I know of a number of political actions taking place on Tisha B’Av this year, in support of immigrants, keeping families at the border together, protesting white supremacist murders, advocating gun control, and I intend to participate in one myself. Yet I have further thoughts approaching the day which I want to share, thoughts about the particularity of the day for Jews.
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem (586 B.C.E, and 70 C.E) and many other tragedies which have occurred to the Jewish people on the same date. Fascinating to me is how the 1st century rabbis chose to make meaning of the carnage and suffering. Just as, on one level, the events in Dayton and El Paso have an immediate political cause and remedy – high on the list, the availability of assault weapons – the events the ancient rabbis comment on have a rather straightforward explanation – the Roman conquest of hopelessly inadequate Jewish forces. Yet the story they tell to explain how the destruction came about is not a national political tale, but rather the small domestic account of two men feuding, a party invitation going astray, a public humiliation and a refusal to make peace: the rabbis’ all too human saga escalates into revenge, betrayal, war and carnage stemming from what they term, sinat chinam, causeless hatred between Jew and Jew. (Google Wikipedia for the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, or see the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gitten, folio 55b, and in the Midrash, Lamentations Rabbah 4:3.)
Why did the rabbis tell this story? Their wisdom was to understand that while conflict and tragedy on a large scale most often emerge from national political forces, the warp and woof of our national stories are simultaneously rooted in small personal stories. And since most of us do not live on a national political stage, we need to find our awakening, empowerment and the assuming of responsibility in meeting and knowing our fellow humans one-on-one.
As I sit writing in my study in Western Massachusetts, early August, I am still holding onto weeks of summer sunshine ahead, yet I am transported to a different world, recalling lines from a poem of mine, “Friday in Jerusalem,” written 30 years ago – I am tired of being sad,/tired of my own sadness. (A Spiritual Life, SUNY Press, revised ed 2007.) Now as then, my sadness has a greater context. In August 1989 I arrived in Israel with my husband and two young children, embarking on the adventure of a year-long sabbatical only to be thrust into the heartbreak of the first intifada. Aside from the drumbeat of mothering which anchored my days, and work on a new play and much poetry, I joined my dear friend and Israeli peace activist Veronika Cohen to participate in numerous ongoing peace efforts including Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups; ultimately I organized and co-lead such a group myself for women in the West Bank town of Beit Sahur. And once a month that year, to celebrate Rosh Hodesh, I would wake up early to daven with the newly formed Women of the Wall (WOW), a group of Israelis with a smattering of “internationals” like me who were advocating for equal access for women to pray at the Kotel.
We were often faced with violence that year at the Kotel—shoving, physical and verbal threats, chair-throwing. We were attacked by ultra-Orthodox women and men who were offended by our audacity to claim our equal right to a sacred space. I recall my careful preparations: tying up and covering my very long hair and removing my dangling earrings so as not to provide easy targets for pulling and injury. One way or another, opportunities for courage abounded that year, whether traversing the West Bank or davening in a minyan of women at the Kotel.
Fast forward nearly 30 years. It’s January 2019, I am visiting my daughter who is thriving in her first year of rabbinical school, enrolled at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, davening each month with WOW. My visit coincides with Rosh Hodesh and I am delighted to be going together. I’ve celebrated Rosh Hodesh here countless times since 1989; this time it’s winter, and the temperature is in the 30s. It’s a windy day, but the bright sun is slowly coming up over the horizon. We stand close together—to better hear one another as Haredi men and women try to drown out our voices, but also to share a bit of extra warmth, to lend support to one another. We enjoy a lusty singing of Hallel (special psalms included in the Rosh Hodesh service). Perhaps strangely, I feel peaceful, at ease.
I touch the corner of my tallit where I have sewn a small piece of lace I purchased in Zilina, the Slovakian town where my great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents made their home, where several of their children and a grandchild perished in 1942. I breathe in the Jerusalem air for them, relish the cold on my cheeks, look up at the stones and the grasses growing between, tell them I am here with my daughter; after intervening generations of assimilation, she is studying here this year as her father did more than 50 years ago, embarking on a path to become a rabbi. Miracle upon miracle.
Our prayers completed, we are asked to leave promptly, in unison, for safety’s sake. So we turn about, link arms, we are singing, Ozi v’zimrat Yah, Vay yehi, lishua, a song I cherish, a song I first learned from a beloved Reconstructionist rabbi friend, a song I used to lead my students in singing when I held sessions in spiritual writing at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical school in New York. God is my strength and my delight, God is my deliverance.
We, the Women of the Wall, are encircled by a phalanx of IDF soldiers, also with linked arms, because just outside their circle is a third circle, three rows deep, of men and boys in black, with peyes, who are pressing in, shouting at us, menacing. Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t have trouble blocking out the sounds of the hostile voices, only once or twice do I look at their faces distorted in anger. Ozi v’zimrat Yah. We women are being pushed closer and closer together by the third concentric circle, the men and boys in black. Slowly we approach the exit, three concentric circles of several hundred people. Most of the daveners are ushered onto the waiting buses which brought them.
But Lisa and I are meeting a friend for breakfast in Mamilla, another Old City neighborhood, so we break off from the group and start climbing the many levels of steps to get to that section of the city. I reflect and compare as we begin walking—far less disruption while davening than in the old days, really rather peaceful, but much much worse after davening, trying to leave—I don’t recall anything like that mob. I am disturbed by how threatening it was without realizing the worst is yet to come.
As we begin climbing the countless number of stairs, on one side I am holding onto her arm, on the other side leaning on a heavy cane. Challenged by a bad bout of arthritic pain, I’ve been avoiding stairs as much as possible till now, and I feel nervous at this unexpected demand on my aching limbs, also struggling in the cold air to catch my breath. And as we keep ascending the stairs, it becomes apparent that we are in trouble.
We are being tailed by a throng of about 20 boys in black with peyes, ranging in age from maybe 10-14. Like their fathers and brothers a few minutes before, they crowd closer and closer to us, then begin running in front, stopping dead in their tracks. They are surrounding us, trapping us on the stairs. In an instant I see my limited options—I have no idea how to call for police, we have to keep up our momentum going forward. I begin to make double use of my heavy cane—lifting me from step to step, I also use it to push the legs of these boys out of my way. My arm is linked with Lisa’s, we form a phalanx as we go—I have the cane, but she is “unarmed.” I don’t look up at them lest it slow me down, but I wonder if my cane causes them hesitancy—I am clearly older, a person with some sort of handicap, yet they show me no deference, respect, care—far from it. Because we are the enemy. Whether they feel any moral confusion, they spend the better part of 15 minutes body blocking us, threatening—what?
Finally, exhausted, we reach the plaza where others stroll, the multitude of boys drift away, back down the stairs. Only then are we approached by a small group of young people, college age; one young man, American, introduces himself as Orthodox, he is clearly very upset. They don’t represent us. I feel horrible about this – please don’t think we approve of such things. I see how shaken he is, I try to comfort him. It’s OK, I understand, you’re not like them. But he is not comforted. Then I have an idea—Many families have a member who has mental or emotional problems. We try to accommodate, not to judge. His face lights up, Oh, you mean these are the crazy cousins! We all laugh—he, his friends, me. Yes, the crazy cousins…
But later I think, no. That doesn’t erase the injury, to be so ill-treated by fellow Jews, it doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility, it doesn’t wipe away their shameful actions. They are guilty of chillul Hashem, diminishing the glory of God, so serious a sin that the Talmud (Yoma 86a) tells us neither teshuvah (repentance), nor Yom Kippur nor suffering can fully effect atonement for a person. A person cannot be fully cleansed of the taint of making a chillul Hashem until he has died. Certainly such a chasm between Jews is not new under the sun, I am hardly the first not to know how to bridge it…
A few days later, back home in Western Massachusetts, I look up at the waxing moon, remember when I celebrated Rosh Hodesh in Jerusalem over this particular moon, when it was a whisper of a sliver. It’s Friday morning, I have challah dough rising in the kitchen, time to shape it into loaves, tear off a piece, say the blessing, put the loaves in the oven. It is time to prepare for Shabbat, immersing myself in what I love about this tradition, this life I have chosen.
In the subsequent weeks, while I recognize that I have no credibility with the teachers and parents of the boys who accosted us, I’m not good at feeling helpless, disempowered, so it keeps nagging at me – what can I do? Of course, be in respectful relationship with Jews in all the movements and none of the movements, but this I’ve done all my adult life, I learned this from my teacher, an Orthodox Hillel rabbi, Norman Frimer, of blessed memory. But what more?
I initiate an online conversation with four friends who are highly respected Orthodox rabbis, three American, one Israeli: please tell me, do you know of efforts to reach out to this extremist fringe of Haredim, to engage in dialogue, is there any way I could be supportive of such efforts? And when I press my Israeli friend about how to substantially participate, he directs me to the pluralist inclusive educational framework Meitarim, today a network of more than 100 institutions all over Israel with children of every background in a pluralistic environment which beautifully includes the best of Jewish and humanistic traditions.” (https://www.meitarim.org/en/) I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to support this extraordinary effort. What more? Two ideas.
For the past number of years, it has been my practice as I gather the tzitzit from the four corners of my tallis, to enfold a symbolic “four” for special deep kavanah and blessings as I say the Shma. It started with the impulse to bring close my daughter and son living far away to the shelter of my husband’s and my love. And then the practice moved on to a limitless number of those in need of love, of healing, of safety, of justice – sometimes friends who are ill, sometimes those suffering in faraway places or on our borders – please God, offer your protection, your compassion to these. And since my experience after davening at the Kotel on Rosh Hodesh this January, my prayers also sometimes include the boys with peyes who accosted me, their young sisters who shout to disrupt the prayers of those like me who they have been taught to despise, and the parents and teachers on the fringes of Orthodoxy who fuel this fire. Please God, help us to see your light in one another.
And finally, though the fringe of the Haredi community would never engage in dialogue with me, there are many other Jews who practice quite differently than I, with whom I could seek to engage – left, right, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, secular, on and on… Talking together, studying together, celebrating together, speaking from the heart and above all, listening. Hard work indeed, but from my perspective, and perhaps from the Talmudic rabbis’ perspective, the only way forward.
Questions you might consider/share on Tisha B’Av and beyond:
Across the wide spectrum of Jewish identity, observance, affiliation, where do you find your home? Do you have trouble finding a Jewish community to call home? What are the obstacles you face? What would you like other Jews to know/understand about you?
What are the feelings in your particular community toward the manifold other Jewish communities?
What prejudices do you experience other Jews nursing against you? What prejudices do you nurse toward others in the Jewish family?
How might you work, as an individual and as a member of a community, to widen and deepen understanding and connection to Jews who are different from you?
It seems fitting to end with these words from Rabbi Tarfon who lived in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. Pirke Avot 2:21