This year, two significant holidays fall in July. Of course, July 4 celebrates the beginning of the United States as an independent nation. Two weeks later, the holiday of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of both the first and second Temples, will be observed. But despite their chronological juxtaposition, these two holidays could not be more different in tone and focus.
On July 4, we celebrate the beginning of the nation which has given the most freedom, acceptance, and opportunity to Jews living outside of an independent Jewish political entity. On July 18 of this year, Tisha B’Av will commemorate the beginning of the almost two-millennia exile from the Land of Israel. It has been traditionally observed not with fireworks and picnics, but with fasting and dirges.
The word “traditionally” is the operative word in that sentence because in the infancy years of the United States, there were American Jews who believed that Tisha B’Av should no longer be a day of mourning and fasting, but instead a day of celebration and gratitude. Living in the first nation ever to accept them as equal citizens, these Jews truly believed that July 4, 1776 marked the beginning of their exile’s end. They began to reject the traditional understanding of “exile” as a punishment for our collective sins, and instead reinterpreted it as part of a divine plan for Jews to more effectively to help spread the biblical principles of ethical monotheism — principles to which America’s founders faithfully subscribed. For these Jews, Tisha B’Av was the day that called for focusing on a new, welcomed phase in our mission to be “a light to the nations”. The belief that this country’s founding was truly the fulfillment of centuries-old messianic hopes was passionately articulated at the dedication of America’s first Reform synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina in 1841. In his dedicatory remarks, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared: “This happy country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of G-d our temple.”
Fast forward, 180 years. One wonders what the good rabbi would say today — not just because there is an independent Jewish political entity on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, but also because, despite the promise of equality and acceptance upon which he and his fellow Jews at the time pinned their hopes, American Jews are experiencing a phenomenon of Jew-hatred that clearly testifies that we are not living in the “kumbaya” times the good rabbi thought we were. Hatred and intolerance are increasing in this country, with Jews often being the prime targets. In the past year, there have been more hate crimes against Jews then against any other religious or ethnic group in this country.
According to our Sages, it was sinat chinam/hatred without substance, not Roman military prowess, that was the true cause of the Temple’s destruction. Historically, there seems to be something to this: the Jewish factions fighting the Romans couldn’t unite against their common enemy. Catastrophe and exile were the result.
Today, hate is a word that one hears often, with people routinely being labeled as “haters”. Sometimes the label is accurate: there are certainly people who hate other individuals or groups, for whatever reasons. To be sure, Jewish tradition teaches that sometimes hate is desirable: “those who love G-d hate evil” (Psalms 97:10). But in America, hatred seems to have run amok. Intolerance is growing. People who dissent from a political orthodoxy are often labeled as “haters” by those who confuse tolerance with agreement. Their critics seem to have forgotten (or were never taught) that the definition of “tolerance” is enduring, indulging, “putting up with” beliefs, attitudes with which one may disagree or even abhor.
As we American Jews prepare for July 4, it must be asked: how did this nation, founded on promoting tolerance for differing opinions and beliefs, move from “putting up with” true diversity of opinion to the current “cancel culture” which calls for the elimination of differing opinions and the punishment of those who hold them? How did we move from a climate in which a genuine Nazi like George Lincoln Rockwell could be invited to speak at Brown University, an Ivy League institution (yes, he was…look it up), and the ACLU could defend the right of Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood, to a climate in which Ivy League institutions now impose severe penalties for what they call “hate speech” and the ACLU refuses to advocate for those they call “haters”? How is it that we’ve moved from a tolerant atmosphere in which a person would find an alternative if a particular service provider would not/could not provide a requested service because of religious reasons, to the present-day when not providing that requested service because of religious reasons might get the service provider hauled into court?
The reasons to these questions probably could fill a book. But here is one observation, hopefully relevant:
The Sages explain that the Temple was destroyed, and our exile began because of causeless hatred/sinat chinam. Rearranging the consonants of the word chinam renders it nacham, which mean “comfort”. Indeed, much if not most of the hatred we experience in our time is not just without cause, but also provides comfort for those who spew it. It provides them purpose, meaning and succor. It nurtures and energizes. Eventually, it kills.
We Jews have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends: with social chaos and a lot of collective and individual misery. Like the elements that can slowly erode and eventually cause a 12-story apartment building to collapse, the hatred and intolerance that has been eroding our culture will eventually cause it to collapse.
As we American Jews observe July 4 and Tisha B’Av, it’s time for us to re-commit to working on the needed structural repairs. If we don’t, the dwelling which has arguably given us the safest shelter in history will certainly collapse.