Sunday 25 July 2010

Not Learning the Lessons of Tisha B'Av

Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av), which we marked last week, is one of only two full fast days in the Jewish calendar. The other is Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. This gives some indication of the level of importance attached to Tisha B'Av.

At the most simplistic level, the reason for fasting on each of the two days is very different. The fast on Yom Kippur is about atonement and seeking forgiveness. It is a day when Jews seek to atone for their sins of the past year committed against G-d and their fellow man, and undertake to be more holy in the year ahead. The act of fasting on this day is an attempt to separate oneself from the physical, material world and to draw closer to the spiritual world. In contrast, the fast on Tisha B'Av is about mourning a number of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people on this date over the ages. Most notable amongst the catastrophes attributed to this day, is the destruction of the first and second temples, both of which were destroyed on this unluckiest of dates 656 years apart. The day is dedicated to mourning these disasters and numerous others, and the fast is part of the mourning ritual.

The fast on Tisha B'Av, however, goes further than the simple act of mourning historical events. Significant introspection has taken place to try to understand why the temples were destroyed, and to understand the significance of why these events having taken place on the same date on the Hebrew calendar. It is commonly accepted that it is not pure coincidence that so many disasters share the same date. There is a widely-held view that the common date is a message, with a lesson that needs to be learned about human behaviour that was taking place at the time of each calamity.

The Talmud (a central text of Judaism in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history) cites the reasons attributed to the destruction of the temples. In the case of the first temple, it was because the three cardinal sins were rampant in society: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder. The Talmud tells us that the reason for the destruction of the second temple was sinat chinam - hatred without cause - which we are told was rampant in society in 70 C.E. when the temple was destroyed. Sinat chinam is characterised as the baseless hatred by one Jew towards his fellow man, and not simply hatred in general.

Two conclusions can be deduced from these Talmudic references. The first is that the three cardinal sins associated with the destruction of the first temple, are equal to the baseless hatred said to have caused the destruction of the second temple. Interestingly, sins towards G-d (idol worship) are placed on an equal footing with sins committed by man to his fellow man, including sinat chinam. The second conclusion is that the temple will not be rebuilt until our present-day society rids itself of these sins.

For believers in Jewish law and the Talmud, these conclusions are a clear indication that there is still work to be done in our society to bring about the reconstruction of the temple. Although there is also the belief that the coming of the messiah is a pre-requisite for the reconstruction of the temple, it is understood that this will not happen until the evils in our society, that were the cause of the destruction of the previous two temples, are eradicated to create conditions that are conducive to the reconstruction of the temple. Mainstream Judaism includes many calls in its daily prayers for the temple to be rebuilt "speedily in our days".

Given the strong desire for the temple to be rebuilt, and the understanding that baseless hatred could prevent this from taking place, it is surprising that this evil is so strongly perpetuated in our present-day society. It is even more surprising how much this behaviour is evident in the religious community. While they fast, beat their chests and prostrate themselves on Tisha B'Av, they seem to have no qualms about driving wedges in our society caused by baseless hatred. This is evident not only at the level of the individual, but is also obvious at a group and national level. Examples of this from the past few weeks alone can be seen with story of the Immanuel school, the arrest of a woman trying to read from the holy Torah at the Western Wall and the introduction of the conversion bill into the Knesset just to name a few. These are all instances of attempts to create religious tension where alternative solutions may have been sought.

The religious community responsible for initiating these antagonistic actions have defended their behaviour as being hatred with reason rather than sinat chinam, unjustified hatred. It is their contention that this is a fight to protect the strict application of Jewish law and practice in an environment where there is an attempt to dilute this. The battle over the school in Immanuel was billed as being the fight for G-d's law against the law laid down by the High Court of Justice. When presented in these emotive terms, it is obvious that a showdown is inevitable. This was the case when hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem to defend the Immanuel parents who took on a hero status for their stand, and acts in insulting other law-abiding Jews. Following all the brinkmanship, it seems as if the Immanuel parents have finally found a working solution to their problem which will satisfy all parties, and show a little respect to those who hold a slightly different view or practice than their own.

It is not the fact that they are prepared to fight for their beliefs that I find so objectionable. I cannot accept that it is necessary to conduct the battle with such disdain for others who do not agree, or with such a confrontational approach that seems designed to create conflict. Although our ultra-Orthodox brethren are supposedly not exposed to the modern world of television, internet and other media, they sure do understand the value of creating news headlines in the interests of getting their own way. If baseless hatred is required to attract the attention, they seem not to hesitate to pursue this without even giving a second thought to the negative impact that this may have on our society.

Perhaps, our society has not yet understood that the opposite of sinat chinam is not simply to avoid baseless hatred. It is ahavat chinam, the act of loving without a cause. We very seldom see people finding reasons and ways to love and respect people, rather than finding reasons to hate them. This would be the true manifestation of avoiding baseless hatred. If we need to find a solution to the conversion bill or to the school in Immanuel, ahavat chinam calls for us to sit down and discuss possible alternatives showing some respect for other people's positions, instead of demanding that there is only one solution to every problem. It would be wonderful to see more of this inclusive approach, particularly from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Unfortunately, it seems that we are destined to mourn the destruction of the temples for the foreseeable future, rather than rejoice in its reconstruction. While it may be possible to argue either way about the fact that poor behaviour patterns caused the destruction of the first two temples, there is no doubt in my mind that a third temple can never be built in a society which creates such conflicts amongst itself. If we cannot even manage to find a suitable compromise about the schools that our children attend, how can we hope to come to a consensus about the reconstruction of the temple?

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