The Rav’s Tisha b’Av
More than with any other day during the course of the year, the figure of my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, is associated in my mind with Tisha b’Av. Not because he was a mournful or melancholy character (although he was decidedly not given to Hasidic flights of song and dance or ecstatic prayer), but because of the unique nature of the reading of Kinot on Tisha b’Av in his presence. Essentially, Tisha b’Av was the occasion for an all-day Torah lesson, from 8 in the morning until late in the afternoon. People from all over Boston and beyond crowded into the synagogue of the Maimonides School to hear him. Following Shaharit and Torah reading, he would deliver a discourse on halakhic and philosophic aspects of the laws of the day. In his inimitable way, he would weave together halakhic motifs and underlying religious and philosophical conceptions, demonstrating how the seemingly minor details of the halakhah express profound ideas.
The Rav conceived of Kinot as essentially a form of Oral Torah, elaborating, explaining, and complementing the Biblical lessons for the day, found in the Torah reading, the haftarah, and the scroll of Aikhah (Lamentations). The Kinot themselves, dirges written by Byzantine and Medieval Hebrew poets, such as those of Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kallir, are an artful interweaving of midrashic motifs and biblical verses. While reading the Kinot, the Rav would stop between each one, or at times after each stanza, to explain, elaborate, narrate, philosophize, polemicize, etc. The Rav seemed to have a particular affinity for the piyyut literature, which many Jews find impenetrably dense and difficult. Someone once asked the Rav what book he read on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during lulls in the davening, expecting him to name some Mussar (ethical) treatise or perhaps some work of Maimonides. The Rav replied, “the Mahzor,” explaining how these Medieval poems were vehicles of Oral Torah.
A few gleanings from those occasions. In an halakhic analysis delivered one year, the Rav explained how Tisha b’Av is a unique combination of ta’anit tzibbur (public fast day) and avelut (a day of mourning). The basic rules of the fast day: its parameters from dusk to nightfall, the prohibitions of eating, drinking, washing, wearing shoes, etc, are all characteristic of the more stringent public fast days—whether of Yom Kippur, its biblical archetype, or the seven latter fast days for drought years mentioned in Mishnah Ta’anit. On the other hand, it is a day of intense mourning. The Rav explained avelut—whether for personal bereavement over loss of a member of ones intimate family, or the collective mourning of Tisha b’Av—as a sense of alienation, of distance from God, even of confronting dark, nihilistic thoughts. Tisha b’Av is in essence not a day of prayer: one recites the mandatory daily prayers because they are required, but unlike other fast days it is not a day of prayerfulness, reflecting a living, vital sense of contact with God. On that day, we do not feel God’s presence or His attentive listening; the mottos of the other fast days or of the Ten Days of Repentance, “Seek the Lord when he is to be found” or “Who is like our God, in all our crying out to Him?” do not apply here. Hence, on Tisha b’Av there are no Selihot (penitential prayers), no recitation of the 13 attributes of mercy, no Avinu Malkinu, etc. Instead, the byword is satam tefilati—“Even when I call and cry for help, my prayer is shut out” (Lam 3:8)—which the Rav interpreted as a halakhic concept. (Consistent with this view, he did not even allow the recitation of a Mi sheberakh laholeh, the special prayer for the sick, on Tisha b’Av)
From here, he turned to the concept of theodicy. He saw Tisha b’Av as the one day of the year when one is allowed to ask even the most daring questions of God: “lehatiah devarim klapei ma’alah.” According to the Rav, this is derived from the Book of Eikhah, read on that day. The very title of the book, “eikhah,” is not only a statement but a question: “How?” Interestingly, this word serves as a leitmotif, repeated twice (or thrice) in the liturgy for Shabbat Hazon, the sabbath preceding Tisha b’Av, as a kind of foreshadowing of the day itself. In the Torah reading Moses asks “How can I bear alone your trouble and burden and strife?” (Deut 1:12); and in the haftarah: “How is the faithful city become as a harlot” (Isa 1:21)—in both cases, the verse being read in the elegiac melody of Lamentations. Many of the kinot are also built upon the word eikhah or other key words from the book, which they utilize as a precedent, as a kind of basis for asking penetrating, searing questions. This may be observed, for example, in the kinot “Ai -Koh Omer” & “Atah amarta haiteiv aitiv imakh.”
Radical Theology of Tisha b’Av
Thus far the Rav. Extrapolating from this in a somewhat more radical direction, I would describe Tisha b’Av as a day marked by dialectic tensions. On the one hand, in its aspect of ta’anit tzibbur, of public fast day, it is marked by the motif of Teshuvah, of returning to God, and by implication also of Tzidduk hadin, of accepting the rightness of God’s harsh judgment. This is akin to the traditional approach that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land”— that all the terrible things that happened to the Jewish people (including those attached to Tisha b’Av by extension ) are ultimately our own fault. On the other hand, in its aspect of avelut, of mourning, it may be interpreted as a day when we look into the void, confronting the emptiness, the apparent senselessness and meaninglessness of the tragic events of life. One is allowed to ask “why?”—to openly declare that there are things that don’t make sense; that the world, that various occurrences in life, that many of the events in Jewish history, do not square with what the Good Book says. As Judaism runs the full gamut of human emotions and of human experiences, so too even this nihilistic, doubting, “irreligious” mood has its place in the annual cycle.
From this perspective, the third chapter of the Book of Lamentations makes new sense. The other four chapters are elegiac descriptions of the fallen glory of Zion, describing in stately cadence how the young men and virgins who walked about in finery, and the prophets and Nazirites and priests who lived lives of holiness and dignity, were reduced to rags and worse. Chapter 3, by contrast, is a Job-like soliloquy of a single individual. It runs the gamut of emotion, from feeling pursued by God—“He is a bear, a lion, lying in ambush for me in secret” (3:10); “he has set me as the mark to his arrow” (v. 12), etc.—to a sudden change in mood, in which the narrator is filled with confidence, trusting in the very God who had seemed an enemy: “The loving-kindness of the Lord is never done, his mercies are endless; they are new every morning… the Lord is good to those who wait upon him” (vv. 22-27), etc. This is in turn followed by a call for self-examination and teshuvah, turning to God, lifting up ones heart in wholehearted confession and repentance (vv. 40-42). But then again, “You have wrapped yourself in a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through” (v. 44). The same good, merciful God is now portrayed in a state of hester panim, of hiding Himself from man. In brief, this chapter is a kind of spiritual diary of a religious man, stricken by overwhelming suffering, whose heart is filled with questions and doubts, wondering whether there really is a God out there who listens and cares and responds to his troubles, or whether He behaves in capricious, cruel, even monstrous ways.
An interesting reflection on a newly relevant side-aspect of this issue of theodicy: whether one piously accepts God’s judgment or shakes ones fist at heaven and cries out “Why?”, these questions are of vital importance for Jews. For Jews, unlike Buddhists, the option of radical quietism is not a live option, because the world, and life, are not illusory, but are very real. Perhaps it is in the confrontation with these types of questions, most of all, that the ways of Judaism and the mystical, quietistic religions of the Far East part.
Since writing these words, there has been a great tumult over Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s remarks that the victims of the Holocaust were reincarnation of sinners of past generations, who thereby atoned their outstanding sins. The vehement secularist reaction, while understandable, seems to miss the point of Rav Yosef’s remarks. Rav Ovadiah was trying to come up with some sort of explanation for the most difficult, vexing problem for Jewish religious thought and, at least in theory, his position cannot be ruled out as a possible option. My objection to it is on two other grounds: First, “Sages, be careful with your words.” A discussion of such an esoteric, not to say sensitive, issue was totally inappropriate for a public lecture to a mass audience, particularly one broadcast live far beyond the confines of his Beit Midrash. “Hanei kavshei derahmana lamah li?” The traditional attitude is one of extreme hesitance and circumspection about discussing the details of God’s conduct of the world, what happens to each individual after death, etc. If he must, let him write an article in a Rabbinic journal. Second, his statement that these matters are “fundaments of the faith” and that anyone who denies them is a heretic is simply incorrect and wrongheaded. Rav Yosef Albo says that we must believe, in a general way, in Divine justice and in recompense for our actions. But whether these things are done in this world, in an afterlife through Heaven and Hell, or through reincarnation in the form of fish, snakes, cats, Polish Jewish children, or Chief Rabbis—who dare say? The Rambam’s remarks in the final chapter of the Mishneh Torah vis-a-vis eschatology: “One should not engage overly much in speculations on these matters, as they lead neither to love of God nor to fear of God… but one must only believe in them in a general way, and we shall not know how they will happen until they happen” may be applied equally well to these matters.
Shlomo Carlebach also used to talk about the Holocaust and reincarnation/ transmigration of souls, but in a very different vein. He claimed that the children of the generation born after the Holocaust, many of whom became student radicals, hippies, flower children, and “Holy Beggars,” were reincarnations of the victims of the Holocaust; after the horrors they experienced, they were filled with idealism and a burning desire for a better, purer, different sort of world. He of course exaggerated in the opposite direction, but what a difference!…
From Michael Kagan’s Book of Kavvanot
Michael Kagan sent me an extensive selection of his writings on Tisha b’Av, taken from his work in progress (?), Book of Kavvanot . I reproduce here the opening paragraph. Those interested in reading the entire text may contact me.
The month of Av is one of the few months that has a Hebrew name. (All the others are ancient Babylonian gods.) And what does “Av” mean? It means father. This is the month of the Father. It is complimentary to Shavuot in Sivan which is the Mother festival. Av occurs during the hottest month when the sun scorches the earth. The Father is symbolized by the sun. In the dream of Joseph in which the eleven stars, sun and moon bow down to him, the stars are his brothers, the moon his mother and the sun his father. Tisha B'Av is the time when the Father's anger burns the fiercest, when it destroys His own sanctuary, scatters His children, lays waste to the earth. How do we reconcile ourselves to our father's anger, to our anger as fathers, and to the anger of our Father, in heaven? Can we make space to allow healing?
Thoughts of Rebuke and Consolation
Rav Soloveitchik often described the fast day of Tisha b’Av as composed of equal measures of mourning and repentance. Rambam states, regarding all the commemorative fast days, that we fast thereon “in memory of the bad things that happened due to the evil deeds of our forefathers, which are like our own evil deeds today” (Hil. Ta’aniyot 5.1). The implication, carrying this line of thought to its logical conclusion, is a frightening one: that our own actions, individually and especially collectively, may lead to national disaster. Indeed, the haftarot read during the three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av are filled with elements of rebuke and admonitions to the Jewish people: “You are a people heavy with iniquity”; “You are become like Sedom and Gemorrah”; “the ox knows its master, but My people does not know Me.”
I often wonder whether, if Isaiah or Jeremiah were to walk among us today, they would not cry out in rage and despair at the sins of the people. The State of Israel, the Third Jewish Commonwealth, hailed as the “first fruit of the flowering of our Redemption,” which began with so much hope and freshness and spirit of renewal and creativity, seems to have declined into corruption, complacency, and injustice.
The indictment is long. I do not refer here to the sins against the Palestinian people, both real and imagined, which so many of those who are not necessarily friends of Israel are so quick to criticize (although I have written about these things as well in the past; there are certain things, such as the blockades of the villages, which prevent people from receiving medical care, from visiting members of their own families, from tending their olive groves and grapevines, or otherwise running ordinary lives, that are inexcusable). I refer here more to sins of Jew against Jew. To the callousness of our government towards the weakest elements in our population: the punitive attitude toward the unemployed, including single mothers, when there is precious little work to be had; the draconian cuts in the social budget, in health and education, while new bypass roads and settlements continue to be built in the West Bank, and tax breaks to the wealthy continue, under the pretext of “stimulating economic growth.” Israel, which forty or fifty years ago was one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, marked by great social solidarity, today has one of the greatest gaps between rich and poor. Is the United States really such a wonderful model of social harmony that it needs to be emulated in this respect as well? And then there is the hypocrisy of certain political leaders, who rose to the top by appealing to the fears and nationalist sentiments of many of those in the poorer neighborhoods and regions of the country, who are now the engineers of an economic policy that harms these very sectors in harsh ways.
I will mention two more things, which to my mind reflect this mood of callousness and insensitivity. On Yom ha-Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day, 2003), an Armenian woman, a nurse at Hadassah Hospital who works with victims of terrorist attacks at the intensive care unit, was among those honored to light a torch at the central ceremony. She asked to include in her little speech a phrase alluding to the fact that she was the descendant of survivors of the Armenian Holocaust—the decimation of the Armenian people at the hands of the Turks during the First World War, a national trauma comparable in many ways to our own Holocaust. The Armenians are a small but significant part of the Israeli ethnic fabric, many of whom live in a historic quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Her right to express the truth of her family’s history of suffering was denied, due to fear of a diplomatic incident with Turkey (the Turks, unlike the Germans, have never owned up to their role in genocide). With all due respect to the need for Israeli-Turkish friendship, how can we call upon others to respect the Holocaust we’ve suffered when we cannot respect the suffering of others? Jews are highly sensitive (and rightly so) to those who would deny the horrors of our recent history; how can we practice Holocaust denial with regard to others, out of cynical political considerations?
Another issue: during my recent visit to New York, I happened to be the guest of Barbara Ribakov, head of an international organization devoted to helping Ethiopian Jewry. I learned from her that there are still tens of thousands of Falashmura, Ethiopian Jews of mixed background (but who have been declared Jewish by a series of chief rabbis), who are still in Addis Ababa, where they confront a famine far worse than that of the early 1980s; just last week twelve of them, mostly children, died of starvation. The logical solution would be mass aliyah to Israel, but this is being opposed by the new, “liberal” administration of the Interior Ministry by Shinui’s Avraham Poraz, who in the name of anti-clericalism and not burdening his middle-class constituency with poor, diseased, bedraggled, third world Jews, refuses them entry. But if Israel cannot literally save the lives of Jews in distress, cannot perform an act that is both Jewish and humanitarian, what larger Zionist role does it still serve?
But against all that: while the prophets rebuked Israel, there is also another kind of moment in Jewish thinking about history: the love of Israel. One does not rebuke too harshly, nor does one speak in excessively negative terms about the Jewish people, so as not to arouse anger, forces of kitrug, of prosecution and condemnation—whether from the Almighty, or from the other nations of the world. There is a sense of compassion which says that, whatever awful things Israel may have done, one cannot condemn it unequivocally, without some ray of empathy. “Forbear! How can Israel stand, for he is small.” Even the harshest admonition must end with a note of hope and comfort, just as the bleakness of Tisha b’Av morning turns to the hope of the Afternoon Prayer, with its leitmotif is Nahem (“Comfort…”) and from there to the Sabbath of Consolation (Nahamu).
Between 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av
The two fast days of mid-summer, that constitute the two poles of the three weeks of mourning, are seen in the Midrashic tradition as corresponding to two central moments in the sacred history of the Torah: the sin of the Golden Calf, and that of the Spies. Moses, in response to seeing the people orgiastically cavorting before the Golden Calf, smashed the first set of tablets on the 17th of Tammuz; the weeping of the people “on that night” (Num 14:1), following the grim report of the Spies, is said to have happened on the 9th of Av. These two events, each in their own way, are seen as the great archetypes for the sins of the Jewish people in all generations—and of the process of Divine forgiveness (see HY I: Ki Tisa; Shelah Lekha).
The interplay between these two events, with all their theological, psychological, and other ramifications, present a rich mine for thought and speculation. I will confine myself here to one question, and one tentative answer. Since, as everyone knows, Tisha b’Av is a far more serious, deeply mournful day than the 17th of Tammuz, we must assume that the sin of the Golden Calf, notwithstanding first appearances (for what could be worse than idolatry?), was less grave than that of the Spies. How so?
My own rather speculative answer is that the making of the Golden Calf was motivated by a spiritual impulse gone wrong. The people experienced a deep lack in wake of Moses’ prolonged absence, and felt the need to do something, to fill their longing for some transcendent guidance. In the case of the Spies, the people sank into black despair; whatever spiritual impulses they had were totally extinguished, or at least driven deep inside themselves; they gave up on all hope, on all aspiration for anything more in their lives than dragging on and on in the gray, earth-bound concerns of a purely physical existence. Thus, the midrashic tradition, in pinpointing the incident of the Spies as the root of Tisha b’Av, the “holiday” of exile, saw this as the more weighty sin.
Afterthoughts on Tisha b’Av
In previous years I have strongly emphasized the aspect of hester panim on Tisha b’Av—of the “hiding of God’s face,” the aspect of theodicy, of being permitted to ask daring questions, challenging God’s actions in the various disasters He visited upon the Jewish People, in the two Destructions and in the Shoah. Rav Soloveitchik often spoke of Tisha b’Av as a day when God is somehow distant, closed off, unavailable to listen to prayer, even explaining certain practices (not reciting Avinu Malkinu or Selihot, not donning tefillin) as symbolizing this idea (see HY I: Tisha b’Av).
But this year, I somehow found myself with more of an understanding of the traditional explanation, mipnei hataeinu, “because of our sins.” Or perhaps better, seeing Tisha b’Av as existing in tension between the two— mipnei hataeinu & hester panim; unadulterated morning and weeping and refusal to accept any facile justification of God’s ways, on the one hand, and fasting and prayer leading to soul-searching, contrition and repentance, on the other—that is, the traditional image of public fast days as found in Rambam, Ta’aniyot 1.1-4, 17; 5.1 and elsewhere. Or, to translate into real conceptual terms: God’s seeming arbitrariness, absence and indifference to human suffering, counterpoised to the reality of human evil, which eventually brings upon itself severe punishment, at times sweeping away the good and innocent along with the evil and corrupt.
Quite appropriately, on the eve of Tisha b’Av I received in the mail a pamphlet sent out by Yeshivat Har Etzion, my Torah “alma mater,” containing a synthetic presentation of Rav Yehudah Amital’s response to the Holocaust—the event which shaped his entire life perspective—gleaned from his talks and writings by one of his students (Moshe Maya, Olam banuy ve-harev u-banuy). One of the striking statements he made there is that, after the Shoah, it is no longer possible to worship God through ”recognition of His goodness,“ as Rabbenu Bahye suggests in the opening section of Hovot ha-Levavot. Rather, one can only serve Him with a Job-like faith, based upon the fact of an existing relation to Him no matter what; one says, ”Though He slay me, I yet hope for Him” (Job 13:15), and “I flee from You—to You.”
Rav Amital tells there of a conversation with Abba Kovner—a secular Jew, one of the leaders of the Kovna Ghetto revolt, who survived to become an important figure in Israeli literary and cultural life. Kovner asked him, “How can you believe in God after the Shoah?” To which Amital replied: “How can you believe in Man? Your belief has been equally shattered, indeed, perhaps even more so; after all, one is supposed to be able to understand man, whereas God by His very nature is inscrutable.”
To return to my original line of thought: I can imagine the prophet Jeremiah feeling that the Destruction was indeed deserved. The people had abandoned God, had abjured all love or even decency toward their fellow man, had created a society filled with corruption and violence and unrestrained egotism and endless cheating and chicanery. How could such a society survive? And yet, after the fact, he sat on the ground weeping. Such a posture can go hand in hand with acknowledging God’s justice in destroying them. The people were evil, but he nevertheless loved this place, this society, the familiar faces. And now, all that he had ever known—his home, the familiar street, the market place, the Beit Midrash, and of course, its crowning glory, the Temple where pious throngs had flocked to worship and to celebrate—were gone. Of course, he knew full well that it was filled with corruption, but even the evildoers were among the familiar faces; perhaps they were even part of the same society, whose sons and daughters courted and married among one another. For that is how real life is: the evil doers don’t walk around with a badge of shame; more often than not they are upstanding citizens, perhaps even national leaders, who follow all the social norms and rules, but are corrupt in their souls and in their behavior.
Moreover, my understanding of mipnei hateinu is a rather naturalistic one. It is not the somewhat childish image of the Almighty adding up mitzvot and transgressions in a big Divine ledger until one day, when one too many persons drives a car on Shabbat, eats a Macdonald’s hamburger or, according to the pietists, skips minyan in the morning or says Amen without kavvanah, the Divine wrath comes hurtling down. No, I see things in much more natural terms: God has constructed the social world with certain built-in moral laws, just as He has created the natural world with the laws of physics and chemistry and genetics and so forth. It cannot abide too much corruption and oppression and dishonesty, too much apathy to the suffering of others, Once the level of ethical sin goes too high, the society is bound too collapse. It may take a long time, but the consequences of evil will surely come—again, through natural cause and effect: lack of social cohesion, selfishness leading to divisiveness among different groups, making it easy prey for other, morally stronger, perhaps simpler and less sophisticated, but more united enemies. And on that day all the rhetoric in the world of ”national unity” will not help. May the living take this to heart.
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In response to what I wrote (at the end of my piece on Psalm 137), about radical theology and the evil within man itself being a “face” of that Divine image in which man is created, David Greenstein wrote:
Regarding your concluding theological comment—the end of the Guide struggles with this to some degree. He asks, if we accept that God can be wrathful and punitive, why we should not, in the spirit of imitatio dei, emulate that aspect of God in whose image we are created? So he answers that that is the point of the revelation of the thirteen attributes of [Divine] mercy—that this is the only aspect of God we can or should see ourselves connected to. This allows us to read the Torah’s depiction of that revelation in this way: God does not allow us to see His Face, as it were, but only His back. This back is equivalent to His Merciful qualities. Thus, quite literally, the revelation of God as Merciful is coupled with the refusal by God to let us understand how God can also incorporate evil, as it were, and is literally (no less than the allowance—or even promotion—of suffering in this world) an act of hester panim [“hiding / concealment of God’s face”].
To which I responded:
I basically agree with you. But, as Rav Soloveitchik always used to say, Tisha b’Av is the one day of the year when we’re allowed to ask outrageous theological questions, outside of the usual frameworks, coming from our painful, very real awareness that at times the world seems utterly empty of the Merciful One. But, as R. Nahman says in the “Torah of the Void” (hallal hapanuy; i.e., Likkutei Muharan §64; see HY IV: Bo), if you contemplate questions that come from that place for too long, you can go crazy! On another level, isn't it interesting that the verses from which Rambam derives his homiletic at the end of Guide III.54 are the very same ones (Jer 9:22-23) that we read davka at the end of the haftarah for Tisha b’Av morning?
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One last thought about Psalm 137: the introduction of the oath, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,” sounds as though it reflects the real situation of Babylonian Jewry. There were many who did not want to go back to the Land, but were very happy where they were. This verse may thus be the first self-conscious ”Zionist” sermons, indirectly lambasting the assimilationists, who within one generation had become comfortable in Exile and even achieved a moderate degree of wealth and success in their new home. They were surely the harbingers of a long line of Diaspora Jews who seem to have an innate talent for “landing on their feet” in new places.
But we mustn’t forget that even those who did return had, in large numbers, married non-Jewish wives. See Ezra Chapters 9-10, which includes a long list of names (10:18-44) of men who, ironically, enjoy the eternal privilege of their names being preserved in Holy Scriptures, to date two and a half millennia after their death, merely because they married “shikses.”