The Harlotry of Religion and the Lessons of Tisha B’Av

The Vision of Isaiah: “How she has become a harlot, a faithful city full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge but now murderers! Your silver has become dross your wine diluted with water. Your princes are rebellious and companions of thieves, everyone loves bribes and runs after payments, the orphans they do not judge and the quarrel of the widow does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:21)

This Shabbat which precedes Tisha B’av is called Shabbat Chazon referring to the words found at the beginning of the Haphtarah which is from the book of Isaiah. The word “chazon” means “vision” referring to the horrific visions that Isaiah had which foretold the coming destruction of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile that would come with it.

This message is an especially appropriate message to read right before Tisha B’Av when we mourn the destruction of our holy Temples. But what exactly is the message found in Isaiah’s prophecy? Are we correctly focusing our mourning on Tisha B’av in the direction that he wanted us to? The answer is — NO!

Isaiah does not focus on mourning the destruction of the Temple. Instead he focuses on mourning the causes for the destruction.

Our Temples were destroyed due to the religious hypocrisy, injustice, idolatry and social abuses that were prevalent in their times. The rabbis, leaders and the people had allowed all of this to go on because they personally benefited from it. If they did not benefit from the power structure directly, at the very least — they benefited from not confronting it. In other words even when they realized it was not correct they did nothing to interrupt it so that they didn’t become the pariah in society. Standing up to injustice would be too much of a bother and it would make them unpopular and potentially expose them to the ridicule of society. They did not feel that it was worth it to intervene. They could not feel the pain of those who suffered for lack of champions.

Therefore, since the House of God (the Holy Temple) was intended to create a home for God to live among us in a society that valued His values, God could no longer live with us because we didn’t and still don’t. He allowed our enemies to physically destroy His Temple which the Jews had already spiritually destroyed. And today we mourn for it. But rather than mourn for the Temple let us mourn for what has prevented us from rebuilding it.

Our society is as corrupt as it was in those days, if not more! Our leaders and rabbis either participate in the corruption directly or tacitly agree to it by not intervening. Those who notice it don’t say anything because they fear being different and disagreeing with the majority. We don’t want to be identified as the discordant note. Therefore we play along and remain silent.

Often we deny that anything negative is going on. We adopt a “Pollyanna” attitude — “don’t get worked up about it, it’s not worth it and there’s nothing you can do about it anyways” is what they tell us. Those who adopt this attitude are cogs in the machinery of the status quo.

According to the Talmud the destruction of the Temple occurred through ‘Sinat Chinam,’ baseless hatred of our brothers, and was compounded by rabbinic complicity in not intervening to correct injustices. According to the Talmud the process of destruction began during the most famous Tisha B’av story;

There was a man who made a party for all the great rabbis of Jerusalem. He instructed his servants to invite his friend Kamtza. His servants erred and invited his enemy Bar Kamtza. (apparently Kamtza’s son). When Bar Kamtza arrived at the party the host was furious. He instructed his servants to oust him. Bar Kamtza, being very embarrassed pleaded with his host to allow him to stay and even offered to pay for his meal. The host wouldn’t hear of it, Bar Kamtza must leave. The guest begged him not to create a scene and offered to pay for half of the whole party. No way. He upped his proposition and offered to finance the entire price of the party but the host was still adamant. Bar Kamtza was totally humiliated. He looked around and saw a room full of friends. At the head table were all the rabbis. No one said a thing. The party went on. Bar Kamtza was so deplored that he went to the government authorities to complain about the Jews. One thing led to the other and Jerusalem was destroyed. The fact that the rabbis said nothing added to this man’s debasement. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, he became a Roman collaborator against the leaders of Israel and was instrumental in our downfall. (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a and Midrash Rabbah Lamentations 4:3).

While many rabbis focus their attention on the sin of baseless hatred, I would like to focus on the sins of the rabbis of the past and the present. Why didn’t the rabbis say anything when the host of the party was abusing his unwanted guest? How could they remain silent as one man pleaded and the other demanded his removal? What motivated them not to say anything how could they be so callous?

These questions point to everything that stinks about religion and the institution of the synagogue, organized religion and its major leaders in Judaism — the rabbis. We all know that synagogues and yeshivot are dependent on money. In order to keep our doors open we need to collect funds to pay the bills. In fact, the rabbi’s salary is dependent on the collection of these communal funds. It appears that the host in our story was a major contributor to the synagogues and maintained the houses of learning and contributed great sums which directly and indirectly went to pay the rabbis’ salaries.

“Oh how the city that was destined to be righteous became a harlot!” The rabbi started out with intentions to help, to teach and to guide but then “real life” caught up with him. When he was young and idealistic he was like a “city full of righteousness” now he sits as an accomplice to people who murder each other by “ripping each other’s kishkas (guts) out” hurting each other’s feelings and devaluing each other’s contributions and importance. He remains silent afraid that the crowd will turn against him and rip him apart also. The things that caught his imagination, that he dreamed of changing have become dull and lack luster. Instead he deals in trivialities that are “acceptable” subjects of sermons. He avoids putting the “sparkle in the silver” choosing instead to measure his words so that all who hear him will love him and feel comforted by his words rather than challenged. He has become a harlot, saying whatever her customer wants to hear and remaining silent at moments of truth.

Rabbi means “teacher” or “master.” His job is to inspire, to teach, to lead and if need be to remonstrate and guide Israel back to the path of the Torah. His job is to serve as the modern prophet of Israel, calling the nation back to the ways of its fathers. But today he is filled with fear. We live in a ‘topsy turvy’ generation everything is backwards. Today, the teacher is graded by his students not the other way around. They grade him and exercise power over him afraid that he might succumb to the lure of his responsibilities as a minister of God and remind them of their failure to comply with their mandates as a nation of priests and ministers.

But they should not worry so much he won’t chastise them because he is afraid that his head will be removed like the prophets of old. He knows that all too often the messenger is killed and replaced with a messenger that brings sweetness and the status quo. They provide “virtual junk food” to their congregation week in and week out. They only say “sweet things” that everyone will agree with and that is how they keep their jobs. Modern rabbis have become “life cycle functionaries.” They know when it’s proper to say kaddish. They know how to prepare a child for bar mitzva and to perform a wedding, but they do not get involved in issues that disturb the peace. Rabbis who do so are branded as “radicals” or “reactionary” and are set aside and shamed by the powerful ones to keep the order with the rest.

Our powerful religious parties in Israel sell out routinely for government funding or donations to the massive Yeshiva Factory system where the rabbis elected to those parties are employees. These Politician Rabbis would rather legislate laws to curtail the violations of prohibitions in the Torah than do their jobs at educating and persuading the masses to observe those laws they are supposed to impart. They invest countless hours and resources towards gaining political power and the strength to legislate and impose instead of dedicating those to education and persuasion towards the observance of the holy Torah using the free will given to us by the God who gave us the Torah in the first place!

In synagogues throughout the world, rabbis select sermon topics according to what the big donors want to hear not according to what the Torah requires of them. We name buildings after ourselves and direct the affairs that go on in them after our image not after God’s image. We build and maintain Temples that reflect the values of Judaism to demonstrate our success to others — not Temples that reflect the values of our ancestors and our God. Our synagogues are social clubs not houses of prayer and transformation. Our rabbis are more comfortable speaking about “liberal social values” because the donors don’t want them to be speaking about Shabbat, Kashrut or Family Purity. Others would like those speeches way more than they would speeches about welcoming the convert, the stranger or the poor.

“Speak to us Rabbi about ephemeral and lofty theoretical values” — so we can take a short snooze during your sermon. Speak about any topic we like as long as it doesn’t make us think or worst of all consider changing our lives at all! Keep religion theoretical and lofty. Make it so difficult to observe that we need to hire someone else to do it for us — please do this so we can comfortably ignore it!

We ask the same of our secular politicians: “speak of peace with the terrorists and of a two state solution with the Arabs” because U.S. policy which is tied to money requires us to do so. And we (Jews all over the world) cooperate since it’s easier than confronting the hard realities and responsibilities of self-determination. All of us speak of peace, but know in our hearts that everything has its season and time and that (unfortunately) the season of war is upon us and we MUST be successful at it if we are to survive as a people. (Ecclesiastes)

The Modern Rabbi lives in fear of being replaced by a more “acceptable” rabbi; therefore, he is careful not to say things that are controversial. He doesn’t go out on a limb. He doesn’t take the side of the destitute unless it falls into fashion then he embraces it fully. Rather than take up the issue of the agunah (a forsaken woman who does not have a get) or the ger (a convert or stranger). He concentrates on “important halachic issues” like the proper time for the Shema, or whether or not “mezonot bread” is “mezonot or hamotzi.” They worry about bugs in the public water supply rather than the bugs in the system that keeps poor children paying exorbitant tuitions at yeshivas who already have endowments. “The orphans they do not judge and the quarrel of the widow does not come before them.”

“Your princes are rebellious and companions of thieves, everyone loves bribes and runs after payments.” He says nothing as the values of the Jewish nation are replaced by greed and avarice. The princes (young generation) are raised to succeed materially at all cost, even if it means violating the rules of the Torah and he says nothing. They accept donations from “white collar criminals” and name schools after them. After all they are considered excellent role models for the children since they are financially successful aren’t they? They allow parents to spend enormous sums of money acquiring college degrees for their children, but say nothing as they watch the Jewish education stagnate and fail. After all isn’t it every Jew’s dream to be a doctor? “A True Torah scholar (ha ha)? How will you make a living?” They ask.

Our Rabbis tell us that the reason the Temple has not been built and that the messiah has not come is that each generation has continued the sin of ‘sinat chinam’ hatred of our brother in a similar fashion as the generation of the destruction of our holy temple. We call out to each other to do teshuva and change. We make commitments to love each other more. Maybe it’s time the rabbis did teshuva also. Maybe it’s time for the leaders of Zion and Jerusalem to repent and reassess their values. If we did so it might help the Jewish nation climb out of this moral pit that we have fallen into. It might even bring redemption to humankind — Mashiach.

Rabbis who tell the truth must be supported by congregations that are “comfortable being uncomfortable.” Intelligent people thrive on confrontation and challenge. They stagnate without it. Maybe it’s time we empowered our rabbis to assume their duties as leaders and prophets and that we allow them to teach us the true path of the Torah empowering them to challenge us. Rather than support the immoral rabbis who launder money for Yeshivot and for themselves, let’s empower rabbis who stand for change and progress, for inclusion not exclusion, for spiritual growth not the status quo. Isn’t it embarrassing that others (in the form of the FBI or the Press) has to clean out our house of these scoundrels, child molesters and thieves rather than our own community disempowering these villains? Isn’t the confrontation and embrace of reality and truth, the true goal of religion? The house of Truth can not exist as a house of lies, therefore today it lies in ruins.

“Bring us back to you Hashem and we shall return to you, renew our days as of old.”(Lamentations 5:21)

About the Author
Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas (“Manny”), grew up in a traditional Sephardic home, born to parents of Cuban Sefardic ancestry who came to America after the Cuban Revolution in 1960. He was born and raised in Miami , Florida. Rabbi Viñas has Rabbinical ordination from Kollel Agudath Achim.
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