Finding a new meaning in an old date on the Jewish-Israeli calendar

Tisha Be’av – the ninth day of the month of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Jewish Temples – expresses the deepening gap between the religious public in Israel and the secular majority.

If you look at the crowded beaches, the bustling cafes of Tel Aviv, the packed amusement parks, the congested roads and the nonstop departure hall at Ben-Gurion Airport – you will be hard-pressed to find any signs of mourning or grief. While the Orthodox minority in Israel fast and read the Book of Lamentations, most secular people in Israel today probably do not even know when 9 Av falls this year, and are likely taken by (unpleasant) surprise to find their favorite restaurant closed early and their plans to see a movie canceled.

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One explanation for why most of the public is not familiar with Tisha Be’av is somewhat prosaic and relates to its timing – smack in the middle of summer vacation. No school plays to attend, no Tisha Be’av themed artsand- crafts to bring home, no white shirt to remember to wear… Between June 30 and September 1 we are simply ignorant of all important events and holidays. While this has some element of truth to it, at BINA, the Jewish Movement for Social Change, we believe that the issue is much deeper.

In order to fast and grieve, one must feel some sort of emotion. To connect to the day of destruction, the historical events need to evoke a sense of sorrow, in a way that is relevant and meaningful to the reality of our lives today.

Yom Kippur, as opposed to Tisha Be’av, has remained a significant fast day for secular Israelis as well as Orthodox Jews, as it carries in it a dimension of forgiveness, repentance and soul-searching – dimensions to which everyone can relate. Holocaust Remembrance Day, as another example, is an emotionally charged day, commemorating a historic disaster with which the general Israeli public is able to tangibly connect. These days are relevant and meaningful, and therefore present in the street and in the home, in the family and in the media. But what do we do with Tisha Be’av? The destruction of the First and Second Temples is a symbol of the loss of independence and exile of the Jewish people, of the great crisis that we experienced as a people during the 2,000 years of exile. Today Israel is a nationstate – we have political independence, an army, a national anthem and a flag.

We all speak Hebrew and Jerusalem is a well-built capital city. So what are we mourning? Should we still be crying over our past destructions and failures, or celebrating our current rehabilitation and success? At BINA we look upon Tisha Be’av as an opportunity for renewal: An opportunity to find new meaning in an old date on the Jewish-Israeli calendar, to create a day for us to draw from the destruction of the Temple in the past, in order to talk about the destruction that threatens us in the future. And we do not mean physical destruction from an enemy, which we tend to deal with obsessively all year round.

We mean the internal-social devastation that threatens us these days. The Talmud teaches that the temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.

Hatred, internal division, moral corruption, intolerance towards differences, profound social gaps have all played a role in the destructions of the past and have the potential to bring disaster to us in the future.

What we propose this summer to commemorate 9 Av is not to mourn the past, but rather to take a hard look at the present; not to fast or read Lamentations, but rather to connect the ancient date of destruction to present- day opportunities for redemption and repair – of ourselves and of our society. Let us tie Tisha Be’av with the social protests that cry out for social reform, moral conduct (of ourselves and our leaders), social justice, inclusion and tolerance. Israelis have gotten good at summer protests. This year, let’s take to the streets to fight together against prejudice, bigotry, racism and xenophobia. This kind of Jewish activism has the power to connect religious, traditional and secular Israelis together.

This kind of Jewish practice has the power to connect secular Israelis to our Jewish tradition, as well as give significant impetus and depth to our social activism. And, if nothing else, it will give us something to do with the kids when the cinemas and amusement parks close early.

The authors work at BINA, the Jewish Movement for Social Change.