Sermon: Tisha B’Av and our Responsibility

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 August 2019

“Why do you contend with me?  You have all transgressed against me, declares the Eternal.”

These are words from the Book of Jeremiah, from the haftarah that Carol just read for us.
Jeremiah who prophesied in the period leading up to and immediately after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, and the start of the Babylonian Exile.

The passage is one of what are known as the ‘haftarot of rebuke’ – readings from prophetic literature, chosen by the rabbis for the weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av.
We are currently at one of the most solemn times in the Jewish calendar – in the period between the first of the month of Av, which began yesterday and the fast day – which, according to the rabbis, is the anniversary of the Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and by the Romans in 70 CE.

“You have all transgressed against me, declares the Eternal.”

By making this association, the rabbis state unambiguously the defining theology with which our tradition has classically approached this and similar disasters.  Destruction comes through divine intervention as a punishment for human behaviour.  As one Sage, Rav Ami, put it, “There is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity.”

It is a deeply challenging theology – the idea of a God who rewards and punishes in this way.
But, whether we like it or not, it is the dominant position in our texts – and in many parts of the Jewish world.
There is a plan; God acts and intervenes in the world; God is just, so disaster cannot be arbitrary but is an expression of divine justice.  Where it appears not to be, the rabbis would add, don’t worry, for this is resolved in reward and punishment in the World to Come.

Whether we like it or not, this is the idea expressed in the classical haftarah for this morning.  It is articulated in our reading of the Book of Lamentations at Tisha B’Av, which we will do in our services both evening and morning.
Boy, is it there too in the High Holy Days.
It even crept into Tyler’s D’var Torah this morning, when he quoted the commentaries of Rashi and Nachmanides that describe the journeys of the Israelites – when they had water and when they didn’t – as reflecting divine intention.

It is a theology applied to the People as a whole and to individuals.
And it is not my theology.
For many of us, perhaps for most of us – even if we belong to a synagogue whose rabbi does believe this – it is a theology utterly discredited by the twentieth century Jewish experience.  Discredited by real human experience of loss suffering, illness by those without cause to suffer.


But if we reject it, how what do we do with those texts that rely upon it, texts that we continue – as we did this morning – to read?

Let’s start by agreeing – I hope – that Rav Ami is pretty irredeemable.
So, thank God for Rava, who said in contrast “Length of life, children, and sustenance do not depend on one’s merit, but rather upon fate.”

One of the first things we can do is recognise that many of the Sages, too, were uncomfortable with this theology.

There is a rabbinic story in the Midrash Lamentations Rabbah which imagines a Jew encountering Hadrian, and greeting him.  “Who do you think you are to encounter Hadrian and to greet him?” he says, “take him and cut off his head”.  A little later another Jew comes across him:  “Who do you think you are to encounter Hadrian and not to greet him?” he says, “take him and cut off his head”.
The story questions the wisdom of internalising blame.

One important thing to acknowledge is that to be Jewish – certainly at its earliest layers and in our part of the Jewish world – is not necessarily to agree with one position.  Not to believe everything that ‘the Sages’ seemed to believe.  Ours has always been a poly-vocal tradition, with multiple voices.  Those non-dogmatic principles remain in Progressive Judaism.
We can read texts and not agree with them.

But we can also read texts and find more in them.  One of our tasks as modern Jews is a task of reading – of burying beneath the surface to find the ideas lurking behind.
Underlying much of the classical rabbinic view of disaster is a simple notion – that actions have consequences.

This is best found in a variety of texts in which the Rabbis explored the destruction of Jerusalem at the time of the Romans; they asked about it, told stories about – when they did so they were not (or rather not only) exploring theology – how do we reconcile our experience with our beliefs – but also asking a more simple question:  What went wrong?

Unsurprisingly, many of their answers reflected their own priorities – the priorities of religion and study.  But many of their ideas were broader, less particularistic, commentaries on the fundamental building blocks of a cohesive society.  Ones which might encourage us to step back and look at our own society, too.  To recognise these failings in ourselves and the risks that they present.
Thus we find, famously, the idea that Jerusalem was destroyed because of sinat chinam – gratuitous, causeless hatred.

Less well known is the idea, in the name of Rava that ‘Jerusalem was destroyed only because people of truth had disappeared from it” – something which might resonate as the Presidential lie-count goes well over 10,000.
Or that of Rabbi Yitzchak: ‘Jerusalem was destroyed only because the small and the great were considered equal’ – or as modern discourse might put it, ‘the British people have had enough of experts’.
Or that of Rabbi Chanina that lo hochichu zeh et zeh – they had lost the ability to rebuke, to criticise, one another – kavshu p’neihem ba-karka – they buried their faces in the ground.  Who among us has not had that instinct over the last few years?

Each of these statements is a sermon in themselves – one day they will be.
But what they have in common is that while the rabbis may have held a theology – or some of them maybe – that these were transgressions that led to divine retribution, they say much more.  The nature of the transgressions that they identified should have resonance for us.  The core idea is actually not one of theology but one of social responsibility.

“Why do you contend with me?  You have all transgressed against me, declares the Eternal.”

There is a part of me – every year – that would rather that we did not read the Haftarot of Rebuke.  Would rather that we found different texts, ones less complicated.
I am more than ambivalent about the theology of Tisha B’Av.

But, if I need reassurance about this, it is important to remember that so were some of the Sages.

And ultimately, we should also be pleased that these texts are there.  That Tisha B’Av is there.

Seen through the eyes of our text, it serves as a reminder.  A reminder that the type of society that we build matters.  A reminder that we are – all of us – responsible for that society in which we live, including for its transgressions.  A reminder that our actions have consequences and if we do not address those behaviours, take responsibility, we too might be lead to destruction.