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Karen Reiss Medwed

9 Days of Av: Innovative Sacred Realms

Tisha B’Av has always struck as a conundrum, the saddest day for the Jewish people, mourning terrible devastating destruction, while at one and the same time, these horrible historic events also led to some of the most incredible innovative transformative sacred new journeys for the Jewish people.

On the one hand we mourn the awful realities endured, for the terrible behaviors and practices,  the violence and destruction and devastation. And yet as we look back at history, this terrible devastation also allowed for some of the creative developments as the Jewish people move away from Biblical Temple based Judaism and leaned more fully into the Rabbinic creative new ways of exploring their religious identity.

Eicha, Alas! Alone sits the city once great with people. She became like a widow the one who was great among nations… (Lamentations 1:1)

The mourning of a widow is unique, one day a partner walking in sync in a relationship, the next day her world turned upside down and her entire identity transformed, all outside her consent or control.  She was one person one day, and another person the next.  Her every move and step forward conflicting with the sadness of what she leaves behind.  Each moment of joy she experiences jars her back to the reality of what she has lost and the fate befallen her. There is no timeline in her journey of grief, there is no metric to measure her sadness.  And yet within months around her the questions start coming, when will you meet someone else, are you ready to move on and start enjoying the rest of your life?  One day she swipes right, just to see who might be out there.  She goes out for a dinner.  Shares a dessert. And yes, the widow might allow her heart to heal, to live and love, and laugh.  To create and procreate.  She might move forward, but never moves on, holding her sadness amidst the joys in her heart.  Her mourning returns to her, in unpredictable cadences, and she marks her losses at designated times, even as her life thrives.

The people Israel, likened to the widow, face the nine days of Av as mourners. There have been terrible tragedies associated with the nineth of Av – the Mishnah Taanit (Chapter 4:6) explicates: “There were five events that happened …on the ninth of Av it was determined that our ancestors should not enter the land, The Temple was destroyed the first and the second time, Betar was captured, And the city was plowed. When Av enters, they limit their rejoicing.”

These were terrible tragedies which befell the people. And yet what followed after these tragedies in retrospect is nothing short of miraculous.  The temerity of the Jewish people, the creativity of the leaders and the innovation of a small few amidst the group, brought about a transformation of the collective religious identity and a sustainability which has continued into today.  Out of the ashes of the Temple and biblical Israel, we saw the emergence of rabbinic Judaism, at one and the same time beholden to its biblical past and rooted in it, and yet completely independently structured and aware of its own temperament, inner systems and psyche, and ontology.

While mourning the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis developed a rabbinic Judaism with a theology that flourished outside the theology of or the infrastructure supporting a Temple Judaism.  Leveraging earlier creative works they doubled down on a rabbinic system of prayer, sacred calendars, legal determinations and religious law no longer rooted to the ritual pomp and circumstance of a physical spiritual center, and in doing so allowed for spiritual life to go to scale wherever and whenever desired. Supplanting the priestly class with rabbinic leadership, sacrifices with prayer and study, the hierarchy of leadership was replaced with a quest for lifelong learning.  And in doing so, a religious identity rooted in beliefs, practices and study created a perpetual self sustainability and replicability. 

If not for the destruction of the Temples, would we have experienced this re/design of Biblical Judaism into innovative Rabbinic Judaism?  Were it not for the exile, would Judaism have discovered the ways in which it could flourish beyond the physical restrictive environment of the physical buildings or developed understandings of how to sanctify time, space, calendars, and move our sacred life into our homes and amidst our families?  Would the compelling nature of lifelong learning become the underlying temperament and ontological “why” of Jewish survival? There is so much creative spirit that emerged as we faced the darkest moments in our collective history.

Like the widow, the Jewish people emerged from the destruction and devastation and one step at a time, flourished as they leaned into their new identities. And with each turn, and each moment in Jewish history in which we experienced devastation, our Jewish spirit continues to create life anew. 

As we welcome the new month of Av and enter into the traditional nine days of Av soulfully, I cannot help but wonder, how next will we be like the widow, and rise from the ashes and bravely face the new worlds we are thrust into and learn to thrive in them?  The nine days of Av, are an opportunity to unlearn the behaviors which held us back and relearn that which releases us into new innovative sacred realms. 

About the Author
Rabbi Karen G Reiss Medwed, Ph.D. is the only certified practicing female identifying mesadder gittin in the Conservative movement, and is an appointed member of the Joint Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly. She works as a Teaching Professor at the College of Professional Studies of Northeastern University.
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