Saturday evening, Jews worldwide will sit on low benches or synagogue floors. In this mourning posture, they will hear the wailing chant of Lamentations, a keening account allegedly penned by the prophet Jeremiah detailing the loss and destruction of Jerusalem. On the 9th of Av, Jews remember the loss of both Temples, expulsions from England and Spain, the Crusades, and more recently, the Holocaust. It is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.
We live in a world, however, that tends not to support nationalism or tribalism. (There are rare exceptions where such displays are permitted, such as the Olympics.) We are encouraged to embrace all, forego difference, support diversity, live and let live, promote freedoms of choice and expression. For many, religion has fallen by the wayside. In such a world, does a place remain for Tisha B’av? What is its value?
The answer is to be found through examining the ideology behind the construction of the First Temple. Designed by Solomon, this Temple certainly served a national purpose. It was there that the Children of Israel could come together to sacrifice, worship, be sanctified and seek God. But Solomon constructed a kingdom that supported exploration within the fields of philosophy, literature, botany, zoology and favored the overall pursuit of wisdom. As the kingdom’s jewel, his Temple had a greater purpose, one that fewer recollect.
In his work I Kings: Torn in Two, Rabbi Alex Israel, Director of Community Education at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and teacher at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, expounds upon this. He explains that Solomon’s objective was the creation of a universal space, a Temple that would be” open to the non-Jewish world. He [Solomon] seeks to create a situation in which foreigners, gentiles, will hear about God and come to find out more, to pay homage to the Almighty” (74). Israel proves this by citing Solomon’s words in I Kings 8:41-43. Here, Solomon states:
If the foreigner, who is not of Your people, Israel, comes from a distant land for the sake of your name- for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand…-when he comes to pray toward this house, listen in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks of You; thus, the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You…, and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this house that I have built. (Translation from Israel’s book, 74)
Solomon reiterates this in I Kings 8:60 where he states “That all the peoples of the world may know that the Lord alone is god; there is no other.”
What does it mean for all the peoples of the world to know that the Lord alone is God? Judaism is not a religion that proselytizes. Solomon cannot have meant to create converts out of Temple visitors. Indeed, when the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame and came to visit him, he made no attempt whatsoever to convert her. Instead, he simply answered her questions and showed her the Israelite kingdom. It was she who then praised God and asserted God had determined that Solomon was appointed to perform “judgment and justice” (I Kings 10:10).
One possible answer to what it means for the nations of the world to know that the Lord alone is god can be found in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ recently published book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. In this book, Rabbi Sacks argues that the great contribution of Judaism to the world was its conception of monotheism. Indeed, the book of Kings is an account of the terrible battle between the people’s and its leadership’s desire to worship idols and the prophets who sought to expose idols as naught but fraud. Sacks explains:
Theology creates an anthropology. Discovering God, singular and alone, the first monotheists discovered the human person singular and alone. Monotheism internalises what dualism externalises. It takes the good and bad in the human situation, the faith and the fear, the retribution and the forgiving, and locates them within each of us, turning what would otherwise be war on the battlefield into a struggle within the soul. ‘Who is a hero?’ asked the rabbis, and replied, ‘One who conquers himself.’ This is the moral drama that has been monotheism’s contribution to the civilisation of the West: not the clash of titans on the field of battle, but the quiet inner drama of choice and will, restraint and responsibility.
Hence, the unique mixture of light and shade in all the characters of the Hebrew Bible. Abraham and Isaac pass off their wives as their sisters. Jacob deceives his blind father and and takes his brother’s blessing. Moses loses his temper. David commits adultery. Solomon, wisest of men, is led astray. The Bible hides none of this from us, and for a deeply consequential reason: to teach us that even the best are not perfect and even the worst are not devoid of merits. That is the best protection of our humanity. (64)
Dualism, Sacks continues, is the scourge of society. It is dualism which permits us to believe there is an in-group and an out-group, an us and a them, and is what leads to violence in the name of God. As Sacks explains, if one is to “divide humanity into absolute categories of good and evil” then one will of course see oneself and one’s side as good while the other is evil. This will allow seemingly decent people to justify despicable actions. In Solomon’s time, monotheism (the Lord alone is God; there is no other) instead of idolatry was a way of creating a moral, just society as opposed to one where might made right.
The Temple was thus built to be a universal place, one where foreigners of all nationalities, races and religions could gather. The goal was for those foreigners to be impressed by the knowledge and justice a Jewish king exhibited, to walk away understanding the power monotheism had to temper injustice in an idolatrous age. Indeed, the Queen of Sheba’s takeaway after her encounter with Solomon is that God appointed him to do “judgment and justice!” The fall of the Temple occurs when the nation becomes so idolatrous that they not only turn against God but also turn against their brethren. The people have become so corrupt that it is inferred they oppress orphan and widow and shed innocent blood (Jeremiah 7:5-6). Those who were meant to be a light unto the nations have fallen, becoming sinners themselves.
The challenges that existed at the time the first Temple fell appear in stark relief today. Violence is committed in the name of God on an ongoing basis through the form of terrorist attacks within and beyond our country. We are challenged by racism, discrimination, divisive rhetoric and truly dualistic perspectives that tend to argue for binary understandings of our world. Donald Trump argues that there is “violence in our streets and […] chaos in our communities.” Hillary Clinton states that America is at a “moment of reckoning” where “powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart” and “bonds of trust and respect are fraying.”
On Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the Temple, we are grieving over something more than a center for national pride. The Temple was intended to be a universal space, a place where all would be welcome, a place that would inspire a more just world and society. To wish we had a Temple again is to wish for clarity, vision, and a formula for justice in a world increasingly teetering on the edge of darkness. It is that dream that resonates to this day- that meaning that should inspire all, regardless of affiliation or practice.