The Ninth of Av — commemorating Jewish tragedies from modern, ancient and biblical times — often prompts visions of Jewish weakness, but the days leading up to the holiday this year brought two contrasting views of Jewish strength to Pittsburgh.
Ed Frim, executive director of the Agency for Jewish Learning, spoke Friday about exporting a Jewish understanding of suffering to the world. While on Sunday, Rabbi Berel Wein, a noted historian from Monsey, N.Y., spoke about the Jews being a special people, set apart and given special responsibilities as a result of a being biblically chosen by God.
“Do we use our Jewish experiences in a particular way? Or do we use them in a more universal way?” Frim asked around 25 people at the Jewish Community Center.
Frim listed the events believed to have occurred on the ninth day of the month of Av, starting with the biblical story of the spies returning with a skeptical report of Israel, peaking with ancient events like destruction of both Temples, and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt and extending into modern times with the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain, and the start of World War I, which led to World War II and the Holocaust.
The Ninth of Av can be a challenging date for liberal Jews who don’t yearn for the restitution of the Temple or a return to a society governed by Torah law.
Frim noted the theological understanding of the day: that Jews suffered as a result of collective sins.
“There’s a whole big question about this holiday, and about making sense of Jewish suffering in general these days as we become a less and less theologically defined people,” Frim said.
Frim said the Ninth of Av pits “Jewish history,” or events as they happened, against “Jewish memory,” or how those events resonate with Jews today. A cultural mindset followed the theological understanding of suffering, Frim said. Over the past 50 years, Jews created defense organizations to protect Israel and defend against anti-Semitism, but Frim questioned whether that mindset still rings true with Jews of a younger generation.
“We think of ourselves as victims. There is a stream in our psyche of victimhood,” Frim said. “Now, it may be justified, but we think about ourselves that way. And younger Jews don’t. And that’s a profound difference.”
By focusing on the suffering incurred throughout history on the Ninth of Av, Frim said, Jews become defined by actions taken against them, rather than actions taken by them.
“Do we want to be defined by others, or do we want to be defined by ourselves?” he asked, suggesting Jews might be able to “recast our tragedies in light of the experiences of our ancestors” by looking beyond Jewish experiences for ways to “assimilate tragedy.”
“We need to look at our role in the world. We need to talk about good and evil,” Frim said. “We need to look at our own conduct, and what we believe in. And identifying with this historical experience should be a way to spur us on to do that.”
Frim laid out two opposing views of the Ninth of Av, one saying the holiday should be used only to commemorate the tragedies of the Jewish people, and another saying the goal of the day should be to use Jewish experiences with tragedy to make sense out of suffering, wherever it might be found. He asked an open-ended question: Is it appropriate to use the day to commemorate non-Jewish religious or political tragedies, like Sept. 11?
Wein presented a more particular view of the date, saying Jews can draw strength from a unique, biblical relationship with God that requires unique responsibilities and behaviors.
“In this difficult week in the Jewish calendar, in the midst of all the problems that each of us face — difficult financial times, difficulty for the state of Israel, Jews themselves that don’t understand what it is to be Jewish — in the midst of all these things, we should remember for ourselves that we are a special people,” he said.
Citing Exodus 19:6 — “You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” — Wein said, “The goal is to be a holy nation. It’s very hard to be a holy nation in an unholy world.”
The special distinction means, “We’re a normal people who lead an abnormal life, and therefore the whole world is interested in us,” which Wein suggested is both a cause of anti-Semitism and the reason the Jews continue to survive, despite anti-Semitism.
He paraphrased an idea from Theodore Herzl: that a Jewish homeland would stop anti-Semitism, because with a country, a flag and an anthem, Jews would be like other nations.
But, Wein said, “We have a country; we have a wonderful country. We have a flag. We have an anthem. We have an Olympic team. We beat the Russians in the Davis Cup. But the world still doesn’t like us… Because God said, ‘You’re going to be unto me a treasure out of all nations.’ I have chosen you and I didn’t choose Guatemala, for whatever reason.”
Wein argued that being chosen requires the Jews to adhere to a “Torah standard” of Judaism, following not just the traditional code of law, but also the code of behavior outlined in the Torah. One hallmark of this righteousness, he said, was resilience. The Ninth of Av, he said, commemorates the Jewish ability throughout history to “rise again.”
He also spoke about how the rabbis responded to hostile cultures by focusing inward, on Jewish law, and he said American popular culture now “speaks against” Torah Judaism.
“The rabbis knew that the Romans, once they fell, would never come back again,” Wein said. “We are the only people in the world that have ever staged a comeback. Rome is gone. Greece is gone. The English will never again own Hong Kong. It’s all gone.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)