Tisha B’Av is Political

On Erev Tisha B’Av, we hosted in our Reform congregation in Tzur Hadassah Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of the Reform Center for Religion and State (IRAC).  We heard a review of the important work of the Center and about the challenges that stand before the State of Israel in the coming years.  Topics such as integrating Ultra-Orthodox in the army and the workplace, the exclusion of women from public space, and the causes of violence and racism. (Oh yes – and the Kotel)

How could a religious community deal with such topics?  And on a day of national mourning?  Heaven forbid that we mix politics with religious sentiments!

Yes, we spoke of politics during a religious observance.  But let’s begin with the source of the observance.  The destruction of the first and second Temples.  On the one hand, there is a tradition of belief that the Temple was destroyed because of the sins of the Jews.  On the other hand, one could understand the destruction of the Temple as a political process – the conquering of Jerusalem by a foreign empire.  Especially in the case of the destruction of the Second Temple – there were factions that advocated to capitulate to the Romans and to make a deal with them – Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai did just that and thus established the house of study at Yavne under Roman rule.  The zealots advocated to fight and thus enforced a siege on Jerusalem in order to coerce the other Jews there to continue to fight, leading to mass death.

What have we learned from these tragedies?  That the decisions of leaders (that is to say: politics) have an influence on the fate of the entire nation.

My religion requires of me to remember the tragedies of the Jewish people that occurred on this day in history: the failure of the mission of the spies Moses sent to scout the Land of Israel, the defeat at Beitar at the hands of the Romans, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and more.  It is, again, possible to see these events as Divine punishment for Jewish sins.  And it is also possible to see these events through the prism of politics.

On Tisha B’Av we are supposed to be sad.  Sad about the disasters that befell the Jews in almost every generation.  Perhaps this also requires us to take a look at the disasters of today?  Or the potential disasters of the future?  The message of the Talmudic rabbis is that these tragedies are our fault – the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews.  That is to say, open expressions of hatred among Jews.  This is not a politic matter?

What is politics?  According to the dictionary – “Managing public matters; policy”.

I hope that what I am saying is not news  that Judaism is political in the State of Israel (and I would argue also anywhere else in the world).  Judaism is a public matter that requires policy-making.

In Israel, it is taken from granted that there is no separation between synagogue and State – laws concerning Shabbat, official vacations set according to the Jewish calendar, a government Ministry of Religious Services that sponsors salaries for (certain) rabbis, building and operating (certain) synagogues and the exclusive authority over marriages and conversions.  If the Sate is allowed to engage in matters of religion, how could we in Israel conduct a discussion about religion without dealing with the political reality?

Let us take an example from Rabbi Sattath’s fascinating lecture.  Shmuel Ben Eliyahu receives a nice salary from the government as the rabbi of the city of Tzfat.  The money that pays this salary comes from our pockets.  He interprets Jewish law that Jews can kill Arabs. He calls residents and threatens them so they will not rent their apartments to Arabs.  This man claims to be religious and he propagates hatred. This is not a topic for Tisha B’Av?

In synagogues throughout the land people sit and cry over the Temple which was destroyed  two thousand years ago.  In our  commemoration in Tzur Hadassah, we identified with the difficult feelings as we read the book of Lamentations with images of destruction and suffering. We sang traditional dirges of longing and loss.  But is Judaism only a religion of the past?  Not at all. Judaism implores us all the time “And you shall teach them to your children.”  Tisha B’Av is not only about the past but also brings us a lesson for the present and the future. The State of Israel presents us with blessings and with challenges.  I don’t want that there will be another destruction here, and it is important that we should talk about it precisely on Tisha B’Av.

If I haven’t convinced my fellow Israelis, I would be happy to invite Rabbi Noa Sattath to return and to speak with us again on a different occasion about matters of religion and state.  And then – would you come?

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