Tisha B’Av, sacrifice and Reform Judaism

Just two days after Tisha B’Av, when Orthodox Jews mourn the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the end of its system of animal offerings, the chairman of the Gadhimai Temple Trust issued a statement calling for an end to the tradition of Gadhimai Temple ritual slaughter. The Gadhimai Temple Trust organizes a festival every five years, and last year, during a two day pilgrimage festival, 2-2.5 million devotees were estimated to have slaughtered several hundred thousand animals as part of a ritual offering of animals to the Hindu Goddess Gadhimai,

For generations, pilgrims have sacrificed animals to the Goddess Gadhimai, in the hope of a better life. For every (animal) life taken, our heart is heavy. The time has come to transform an old tradition. The time has come to replace killing and violence with peaceful worship and celebration.”

This brave statement radically altering a 250 year old religious custom, was reported in an article (7/28/15) by Arin Greenwood, the Animal Welfare Editor of The Huffington Post (7/28/15) who wrote: “It’s estimated that as many as half a million animals were sacrificed at Nepal’s Gadhimai festival in 2014 in what is posited to be the world’s largest animal sacrifice. In four years, when the festival is to be held again, that number, organizers hope, will be zero.”

Although Tisha B’Av has been expanded to include other disasters, and the focus has shifted away from the loss of the ancient system of priestly animal slaughter, few religious Jews see Tisha B’Av as a occasion for pride that the Jewish people successfully replaced the thousand year old Jerusalem Temple’s system of animal offerings with Synagogue (prayer) and School (study).

Even among many Reform Rabbis, traditional views of Tisha B’Av can still be found. Reform Rabbis rarely teach what second century Rabbi Eleazar proclaims “On the day when the Temple was destroyed, there fell an iron wall, which had raised itself up between Israel and their father in heaven.“ (Berachot 32b). This is the translation found on page 451 of the Machzor published in 1985 by the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (the Conservative movement in GB)..

That the Jerusalem Temple altar had become an iron wall blocking communication between Jews and God seems so radical that almost everyone avoids translating Rabbi Eleazar’s statement in its plain meaning.

The Soncino Talmud translates “Since the day the Temple was destroyed a wall of iron has intervened between Israel and their Father in Heaven”, the exact opposite meaning from the translation of the conservative Machzor. The verb is to interrupt, but what is being interrupted: the barrier created by corruption in the Temple or communication with God through the Temple?

It is true that criticism of the Temple and its priesthood by the prophets in the generations prior to 587 BCE was well known. Hosea proclaims, “I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.” (6:6)

Even the pious book of Psalms says, “You desire no sacrifice or I would give it. You do not want burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a humbled heart..(Psalm 51:18-19).

Actually, both opposing meanings of Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching are reflected in his proof text from Ezekiel (4:2-3) . “Take an iron (serving) platter and place it as an iron wall between you and the city, and set your face against it (the city)”. The iron platter could be a wall blocking communion with God, or if rotated 90 degrees, it could be a serving platter facilitating communication. It is up to us.

Rabbi Eleazar thought that if the religious and political leaders had not ignored the moral message of the prophets, the moral walls of prophets like Jeremiah (1:16-19) and Ezekiel would have protected the people more than the city’s walls of stone. Thus, the altar which should have been a horizontal serving platter bringing God and Israel together in a shared meal, instead had been turned ninety degrees into a vertical “iron wall” of false security provided by the Temple.

Without the Temple’s altar, our spiritual relationship with God would depend on our own personal efforts. Rapprochement with God through prayer, repentance and good deeds would always be possible, but not automatically available through a Temple ritual.

Now, without the sanctuary alter, Israel could energetically focus on turning the Temple’s vertical iron wall into a horizontal serving platter without the interference of political and religious corruption by a powerful priesthood.

The Talmud reports people crying out “Woe is me because of the House of Ishmael, son of Phiabi, woe is me because of their fists. For they are the High Priests, and their sons are treasurers, and their sons-in law are trustees, and their servants beat the people with staves.” (Pesahim 57a, Tosefta Minhot 13, 21)

The Talmud also relates that rivalries between some priests led to bloodshed and that “The purity of their utensils was of greater concern to them than the shedding of blood.” (Yoma 23a)

This is why Rabbi Eleazar said, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the iron wall between Israel and their Father in Heaven has been shattered.” (Berachot 32b) Rabbi Eleazar sounds like an early Reform Rabbi when he also teaches (Sukkot 49b) “Greater is one who does charity than one who offers all the sacrifices, for it is said (Proverbs 21:3) ”To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

The mass spirituality of the three annual pilgrimage festivals to the Holy Temple was ended. A more individual spirituality could now only be experienced from time to time in secular lands (including Israel) within holy communities that put their energy into praying, studying Torah, doing good deeds and living a open minded nonjudgmental worldly life. (Berakhot 32b)

Many of these activities are not considered to be really religious by some people. Tisha B’Av should become a day devoted to understanding Reform Judaism’s view of Judaism.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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