for the expansion settlements, for the demolition of families' homes. And in the halls of power, the great philanthropists seek to steal Judaism away from thousands by refusing to recognize their conversions.

Hillel's words have been forgotten, that the essence of Torah is not it's rigorous technical fulfillment but the command to love your neighbor as yourself; that the rest of it, even the charity such love engenders is secondary, is commentary. It is those who forget that G-d wants kindness, not animal sacrifices, who weep most fervently for the ruined Temple, who dream of a day when another people's holy places will be burned like ours were and replaced with a Third Temple. When I was at the Kotel on Tisha b'Av, there was a riot squad guarding the gate to the Haram al-Sharif, the Mount. This day is an angry day for would be Jewish terrorists who plant bombs under and open fire in al-Aqsa. A Third Temple, conceived in sinat hinam, in fantasies of messianic bloodshed will be about as holy as the Temple of Jupiter Hadrian once built there.

Rav Kook said the Third Temple would only come when sinat hinam was reversed, when baseless and unconditional kindness replaces all hatred. The Prophets spoke of the new Temple as an alter for all the nations to come to and worship alongside one another, a place of justice and lovingkindness, of openness. This will not be the Temple that the Third Temple people crave. The Dome will still be there. Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah will still look upon it. Maybe an international border will cut through the city. But Jerusalem will regain it's kedusha, so long in exile.

It is said that Moshiach will be born on Tisha b'Av. Perhaps this is not because we have merited it this day. Perhaps its because, on this day, we're in the gravest need of redemption.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

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