How should Diaspora Jews mark Tisha B’Av?
How can we promote the Torah of the Land of Israel without denigrating the Diaspora communities? Opinion.
Oped by Rabbi Ari Silbermann , 29/07/20
‘My heart is in the East, and I am in the West,’ proclaimed Yehuda Halevi. After a year as a rabbinical and educational emissary in Manchester, I feel every ounce of those words. I miss Israel terribly – the land, the warmth, the people, the culture, the Torah, the prayers. During this period, though, my thoughts are how to make Tisha Be’Av relevant for my adoptive community.
It is a tricky balancing act in general, encapsulated in the words of the Psalmist: ‘How can we sing God’s songs on foreign soil?’ Or put another way, how does one promote the Torah of the Land of Israel without denigrating the community and how does one build up institutions in a community that is on the periphery of the Jewish future?
The Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel have decided, perhaps correctly, that the time has come to lean in to the Diaspora and help it succeed. On the other hand, there are still many shlichim sent every year to teach Hebrew and convey the centrality of Israel. Which should guide us during the three weeks and over Tisha Be’av?
The best answer comes from my improbable experience of watching a sit-com during COVID-19. I felt my stomach turn and thought, why are the characters talking so close to one another? It was eerie when I realized that COVID-19 had affected our lives to such an extent that these behaviors have become the new normal. English politicians bat that term about, but who internalizes it? Make no mistake, COVID-19 and social distancing have become the ‘new normal.’
And when this period gradually ends, there will be a strange in-between phase, where the ‘new normal’ will slowly be forgotten.
Similarly, we live in an astonishing era which has seen the Jewish people return to our own healthy normal – a People interacting with its land, Torah, and culture. The previous 2,000 years were the ‘new normal’, and we dare not confuse the two.
Despite Peter Beinart’s latest flight of fancy, ‘Yavneh and her Sages’ was only ever envisioned as an aberration. In the cold hard calculus of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, it was the only way to preserve any memory of Jerusalem, with her muddied politics and breathing religious life, until we could return. Rabbi Yochanan wept on his death bed; in part, because he had real concerns about his choice. It turns out he was right to be worried. But one need only open the siddur on Shabbat to know that the Rabbis permeated our prayers with a yearning to return to the Temple and its sacrifices. To the real-life, blood and guts of Judaism.
Our job here is, then, to remind people that we’re marching out of step. By sharing some of the effervescent taste of Torat Eretz Yisrael in the Diaspora communities, we hopefully impart the relative blandness of even the most regal state dinners. True, there is value to Jewish life in the Diaspora – historically many of our important texts were written outside of the Holy Land. People can lead a fulfilling lives of Torah and mitzvot. Yet it only represents the ‘new normal’ and it will eventually melt away, just as the COVID-19 guidelines will.
What do Jews who are relatively comfortable outside of Israel need on Tisha Be’av? Perhaps, more than ever, to realize that this is odd, and the fact that it feels normal should make their stomach churn like mine did watching some 90’s actors breaching the 2-metre rule. That jarring sense is what we all need to experience on Tisha Be’av – even Israelis who have yet to reach real normality.
‘Alas, lonely sits the city, Once great with people!,’ begins Eicha. That sense of the uncanny and the starkness of the image, should cause us all to reflect during this period.