Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why I'm fasting

As I read Rabbi Elyse Goldstein's "Why I'm not fasting on Tisha B'Av" this morning, I couldn't help but notice a parenthetical (and antithetical) statement:
And I’m not fasting because, ultimately, the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism... It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are kohanim and would, in the time of the messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me. As a feminist, I don’t want to eat their leftovers.)
See, terumah is for vegetarians: it's the term used in Talmudic and halachic literature for the portion of grain, wine & corn (and other produce as well) given to priestly families. Moreover, every member of the household may partake whenever they feel like it--females don't eat off the plates of their fathers, husbands or children. (Well, maybe children. I've yet to meet the toddler who finishes what's put in front of him.)
This imprecision may seem like a minor quibble, but it goes right to the heart of Rabbi Goldstein's argument: that Talmud trumps Temple:
To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, and interpretation won too over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Sadducees... Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But remember: from the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.
There's only one problem with this timeline: rabbinic Judaism precedes the destruction of the Temple by centuries! Yes, during the Persian era, the first part of the Second Commonwealth, the Great Knesset sat, and it is credited with canonizing Scripture (Bava Batra 15a), composing most of our prayers (Berachot 33a) and eradicating idolatry (Yoma 69b). These rabbis were not the successors to the priests, but rather to the prophets (Avot 1:1)--half a millennium before the Second Temple was destroyed.
The Pharisees did not see the Temple's destruction as a victory over the Sadducee priests, but as a tragedy, which is why so much of the Talmud is dedicated to the laws of holiness (Kodashim) and ritual purity (Taharot), 23 of the original 60 tractates. In fact, that terumah Rabbi Goldstein is so disinterested in is the reason we all wash our hands before partaking of bread--because that is what the kohanim had to do before eating holy food. In fact, the first paragraph in the Talmud refers to the kohanim going in for supper, since that is the signal for nightfall and the time to say Shema.
However, Rabbi Goldstein maintains that there is no reason to fast on Tisha B'Av anymore, regardless of what it what might have once meant:
Fasting on Tisha B’Av almost seems like a slap in the face to that sovereign Jewish nation. I want to imagine that if the Rabbis of the Talmud were living today, they’d say, “what? How can you keep a fast that longs for a nation you are living in now?”
But there is no need to imagine what the rabbis of the Talmud might have said, when we can read what they actually did say (Rosh Hashana 18b): "R. Papa replied: The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On the ninth of Av the Temple was destroyed both the first time and the second time, and Beitar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was plowed." As Maimonides and Rabbeinu Hananel explain, the ninth of Av is so puissant and pertinent that it was observed while the Second Temple stood. It commemorates far more than the loss of the sacrificial service; it represents the countless tragedies, personal and national, of slavery, exile, rape, dispossession, persecution and genocide.
In fact, the Sanhedrin, the great body which made so many of the reforms Rabbi Goldstein applauds, sat in the courtyard of the Temple! For me, the apex of Tisha B'Av is rising from the cold floor to sing, mournfully but majestically:
Wail, Zion and her cities
Like a woman in birth pangs
Like a virgin dressed in sack
For the husband of her youth.
For the beat of her dancers
That has been silenced in her cities.
And for the council that has become desolate
And the dissolution of her Sanhedrin.
But if that doesn't speak to you, write your own kinnah (elegy, dirge). It is Yom Kippur which focuses so minutely on the Temple service, not Tisha B'Av, with its ever-evolving liturgy. There is no greater testimony to Judaism's capacity to survive and thrive.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Common wisdom says you talk about unity at this time of the year. After all, tonight we segue from the sobriety of the Three Weeks to the somberness of the Nine Days, with the advent of the month of Av, when the Temple was destroyed, we are told, due to baseless hatred (Yoma 9b). So it's customary to denounce division at this time -- even though that's exactly what this week's Torah reading talks about (Num 33:53-55):
Take possession of the land, and live in it, because I have given you the land to inherit. You are to divide by lot the land among yourselves, by your clans. The larger the clans are in number, the larger their inheritance is to be. The fewer the clans are in number, the lesser their inheritance is to be. To whomever the lot falls, that inheritance goes to him. Divide it according to your ancestral tribes.
The Jewish nation is split up genealogically -- into tribes, then clans, then (ancestral) houses--much as the US is split into states, counties and localities. "By your clans" is one word in the original Hebrew, lemishpechoteikhem. If you can pry apart that hexasyllable, you might recognize mishpacha, often translated family. But these "families" were massive, with an average population of well over ten thousand adult males, so the term "clan" is probably more accurate.
It's notable that we find this precise term in only one other place: when Moses gives the first mitzva to the Jewish people in Egypt (Exodus 12:21):
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and told them, “Choose sheep for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb."
Even before the Exodus, in the ghetto of Goshen, the Jewish people must organize themselves by clans and ancestral houses (ibid. v. 3), in order to prepare for their destiny in the Promised Land.
In fact, this is a theme running through the entirety of the Book of Numbers. In all the other four books of the Torah, mishpacha shows up a total of 26 times; in Numbers, 159. The specific conjugation lemishpechotav (by his clans) shows up twice.
So the Israelites did everything just as the LORD had commanded Moses; that is, they encamped and traveled under their banners, each man by his clans, upon his ancestral house. (2:34)
Moses heard the people weeping by his clans, each man at the entrance of his tent; the LORD was very angry and it was bad in Moses' eyes. (11:10)
The Jews divide themselves by tribe, clan and house at the foot of Mt. Sinai; but once they start traveling, literally at the first encampment, they start crying. The proximate cause is the food, but the Midrash (Sifre ad loc.) seeks a deeper reason, declaring that it was mishpacha matters which perturbed them. Now, the Midrash takes mishpacha to mean close family in this context, explaining that the people were bummed they couldn't shtupp their sisters-in-law anymore.
However, as we have noted, that's not really what the word denotes in Numbers. It seems that they were bothered by the clannishness. Before Moses showed up, they were simply Hebrews, set apart by their national identity, dress, language, etc. They were slaves, but they were a unified people. With the Book of Numbers, that changes:
And they called the whole community together on the first day of the second month. The people registered their ancestry by their clans and ancestral houses, and the men twenty years old or more were listed by name, one by one. (1:18)
Unity is easy in exile and under oppression. To be "the whole community" in the ghetto is simple enough, even if life itself is anything but. Coming into the Promised Land, going from minority to majority status, presents a new challenge. Suddenly clans and tribes and houses make a difference, and it's enough to make one weep. Can we build a society based on our commonalities, while celebrating our differences? Well, third time's a charm. Let's get to work.