President Herzog is drawing on Tisha b’Av wisdom — we should too
Imagine we heard that someone was wearing a kippah and speaking about sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and the traditional teaching that it led to the destruction of the Temple on the day of Tisha b’Av. Where would we picture that person speaking? We would probably picture a synagogue. We would probably not picture a parliament. Yet this month, precisely this scene took place on the floor of the Knesset.
The occasion was the swearing-in of the 11th President of the State of Israel, Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog. In his speech, President Herzog said:
… [B]aseless hatred is what brought the destruction of … the Second Temple. This same baseless hatred, this same sectarianism and polarization that charge us such heavy prices — [they do so] even today, each day.
(full video in Hebrew here at 50:10, with this portion at 56:29, my translation; English coverage here)
Of all the sources one could cite in a speech — the news, the legislative docket — President Herzog pointed back to the narrative of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. In doing so, Herzog did something deeply Jewish: turning to our tradition’s texts, ethics, and visions not merely as a static heirloom, but as a compass to guide us in navigating our own time and challenges.
In the observance of Tisha b’Av, falling on Saturday night and Sunday, and the Shabbat that precedes it, Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of the Vision of Isaiah, we find a masterclass in how we can turn to Jewish wisdom to find guidance for our moment. These days reveal the illuminating, unexpected, sublime ways that this guidance empowers us to reach the consolation and redemption for which we yearn.
What made this concept of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, so important to Herzog that he cited it in his inauguration speech?
The Talmud tells us of the Second Temple: “Why was it destroyed, mipnei mah charav? Because in that time there was baseless hatred, mipnei she-haytah bo sinat chinam” (Masechet Yoma • the Volume on the Day [of Yom Kippur], page 9b, my translation). Fellow factions of our own people demonized and attacked and even killed each other. And thus we made ourselves vulnerable to outside onslaught by the Roman Empire, and did incalculable damage to the fabric of our own society.
Throughout its narratives of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Talmud shines a light on the role of sinat chinam. “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” the Talmud states in one passage, and then presents the narrative of a party host who publicly humiliates Bar Kamtza, who was invited by accident instead of the similarly-named Kamtza (Masechet Gittin • the Volume on Divorce, pages 55b-56a, Sefaria translation).
Per the Talmud, this kind of baseless hatred — even on the micro-level of how we treat each other at a party — was the seed of the rancor and splits on the macro-level that led to Roman domination and the Temple in ashes.
Later, when the Talmud recounts the Roman siege of Jerusalem, it portrays in vivid detail the wanton destruction by the extremist faction known as the Zealots. The sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai approaches the Zealots’ head and says, “Until when will you do this and kill everyone…?” The head of the Zealots replies, “What can I do, for if I say something to them they will kill me” (Gittin 56a-b, Sefaria translation).
Here, we see the most fiery form of baseless hatred: being willing to bring about people’s deaths if they are one’s opponents or for political gain — and being ready to kill even a member of one’s own faction if they propose stopping this aggression. The Talmud shows us, in the ultimate destruction of the Temple, the consequences of such sinat chinam.
Through these harrowing, haunting narratives, the Talmud sounds a clarion call each time we study it: baseless hatred is a form of destruction, and it sparks further destruction.
President Herzog channeled this call for our time. For Herzog, this ancient story might as well be hard-news programming, describing Israeli society right now — as members of the change government and the prime minister himself face calls of “traitor,” and even death threats, from fellow Israelis.
I would add that it is not just Israel. We see this dynamic play out in infighting within Jewish communities here in North America, when people speak venomously to each other, demonize each other, claim that only their side of an issue is legitimate and others have no place.
It would be so much easier to cast responsibility only on what others did to us. The Talmud turns our focus to what we do to each other. Lest we whitewash this issue as not such a big deal, the narrative of the Temple’s destruction brings us face to face with the intensity and the stakes of the damage of baseless hatred.
In this way, Jewish wisdom summons us out of what we might call the tyranny of the status quo. We get so used to the way things are that we can start to think, maybe even unconsciously, that this is the only way things can be. But Jewish narratives and ethics lift our gaze beyond what we see. They call us to envision how things could genuinely be different, to remember our deepest visions of redemption. And they urge us to walk toward these visions to bring them closer to our reality.
We see this power of Jewish ethics especially clearly in the haftarah for Shabbat Chazon: the vision, the chazon, of Chapter 1 of Isaiah. When Isaiah listens for God’s voice to describe the society he sees, he hears God saying:
Children have I nurtured and raised
but they rebelled against Me…
They have forsaken the Eternal One,
scorned Israel’s Holy One…
Isaiah sees a society that was once
Filled with justice,
where righteousness did lodge,
Your nobles are knaves
and companions to thieves.
All of them lust for bribes
and chase illicit payments.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s case does not touch them.
Your hands are full of blood.
Then Isaiah calls out what to do:
Wash, become pure,
Remove your evil acts from My eyes.
Cease doing evil.
Learn to do good,
Make the oppressed happy,
defend the orphan,
argue the widow’s case…
Zion shall be redeemed through justice,
and they who return in it, through righteousness.
(translation from Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, 2018, with modifications by me, e.g. changing “the Lord” to “the Eternal One” for YHVH)
Here, we see one of the most gripping aspects of timeless Jewish ethics. To us now, all traditional Jewish sources seem ancient. But for Isaiah, in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, though he was of course a contemporary to himself, much of the Torah was already generations old to him: a century or even two and a half centuries old, per varying scholarly views (see, e.g., “Introduction to the Five Books” in Alter’s Hebrew Bible), and recounting even older events. Much of the Torah was as old to Isaiah as Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat or the US Declaration of Independence are to us.
So Isaiah himself is already drawing on the Torah to speak to the people in his time, as we do in our time. Isaiah emphasizes defense of the widow and the orphan — epitomes in the Torah of those who are marginalized and most in need (Shemot • Exodus 22:21-22). As modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, Judaism teaches of not just the dignity but “God’s association with the depressed members of society, the widow, the orphan, the demoralized,” God’s “divine proclivity” for them.
Isaiah points further to some of the gravest wrongs in the Torah: bribes, and above all, as in the very Ten Commandments, murder. When Isaiah says, “They have forsaken the Eternal One,” he points back to our prior relationship with God: one can only forsake what one has already known.
And that same God is waiting for us to return in penitence. This journey’s destination is: “Zion shall be redeemed through justice, mishpat, / and they who return in it, through righteousness, tzedakah.” These words are the same ones God uses in the Torah to describe the qualities God sees in Abraham (Bereishit • Genesis 18:19) — now Isaiah uses them to describe a legacy of values waiting for us to live it out.
Jewish tradition calls us out of the status quo and upward to who we are meant to be. Here, Isaiah summons, specifically, the values that we ourselves as a people have already committed to as part of our brit, our covenant, with God. Isaiah points to our commitments and he holds us to them. He shows us how we have fallen short in fulfilling them. He calls us to return: shav, the same root as teshuvah, the beloved word for both return and repentance. And Isaiah assures us that by returning to our most fundamental ideals, we can repair and restore our society.
This summons and this promise are what Isaiah draws from the Torah for his time. Then this whole multi-generational coffer of wisdom comes down to us. In our moment, in Israel as in America marked by deep turmoil, violence, and the suffering of COVID-19, Isaiah’s call to take up the case of the most marginalized and vulnerable is vividly urgent. And his vision of return and restoration is what we so need.
On Tisha b’Av each year, when we chant Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, we experience anew the way its poetry portrays the Babylonian Empire’s attack on our people and the First Temple with immediacy to the point of heartbreak. Then, at the book’s end, we come to this verse: “Return us, Eternal One, to You, and we shall return / Renew our days as of old.” These are words of such deep hope that we sing them every time we return the Torah to the ark: “Hashivenu Adonai elecha ve-nashuvah / Chadesh yamenu ke-kedem.”
But how do we get to these renewed days?
The texts of Tisha b’Av together suggest an answer — a case study in the way different pieces of Jewish wisdom speak to each other and give us a whole greater than its parts. Tisha b’Av suggests that the way we reach the redemption of the end of Eichah is through the ethics of Isaiah and the Talmud. We reach redemption through Isaiah’s call to care for and work for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the other: all those outside one’s own circle. We reach redemption through heeding the Talmud’s warning against baseless hatred: sometimes most tempting to do to those within one’s own circle.
This redemptive power of acting on our ethics is emphasized by not one but two of the great medieval commentators. When Isaiah declares, “Zion shall be redeemed through justice, / and they who return in it, through righteousness,” both Rashi in 11th century France and Radak in 12th-13th century Occitania interpret this verse as meaning that we must do justice, and doing justice is what brings redemption.
As much as these texts challenge and summon us, the ultimate comfort of Tisha b’Av lies precisely in this summons. It means we have the power to make our situation better. There are things we can do to make our condition better. Judaism does not see us as merely buffeted by fate. Judaism envisions redemption — then gives us a compass to get there. Each time we care and work for those most vulnerable, each time we treat each other with mutual respect, decency, and love, we further the great Jewish project of renewing our days as of old.
When Isaiah and the elegists of Eichah and the rabbis of the Talmud composed their words, they did not know when a future Jewish head of state would again preside in Jerusalem. They certainly did not know about the Internet or publications on it. But they passed on their texts and ethics and consolation and wisdom. In all these words, we hear God’s voice in our world, according to what that means to each of us. And when our ancestors passed on the very power to draw on these words for our time, they bequeathed to us the power to hear God’s voice still speaking.