This is the day in the Jewish calendar that is the eve of destruction, commemorating all the catastrophes of the last 2500 years, the forced exiles, the crusades, the massacres, the pogroms, an authentically religious national day of mourning for millions of jewish innocents over the ages. Only what is different from profane forms of Jewish mourning, is that religious mourning looks inward, introspectively, not outward for scapegoats. And this is the difference between heaven and hell, the hell created by profane nationalism, and the heaven created by spiritual identity.
I heard a homily in a synagogue yesterday that turned my stomach so badly that I had to leave. It was a celebration of conquest, precisely at this time, an embrace of the conquerors of the Book of Joshua, as role models for a new husband and wife team celebrating their upcoming marriage.
But Judaism is not the Bible, something the Christian and Muslim worlds have yet to understand. Judaism is a religion of the rabbis, who carefully selected their spirituality through commentary and interpretation. The day of Catastrophe, which they instituted, our Nakba, is always commemorated with fasting on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, always in the heat of the summer because that is when all the wars and conquests took place in which Jewish civilians suffered so badly. And always the Biblical portion that is recited on the week before, from Deuteronomy, has a list of the peoples that the Jews massacred, according to Deuteronomy, as they conquered the ancient land of Israel, men, women an children.
So it is only natural that a secular Jewish nationalist, wearing of course the nationalist symbols of Kippah and Tzitsit, would mistake the choice of this Biblical portion as approval of conquest and ethnic cleansing. Why wouldn’t he, so much of the establishment of his generation has succumbed to this bastardization of Judaism. But the rabbis had a different idea, as can be seen from their choice of the Prophetic commentary from the great prophet Isaiah.
What they happened to have missed is that the rabbis did two things, they chose a Haftorah, a portion from the prophets, that had this to say to the people about Jerusalem leadership at this terrible time:
Isaiah 1: Your princes are going astray, and are friends of thieves. Every one of them loves bribes, and pursues illegal payments. They do not champion the orphans, and the fight for the widows never even reaches them.
Sound familiar? These are the years in which the level of corruption that late twentieth century Jewish life in Israel and America reached its zenith, the highest officials of Israel investigated for corruption, and the Jewish community bankrupted by Madoff.
But in the end it is the proverbial widow and orphan of the Bible, in other words, those who need the most help, those who are defenseless, who are the bellwether of Divine judgment in Jewish tradition. Ecclesiastes, through rabbinic eyes, says it quite clearly: “God desires only the persecuted”. It is a very harsh standard, because it suggests that no matter how justified you think you are, Divine favor, as interpreted by the rabbis, only sides with whoever is persecuted for whatever reason.
That is why when the rabbis instituted the service that commemorates the lost Temple in Jerusalem, the one that the profane nationalists want to violently build on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock, the ancient rabbis begin that service with four simple, elegant, redemptive, liberating, anti-violent Hebrew words: U-mipne ha’taw’enu galinu me’artsenu. “And it was because of OUR sins that we were exiled from our land.” Lest anyone reading those prayers be tempted to scapegoat and avoid introspection, they begin the service with those immortal words, words that defined my rather naive youth.
Traditional Jews also read on Saturday some of the concluding words of Isaiah 2500 years ago, a prediction about Zion, the ancient Biblical name for Jerusalem. The prediction is about how the Zionists, literally the lovers of Zion, could extract themselves from such misery, corruption and bad human relations. Among other things it says: Through justice will Zion be redeemed, and those who return to her, through righteousness.
It does not mention border guards, or a military industrial complex, or nuclear weapons, or internal and external secret police, or lobbyists, just justice and righteousness. In much of the Zionist world these are dirty words, words associated with ‘frier’ Jews, weak Jews, suckers, people who walk into crematoria. They have brainwashed themselves and confuse what is weak–tempers, aggression, threats–with what is strong, and what is strong–patience, nobility of character, fairness, honesty, generosity–with weakness.
Someday they will see Isaiah as a national poet, not a Holocaust Jew, and on that day they will discover a significant group of neighbors with whom they can make common cause, ready to welcome them back to Zion.
An easy fast of Tish’a B’av, for those of you fasting.© Marc Gopin