41 years ago this summer, my husband, Shelly, received rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. Among the extended family who gathered that Sunday morning were Shelly’s ultra-Orthodox relatives, who came from New Haven. They stood as a group outside the synagogue, waiting for the three-hour ordination ceremony to end; when it did, they joined the rest of the family in congratulating the brand-new rabbi.
Shelly was disappointed that his cousins did not feel they could set foot inside a Reform temple, but he was grateful to them for coming to show their support, and for honoring him as a lover and teacher of Torah. As a newcomer to the family (we were not yet married), I watched with interest the interaction of relatives separated by profound differences in belief and practice, but united by enduring ties of love and family loyalty.
We all know that family is sacred in the Jewish hierarchy of values. What’s more, Judaism is unique among world religions in envisioning all who claim Jewish identity as, literally, members of a single family. The Bible calls us “children of Israel,” meaning children of the patriarch Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel; and we envision ourselves as biological and spiritual descendants of the same founding fathers and mothers. This is as true of Jews by choice as it is of Jews by birth – converts are “adopted” children, equal in all ways to those who have inherited their identity from their parents and grandparents.
Because we see ourselves as family, we have profound expectations of our fellow Jews: loyalty, mutual support, a sense of responsibility, care and concern. And because we’re family, it’s all the more painful when our expectations are not met. Conservative and Reform Jews in the Diaspora are hurt and angry when the Israeli rabbinate shows disrespect, even contempt, for our forms of Judaism, not recognizing our rabbis as rabbis or according our institutions equal support. Here in America, Jews of different denominational streams are too often ignorant about one another’s beliefs and practices. In some communities, the relationships between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are cordial, but in others they are deeply adversarial.
The summer holy day of Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av) offers an opportunity to reflect on our sometimes-dysfunctional Jewish family. In searching for reasons to explain the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the rabbinic Sages focused the blame not on our external enemies (the Babylonians and the Romans) but on the Jewish community itself. Thus, the Talmud [Yoma 9b] reports that the First Temple was destroyed because of idol worship, sexual immorality and bloodshed. The Jewish state, that is, rotted from within; without strong moral foundations, it could not withstand the Babylonian assault. The Jews of Second Temple times, says the Talmud, studied Torah, performed mitzvot and gave tzedakah. Why, then, was that Temple destroyed? Because the Jews displayed sinat chinam – “senseless hatred” – for one another.
As an example of such behavior, the Talmud elsewhere [Gittin 56a] records the story of two rivals, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, whose bitter conflict led, indirectly, to invasion by the Romans. According to this reasoning, lack of internal solidarity and loyalty weakened the Jewish community and left it more vulnerable to attack. Both Talmudic texts are frequently cited as lessons reminding us of the need for Jews to stand together, despite our differences, and to treat one another with more kindness and respect.
Jewish unity is indeed a beautiful and powerful phenomenon. In 1840, Jews around the world came together to protest the horrific Damascus Blood Libel; so also, Western Jewry exerted collective pressure on behalf of Soviet Jews in the 1960s and ‘70s, and American Jews united in support when Israel was in peril in 1967 and 1973.
But two young scholars, Jacob Abolafia and Yoav Schaefer, remind us that Jewish unity may not be the only, or even the most important, lesson of Tisha B’Av. Both the Talmud and the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus assign ultimate responsibility for the Second Temple’s destruction and the subsequent exile of the Jews to the failure of Jewish leaders of the time to stand up to the Zealots among them. These Zealots, who engaged in reckless, violent and extremist behavior, prevailed over more moderate voices who were too timid to challenge and restrain them.
Thus, an equally essential message for our time is the need for Jews (and others) to defend our values strongly against those who would threaten them, and not to be cowed by extremism. As Abolafia and Schaefer write: “The lesson of Tisha B’Av may not point to the value of unity but to its perils. The fast [of this holy day] reminds us what happens when the forces that stand against political freedom and equal respect are appeased rather than defeated” [See “The Real Lesson of Tisha B’Av," Tablet, July 31, 2017].
This year, our observance of Tisha B’Av (on Saturday evening, August 10) will include a screening of The Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave, a documentary made by students who participated in the infamous classroom experiment in fascism conducted in 1967 by Ron Jones, a history teacher at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto. Together, we’ll have the opportunity to ponder its relevance to the destruction of our ancient Temple, and to the events of our own time.