Yom Rivii, 13 Av 5775
Wednesday, 29 July 2015
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Read an inspired commentary on this week’s Torah portion by one of our free-thinking Liberal Rabbis.

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Parashat Devarim 5775
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
24th July 2015

Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av - the fast that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other major tragedies in Jewish history – falls this year on Shabbat. When that happens, the fast is postponed until the following day.

Two and half thousand years ago, in 586 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, sacked the Temple and deported the citizens of Jerusalem to Babylonia.  Many Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE by edict of the new Emperor, Cyrus.  But many stayed in the new diaspora and built their cities, their schools, academies, businesses and life in the country of their dispersion.  Here in Babylonia, later Persia, the oldest and one of the most distinguished diaspora communities of Jews remained vibrant until the expulsion of its citizens in the aftermath of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Those who returned from exile raised a new Temple in Jerusalem and once again it became the centre of worship and sacrifice until it, too, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.  It was another major calamity for the Jewish community in Roman occupied Judea, who had lost the foremost symbol of Jewish devotional life and their land in one blow.

It is these two tragedies – the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and then the loss of the Second Temple that we commemorate this coming Saturday evening and Sunday, the fast of Tisha B’Av.  Over the years of observance of this ‘Black Fast’ as it is known, Jews have added other misfortunes: the destruction of whole communities during the Crusades, the Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the pogroms and massacres that decimated Jewish communities in Poland, Ukraine and Russia and the murder of six million women, children and men during the Second World War, the devastation that has come to be known in Hebrew as the Shoah.

But consider this remarkable phenomenon: after the destruction of the Second Temple, there was no rebuilding project; Jews had lost once and for all the very institutions that had been at the centre of Jewish life: a national homeland, a centralised place of worship, the priestly leadership, the means of expiation, worship, thanksgiving and atonement through sacrifice.  The reconstruction of Jewish life in the diaspora after the destruction of the Temple was not something that was sudden, an overnight phenomenon; it had been long in the making.  But a new, reconfigured, reconstructed Judaism emerged: Judaism that centred on the home, the synagogue, the Beit Ha-Midrash; a Judaism that was no longer dependent on one place, in one country for its existence.

After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled to Constantinople, Italy, Amsterdam and Palestine, underwent a massive upheaval.  The Jewish community was suddenly plunged into despair that gave rise to a messianic movement; the expulsion from Spain had shaken the very core of their faith; they put their trust not in themselves or their ability to rebuild Jewish life, but in complex mystical ideas and false messianic figures: Shabbetai Tzvi and Jacob Frank. And these figures and the movements that followed gave rise to an intense and inward focus on Judaism and Jewish existence.  Spanish Jewry was utterly decimated and a Jewish reformation took a long time to emerge in Europe – it wasn’t until the early part of the nineteenth century with the emergence of the Haskalah and the Reform movement that the Jewish community began, in a sense, to recover from the catastrophe of the Inquisition and Expulsion from Spain.

As we reflect on these major upheavals and devastations in Jewish history, we might also consider how the Jewish community has reconfigured itself after the Shoah?  What has been our model?  The reconstruction of Jewish life with new and vibrant institutions as conceived and lived by the Rabbis after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE?  Or an inward focus, a ghettoization that has removed us from the rest of the world, set up barriers, held us back from our contribution to global well-being?

It is big question that challenges us to ask how well the Jewish people are doing on the road to recovery after the calamitous events of the twentieth century.  The Temple of Roman times had outlived its usefulness and the rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era in Palestine and Babylonia were shrewd, creative and timely architects of the new movement.  The Jews of Spain, once part of a rich cultural Spanish-Jewish heritage, had been persecuted, forced into conversion and expelled.  Spanish Jewry effectively came to an end and has never been able to recreate itself.

In Europe too after the Second World War, the extent of decimation by Nazism, and then the extinguishing of religious life by communism, has been so thorough and so great that many of the communities of Central and Eastern Europe will never again see the light of day.  The focus of Jewish life has shifted to the State of Israel and the United States where more than 90% of the world’s Jews live today.

In commemorating Tisha B’Av, we should grasp the opportunity not only to look back on past tragedies, but also to reflect on our response to the greatest tragedy of the last century, the Holocaust, and to ask ourselves how are we, as Liberal Jews, contributing to the rebuilding of a new, creative, vibrant form of Jewish existence that will ensure our continued existence for another five hundred or two thousand years.  What is our contribution; how have we recreated and reconfigured our faith, our practice, our philosophy into the twenty-first century?  Can we say of our beliefs and theology, our practice and observance, that they have relevance to the Jewish people in our own time?

The Haftarah for the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, from Isaiah, concludes with these words to the people of Judah: Lim’du heiteiv; dir’shu mishpat, ashru chamoz, shivtu yatoom, vivu almanah – “Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed. Uphold the rights of the orphan and take up the widow’s cause.”

In a deeply troubled and unfair world, Isaiah’s call to repentance and ethical action, is also an urgent call to each one of us to understand clearly that our Judaism will only survive if we connect our observance and prayer to the pursuit of justice and the elimination of poverty and oppression in the world.

 

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