Tisha B’Av: The Temple & The Synagogue

Tisha B’Av: The Temple & The Synagogue

Rabbi Joe Blair

July 15, 2013

Tonight at sundown begins the observance of the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av, a commemoration specifically of the destruction of the Temple (twice – ~586 BCE and 70 CE), but over time it has also come to be freighted with all the other evils which have ever befallen the Jewish people through history – making it an overwhelmingly sad, heavy day for those who observe it. Tisha B’Av is identified as a fast day, and a day of sadness and mourning, with all of the customs of mourning observed.

Tisha B’Av comes at the end of ‘the three weeks’, the three week period from the fast of the 17th of Tamuz, which recalls the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to its final conquest, to Tisha B’Av, when Jerusalem was fully conquered and the Temple destroyed. This period of semi-mourning is a preparation for Tisha B’Av.

The general observance of Tisha B’Av includes a reading of the book of Eicha – Lamentations, together with the singing/chanting of Kinot - dirges. The reading of Eicha is often done in chant, with a special Trope melody that is reserved for this use. The melody is sad, melancholy, and haunting, and yet quite beautiful. It is certainly worth hearing at least once for its own sake. Some congregations include text study, or a discussion, or additional readings and songs, but the heart of the observance is the reading of this book.

It has been my experience that although this is a sad observance, and the book is truly one of loss and lamentation (mourning, weeping, dirges, and sadness), there is an overall sense of uplift at the end of the service. Despite all the terrible things recounted, and the depressing woes presented, in the end this service, and this book offers hope and inspiration, reassuring us that God has not, will not, abandon us if we call upon God. In fact, the closing lines are the source of what we sing as we prepare to close the ark after returning the Torah: “Hashivenu Adonay aylecha venashuva, chadesh yamenu kekedem. Turn us to you, O Lord, and we will be turned/returned, renew our days as of old.”

There are those, particularly in the less traditionally minded part of the spectrum of Jewish observance, who question whether in this day and age, we should still be mourning for the loss of a Temple in which worship was of the form of animal sacrifice led by a dynastic priesthood. The arguments put forth often include the fact that we don’t need animal sacrifice, that we have perhaps evolved beyond that, and that it is misplaced nostalgia to regret the loss of something unnecessary, akin to mourning the diminution of the small toe in humans.  [Some of these views can be found addressed online at Jewish Values Online: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=476, http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=477http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=478].

I don’t dispute this; I have no desire to return to animal sacrifice, believing that it was the form that humans at a time in our development needed to use as their symbolic offering to God -and that God never needed or wanted it. Still, I think that Tisha B’Av serves a purpose today, and we should continue it at least as long as it does.

I do believe that something was lost with the destruction of the Temple, something we have never really recaptured or replaced, and I feel that this loss matters to me, to my community, and to the Jewish world. It is my sense that we need to find a way to address this loss.

The Temple was a physical location at which we understood ourselves to be in proximity and able to approach God: it was the place we ‘knew’ that God was present, immanent and manifest. Whatever you believe about God, that idea, and the psychological and emotional impact of it, is powerful. At some level it is the same concept as needing a gravesite to visit your beloved lost ones. It doesn’t matter if your deceased loved one is really, objectively, ‘there’ – in some important way, when you go to the grave to visit, they are there for you, and you are somehow closer to them. You place a stone on their monument, headstone, or marker, as a statement that you are there and remember; on a practical level that is for you, not for them.

I see the Temple serving the same psychological and emotional function. So the destruction of the Temple was a loss of the sense of ‘certainty’ that there was a way for us to return and reconnect with God. Lacking that ‘place’ to go might be similar to having no grave for a sailor lost at sea or a soldier missing in battle – in that situation there is a loss both on the level of the person being gone, and that we have no place to connect with them. The destruction of the Temple created a vast psychological and emotional wound for the Jewish people, and there is no sense of closure, so healing has been incomplete.

Some would say that the various synagogues, temples, shuls, shtibles, community centers, and so on serve this purpose. Perhaps for some (few) people, but I would guess not for most. There is no sense that God, or something beyond human, “dwells” in these structures, that we ‘know’ we will encounter God in them (often people say precisely the opposite to me in explaining why they don’t attend services), or that they are more than places to get together socially or to do some kind of social action project. For many, they are not even felt to be the center or address of the community. And that may be a good part of why nationally attendance at worship services is down, membership is declining, and people just don’t seem to be concerned with the congregations.

So it seems that what was lost with the destruction of the Temple was a feeling of rooted ‘place’ to encounter God, to come together as a community in the presence of the divine and to worship God. The rabbis of old were brilliant in their innovation, and created a model of a portable Judaism that allowed us to continue beyond the destruction, but it came at a cost – and the price is pretty high. We are paying it today, as I have described.

I don’t advocate a rebuilding and return to the Temple, and most certainly not to the form of worship by animal sacrifice. I do wish to find some way to instill a sense of the presence of God in the synagogue, and particularly in the midst of community. I think that would help to address the emptiness in the heart of Jews and Judaism today, better than the observance of Tisha B’Av. Until we achieve that, we should hold on to Tisha B’Av, because it speaks truth about the loss we have suffered.