Although it is uncharacteristic for me I want to comment on a blog post published in the Times of Israel last week.
Elyse Goldstein, a Reform rabbi in Toronto, wrote that she will not be fasting this year on Tisha B’Av. She will be celebrating instead the religious democracy found today within the Jewish people as well as the sovereignty of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The latter effectively puts an end to the lament our exile, according to Goldstein, and the former marks the advancement of Judaism to a maturity reflected by multiple expressions of Jewish observance. She celebrates the cessation of sacrificial offerings and the end of a governance led by “corrupt” (and male) priests and rabbis, both rendered impotent at the end of the second Jewish commonwealth. She also laments that the priests of the Temple would have supported and enabled the tradition to continue its non-egalitarian format of prayer and worship. Her entire post can be read here.
Elyse’s convictions are sincere. She writes from the heart and without the abrasive hostility that sometimes pervades feminist rhetoric. I believe every Jew should hear her approach with an open mind and a willingness to accept some of her criticism. Antipathy toward the Orthodox did not rise in a vacuum. The Orthodox establishment has not been perfect or completely fair in dealings with the broader Jewish society. The office of the Chief Rabbinate has long been under fire for its inefficiency and draconian bureaucracy, even while the Chief Rabbinate has protected the halachic character of the most sensitive elements of Jewish life.
And yet, nothing compels a tradition-conscious Jew to to weep on Tisha B’Av more than the sad commentary expressed in such an editorial. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps millions, equally ignorant of the meaning and place of the Temple in Jerusalem, would blissfully concur with those thoughts is even more distressing. “Over these I weep, my eyes, my eyes flow with tears, for comfort is distant from me, far is the restoration of my spirit; my sons have become desolate, for the foe is overpowering.” (Lamentations 1:16)
My purpose here is not to refute all of her points. Such exercises just prolong quarrels and are counterproductive. The bottom line is that people are imperfect, only human. To toss out the baby along with soiled bathwater is to compound the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction. Life in the setting of Temple history would indeed seem unusual and possibly uncomfortable to all but those most steeped in the studies of those traditions. The willingness to turn one’s back on thousands of years of rich tradition, not to mention a God-given charter and mission, underscores the desperation of our generation’s misunderstanding.
To turn theology into a democracy is to turn theology into a straw man to be attacked and ultimately destroyed. The fact that the Sadducees – the first reformers – are no longer among us, is not a cause for joy but profound sorrow; they are lost to the Jewish people forever through assimilation. Other groups that have broken away from what Goldstein calls “unified” Jewish life have also joined the fate of the Sadducees, no longer known or identified as Jews. In the last year the Reform movement’s flagship Temple in New York celebrated its centennial. They could not find a single descendant of its founders who was still Jewish. I greatly fear that in a couple of generations we will mourn on Tisha B’Av not only for the destroyed Temples but also for the loss of millions of Jewish souls who looked for other ways to be Jewish and whose children could not see the merit or meaning of continuing to identify as Jewish when they could be just as humanistic without it.
We lost our way long before the Temple was laid to waste. The prophets of Israel were largely ignored, with the people favoring the pagan cultures around them which were less demanding and provided more short term satisfaction. Western society has evolved in many wonderful and progressive ways. Our faith has always been a rock to stabilize us and ensure our progression remains within the values and bounds of a God-given way of life. Thanks to our ancestors who have consistently, over the centuries, declined any departure from the Torah’s mandate we are still here today to talk about this. I sincerely hope and pray, that when Goldstein informs her grandchildren that she is not fasting on Tisha B’Av, they have some idea of what she is talking about, that they will have at least heard of the concept of Jewish mourning.