Approaching Tisha’ b-Av: Some Advice

Sir Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay on two kinds of liberty championed the Western democratic understanding of the concept, which can be summarized as the freedom to be left alone.

A Hasidic sage once admonished his followers that the only reason one is allowed to intrude on others with talk is to be helpful; and even then, one must first consider carefully whether they need one’s help.

Israel by the above standards is neither Hasidic not a Western democracy: nobody enjoys the freedom to be left alone, and a stranger with opinion seldom pauses to consider whether you require to be informed of it.

Back in the early 1990s, when I was living in Ein Kerem, teaching on Mt. Scopus, and getting there and back every day by bus, I learned empirically how Israeli democracy and society combine lofty ideals with the nudging, kibitzing, intrusive ethos of a big Jewish family. I remember an item in the Jerusalem Post back then: it reported that a young couple on a crowded commuter train in London engaged in passionate conjugal relations. All their fellow passengers ignored this, but intervened in outrage when the boy and girl lit up a cigarette afterwards, since it was a no smoking car. It’s a good thing, the reporter added, that they were not in Israel, since had they been here everybody would have interfered during their love-making to give them advice.

What I have in mind is actually quite a serious problem, but I approach it in a gently humorous way quite intentionally.

The serious problem is that of sin’at chinnam, the baseless internecine hatred that led, the Rabbis teach us, to the destruction of the Second Temple on the Ninth of Av in the year 70 CE. The major party to the civil conflict were the adherents of the so-called Fourth Philosophy, the Zealots (Hebrew qana’im), also called in Latin Sicarii after the short daggers they used as ideological assassins or paid hit men. Now, both Phinehas and Elijah had been zealots for the Lord, and rightly so. The Zealots of the first century held out on Masada for three years after our Temple was lost, providing Zionism and the State of Israel with our enduring icon of national defiance and the love of freedom. We had our Masada, after all, eighteen centuries before the Texans got their Alamo. When Benjamin Franklin designed a great seal for the United States, he proposed the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The design depicted the Exodus from Egypt, which was strictly speaking Divine intervention, not rebellion. Masada might have been more appropriate, but I think we get the point. The Rabbis were less enthusiastic about Masada, especially with respect to the suicides of many of the defenders, preferring the quiet example of Yochanan ben Zakkai, who had his pupils smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem and got Vespasian to let him build a yeshiva in Jamnia (Yavneh). Torah, not epic legends of bravery, was to enable us to endure the Exile and Diaspora.

The complex and dramatic events of the war against the Romans in 66-73 are often cited these days with reference to the divide between ultra-Orthodox Jews— the Haredim, who “tremble” before God— and other Israelis. In recent days, vast crowds of Haredim turned out for the funeral of a Rabbi who had dedicated much of his public activity to opposing compulsory service for Yeshiva students in the Israel Defense Force. Some Haredim deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel itself. Over the past month, gangs of Haredi youths have attacked and disrupted Bar- and Bat- Mitzvahs at the Western Wall, the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi. The attacks included verbal abuse (“Nazis”, “whores”, “Christians”— since when is Christian a bad word?) and physical desecration— a young man ripped up a Reform Jewish prayerbook and blew his nose in it. The police did nothing and the response of religious authorities who manage the Kotel was crude and thuggish, adding insult to injury.

In the latter case, the Bar Mitzvah boy’s grandfather wrote a very eloquent and deeply anguished op-ed in these pages. An ultra-Orthodox Rabbi replied, deploring the violence in a sort of pro forma way but mainly protesting that he himself and his constituency were offended. Sorry, Rabbi, you don’t GET to be offended here- the way it is framed, your apology is part of the problem, not the solution.

What is the way out of this? The conflict between religious and secular Jews has become a chasm of the kind that can destroy Israeli society from within and lead to an irreversible divide between Israel and American Jewry. The lesbian couple from the state of Washington whose daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was attacked last week commented ruefully that in Seattle they are abused for being Zionists, and in Israel they are abused for being… Jews. Make no mistake. Let me put it country simple: The main reason America supports Israel is because American Jews do. Without American support, the State of Israel would very likely cease to exist.

Clearly the solution is not laïcité, the absolute and enforced secularism of the public sphere of French republicanism. Even the watered-down separation of church and state of the US Constitution would not work in Israel. Israel is a Jewish state, whatever that means, and Judaism of some kind, in some way, is indelibly part of Israel’s nature. And that is right and proper. Our people did not go through the kind of history we’ve had, just to become Hebrew-speaking goyim. 

Nor will it help to insist that people enjoy the liberty to be left alone, to enjoy their safe space, and so on. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and that’s all very well if you want to live alone in a draughty stone tower surrounded by a moat. But a Jewish home is where families congregate for Shabbat dinner, children make noise, and everybody is talking at the same time.

I have a solution to offer. It isn’t mine, actually, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s. I address this to all my fellow Jews but particularly to Haredim. Years ago, the Rebbe wrote to the leader of a group of zealots in Jerusalem who would yell at people violating Shabbat. He quoted the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 65a: “The world cannot manage without a perfume-maker, nor can the world manage without a tanner— but happy is he whose profession is making perfume and unfortunate is he whose profession is tanning hides.” Both want their work to make the world smell better, but a tanner, though he makes useful things, makes the world smell worse since he has to use manure for his job. The Rebbe concluded: Considering the risk and the relative chances of success, one must make a choice. (HaYom Yom for 14 Elul)

The choice is perfume, and the perfume is ahavat Yisrael, love for your fellow Jews. We are a family, after all. How about going up to Reform or Conservative Bar Mitzvah families and saying Mazel Tov! and inviting them to Shabbos lunch, to Havdalah, giving the Bar Mitzvah boy the present of a Sefer, a holy book?  Just taste, says the Psalm, God is really good. A little light can chase away a lot of darkness.

שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו ותן חלקנו בתורתך

May the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days; and grant our portion in Your Torah.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.

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