Was I Wrong To Fast on Tisha B’Av?

When I got the invite to the rally for LGBTQ equality in Tel Aviv, my first reaction was elation: FInally, a rally I could go to. But then, I quickly realized it was Tisha B’Av. Not only would I be fasting, but I also had a specialist doctor’s appointment in Jerusalem -the kind you have to wait three months to get. So with a heavy heart, I declined.

Then, on Tisha B’Av, friends started posting about social activism in Jerusalem -rallies and marches in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence. My headache pounding from the fast, I knew that the only way I’d make it through the day without eating or drinking was by staying in bed, so I declined again.

Did I make the right decision?

If Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for a Temple that was destroyed because of sinat chinam -lack of caring for the other – then perhaps, the most appropriate response is to spend the day expressing solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Perhaps, by prioritizing the fast over social activism, I was repeating the same mistake that led to the Temple’s destruction: Prioritizing religious rituals between humankind and God, over religious action between people.

There’s a principle in Judaism that a rabbinic law may be overridden for the sake of human dignity. Why did I not invoke this principle in order to break my fast and join the protests?

The answer I told myself was that if everyone thought like me, Tisha B’Av would turn from a day of fasting to a day of social activism with no religious rituals to accompany it.

Then I wondered: Would that be so bad?

But I’m afraid that without the rituals to safeguard it, Tisha B’Av would lose all meaning. It would start off as a day of social action, in memory of a Temple that was destroyed because of intolerance and lack of empathy. But the memory of the Temple would slowly fade, and without it, the moral imperative to social action would fade as well. I believe something similar happened with Shabbat: What started off as loopholes in order to enable family members to drive to synagogue, or to a Shabbat meal, slowly led to the day losing all religious and cultural meaning, and becoming simply another day off from work.

I’m also uncomfortable with where my conclusions lead me. It seems like a slippery slope: Which rabbinic rules would I be willing to break for the principle of human dignity, and what qualifies as a case of human dignity important enough to merit rule-breaking? Without a clear answer to that question, I’m afraid that “human dignity” can become an excuse to get out of commandments I find difficult.

When it comes to Biblical commandments, my path is more clear. Often, on Yom Kippur, for example, I’ve found myself lying at home instead of in prayer. I know that I’d have a more meaningful day if I broke my fast and prayed, but I don’t consider doing so, because the Yom Kippur fast is a Biblical commandment, and because I don’t believe that all the commandments have to be meaningful. Sometimes our challenge, as religious people, is to fulfill commandments even when we don’t find them meaningful. The same way that we might perform an annoying task for someone we love, and our annoyance would mingle with happiness at doing something to further our relationship, so too, we can do something we find annoying for God, and the meaning comes in knowing that we’re deepening our relationship with Him.*

The scroll of Eicha, traditionally read on Tisha B’Av night, mentions that Jerusalem was destroyed in part thanks to false prophets, who told the people what they wanted to hear, instead of the truth. I think today we see this phenomenon as well: It’s much easier either to praise or to completely demean our society than to engage in thoughtful critique; too often, leaders and thinkers tell us what they think we want to hear, instead of difficult truths -and too often, we encourage this phenomenon by protesting against those who tell the truth.

But this Tisha B’Av, I’m also afraid of being a false prophet: Is telling myself that I can break a religious fast in order to protest in favor of a cause that I care about simply telling myself what I want to hear? Is prioritizing my own values over the laws of the fast its own form of idol worship, of crafting a man-made religion made to look the way I want it to?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I only have a conviction that as a religious person, I must keep both the religious ritual commandments and the commandments that govern interpersonal relationships, including the commandment to respect the human dignity of all of God’s creatures, gay or straight.

Today, those obligations came into conflict. I don’t know if I made the right choice, but I hope that asking myself these questions is the first part of making good decisions in the future.

*Used because English has no gender-neutral pronoun

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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