Tisha B'Av and the Jewish History of Tragedy

“CLERGYMAN.,  n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs  as a method of bettering his temporal ones.”

Ambrose Bierce

We're just on the verge of a little known but very sad Jewish holiday, Tisha B'Av [the ninth day of the month of Av; July 27-8 this year], which commemorates the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including, but not limited to, the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

This is indeed the date of many horrible persecutions, some of them intentionally on that date, as if to rub the Jews' faces in their humiliation.

One of the driving forces in my detachment from Judaism has been this aversion to a culture of victimhood.  Two thousand years of (mostly Christian) lies -- the Jews poisoned the wells and caused the plague! --  used as flimsy excuses to murder and mistreat Jews, just because they were different.

Why the passivity?  Beacuse they thought they deserved it? Because they felt God's will be done? If the rabbis convinced tham of this, then a lot of the Jewish blood is on those rabbis' hands.

Keeping perspective

I try to keep perspective.  Many peoples suffered genocide -- Genghis Khan really piled up the skulls -- though nobody ever got it done more efficiency than the Third Reich.  Hell, people killed ANYBODY who was different back then - just ask the natives of the Western Hemisphere. 

Also, as Rabbi Wine liked to point out that Jews were often welcomed, treated fairly, even honored.  How could such a thriving culture have developed if Jews weren't allowed to congregate and do their thing?

And Jews fought back.  Not enough.  Not nearly enough.  That's why I can watch movies like "Ingluourious Basterds" and the one about the tough Ukrainian Jewish Bielsky brothers who hid people in the forest.  One brother was a tough mf'er who could have been a captain in the Israeli Army. 

Which brings me to my third line of thought that keeps Jewish suffering from bringing me down (too much): Israel.  Toughest Jews in the world, and some of the toughest, smartest people in the world. They have to be.  As Golda Meir eloquently proved after the killings in Munich, you can no longer murder Jews with impunity.

Priestly Judaism

But back to Tisha B'Av.  My second problem, after all the Jewish passivity, is the centrality of the Temple and its priests.  Why mourn the destruction of the Temple?  That was progress! 

Priestly Judaism represented the old-time religion, a centralized, fundamentalist Catholic model.  And the Jews, hillbillies of the ancient world, opposed every sophisticated civilization into which they came in contact: Assyrians,  Babylonians, Canaanites, Greeks (they could have learned so much from the Greeks!), Romans.  I have a hard time rooting for the Jews when their enemies are generally more enlightened and humanistic.

Here's how hard core Jews do Tisha B'Av.  The following is from the President’s message from a newsletter of chabad.org, dedicated to fundamentalism.  I’m delighted to be on their mailing list, and every so often the nuttiness is on florid display.

Here we go.

Every year on the 9th of Av, Jews fast, eschew pleasurable activities and amenities, and lament the destruction of the Holy Temple and our nation’s exile. After nearly 2,000 years of mourning, might it not be time to get over it already? But to “move on” is out of the question for a nation who thrice daily faces Jerusalem and prays to be returned there, a people who believe with every fiber of their being that the Holy Temple is not only part of their past, but also part of their future… Instead, as the prophet Isaiah says, “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest… And give Him no rest, until He establishes and until He makes Jerusalem a praise in the land.” So when will we “get over it”? That’s a question G-d has to answer. The ball’s in His court. May the answer be very soon in coming. In the meantime let’s continue to do our part. Another mitzvah, another prayer, and then one more just for good measure

Once again the nature of religion’s grip on the believer is evident.  The putative rational/skeptic straw man is well-articulated in modern slang — get over it – which contemporizes the “problem,” i.e., that our holy building isn’t in its holy place, and we have to fret about it, today and endlessly.

Can’t get over it

But we don’t get over it BECAUSE…the ancient book and events hold us totally in their power. 

But what does the book actually say?

The phraseology from Isaiah is quite cryptic.  If the writer had meant that “Jews must not rest until they re-establish their temple ON THIS VERY SPOT,” he/she could presumably have said so, instead of being so oblique.  The Bible writers can be very precise when they choose to, e.g., the multitudinous tributes and goodies that God requires in Leviticus.

I make this commonsensical linguistic observation because, as is so often the case, the text doesn’t mean quite what the clerics say it means.

Ball’s in God’s court

As for how long we have to celebrate this national tragedy, again slang: it’s in God’s court, as if the relationship between humans and Imaginary Friend is like a tennis match, an exchange in which each side hits the spiritual ball back and forth.  Wrong.  Humans pray, God doesn’t return the ball.  Pretty one-sided. 

BTW, that’s G-o-d, you superstitious cowards with your reverence-hyphen.  The irrationality around God’s name is at its height among Jews, and the taboos are severe.  Many of them move up one level rhetorically and say ha-shem, ‘the name’ instead of God.

When fundamentalists trumpet their faith like this — and use contemporary slang to make the ancient, irrelevant issue relevant – they give us an invaluable insight into their minds.

Prayer = good deeds

In those minds, ritual observance is perceived to be of the same intrinsic value as good deeds.  This is the key to the disconnect between religion and morality.

One more good deed = one more prayer.  To Jews, God is, among other things, an accountant. 

This is how pious people in every faith, from Catholic child molesters to Mormon polygamists (love that teenage pussy), commit inhumane or criminal acts.   Observant Jews also have their share of assholes with personality disorders, who break the law and cheat their fellow Jews (Ivan Boesky, Bernie Madoff).


Note also: Among Orthodox and other Jews, we find the very inflammatory use of the word exile.  A great wrong has been committed, a people expelled from its native land.

What crap!  All throughout history, people have migrated, whether by choice or force.  With the Jews, it was both.  They’ve made significant, stable lives for centuries, in dozens of countries. 

But there was no mass departure after the destruction of the Temple.  A historian friend told me that by the time of Jesus' (supposed) birth, there were 40,000 Jews in Rome. The first synagogue in Rome dates from 45 BCE.  

And there’s no mass movement to get back to Israel.   But promulgating the concept of “exile” means job security for rabbis.  One more reason for religious activity, one more reason for Jews to feel special. 

If I were really rich, I’d give each “exile” a one-way ticket to Israel.  They’d be happy, and the rest of us wouldn’t have to hear about this awful “exile” (as I have for my entire life).

God will come through - NOT

Finally, there’s the passivity again.   Deliverance will come from beyond, as usual.  God’s going to give us what we want, loving parent that he is, in his own good time. 

This aspect of religion’s message is particularly poisonous, particularly to Jews.  How many died in the Holocaust, in every pogrom and act of mayhem over the centuries, because rabbis kept telling Jews to leave it in God’s hands?

This aspect of religion also defies the humanist’s comprehension.  It is based on stories, on prayer and passivity, on smoke and mirrors.  Rabbi Wine used to say that after the Holocaust, the nicest thing you could say about God is that he doesn’t exist.

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