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What Dictates Identity: Tragedy or Sanctity?

August 7, 2008 By:
Rabbi Richard Hirsh
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This Shabbat comes before the observance of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the fall of the first and second Temples (586 BCE and 70 C.E.). It is called Shabbat Hazon after the first words of the Haftorah portion: "Hazon Yishayahu, the vision of Isaiah."

Isaiah's prophecy is of the destruction of Jerusalem, replete with the castigation of sinners. It is an appropriate, if depressing, anticipation of the somber setting of the fast of Tisha B'Av.

Tisha B'Av was at one time the point of convergence for Jewish tragedy. The negative tenor of the day attracted associations ranging from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to a variety of persecutions.

With the rise of Reform Judaism in 19th-century Europe, the observance of Tisha B'Av began to diminish. Since the early Reformers no longer expected a messianic return, they did not mourn for the destruction of the Temples, only for the loss of life. And they viewed the dispersal of the Jews as an opportunity to spread monotheism's message.

In the years after World War II, there was much debate as to whether the Holocaust should be absorbed into the observance of Tisha B'Av or whether it should be commemorated separately.

The emergence of Yom Hashoah resolved that debate, but also contributed to the decline in the observance of Tisha B'Av. The raw reality of Yom Hashoah became more resonant than the destruction of the Temples.

There remains a troubling debate within the Jewish community as to the place of suffering and loss in the construction of Jewish identity. There is even a term for defining Judaism as a series of tragedies: the lachrymose theory of history. From this perspective, Judaism is a lurching from one catastrophe to another.

While it's necessary to commemorate loss, it is also reasonable to ask what price we pay for defining ourselves as victims. Since the Shoah, the sloganeering summary of Jewish affirmation has been "Never Again," when it might have been Kedoshim T'hiyu -- "You Shall Be Holy."

The Holocaust, as well as other Jewish tragedies, demand memorial, yet it's prudent to ask what the best way is to memorialize. A recurrent debate centers on the wisdom of spending limited dollars on statues, rather than on day-school scholarships and subsidized synagogue memberships. Which form of memorial is likely to sustain Jewish living, the loss of which, after all, is what we mourn on Tisha B'Av and Yom Hashoah?

Given the attention devoted to Jewish continuity, what is the effect of a negative message on those marginal to the community? It must sound to younger Jews like they're being extended an invitation to board the Titanic once it's begun to sink.

Our community continues to vacillate between two symbols of Jewish identity: Auschwitz or Sinai. From the first perspective, we are victims. Our history is one of tragedy, interrupted by periods of false security. The best we can do is defy those who persecute us, and stay Jewish to spite them.

From the second viewpoint, we are children of the Covenant. Our history is defined by the Exodus and Sinai. We have indeed suffered tragedy, yet we do not abandon our values and commitment to God. The best we can do is to strive for holiness and to remain firm in our devotion to the perfection of the world under the rule of God.

Yet Tisha B'Av is actually an opportunity to replace a sense of persecution with a sense of perspective. We must mourn, and we must not forget. We should fast, we should read Lamentations, we should discuss how defeat has shaped us.

But we should also discuss how to avoid defining Jews and Judaism as if the only reality of our history were a negative one. There is too much we've inherited, and too much at stake, for us to fail to find the positive reasons to remain Jews.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.


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