An adage used to have it that Jews love Israel, but hate Israelis. Another quipped that Israelis love aliyah, but hate olim. Zionism and the State of Israel have pushed hard in this regard, forcing us to identify when our commitment is merely to an idea, and when our commitment is full and genuine, to the actualized reality of that ideal.
Tisha B’Av – the day that commemorates, amongst other disasters, the destructions of the First and Second Temples and the subsequent exiles — distills the full complexity of this seam, with all of its rough edges and stitching. On the one hand — we are no longer victims subject to rule of a non-Jewish governance in the Land of Israel; we have full political autonomy. On the other hand, what are we to do with a thousands’-year-old tradition of mourning our sufferings: the destruction of our center of worship; the loss of life, land, and national autonomy; and the stylized ritual which allows us to access these silos of redemptive pain. How are we to hold these incompatible truths? Are we to sit on the ground in rent garments and read the Book of Lamentations, as if we are powerless mourners? Are we to eat and drink as if those tears no longer sear, as if this unredeemed reality called Israel is a fulfillment of our dreams?
Every year anew I wonder what to do, often meditating upon the words of my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi David Hartman z”l, who wrote about returning to his congregation in Montreal just after the Six Day War, in time for Tisha B’Av. He was maddened by the disparity between a dark, mournful congregation reading Lamentations and the joyful streets of Jerusalem. “Just before the service began, I announced to the ‘mourners for Jerusalem’: ‘The Jews in Jerusalem are presently jubilant.’” The Jews had become attached to the mourning, Hartman reasoned, parents who continued to pray for a child’s recovery even after he had returned to health.
Most years, I gather with the egalitarian community of which I’m a part, and we read Lamentations at the Haas Promenade, overlooking the Old City. It’s beautiful and somber at once: the familiar tunes and words of Lamentations, the gaze towards the walls of the Old City, tens of gatherings of south Jerusalem communities nestling into their spots on the promenade, the Arab passersby, including the occasional ones who intentionally disturb our quiet. It’s all there, past and present, ideal and palpable.
If Tisha B’Av is the day that fully distills all of these complexities, the place that does it is the Kotel, the Western Wall. It’s a physical place that points to — and holds — so much more, including the very rejection of the importance of holiness-in-space. This year, my community got word of an attempt of the (politically and religiously) right-wing Ateret Kohanim to take over the area of the Western Wall called “Ezrat Yisrael” – that meager area, tucked down and away from the main plaza, that was apportioned for egalitarian worship. We decided to read Lamentations there. I knew that if I went — I would experience the ḥurban not as an historical event, nor as an idea, or even a potential outcome. I would experience it as palpable reality, here and now.
And so it came to pass, like Isaiah’s vision that we read about earlier on Shabbat. The people of Israel engaged in a supreme act of self-destruction. Hundreds of fervent supporters of Ateret Kohanim flooding into the area, raising literal and figurative barriers of separation (mehitzot), singing so loud that we could not hear ourselves. I placed my body directly in front of the mehitza that they were trying to unfold alongside the egalitarian gathering. There was a constant, edgy jostling, teetering precariously on the edge, almost-but-not-quite-full-fledged pushing and violence. Their rabbis — having gathered the kindling and thrown down the lit match — would posture themselves as beneficent as they intervened at these points of friction, the ones they had induced, with a feigned smile and calm, a duplicitous innocence, assuaging their riled-up youth and asking me, “What’s the problem? You pray there, we’ll pray here.”
They had no sense of irony. That, more than their outright evil or religious fervor, reveals the depth of our ill. For if they had a sense of irony, they would have beheld the absurdity of what was taking place: on Tisha B’Av, they created a situation where the Jews are shouting at each other, on the precipice of physical violence. Here we are: the real, flesh-and-blood, space-occupying People of Israel, rubbing bodies against each other, fighting over physical space at the foot of a bunch of huge rocks that remain from the destroyed Temple. And, to add irony to irony, the keepers of peace, the burly security guards sent to negotiate the flare-ups between the groups – were almost all Arabs. Our faith in ourselves is so shattered that we have brought diasporic powerlessness upon ourselves: here they, here we, jockey for position as we whisper into the ear of the non-Jewish security guard, pleading our position, currying his favor.
The only thing more palpable than the physicality of their bodies and voices was the sense of their absolute confidence in their metaphysics: they shouted, eyes closed, arms waving, for redemption, quite sure of how to read – and supplicate – their (and my) God.
My sense of spiritual ideal and aspiration, complete with nuance and ambivalence, is no match for theirs. All I could do was shout back, with all of the physical strength I could muster, employing a sarcasm intended to pierce the armor of their glib religious sanctimoniousness: “Is that the loudest you can shout? God can’t hear you.” Or whisper into the ears of the loudest amongst them: “Concentrate on those words. Don’t let me distract you. Louder, louder.” Knowing that the irony – that I was trying to distract his prayer, as just dues for his trying to distract mine – was totally lost on him.
There’s a limited amount of space in this world and in this small land. Bodies – when they try to occupy that space – often bump up against each other. Ideas, by contrast, can be expansive and inclusive, containing and translucent. There are people and situations in which – impinged upon by another’s bodily presence – we have to stake our deepest commitments on our physicality. Nothing is less joyous for me than such moments. In its closing hours, as I reflect upon this Tisha B’Av in which the taste in my mouth is of the bitter ashes of palpable ḥurban, I long for the more expansive, less threatening, idea of ḥurban.