In 1999, Dr. Ismar Schorsh, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made a rather unfortunate observation. He claimed that Conservative Jews who observe the Three Weeks, a period of collective mourning for the Temples’ destruction and all subsequent calamities, was about as rare as a polar bear at the equator.
The Three Weeks are bookended by two fasts, beginning with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz (corresponding to July 19 this year), and ending with Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av (Aug. 9), which is the most serious fast of the liturgical year after Yom Kippur.
But Rabbi Schorsh’s rather casual dismissal of the mourning period led him to the conclusion that we should abolish the Three Weeks altogether. The Jewish calendar, he argued, is too dense with tragedy. Why bother with the heaviness of it all when no one really cares?
The question is fair if one determines Jewish law by its constituents alone rather than by its principles. True, it is hard to mourn in the summer and harder still to mourn tragedies that we have not personally experienced. But Rabbi Schorsh’s conclusions also beg the larger question of how a certain ahistorical approach, prevalent in American life, has impacted Jewish life today. Let’s face it; Americans are rotten at reliving and sanctifying history. Jews are professionals at it.
Just take Memorial Day as a prime example. No one would ever suggest eliminating Memorial Day in Israel because it’s too sad. We understand the collective need to mark public service and mourn those we’ve lost, over 23,000 since the establishment of the State. This is both a way of honoring those who made remarkable sacrifices and showing respect to soldiers currently in service.
In America, Memorial Day may be best known as a weekend of sales and barbecues. It is also the day that most public pools open. We have lost well over 1,600 soldiers in the current war in Afghanistan and close to 4,500 in the war in Iraq. Would any one of us feel comfortable telling a soldier serving overseas today what we did this past Memorial Day? In American military history, we have lost over 2.5 million dedicated servicemen and women who fought on behalf of this country, and yet we observe this fact by taking our white shoes out of the closet.
What kinds of citizens are shaped by such an attitude? Those who fail to appreciate what it means to suffer loss. Those who are unable to respect the fact that communities are built not only on joy but also on the sacrifices we make for what we believe in. And finally, those who lie in danger of repeating history because they are not students of history.
Jews are not only students of history; we are its stewards. Each of us carries within us thousands of years and multiple layers of the past. We walk in the world not laden down by tragedy but uplifted by our capacity for survival. We do this not because we ignore history but because we revere it.
The rhythm of the Three Weeks helps us think about our ancient religious center, our holy city, the relationship we had with God then and the price we have paid throughout history for our commitment to tradition. We focus on loss but also pray that some of the internecine struggles and external battles we fought once will not be repeated because we have learned from our mistakes. We are also able to appreciate the long spiritual timeline that brought us to where we are today as a people. Ultimately, Jewish history’s triumphs are even more miraculous than a polar bear at the equator.
Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her latest book is “In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks” (OU/Maggid).