i’ve been meaning to write something about the destruction of temples, and whether it’s something to mourn. partly because i have a soft spot for some aspects of tisha b’av despite my secularism, and partly inspired by a friend’s experience being told by a progressive jewish organization that a drash she wrote for them could not include even the implication that having a hereditary priesthood might not be such a good thing. and then i realized that the month of the christian calendar in which tisha b’av fell this year is dotted with observances which are in some ways part of the same story.

231 years ago, the reigning member of the hanover family was told in a letter that the lands and people who formed his inheritance were not his to treat as he saw fit.

218 years ago, the reigning member of the bourbon family was given the same message by popular direct action.

28 years ago, the reigning member of the somoza family stopped disputing the same argument, which had involved bullets and explosives for several years.

we celebrate all these dates as victories, however limited, for human freedom, and steps, however small, towards a just world. in each case, there are things to dislike and to struggle against in the results. and in each case, there are too many dead to mourn: both those who died fighting these monarchies and those whose freedom these revolutions did not strive for.

but in every case, the downfall of a ruling class determined by birth, and the weakening of a hereditary caste system is a cause for joy.

we do not choose july 4 to fast in remembrance of the north american majority who 1776 did not make independent, much less free.

we do not select july 14 to sit on the floor and recall the french colonization drive that followed 1789.

we do not designate july 19 as a day of worn-out clothes and unwashed bodies to remind us that indigenous and african-descended nicaraguans were still marginalized after 1979.

on each day, we rejoice in the end of blood aristocracy, and let its defeat inspire us to complete the unfinished business of all these revolutions.

why should tisha b’av be different?

it is, after all, a holiday defined by What Happened That Day. unlike yom kippur, rosh hashana, or shavues, it is not primarily a religious observance. along with pesakh, purim, and hanuka, it’s a historical commemoration of a particular event. like them, it has accumulated other historical events to reinforce its message, making the dates work by using careful selection, calendrical manipulation before and after the fact, and occasional numerological adjustments. so in thinking about it, we must take seriously the meaning of the history it marks.

the conquest of the city of jerusalem was awful and bloody in 70 AD*, as it had been in 586 BC (not to mention the various other times the city was conquered, before, after and inbetween, on down to 1967). it’s as worth commemorating as any other massacre, from troy to tenochitlan.

but alongside it came the end of the hereditary rule of the high priests; the end of the blood aristocracy of the b’ney amram.

this is a good thing.
in fact, a very good thing.

i’m inclined to think that anyone who’s inclined to disagree and defend the idea of a family-run theocracy isn’t likely to be persuaded by any argument i can make, so perhaps i’ll leave it at that.

or, better, leave it with a question: how long should a community sit shiva for an unjust and exploitative system simply because it was once their own?

what would we think of a russian who mourned the fall of the tsars?

[ * i use BC and AD because a dating system that uses the mythical birthyear of jesus as its zero is a christian system, and changing the letters to disguise that just makes it a hypocritical christian system.]


what does tisha b’av mourn?

it mourns the event which made possible any form of jewishness we can recognize – the ones we hate as well as the ones we adore. it mourns the single fact which has made the survival of jewish cultures, jewish identities, and jewish people possible.

are these things to grieve over?

the existence of jewish people in the world has depended, since centuries before the romans had managed to sack more than an occasional pigsty, on geographical dispersal. from the myth of the wandering aramaean to the jewish majority who refused to ‘return’ from babylon, this was sometimes the silver lining of a disaster, and sometimes a more active choice. it’s a commonplace to point out that this dispersal is the main, if not the only, thing which makes jewish history different from that of the many other small ethno/religious groups which wandered and then settled in the space between the tigris & euphrates and the nile in the time of the first agricultural empires.

but it was not until the roman capture of jerusalem that the communities spread from basra to alexandria to rome to the crimea became a diaspora, and diaspora became the definition of jewishness. many autonomous jewish cultures existed before 70 AD, in egypt, babylonia, and elsewhere, but that date marks the point at which those urging centralization and uniformity lost their legitimacy and strength. from then on, the urge to create a single defining standard of jewishness or exert control over jewish life from a single point would be the property of ultra-conservative religious and political movements rejected by most jews of their time – from the followers of bar kosiba* in the 130s AD to those of the seventh lubavitcher rebbe in the 1900s.

the strength of jewish history and identity has been precisely its inability to be one. beyond the large divisions of jewish culture marked by language, religious practice, folklore, and music, even the smallest community is likely to have its own traditions: a commemoration of a victory over anti-jewish attacks; a repertoire and style of singing; a particular word for sorrel soup. and what makes jewish cultures remarkable is that their differences are understood as parts of their jewishness – a ‘local purim’; a minhag; “loshnenu? – not as deviations from some transcendent definition.

that strength is a result of diaspora. we’re accustomed to using the word for two very different phenomena – one which is a periphery centered on a single anchoring ‘home’ population, like the irish, filipin@, or south asian diasporas; one in which the dispersion IS the home population, like the roma or jewish ones. the latter have their mythical homelands, but the communities which live there are better understood as part of the diaspora than as a ‘core’ or anchor. in the jewish case, this is perhaps particularly blatant. the jewish israelis whose families arrived over the past hundred or so years who identify most with their particular location in place and time (as opposed to those whose relation to the land they live on is triangulated through past or future ‘Temple Times’) often have an ambiguous relationship to jewishness. few are as explicit as the Canaanite movement of the 1930s-50s, which explicitly opposed a local ‘hebrew’ identity to a diasporic ‘jewish’ one, but i can attest to the many current phrasings of “i’m not jewish; i’m israeli?. the israelis whose identities link them most strongly to other jewish communities, by contrast, are those who innovate within diasporic cultures, from traditional religious observance in the moroccan, polish or yemeni styles to secular commitments from communist to liberal.

tisha b’av is the day we mark as the beginning of the diaspora. if we value jewish culture – which is to say, jewish cultureS – it is not a day to mourn. i should say: if we value jewish cultures in a real and grounded way. if we value them as the living, complex and ambiguous things they are, not as a matter of nostalgia, through a veil of hipsterhayt irony, or in a kitschy reduction. if we value their diversity and contradictions. If we value them enough to fight to change them, to defend the versions and aspects of them that we love and against what we hate in them. if we value them from within, with a commitment to their continued strength, and a refusal to allow them to be turned into the pseudo-diverse veneer on the past century’s innovation of Blut und Boden nationalism with a jewish face.

those of us who don’t, who wish to reject and destroy two thousand years of history and life, should find another name to call themselves. as the yiddish proverb has it: a yid iz in golus – ‘to be jewish is to be in diaspora’. keyn golus, keyn yid – no diaspora, no jew.

[ * better known in recent writings by the praise-name his followers used, “bar kokhba? – ‘son of a star’ – and in the traditional literature by the critical pun “bar kozeba? – ‘son of a lie’.]