THOUGHTS ON TISHA B’AV
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Tisha b’Av 5779
This essay is dedicated in memory of James Levi Z”L.
Tisha b’Av in the Era of Emancipation
The nationalistic aspect of Judaism is felt most intensely on the annual fast of Tisha b’Av. Established in the early second century CE to commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Roman General Titus, Tisha b’Av came to be the day on which Jews around the world bemoan their beleaguered fate as a Diasporic people and express the fervent hope for a national restoration. While the daily liturgy, too, includes petitions for a return to Zion, the Elegies recited on Tisha b’Av give voice, with unparalleled poetic beauty, to those yearnings.
In the pre-modern era, when the Diaspora Jewish community was an un-integrated corporate body on the margins of its host society and functioned as a “state within a state,” it was eminently logical for Jews to preserve a latent sense of Jewish nationalism and to have those sentiments burst forth tearfully on Tisha b’Av. But with the rise of European nation-states in which the individual citizen (regardless of faith) is protected by and has obligations toward the centralized government, the question whether to emancipate the Jews led to scrutiny of Jewish aspirations for a return to Zion.
In his 1781 treatise, “Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews,” Christian Wilhelm von Dohm argued in favor of the emancipation of European Jewry and posited that their moral regeneration would inevitably occur after the improvement of their civil status. Johann David Michaelis, who strenuously opposed Jewish emancipation, offered this argument against Dohm’s theory: “One must mention something which casts doubt on the full and steadfast loyalty of the Jews to the state and the possibility of their full integration, namely their messianic expectation of a return to Palestine. The Jews will always see the state as a temporary home, which they will leave in the hour of their greatest happiness to return to Palestine.”
Moses Mendelssohn responded to Michaelis by dismissing the hoped-for return to Palestine as a non-issue. He noted that in those countries where Jews had already been given citizenship Jewish thoughts of Zion had in no way compromised their behavior as loyal citizens. Moreover, nationalistic sentiment is “reserved for church and prayer.” Mendelssohn, prefiguring by a century and a half the views of Transylvanian Hasidic rabbis, wrote: “The Talmud forbids us even to think of a return to Palestine by force. Without the miracles and signs mentioned in the Scripture, we must not take the smallest step in the direction of forcing a return and a restoration of our nation.” Moses Mendelssohn had a dual personality; he was simultaneously a traditionally religious Jew as well as a European public intellectual. His dismissive approach toward the issue of Zion allowed him to retain the classical liturgy and commemorative fasts, while also calling for the legal and social integration of Jews. His arguments are flimsy. They are undermined by the emergence of the Zionist movement a century later.
According to popular legend, Napoleon Bonaparte once passed a synagogue on Tisha b’Av and asked why the Jews were sitting on the floor, barefooted, and weeping. Told that it was in observance of an annual fast recalling the loss of the Jerusalem Temple, he commented, “A nation that cries and fasts for two millennia for their land and Temple will surely merit to see it restored.” That story never happened. The earliest written account of it dates from 1891, seventy years after Napoleon’s death. The Zionist retelling of the story, equally fictional, has Napoleon pointing to his sword and saying “this is how you recover your land.” As an historical matter, Napoleon was an emancipator of Jews who expected them to integrate and to abandon the aloofness that characterized their pre-modern condition. He demanded of the Assembly of Notables and the Paris Sanhedrin (1807) that they declare French Jews to be Frenchmen and brothers to their fellow non-Jewish French citizens. It is not surprising that the earliest manifestations of Jewish religious Reform, including the purging of nationalistic elements from the liturgy, occurred in the Kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by Napoleon’s brother James.
During the Hamburg Temple Prayer Book controversy of 1819, the Orthodox rabbis issued a manifesto entitled Eileh Divrei Ha-Brit. The traditionalists pilloried the reformers for removing references to the return to Zion. Hatam Sofer argued that since the gentile authorities had known for centuries about the existence of such prayers and had never attempted to censor them, there was no need for Jews to self-censor. It seems, however, that Hatam Sofer did not fully appreciate the changed political circumstances. He described then-contemporary Jews as being refugees of a first-century CE war who must extend gratitude to their heathen hosts for their long-term hospitality. Hatam Sofer did not address how nationalistic prayers might be consistent with efforts by the host society to integrate Jews as full citizens in the nation-state. Hatam Sofer’s more astute observation was that those Jews doing harm to the liturgy did so because they no longer believed in the prophetic predictions about the Messiah and Third Temple. He warned his readers that Jews cannot be satisfied with improved economic and political conditions in the Diaspora; the return to Zion is indispensable. He noted the example of Nehemiah, who was a Persian official and yet had the audacity to make requests of the Persian ruler concerning the welfare of the Jewish community in Zion. In this vein, Hatam Sofer prefigured Brandeisian Diaspora Zionism by a century.
In 1840s Germany, many communal rabbis adopted changes in the observance of Tisha b’Av. Zacharias Frankel, Chief Rabbi of Dresden and the father of Positive-Historical Judaism, had his congregants wear shoes and sit in the pews rather than be barefoot and sit on low stools. He had the cantor and choir sing a formal rendering of the service rather than engage in the customary cacophony of unrestrained wailing. David Einhorn regarded Tisha b’Av as a day of historic sadness as well as joy “for the new light that shines forth.” Expressing a thoroughly non-traditional viewpoint, he prayed: “Not like an outcast son did Your firstborn go forth into the strange world, but as Your messenger for all the families of the earth.” Samuel Holdheim of the radical Berlin Reform Congregation simply abolished Tisha b’Av. Abraham Geiger, rabbi of Breslau, would have preferred to abolish Tisha b’Av. But, as with many aspects of religious reform, Geiger’s personal views far outpaced what he was willing to institute for a heterogeneous community that included staunch traditionalists. In 1855 he was away for Tisha b’Av at the home of his sister in Baden. Her family was traditional and the members of the household were all fasting. Not only did Geiger himself not fast, but he convinced the women in the house and a young nephew to break their fasts after noontime. Curiously, Geiger only ate dairy on that occasion, and was careful to eat behind closed doors so that no co-religionist would take offense at his sacrilege.
[Even the most radical of reformers, however, did not believe that the march toward legal equality should be conditioned on the elimination of the national element from Judaism. Like the champion of Jewish emancipation, Gabriel Riesser, they believed that emancipation was a moral imperative for Europe irrespective of internal Jewish developments. Moreover, the Frankfurt Rabbinical Conference of 1845 declared: “Loyalty to the state of even such as hold the traditional view on the Messiah in its strictest form is not to be questioned for a moment.”]
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy and leader of the separatist community in Frankfurt, pushed back against the assault on Tisha b’Av. The context was a sermon he gave decrying the Science of Judaism. Some practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums, notably Mortiz Steinschneider, not only believed in emancipation and the elimination of the national element in Judaism, but they regarded Judaism, generally, to be in its death throes. They believed that the task of Jewish Studies was to provide the remnants of Judaism with a decent burial by having the religion enter the canon of western learning. For decided effect, Hirsch spoke from the perspective of the Wissenschaft scholar: “We who have fully imbibed the spirit of modern Judaism, we do no fast, we do not pray Selihot, and do not say Kinot on Tisha b’Av anymore. We would be ashamed of the tear in our eye or the sigh in our breast for the fallen Temple. We would be ashamed to feel the slightest longing for this scene of bloody sacrificial rites. With our feelings refined by a cool reality, and with our unbiased scientific insights, we understand and evaluate this all very differently… On Tisha b’Av we let old Jews pray Selihot and cry Kinot.” Hirsch concluded by noting that traditional Jews pray the prayers composed by the Elegists but forget the names of the composers, while the Wissenschaft scholars remember the names of the Elegists but forget the prayers. In his view, it is the former who are the heirs of the great Hebrew poets.
Hirsch’s defense of Tisha b’Av, however, must not be misconstrued. He was a vocal advocate of emancipation and was involved in the political process especially as it pertained to religious liberty and non-coercion. He was also an anti-Zionist, rejecting some of the early schemes to colonize Eretz Yisrael. While he had theological reasons for objecting to proto-Zionism, it seems unreasonable to totally discount his thorough Germanism. In the half century after Hirsch’s death (1888), his progeny and intellectual heirs continued his anti-Zionism and were instrumental in the establishment of Agudath Israel in 1912.
The greatest defense of Tisha b’Av in the era of emancipation came from an unlikely source. Moses Hess was a socialist theoretician who had been estranged from Judaism and the Jewish people for over twenty years. In 1862 he wrote The Revival of Israel: Rome and Jerusalem, the Last National Question. The work was, in its time, and remains to this day, one of the most underappreciated books in Modern Jewish History. Hess came to the conclusion that true emancipation and integration were impossible for the Jews of Europe and that the attempt by western Jews to denationalize Judaism was an embarrassing failure and an exercise in self-abnegation. Hess recalled a phenomenon from his childhood days in which the true spirit of the Jewish nation was passed from generation to generation:
My grandfather was one of those revered scholars and God-fearing men who, though he was ordained as a rabbi, did not wish to use the title and did not earn his living from the Torah. Every single day, after his work was done, he would study Torah from the evening hours through the middle of the night. Only during the ‘nine days’ did he interrupt his study. Then, he would sit with his grandchildren until the middle of the night, reading stories of the destruction of the Temple and the Jews’ exile from Jerusalem. Tears would stream from his eyes down onto his snow-white beard; and even we, the children, could not stop ourselves from crying together with him. I remember one passage in the story of the destruction that particularly stirred both my grandfather and me. ‘When the children of Israel were chained and led into captivity by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar, they passed on their journey the grave of our Mother Rachel. And as they approached the grave, behold – ‘A bitter wailing was heard; it was the sound of Rachel weeping at the fate of her children and refusing to be comforted’.
While Hess secured for himself a posthumous legacy as an illustrious “forerunner of Zionism,” in his lifetime he was derided and labeled a kook. Geiger mocked Hess by saying of him that “after failing to make a name for himself in socialism he now dabbles in nationalism.”
Hess was not the only Jewish nationalist writer to be received icily be the western rabbinate. In 1882, after Leo Pinkser wrote Auto-Emancipation, he turned to the Viennese preacher Adolph Jellinek for support. Jellinek rejected him, saying, “Do you really think I will concede all of your conclusions and raise the sky-blue flag of a Jewish State and a Jewish political nation for you? Then I would have to repudiate my entire past, all the speeches I have published over three decades.” In 1896, after Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat, he turned to Viennese Chief Rabbi Moritz Gudemann for assistance. Despite the fact that Gudemann was a traditionalist who in 1871 risked his career to defend the retention of liturgical passages about the return to Zion, Gudemann spurned Herzl.
In the era of emancipation, Tisha b’Av was variously understood and appreciated. For the heterodox or non-believing integrationists, the fast was a relic of pre-modern times either to be abolished or radically reinterpreted. For those who questioned the sincerity of their European emancipators or rejected the possibility of social integration, the fast was a reminder that Jews are more than a confessional group and that an actual Jewish nation-state could be reconstituted. For the doctrinaire orthodox, both the fast day and the Jews’ conception of themselves remained unchanged even as their civil status evolved. For the moderate traditionalists, the rituals were largely retained even as the nationalist sentiment that undergirds the fast was jettisoned.
For many contemporary Orthodox Jews, especially in the American Diaspora, Tisha b’Av is observed down to the smallest custom with no regard paid to the reality of the existence and success of the State of Israel or the freedom and equality guaranteed in the United States. Why? Because Tisha b’Av is part of the codified halakhah. The fast must be observed just as one must sit in a booth on Sukkot or eat unleavened bread on Passover. The incongruity of the fast vis a vis contemporary Jewish experience is not lost on either the laity or the clergy. The latter often feel the need to artificially introduce themes and moralizing tones into their sermons as a means of propping up popular observance of the day. In this regard, one might argue, the raucous discourse of the 19th century was more honest and straightforward.