June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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Can Modern Jews Grieve?

In a well-documented tale, Napoleon once observed French Jews sitting on the floor of a synagogue, mourning their lost Temple. He was amazed at this historical consciousness that stretched back across thousands of years, despite the lack of a national homeland. Much has changed in the past 200 years, and I wonder how Napoleon would react if he entered a modern synagogue. I am not sure if he would be too impressed. Of course, we have absolutely no interest in impressing Napoleon, but we do have every interest in fostering authentic mourning. So many changes in our modern world make it difficult for us to deeply mourn a world we never experienced and a Temple we never witnessed.

Tisha B’Av must be continually updated or else it becomes detached from our overall reality. We may be able to take a “day off” and fervently mourn for the lost Mikdash, but a day later we calmly and casually return to our routine as if nothing has changed. How can we mourn our lost city in an “integrated” or “consistent” fashion so that Tisha B’Av mourning is fused to the rest of our religious experience? Why is Tisha B’Av so difficult in the modern era and what can we do about it?

Two Types of Mourning

In life, we experience two very different modes of mourning. De-personalized mourning occurs when we commiserate with the suffering of others. Emotionally sensitive people sympathize with the suffering of other people even when personally unaffected. At a minimum, Tisha B’Av demands this level of mourning. We never lived through the tragedy of a destroyed Yerushalayim, but we can identify with the sorrow of those who watched as their entire world collapsed. Likewise, we are centuries removed from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, but we can and should imagine those nightmares. Most of us did not walk in Auschwitz, but we can relive the horror and mourn for our people’s collective tragedy. This first type of mourning isn’t personal even though it may be genuine and intense.

A deeper form of mourning, or “personal” mourning, emerges from a profound sense of loss. In life, we all suffer loss, and when we do, we grieve deeply. Real heartache on Tisha B’Av can only stem from this sense of personal loss. But this just makes the Tisha B’Av challenge even more exasperating: How can we sense loss after so many centuries? What have we lost? If we can’t answer that question, our sobbing on Tisha B’Av will never resemble personal mourning.

Onlookers or Renovators

A lot depends on how we view ourselves in the larger sweep of Jewish history. As onlookers or mere “descendants” we haven’t lost much; we never had a Temple and never lived in the promised land under God’s shadow. We can dream of redemption, and when those dreams are dashed we are saddened. However, we haven’t experienced “loss” and are not yet capable of grieving.

However, we are not just descendants or mere onlookers. We are not even victims. We are empowered to rebuild history and to repair past failures. We are expected to renovate the past and atone for the breakdowns of previous generations. When we fail to restore history, we have abdicated that capacity; we have let historical repair slip through our fingers. That is a form of “personal loss” and can lead to personal mourning. If we view ourselves as authors of history we become more invested in the process. When that process fails to advance, we have lost our own potential. Lost potential can and should cause grief and grieving.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1) laments: “Any generation that does not rebuild the Temple has, in essence, destroyed it.” This Gemara historically empowers us as renovators of history. Tisha B’Av becomes our failure and we shed our own tears of grief.

Why Don’t We Feel Like “Renovators”?

Unfortunately, for many reasons, we don’t always view ourselves as potential redeemers of history. What has caused us to feel more like bystanders or victims and less like rebuilders? How can we better sense our historical potential year-round?

Modernity has detached us from past generations, as we live in a condition of historical discontinuity. The world has changed so dramatically, and modern man views his contemporary situation as a complete “break” with previous generations. Technology has spiraled so quickly and has overhauled almost every sector of human experience. The modern world of science, travel, finance, communication, culture, economy and capitalism has relandscaped our planet. Our world is unrecognizable to our ancestors. At no time in history has this shift been more dramatic and never has humanity felt more severed from the past.

For Jews, this historical severance is even more pronounced—for two reasons. The Holocaust violently disrupted Jewish continuity, causing a huge rupture in family life and an interruption in the transmission of traditions. Post-Holocaust children were raised by “depleted” families and without the compelling sense of tradition that had steadied Jewish experience for centuries. Our past became less palpable because we were forcefully amputated from it.

Secondly the emergence of the State of Israel has been so overwhelming that, for many, the “past” has receded into a blur. For some, Jewish history began in 1948 and everything beforehand was merely a dark prelude. The modern world has created a sense of disconnectedness with the past. For Jews, this disconnectedness has been exacerbated by the apocalyptic events of the past century.

Additionally, it is difficult to mend history unless you feel empowered to repair the sins of the past. The prevailing concept of “yeridat hadorot” asserts that study of Torah and general religious levels each deteriorate with the passing of generations. Regrettably, this concept is often exaggerated, and we begin to view ourselves as helpless and hapless compared to the past. When taken to an extreme, this enfeebling myth perpetuates our own sense of historical inadequacy. How can we hope to repair the past crimes of Jewish history and redress their breakdowns if we are so inferior to the past generations? How can we be held accountable if we are powerless? If the spiritual giants of previous generations “fell,” certainly we can’t rise. Midgets can’t renovate.

To truly grieve on Tisha B’Av we must “own” the historical process. We must live with historical connectedness and we must not exaggerate our own helplessness. Much is expected of us, and if we fail we squander great opportunities. At that point we don’t only cry for “them” but we cry for “ourselves.” That is always a deeper sorrow.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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