Reform Jews embrace Tisha B’Av
Many Jews around the world filed into synagogues Monday evening and Tuesday to observe the holy day of Tisha B’Av. They sat on floors or low benches. They read from the mournful Book of Lamentations.
And from sun down to sun down, they fasted.
Many Jews, that is, but certainly not all.
Many Reform congregations — the single largest Jewish denomination — do not observe Tisha B’Av, mirroring the movement’s historic position that a fast day marking the end of the temple era was inconsistent with contemporary Judaism.
From its earliest days, Reform Judaism has struggled to reconcile its beliefs with Tisha B’Av.
When asked to describe the movement’s relationship with the fast day, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, put it this way:
“The best answer that comes to mind is ‘ambivalent and complicated,’ ” he said, “because the movement itself has changed so much from its origins.”
Yet within the past 50 years, Tisha B’Av has begun to find a place among Reform Jews. Some congregations have begun to observe it. In Pittsburgh alone, Temple Sinai held its own service this week, while Temple David in Monroeville held a joint service with Parkway Jewish Center.
Other congregations make Tisha B’Av part of its education program. At Temple Shalom in Wheeling, W.Va., it was the topic of discussion at its most recent Rosh Chodesh program.
“I do think it is gaining acceptance albeit through both a social justice and progressive Zionism lens,” said Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar of the Agency for Jewish Learning, and a Reform rabbi who observes Tisha B’Av. “A number of rabbis I know that were ordained through HUC (Hebrew Union College) see it as a time to mourn all tragedies in our history and not just the temples, and some even expand it to destruction of any type like Darfur or Somalia that seems to come through sinat chinam (senseless hatred), which the rabbis attributed as the reason the temples were destroyed.
“Other [rabbis] also follow the Conservative perspective that acknowledges the tragedy of losing ancient Jerusalem while also marking the possession of the modern state and city,” Aaron added. “A common practice in this case is to fast until midday as a ritual acknowledgement of both. I personally follow this custom myself.”
Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai, said Tisha B’Av, despite its traditional emphasis on the temples’ destruction, actually symbolizes tragedies that have befallen Jews in all times, and Jews’ desire to emphasize with the suffering.
“We identify with the suffering of our people,” Gibson said, “so the reason to observe Tisha B’Av is not about mourning the temple per se, it is about identifying with the suffering and exiled of our people and knowing people suffered because they are Jews.”
The day is also about the “re-established Jewish commonwealth,” he added. “We use sadness on Tisha B’Av to reaffirm our living connection with our people whom live literally a dozen feet from the site of the destruction.”
Traditionally, Tisha B’Av, which falls on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, respectively by the Babylonians in 586 and B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E.
The Orthodox Union calls Tisha B’Av “the saddest day on the Jewish calendar because of the incredible series of tragedies which occurred on that date throughout Jewish history.”
But Reform Judaism of the 19th century didn’t see it that way.
According to Hoffman, the founders of the movement, many of whom were talmudic scholars, didn’t consider the destruction of the temple to be a disaster, because it ended the temple cult and signaled an evolution of the Jewish people to a higher purpose.
“They were 19th century people,” Hoffman said of the founders; “they were in love with Darwin. … They believed the Jews had a mission to spread God’s word everywhere on earth, so they saw the destruction of the temple as God’s hand at work.”
A leading Reform rabbi of the time, David Einhorn, actually celebrated Tisha B’Av, according to Hoffman. “He did not eat on it, but he had a service in which he proclaimed the Jewish people to a higher level of destiny, and [he] predicted one day the fast of Israel would become their feast.”
The movement’s view of the holy day began to change following the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. By the 1970s, a service for Tisha B’Av, and Yom Hashoa, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, could even be found in the movement’s siddur, “Gates of Prayer.”
“Reform enters a new era. Hoffman said. Though the holy day is still not widely observed, he said, “Reform Judaism becomes more ambivalent.”
That would change yet again with the growth of Jewish summer camps. Reform camp directors used Tisha B’Av, which fell at an opportune time for them — the summer — as a learning experience and many teenagers embraced it.
“They did not pay all that much attention to the temple and sacrificial cult,” Hoffman said, but they used it as a memorial for the Holocaust and martyrdom throughout Jewish history.”
Sometimes, the end of Tisha B’Av was used to celebrate Israel’s statehood “as our response to trauma,” he added.
“Some Jewish kids start fasting and having programs on Tisha B’Av, marking it as a special day,” Hoffman said. “Some of them went home and told their rabbis, and their rabbis could hardly believe it.”
Among Orthodox and Conservative Jews, Tisha B’Av continues to be regularly observed, though Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, said he understands the challenges it faces in today’s world, especially the time of year it comes, when many worshippers are away on vacation.
But he remains committed to the holy day.
“As long as there is national tragedy,” Greenbaum said, “there is, I think, a need for Tisha B’Av.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)