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Why I’m not fasting on Tisha B’Av

She can't help but wonder what the place of women would be in a rebuilt Temple, given the current strife at the Kotel

Next week, the Jewish people will be marking a day of national tragedy — Tisha B’Av — the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Those destructions also marked the end of the priesthood and the sacrificial system. The end of the supposed “unity” of a people with one national shrine, one national ritual, one national way of worshiping. I am a rabbi. I won’t be fasting.

All during my teenage years, I fasted on Tisha B’av because it fell during summer camp, and Reform summer camps always had us doing some meaningful role-play or activity as if we were there, right there as the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Later, as a unit head, I helped create those melodramas and watched as the kids would cry and inevitably turn Tisha B’Av into a Holocaust Remembrance Day because the destruction of the Temple was ancient history to them.

During rabbinical school, I fasted, frankly, to be holier-than-thou, more religious than my newly-traditional right-leaning classmates.

As a young rabbi I fasted to be a role model of a Reform Jew who took Jewish history seriously.

But I don’t fast anymore.

Why? Aren’t I sad about all that loss?

I’m not fasting because the oldest symbol of that so-called “unity” — the Western Wall — is a battleground for religious pluralism, and I imagine that if the kohanim were still around, they would be on the side of the Haredim, not on the side of those women who, like me, want to be full participating Jews there with tallit, tefillin, and Torah.

I’m not fasting because I’m afraid of what it would look like for women if we actually rebuilt the Temple.

And I’m not fasting because, ultimately, the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism, wresting power and authority out of the hands of an elite and corrupt priesthood and placing it in the hands of scholars, and then rabbis, who represent the people. Eventually in our day, all Jews have the authority to be their own priests, to hold holiness in their own hands, to read their own Psalms as they ascend the stairs of their synagogue, to lead their own prayers, and even to make their own halachic decisions. I celebrate that democratization. It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are kohanim and would, in the time of the messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me. As a feminist, I don’t want to eat their leftovers.) I don’t mourn the loss of a hierarchical, inherited caste of priests — I would, however, mourn the loss of democracy.

In a way, the very existence of the rabbis and the Talmud undermined the Temple. To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, and interpretation won too over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Sadducees.

And I’m not fasting because I believe we are already living in the third period, in the time of the sovereign nation of Israel, and though the Temple doesn’t exist anymore, Israel certainly does. I am a Zionist. I don’t mourn the loss of our sovereignty, because we finally got it back. I feel blessed to live in the era of the “flowering of the seeds of our redemption.” With all its faults, still, Israel is the living reality of a people who couldn’t have imagined it in 68 CE — but I don’t have to dream it or long for it, because it’s as real as my right hand. Fasting on Tisha B’Av almost seems like a slap in the face to that sovereign Jewish nation. I want to imagine that if the Rabbis of the Talmud were living today, they’d say, “what? How can you keep a fast that longs for a nation you are living in now?”

To be sure, there are Jewish groups who “re-imagine” Tisha B’Av. It becomes about the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust or about personal loss, or a day of brokenness and sadness. That’s the way we modern Jews try and make sense of a fast day that doesn’t speak to those who do not feel as if they are “in exile.” Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But remember: from the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.

No, I won’t be going out to a fancy restaurant. I’m not going to eat a luxurious meal on my front porch. I’m not going to put down anyone who is fasting. But I will be spending the day reflecting on how to build a Judaism based on pluralistic, democratic values; a Judaism strong enough to survive into the future without needing one “unified” way of being Jewish.

While we are mourning the destruction of a mythical “unity” — one we never had, with the infighting of the Pharisees and Saducees, Essenes and Zealots to name a few — we are blinded to the reality of destructive narratives in both Israel and the Diaspora today. A corrupt male priesthood still exists in the form of a chief rabbinate. Social castes still abound. The destruction of the Temple should be a metaphor for the destruction of all that really divides us. Now, without a Temple burning, those destructive forces are turning inward.

There is a midrash in Avot deRebbe Natan (4:5) about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai walking in Jerusalem with his student Rabbi Yehoshua. They see the ruins of the Temple and Rabbi Yehoshua says “Woe to us, that this place where the sins of Israel were atoned for is destroyed.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai answers, “My son, do not fear. We have another atonement which replaces it: gemilut chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness.”

The Rabbis in the Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:1) say the Temple was destroyed because people loved money and hated each other. If we were really sad about the destruction of the Temple, we’d be living much differently today. We’d be living with abundant gemilut chasadim and much less sinat hinam — gratuitous hatred. Otherwise the empty stomachs will be like when I was a teenager in summer camp: just for show.

About the Author
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the spiritual leader of The City Shul in Toronto, a leading educational innovator, prolific columnist and the author of four books including "New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future"
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