If Pesach is the Jewish holiday most celebrated by American Jews, Tisha B’Av is the most second-guessed. Modern Jews don’t know quite what to do with it. Most Jews and probably all Reform Jews do not yearn for the Temple to be rebuilt or for the priesthood to be restored. We are followers of Rabbinic Judaism, not the Israelite sacrificial cult. So the question naturally arises: Why mourn what we don’t miss?
One early American Reform leader, Rabbi David Einhorn, went so far as to make Tisha B’Av a happy celebration in his siddur, Olat Tamid (1896):
“The one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to Thy honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe… The true and real sanctuary, They imperishable testimony, remained ours, untouched and undimmed… In this our hope, this day of mourning and of fasting hath, according to the word of Thy prophet, been turned into a solemn day of rejoicing in view of the glorious destiny of Thy law and our high messianic mission which had its beginning with the historic events which we recall today” (Olat Tamid, Rabbi David Einhorn, trans. Emil Hirsch, S. Ettlinger: 1896, Chicago, pp. 144-145).
This transformation of a day of ancient mourning into a modern universalistic festival spoke to the classical Reform principle of being a light to the nations by spreading ethical monotheism to the world. The Diaspora, made possible by the Temple’s destruction, enabled our noble mission.
Notably, Einhorn’s liturgical innovation predated both the modern state of Israel and the Reform Movement’s support of Zionism. Einhorn’s solution to the Tisha B’Av question does not work for us today because it lacks balance and because the Jewish world has changed dramatically.
A fitting Tisha B’Av rite for the postmodern Jew should embrace the themes of loss, destruction, and weakness while also acknowledging the unprecedented prosperity and security of most Jews today. There is haunting beauty and spiritual richness in sitting on the floor in a dimly lit sanctuary, hearing the cantor chant Eichah. Not to mention that the themes of destruction and exile resonate today in so many places around the world. Tisha B’Av can be an opportunity to cultivate our capacity to care. (As I write this, a refugee team is competing in the Rio Olympics. Look no further than those champions to learn about exile and resilience.)
A balanced Tisha B’Av would include mention of our people’s triumphs as well. We should emphasize what makes the Jewish reality today so different than in 586 BCE (the Babylonian exile) and 70 CE (the Roman destruction). The state of Israel exists as an economic and military powerhouse, and the American Jewish community is more prosperous than ever. Neither is without its challenges, but our crises pale in comparison to our ancient forebears’. Let us feel gratitude for our blessings even as we pledge vigilance in the face of our challenges.
If nothing else, Tisha B’Av is a chance to retell part of our people’s story. The power of storytelling creates a sense of belonging and shared purpose, and even a sense of responsibility to carry on the story. Psychologists who study family storytelling have determined that the most powerful family narrative type is the “oscillating” narrative: We had struggles but we overcame them together. So many of our historical holidays touch that theme. Tisha B’Av is often a missed opportunity to retell part of that story – the ups and downs and everything in between. With some intentional planning and thoughtful implementation, we can honor Tisha B’Av’s origin and make it matter again to the Jews of today.
Rabbi David Segal serves Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen, Colorado.