Misusing Tisha B’Av as politics of self-satisfaction

By Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Yehuda Kurtzer at Shalom Hartman Institute
Image from hartman.org.il About_Us

There are two phenomena in Jewish public discourse around and in advance of Tisha B’Av that make me so frustrated. In general these are social trends that bother me, but it feels especially acute around this time of year.

The first is the use of Tisha B’Av – the darkest day of the calendar – as a means of advancing a politics of self-satisfaction, the use of the holiday to affirm the rightness of one’s own politics through painting the bleakness and failures of the alternatives.

Temple burning on Tisha B'Av
Image from Chabad.org, What Is Tisha B’Av

It is amazing to me how wrong this is. Tisha B’Av is a day in which we reckon with the absence of redemption: both the fact that the world is unredeemed, and the possibility that it will not *be redeemed.* To do hester panim seriously – to acknowledge the possibility of divine absence as the normative and enduring condition of the world – is to come to terms with the fact that it is not just “them,” your political enemies, who failed us and left us in this brokenness; but also “us,” and the folly of what we have pursued as ostensibly righteous alternatives.

It is amazing to me to hear people this time of year cite the bleak indictments and prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah as means of characterizing their political opponents; doing this betrays the belief in one’s own certainty. Like, if only they were more like me, nothing would have been destroyed.

This is the paradox of self-satisfaction: there’s no real moral way to do it. If you are certain in your ways, self-satisfied about the moral superiority of your positions, then you have failed. Or, put differently: I think if you think that the prophets are only talking to other people – your political opponents – then I have news for you: the whole lesson of Tisha B’Av is the possibility that even if you are right most of the year, or think that you are right; if you are on the right side of history, in pursuit of justice for the downtrodden, if you care deeply about the Jewish people and its sufferings – on this one day of the year, you are wrong, and you are complicit. And therefore if there is no redemption, if it is a day of blackness, how can the day be political?

And I say this as someone who loves what the rabbis in the Talmud say and believe about good and bad politics, and their causes in bringing about the destruction. I think you can believe all of that, and still treat the day of Tisha B’Av itself as a day without conviction or certainty. Just a day of acknowledging failure, and its costs.

And by the way: nothing in the history of antisemitism would confirm that if only Jews had acted this way and not that; voted the right way, conducted the right domestic policy, smiled more meekly; that there still wouldn’t have been Jewish blood running through the streets on occasion. Mourning our losses once a year, with this consciousness, should strip us – or maybe relieve us – of the belief that a people’s otherness can be so easily remedied by its politics.

The second phenomenon I find so troubling is a general sense I get that so many people who work for and with the Jewish community, including those who study and write about the Jewish people, actually detest a lot about the community and the people.

I understand what it is to be disappointed, to believe that your community, your people, your nation has fallen short. But at a certain point, totemizing Judaism – the ideas, the aspirations – and then denigrating the actual Jewish people misses the point. It’s like being a chef and hating food, and then telling people that you just wish all food was better, with perpetual bitter disappointment.

Isn’t this a part of what Kamtza/Bar Kamtza is about? What it takes to set aside your own affinities in order to build a community that values the dignity of even your ideological enemies, because together that community can withstand its adversaries? I was talking to a junior colleague recently about working in the Jewish community and I implored her – as she grows into a career that will be successful – to try to love the people she will study and serve, in spite of them. The alternative is easier. I find so much of Jewish public discourse is rooted in hatred and again in self-satisfaction more than it is in empathy, and this time of the year I find it so irredeemably bleak. At Tisha B’Av, I lean into this intragroup hostility, and I try to understand it as an enduring condition – and not something we may ever be able to overcome.

You know nearly 11 years ago my Tisha B’Av was permanently changed. Our son was born at hatzot that day, a literal living metaphor. Midday on Tisha B’Av is the moment of shift: like the middle of the night, when you know it’s still dark outside but you also can start operating with the belief that you are closer to the dawning of the light than you are to the ominousness of the darkness.

The moment that the worst has passed is when you can start to become political again and planful and maybe even maybe can start believing in redemption. Our צמח ישי helped me understand this in the most embodied and immediate way. At first I thought his birth would ruin Tisha B’Av; it’s a birthday in our house (absence of cake notwithstanding.) Now, it has helped. You can have a dark day, and then it can lighten in unimaginable ways. We found love, if you will, in a hopeless place.

This year I am going to lean into the darkness again, and I will be trying to avoid the neatness of feeling my convictions confirmed.

I will be mourning the nihilistic murder of a yeshiva student in Gush Etzion without concluding that if only my political instincts on how to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians were followed, he wouldn’t have been killed.

I’ll be mourning the conditions experienced by the millions of asylum seekers around the world – people without refuge – including those caged at our borders, without the certainty of blame or responsibility, and without sloganing – at least for Sunday – what it means to respond.

I’ll be mourning the martyrs of Jewish history without the convenient theological narratives that affirm that their lives had “meaning” in their death.”

I will try to experience divine hiddenness as absence, rather than shadow.

And then, at some point in the middle of the day, I plan to commit to radical love. Not just to my own convictions and politics, which I still think are right; but to something transcendent, for the people whose team I’m on for better or worse, for those that even in fighting with them politically we ultimately hope to serve. First darkness; then again, light, made possible by love. Same as it ever was.
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The Shalom Hartman Institute notes: Yehuda Kutzer is the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, which offers new thinking to contemporary Jews on navigating the tensions between history and memory; and the co-editor of the forthcoming volume The New Jewish Canon, a collection of the most significant Jewish ideas and debates of the past two generations.
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