Why We Mourn on the Ninth of Av

Opinion

Getty Images

By Mark Washofsky

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There are some good reasons why many religiously liberal, non-Orthodox Jews choose not to observe Tisha B’Av: We do not yearn for the restoration of animal sacrifice to our worship of God, so it seems strange to take part in that day’s mourning for the First and Second Temples, both of which are said to have been destroyed on the ninth day of the month of Av. Nor do we particularly identify with the day’s dominant theological message, namely that we are responsible for the catastrophe, that God permitted our enemies to lay waste to the land and our people as an act of judgment of our sins.

We liberal Jews, of course, are not the only ones who find it difficult to swallow these themes. But for us, that difficulty lies at the very heart of our liberal religious identity. We are liberal Jews in large part because our modern sensibility recoils at this simplistic notion of guilt and punishment. We cannot say with the traditional Siddur that “on account of our sins we were exiled from our land,” and we most definitely refuse to join those who apply such logic to rationalize the subsequent persecutions, pogroms and exterminations that darken the pages of our history.

Yet some of us liberal Jews insist upon observing Tisha B’Av. This is true even in my own Reform movement, where the holiday has made a rather impressive comeback in recent decades. Given all the above, what gives? How do we explain this apparent inconsistency?

The answer, perhaps, is that we have learned some valuable lessons during the two centuries of liberal Judaism’s existence.

We have learned, first of all, that there is no such thing as Judaism without the Jews and the historic experience of our people. Our religious ideas, however high-minded, remain lifeless abstractions so long as they are divorced from the concrete experience of the Jewish people throughout the ages. We have learned that our Judaism requires that we identify with that experience in its entirety. Churban habayit, the destruction of the Temple(s), is a symbolic memory for the Jews, a commemoration not only of those traumatic historical events but also of the ongoing experience of trauma in our history. No, we do not mourn the disappearance of sacrificial worship, and we do not look forward to its return. Yet we are Jews, and we cannot contemplate Tisha B’Av and remain dispassionate and unmoved by all that it has come to represent.

We also have learned something about our response to tragedy. No, we do not buy the theory that our own sins are the sole or even predominant cause of our suffering. (Neither did Job. And, as it turns out, he was right, and his so-called friends were wrong.) But we have discovered that the struggle to find meaning in suffering, even in suffering that defies all attempts at rationalization, can be an uplifting thing.

We have learned to read the traditional liturgy of Tisha B’Av — the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations), the day’s Torah readings, the kinot (dirges) — not as an effort to explain or to justify the destruction but as a call to respond to it by redoubling our commitment to search our souls, to purify our conduct and to renew our shaken-but-not-shattered faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This way of response permits us to acknowledge tragedy in all its darkness, but it forbids us to yield to a sense of helplessness and despair. And that’s why some of us liberal Jews will be in shul this Tisha B’Av.

May God comfort us all among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Mark Washofsky is a professor of Jewish law and practice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He chairs the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.