What Tisha B’Av Means Now

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

There is a conversation from my 11-month clergy abuse period that continues to stand out to me, even two years after the fact. It was one of those moments in which I was reminded of how people — and rituals — are not always what they appear to be.

Two years ago, on Tisha B’Av, my rabbi-abuser struggled to understand why we still observe this day:

This is such an awful, awful holiday. I am not sure why we do this to ourselves year after year. I don’t know what’s to be gained by recounting the book of Lamentations. I am really struggling with understanding what we gain by ritualizing a poem about eating our own children because G-d is angry at us. Just because a tradition is old, doesn’t make it good, or healthy.

How could I respond to this, coming from a senior rabbi, no less? It sounded to me a little bit like a challenge from the wicked child, especially in the context of his personality.

It took me exactly 24 minutes to consult my personal library and to write up a response to this challenge. My response was a set of text messages synthesizing personal insight, writings by Joseph Telushkin, and probably an article or two from Chabad.org.

Before reading it, take a moment to imagine what you might say.

What would you say to a 21st century pulpit rabbi who is struggling to understand why we read the Book of Lamentations every year on this day? 

I think it should be the task of every one of us to reflect on this question and perhaps write up a response to it each year. Just as we are to know that we ourselves came out of Egypt, are we not to relate to Lamentations in the same way?

Here is what I said to this pulpit rabbi on that day, in 2017:

Rather than submitting to the opposition’s gods and paradigms, we would rather think our own G-d did this or let this happen to us. That’s something that makes Jews very unique.

Reading Lamentations shows me just how strongly we not only believed but knew. It’s very powerful when you accept rather than reject the Lord despite all of the pain and the crappy way[s] people treat you.

This poor guy…he suffered and who stood up for him? Yet he would not write saying, “There is no G-d worthwhile anymore.” This hope, this willingness to go on and continue while also acknowledging the pain. Wow. Is it not beautiful?

In that context: [link to a Sufi song]. On this day, G-d abandoned us and now can only be met with through a thought. [Hence the lyrics,] “I can only be met with through a thought.” [English translation here]

Our beloved we can no longer make the sacrifices to as we once did. We mourners are willing to take on any austerity to receive His love and presence. But He does not respond nor is there anything…but a wall that stands. I think the mood of the song and the desperation in the poetry capture this feeling.

Maybe I’m way off base. But that’s where I’m at!

Really, if anything, [Lamentations is] worth reading for the historical education. And an appreciation of the perspective and story of the character who wrote it. We gain a lot by not avoiding part of history just because it’s painful or unpleasant.

What would you have said?

He responded with a line of strong flattery and a dangling carrot to discuss more in-depth later, but that discussion never came. As usual, I was simply sexualized and romanticized, and he showed no real interest in engaging in the very things that he professed to be, both professionally and spiritually.

Every year as we approach this day, I remember that disappointment, and its significance. He never did follow through on his grand promises to do that one simple thing that he pretended to do so well: be a rabbi. As I later learned, I was not the only one whom he disappointed in a rabbinical capacity. What hurt even more was how blind he was regarding the trauma and harm that he had caused so many. According to one report, when interviewers asked what effect his actions had on his congregation, he simply said, “they lost a beloved rabbi.”

I mourned not the man, but the things that he was not. This was not so much a problem of putting too much faith in people, or people not living up to expectations. It was a problem of someone using their religious authority and position of power to gain people’s trust and to groom and manipulate others. It was a facade, and there was this deep duplicity and hypocrisy that I later learned passes for normal in much of the rabbinate. And I found that whenever I brought it up, the rabbis I spoke with would shift the conversation to how we should feel sorry for them, how difficult their work is, and how special they are. Just like my abuser! They were blind to their own narcissism, entitlement, and grandiosity and became defensive rather than accountable. This is something worth lamenting.

Looking back at his complaint on Lamentations from 2017, I can say that I would certainly respond differently now, being who I am today as a result of this experience. I have also learned a lot more about the holiday and its observances since then. I might simply say, “This is our world, our history, and we are part of that continuity. And given situations like the one that I just survived, don’t you think it’s extremely relevant?”

It makes complete sense that a rabbi with many psychopathic traits would not want to ritualistically read “a poem about eating our own children because G-d is angry at us.” People like that do not exactly want to be reminded that there are consequences for their actions, and do not view G-d or His anger as at all relevant to the operatic minutia of their daily lives. Has G-d abandoned them, or have they abandoned G-d?

We live in a world in which many clergy go into their profession not because of some calling, but because they want the narcissistic supply, power, control, and yes, sexual opportunities with vulnerable people. Was it not for stuff of this very nature that G-d repeatedly wanted to destroy humanity and constantly punished Israelites? My dearest abuser, we read this book every year because of the continued existence of people like you. 

About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are that of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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