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Zionist Roots in Tisha B’Av

3 August 2006

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Today is Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the day both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed (586BCE and 70CE respectively). Israel is involved in another battle for survival, this time in Lebanon, against the forces of dictatorial, totalitarian, fascio-Islam as projected by the Iranian supported Hezbollah. Yet, as aware as Jews are, both in Israel and the Diaspora, concerning today’s events, most are pitifully ignorant of Tisha B’Av, its significance and ramifications.

One would think that in Israel in particular, that such an event would be mourned by all. It is here that the religious-secular divide is felt most deeply. Modern political Zionism sought to create the new Jew, the one who farmed and built his land, fought back against his enemies and rejected the rabbinical exhortations to remain in Europe (or wherever) and await the coming of the Messiah. The Zionist Jew rightly believed in action, but in his revolutionary fervor and rebellion against “the rabbis” he rejected major aspects of Jewish history, belief and understanding in favor of a “new beginning.” What he passed on was a very shallow Israeli identity (going back to the 19th century) and forgot the previous 3500 years of Jewish history, or relegated them to some form of Bible study, to be distinguished and separated from anything Israeli.

As one who is secular and can state categorically that he is convinced of how clueless he is as to the nature of God, or even of His existence, let it also be said that should we forget, ignore or downplay Tisha B’Av, we not only endanger our collective Jewish being, but undermine any Zionist identity or endeavors we may call our own. With no recognition of Tisha B’Av there is no Zionism. The word “Zion” means Jerusalem and in its extended understanding, the “Land of Israel”. Due to the fact that over the past 1936 years the destruction of the Temple (twice) has evoked a religious interpretation, today’s secular believed they are freed of any responsibility to mark such a tragedy. What is downplayed is the total destruction of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, the exile of the Jewish People and the humiliation suffered for generations to come.

The objective of Zionism was and is to rectify all of the above. The argument was already engaged three generations ago by the Labor Zionists themselves when the great ideologue Berl Katznelson demanded that Tisha B’Av be assigned a central domain in the evolving Zionist/Jewish understanding. His failure is our failure, both religious and secular.

When Tisha B’Av belongs to “the religious” everyone is satisfied. The secular can go to the beach and cool off on a hot summer day, while the orthodox maintain their monopoly on religious understanding and with it our Jewish identity. The secular abdicate responsibility to the satisfied acquiescence of the religious authorities who want no challenge or debate from those outside their ranks. Orthodoxy and especially the ultra-orthodox prefer the airhead secular Fourth Son (remember Pesach?) who does not even know to ask a Question (and would like to keep it that way. After all one might receive and answer and then you might know something). They want no challenge by Conservative or Reform or any other believing Jew who might rattle the self-imposed “agreed upon” exclusive rabbinical judgment.

Nowadays Tisha B’Av should be no more a “religious” day of mourning than Holocaust Memorial Day. Both are national in their overwhelming tragic significance, and can also have religious interpretations.

Today should be not only a fast day but one of a “cheshbon nefesh” or an inner accounting, specifically on a national level. Both the rabbis of ancient times as well as the historian Josephus Flavias make it clear that “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred was responsible for the catastrophe that befell the Jewish People with the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av must be not only a day of remembrance of what happened over the millennia, but a day of national soul searching concerning what the Jewish People and State of Israel did over the past year. The collective Jewish spiritual being must designate Tisha B’Av as a form of a national Yom Kippur where we scrutinize our behavior towards ourselves and others so we, as the revered Rabbi Kook explained, can indulge in baseless love.

All must make the effort to learn and know, and thereby be held accountable. Unfortunately, many of the secular view this as a losing formula all around. Not only does one invest time in studying but because you do so, you now are counted amongst those responsible and cannot dump it on the rabbis and the religious any more. Instead of abdicating, we now advocate responsibility for the Jewish future.

Just like the many who believe that salvation and the Messiah will arrive on Tisha B’Av in a complete reversal in what the day represents historically, there is no reason why the same cannot be done on the national level for every day existence, namely creative rebuilding, especially in the social and educational sphere.

Battles against the Hezbollah today come full circle when understanding and internalizing the message of Tisha B’Av. When building our modern day pillar of collective Jewish strength we must internalize our past and learn from it as we rebuild a powerful terrestrial Jerusalem. Only then we can withstand those forces of evil seeking to destroy us.