So here I am, sitting in my car, crawling at a snail’s pace in the midst of a traffic jam on Begin Boulevard, the cross-Jerusalem highway. Around me are hundreds of frustrated drivers. The mountains around me are covered with densely built-up neighborhoods. Jerusalem of 2018 is the largest city in Israel.
These are the days of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, culminated by Tisha B’Av, the fast day on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. In adherence to Jewish law (halakha), I haven’t shaved in several days. As I lift my hand to scratch the irritating stubble of my beard, I pause to wonder. Jerusalem is built up as never before. The State of Israel seems to be at a historic peak of Jewish strength. So what exactly are we mourning for on Tisha B’Av? True, there is a mosque rather than a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. True — things are still far from perfect. But isn’t the current reality worlds apart from the desolate and ruined Jerusalem described in the kinnot, the liturgical poems of mourning recited on Tisha B’Av? Might it not be time to open our eyes, take a fresh look at the situation, and change the mourning customs of these days? Might it not be time to go as far as to even, do away with abolish the fast of Tisha B’Av?
A well-known story relates how Napoleon, on entering a synagogue on Tisha B’Av, was surprised to see Jews sitting on the floor and weeping. When he was told that they were weeping over a national tragedy that had taken place 1,700 years before, he remarked that the future of a nation that is so respectful of its past — was assured. The Jewish calendar does precisely that. Its festivals and commemorative days mark historical events that shaped the Jewish people’s shared national consciousness for three-thousand years. Among these are Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot: festivals that recall the nation’s beginnings and the cradle of its formation; Hanukkah, which recalls a brief national high point; and days of mourning and fasting that culminate in Tisha B’Av, which these recalling the lowest points of Jewish history.
The accounts of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish community in the Land of Israel — of the First Temple, but primarily of the Second — tell a terrible story of political and religious conflicts that deteriorated into a brutal civil war. While the Babylonians and the Romans were the ones who destroyed the Temples, when they came to battle against the Jewish kingdom, they found a society so corrupt and ravaged by internal hatred that it could not come together in a way that would enable them to fight off an external enemy.
The situation of the State of Israel is different, and much better in many ways. Israel is a sovereign state, neither a Roman province (as it was during the Second Temple era), nor a small, poor mountain kingdom (as it was during the First Temple era). Over 70 years of sovereignty, Israel has evolved into an economic and military superpower, and its sovereignty and power have received almost full international recognition. Nevertheless, as it was then, so it is now: the “Kingdom” of Israel is split up into “tribes” with a gaping religious, moral, and cultural chasm between them. The public arena is full of hatred, and public discourse is rife with constant tension that erupts at times into harsh verbal violence.
In this matter, Israel is no different from the countries surrounding it. Severe religious and ethnic tensions also exist among our neighbors. But in most of these countries (such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya), these conflicts erupt into severe physical violence and all-out war, with their leaders — those who are still in power — trying to hold on to their power at the price of the death of tens and hundreds of thousands of people.
What makes Israel of 2018 different from the Jewish kingdoms that lived here and were destroyed? What sets us apart from the countries in our region? If we look at this question more closely (even if somewhat simplistically), the primary difference seems to be the governmental and moral tradition. The Jews of the First and Second Temple eras lived by Jewish tradition in the midst of the tradition of the ancient world, in which individual rights did not exist. Such is also the case in is our neighboring countries, which are ruled according to a Muslim tradition that sees the sword as a legitimate way of “regulating” relations among different groups.
The Jewish and democratic State of Israel is in sharp contrast. It is a country whose very existence is based on Jewish tradition, passed down from generation to generation. But what sets it apart is the fact that the moral basis for Israel’s existence is also rooted in the liberal-democratic-humanist tradition, which is a product of modern Western political thought. While Jewish tradition is not a tradition of war and the sword, history shows that it too, has the potential to be explosive. The fusing of Jewish and Western tradition into a single political-moral platform guarantees the State of Israel’s ability to continue to exist, with all its tribes and the moral and ethnic chasms between the various communities that live there, in a way that makes penetrating public discourse possible while preserving the rights of individuals and minorities and preventing the severe moral conflicts from erupting into all-consuming violence.
There are those in the modern State of Israel who try to lessen the influence of Western democratic tradition while giving primary or exclusive status to Jewish tradition. These days of mourning, and Tisha B’Av, are stark warnings of the depths to which we might sink if we fail to create a balance between the two, and if we choose one tradition exclusively over the other. Only the preservation of the balance between Jewish and democratic and values will enable Israeli society to continue to exist and thrive.