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The Enduring Universal Theological Relevance of the 9th of Av

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The Contemporary Prophetic Perspective

Jewish tradition unequivocally says that "because we sinned we were exiled from our land." The fate of the Jewish people, in other words, is a direct reflection of the level of our ethical behavior and our degree of holiness in the world.

Tisha B'av is the day we lament how our behavior as a people keeps up from finding the fulfillment that a "Promised Land" and "The Temple" was supposed to bring.

In our own day we mourn the sad ethical state of the State of Israel. We can mourn the consciousness of the many within the Jewish people who have made worship of Israel their central religious doctrine. Go into any shul these days and you can deny God, the relevance of Torah, the value of observing mitzvot-and you'll find a benevolent response from the community, who will quietly and gently try to instruct you about the Jewish perspective on these questions. But question the validity of a secular state in the Middle East called The State of Israel, talk about its immoral behavior toward Palestinians, and you'll be labeled an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew, and you'll find yourself surrounded by anger and hostility sufficient to drive you out of that community. Why? Because Israel is the one thing that they believe in-it's their god, the center of their religious faith. The only close 2nd is the materialism and selfishness of the Western world which Jews have embraced with the same eagerness as most other people on the planet.

How this happened requires a book length analysis of Jewish and world history, but the short explanation is that the suffering of the Jewish people, combined with a view of God that saw God as what my teacher A.J. Heschel called "a cosmic bellhop," led them to a spiritual crisis when God "let us be destroyed by the Nazis." With this view of God, the Holocaust showed that there was no such God, and so our people bought into the God of the West-or what I describe in my book The Left Hand of God as "the power over others and domination view" of human reality, abandoning the strong matriarchal element in our culture that had affirmed love, gentleness, generosity, caring for others as the key to human life. This is what I call "The Right Hand conception of God" or the worldview of fear and the worldview of domination.

Because so many of our people post-Holocaust have never been exposed to a more sophisticated notion of who God, because the form of our prayers and the way we are taught as children to think of God leads to this impossible outcome that God "should have, but didn't, intervene to save us, so therefore either there is no God or God is evil or at best irrelevant to us," the people grasped on to "being realistic" and becoming like all the other idolators on the planet, worshipers of power and money. The quintessence of that view became the dominant philosophy among Orthodox Jews after 1967-"because the Israeli Defense Forces" captured the West Bank, holding the West Bank is God's will and therefore it would be a violation of God's will to abandon it. In other words, whoever triumphs in the world reflects God's will. The flip side for the secularists who are the majority of Israelis: "There is no God, all there is is power, and we have to wield it just as brutally as those who once oppressed us, because global ethical standards of human rights and respect for the other are all an unrealistic fantasy-the world is governed by the powerful, that's what is, that's what always will be, that's the reality of the world that we cannot be expected to change, so get off our backs with all that ethical crap and be realistic, which is to say, lets us dominate as much as we want for as long as we can." The other version of this I heard in the upper West Side Manhattan orthodox shul in which I used to daven every morning at 6:30 a.m. with a group of young men in their thirties who were rushing through the prayers before hopping onto the subway to get to their Wall Street offices where they would indiscriminately amass more wealth for the wealthy through corporations which were destroying the life support systems of the planet and building guns and armaments for dictators or wars around the world. A contradiction? No, they told me. "We're just being realistic-this is how the world is, and you either end up winning or losing, so we're going to be winner in it." Change that world to make it more ethically and ecologically sane? "Ridiculous-it can be done," they assured me. What about Torah injunctions? "They are not about the real world of capital-they are for our private lives."

What do all of these perspectives have in common? They all reflect the abandonment of God as the Power of Healing and Transformation (YHVH) Who works through us, in Whose image we are created. They don't believe in Tikkun Olam (healing and transforming the world), but only in Tikkun Atmi (personal healing and transformation). But without that faith in the possibility of larger transformation, we Jews keep on trying to rely on power over others, or alliances with the powerful--and it never works out well for us or for the world.

So that's what Tisha B'av,the Ninth of Av, is about--mourning the sad direction our people has gone in.

Sometimes the prophets are misunderstood as being filled with anger and rage at this people for abandoning God. Taken out of context, one can certainly read parts of Jeremiah and Isaiah that, and some of the other prophets as well. What particularly moved me when I began to study Jeremiah at age 12 on my own, and then with the assistance of my gifted teacher Prof. Muffs at the Jewish Theological Seminary and my mentor A.J. Heschel, was that these prophets were in agony over having to deliver this hurtful and hard to hear message. They did not desire to be hurting or condemning their own family of the Jewish people, but they did so anyway because they saw so clearly how the behavior of the people was leading to its own future destruction.

What is needed today also is to mix this message (of the inevitability of the destruction of our people and the whole human race unless we can move from the Right Hand of God to the Left Hand of God, regain our understanding of the need to be "unrealistic" by embracing the wisdom of women and the centrality of love, generosity, awe and wonder at the universe, and ecological, peace, and social justice perspectives on reality) with another message: the message of love and compassion for our people, and for all peoples on the planet, for having been so traumatized by our circumstances that we've been unable to look reality in the face and realize that it must be changed or we and our world will be destroyed (as the second paragraph of the Shma, the Ve'hayah eem shamoe'ah, makes clear).

We've been so traumatized by reality that we want the fantasy security that comes from imagining that the powerful elites really care about us and will stick with us when they are needed. So our idolatry as a people is the sad consequence of our oppression, not the cause of that oppression. But then we act in ways that make our situation worse, abandoning the Source of our Existence as a people-YHVH (God in la'az) and all that S/He is and can be for us.

Such a people, in fact all the peoples of the world, need desperately to be approached not only with ethical urgency, but also psycho/spiritual compassion. The wounds of the people of the earth are deep, and so the need to heal them is urgent. Unless that healing can happen quickly the whole earth is in danger of environmental destruction, a product of the enslavement we have to the idols of endless expansion of goods, material progress as though the earth's resources were limitless, me-firstism, greed, lack of empathy for others, belief that REALITY cannot be changed, that the world is governed by force and by money and that that is all that can ever be. . That this comes at the same time as the world mourns the destruction of Hiroshima by atomic weapons is yet another way to bring up the same message: these theological issues, far from being abstract, have everything to do with saving the world. Without that transformation, the world may yet be destroyed by atomic weapons even before the full impact of our destructiveness to the life-support systems of the planet reaches their height.

In my book Healing Israel/Palestine and in my book for all people, The Left Hand of God, I present some of the steps we can take to make this healing begin. A first step for those of us in the West is to embrace the Global Marshall Plan and to work with the Network of Spiritual Progressives (read about both at But that is not enough. We need urgently to develop a mass psycho/spiritual process of healing our people and all peoples so that we can look more squarely at the central truth of the universe: that there is a God, YHVH, that we are not stuck,that the world can be healed and transformed. This is the message of the High Holidays for all Jews and for all people on the planet. And the purpose of Tisha B'av (the ninth day of Av, commemorated this year on Saturday night, August 9 and during the day Sunday August 10th) is to remind us that the changes needed are not only personal and in our own consciousness, but also collective and within our people and all people.

May all people be healed from our pain enough so that we could re-embrace the Force of Healing and Transformation, the Force that makes possible the transformation of the universe from "that which is" to "that which ought to be," recognizing that our purpose on this planet is to be partners with that Force in the Tikkun of the world.

--Rabbi Michael Lerner, Aug. 8, 2008


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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
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