view counter
Tisha B’Av 2010. Why Bother?
Tue, 07/13/2010 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week

The margins have become the mainstream—and the vast majority of Jews today are not actively connected with a “temple” (a.k.a. synagogue). So it seems unlikely that a mid-summer day of mourning for the destruction of two ancient temples in Jerusalem could have much to recommend it. Throw in the prohibitions on eating, drinking, and shmoozing and the ruin of Tisha B’Av itself seems certain.

Yet, the irony of lamenting the irrelevance of a day like Tisha B’Av (this year, from sundown Monday evening through Tuesday evening) to most Jews today is striking. If Tisha B’Av brought the Biblical model of Judaism, centered as it was on the Temple cult to an end, it also marks the emergence, phoenix-like, of Rabbinic Judaism, a system that has sustained the Jewish people for almost 2000 years. In the 21st century, the de facto reality of a tiny minority of Jews who, even under the broadest definition, follow rabbinic law (halacha) and defer to rabbinic authority makes it clear that the paradigm has shifted once again. To be sure, contours are unclear and leadership is fragmented, but the next era, a post-Rabbinic one, is already underway.

For all the genuine grief, despair and fear this engenders among the adherents and/or proponents of Rabbinic Judaism, it’s important for all Jews to consider that Tisha B’Av is just as relevant now as it ever was. Maybe even more so as we live through this time of transition.

Looking at the evolution of Tisha B’Av, it is relatively easy to make a case for its observance based on the value that continues to be placed on the commemoration of events that form part of our sacred history, such as the Exodus from Egypt and the victory of the Maccabees. Equally relevant is Tisha B’Av as an opportunity for reflection on the perpetuation of immoral and unethical behaviors that were said to have caused the destruction (baseless hatred, for example). Even so, Tisha B’Av is more than a Memorial Day and quite different from Yom Kippur.

The assault, both physical and metaphysical, that has characterized Tisha B’Av, is meant to be intense. Beginning with dirges chanted in darkness, fortified through deliberate dehydration, and concluding with a redemptive lightheadedness, those Jews who submit to its strict observance are led to feel more than just hot and bothered on that day.

While critics might be quick to dismiss the following approach as coddling the narcissism of contemporary Jews, in our experience as traditionally observant, highly educated, passionately committed liberal Jews, teaching and reaching “unaffiliated” or “disaffected” Jews on opposite coasts, a radical acceptance of today’s reality has led us to a new paradigm for revitalizing and re-imagining a vibrant Jewish future. This paradigm is the successor to the rabbinic paradigm of “asur” (prohibited) and “mutar” (permitted), which itself was the successor to the Biblical paradigm of “tamay” (impure) and “tahor” (pure). Based on our work — our successes and our struggles – and our experiences with those who are seeking, we propose a new paradigm, that of keva (established) and kavannah (intentional).

The new paradigm of keva and kavannah reflects the tension between tradition and innovation, objectivity and subjectivity, and between the communal and the individual. These dualities serve as shorthand for a value system that determines the behavior of individuals and groups of Jews. For example, the annual observance of Tisha B’Av among rabbinic Jews is made meaningful within the larger context of a commitment to a legal system (halacha) that has established certain rules. For the majority of contemporary Jews, however, unless it can be made personally meaningful in some way, Tisha B’Av won’t matter. Whereas a rabbinic Jew would need to know what was permitted and what was prohibited in the observance of Tisha B’Av, a post-rabbinic Jew asks “what was the intention of those who shaped Tisha B’Av?” and “Is there any way to make their intentions more meaningful to us by reimagining the rituals of Tisha B'Av rather than observing them just because it was always done this way?”

Today we hear a call for all our Jewish endeavors to be suffused with kavannah, in the sense of engaging people through Jewish experiences that are personally meaningful. Researchers, including sociologist Steven Cohen, tell us that Jews today are seeking spiritual direction from Judaism. The research indicates there is a deep hunger, but too many are not finding sustenance in the traditional spaces, literal and figurative, of our faith.

They seek not so much to abandon Judaism, we are told, but to refashion it to reflect their own personal narratives.  As part of a transitional generation of rabbinic Jews, we see ourselves as translators, bringing insight into the keva and kavannah of Rabbinic Judaism to contemporary Jews and bringing their experiences, challenges and needs to the discussion of our collective future. 

In this spirit, we ask the painful questions about what is being destroyed and bring curiosity to all that is emerging. And this Tisha B’Av, we are asking our communities to do the same.

Rabbi Adina Lewittes is founder of Sha’ar Communities; Rachel Brodie is founder of Jewish Milestones. They are collaborating on a book about the issues raised in this piece, tentatively titled, “Intentional Judaism.”


Adina Lewittes, Judaism, Rachel Brodie, Tisha B’Av

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


The opposite of Chayav (obligated) is Patur (exempt). The most passive form of this word is Niftar (dead). Thats what Judaism is without Chiuv (obligation).
i read the article and the responses. And I feel that there are certain understandings that you people are not focusing on. I myself am a Ba'al Teshuva, which means I am a person that was not observant and became observant later. The word "Teshuva" means to return. what does that mean? Return to what? I was born Jewish, so what am I returning too? It means to return to Hashem, return to your creator, and understand that he is infact "THE KING" of the universe. Whenever I read or hear about people trying make observing judaism to "fit" into their life style it saddens me, because if you understand that Judaism is a not just a religion, but a way of life. The world looks at jews as being different, and we are, but not in a bad way. If you ask anybody about an orthodox jew, they would tell you that they expect them to be G-D fearing, and why is that? Because that is what a jew is, we fear g-d and love him, just as a child does his own parents. So many times I hear people say all the things an observant jew can not do, as if he is being forced, but in reality there is so much we can do. I guess what i'm trying to say is, we need to stop trying "re-fashion" judaism and just try and follow the laws the way the Rabbis have taught it for over 2,000 years. Our beatiful Torah has not changed since the first copy, and that has been the strenght of the jewish people from the beginning. As I always say " If aint broke, don't fix it."
Lari, well said indeed. To cite just one example: the Reform movement has long advocated individual "informed choice" regarding the keeping of what it has deemed to be "ritual" commandments (thus splitting halakha into false categories). Unfortunately, "informed" went by the wayside among many Jews generations ago. In the 19th century, which saw the beginnings of the Reform movement, such standards of Jewish life as kashrut and the use of Hebrew during prayer services were labeled ritualistic and were cast off by the reformers. Within a generation or two many Jews were ignorant of those things deemed outmoded, especially those that stood out as being alien to Christians. Case in point: my own grandparents, first generation Jews in the U.S., became totally secularized and assimilated. They were proud of being modern, early 20th-century Jewish-Americans. They gathered the family on Passover and Rosh Hashanah, but for meals only; and although ham wasn't served at these holiday dinners, kashrut was never observed. One Pesach evening, when I was about seven or eight years old, I turned to my grandfather after the meal and asked what Passover was and why we celebrated it (yes, small children will ask this question even without the haggadah). My grandfather began, "Well, you know the story of Moses..." I shook my head no. Grandpa, startled, turned to my mother and demanded to know whether she had not taught me the story of Moses. My mother shrugged and said, "I never knew it. You never told it to me." (Grandpa proceeded to tell me a quick version, ending with "But, of course, it's just a story" -- lest I take the tradition seriously!) If I recall correctly, the sages do not admit ignorance as an excuse, but neither are Jews to leave one another behind. It is incumbent upon every Jew to educate him- or herself as fully as possible, and it is incumbent upon knowledgeable Jews to teach those who were not blessed with early Jewish education. My own investigation of religion has been long and tortuous, and I understand the questions Lewittes and Brodie are trying to address. I applaud their efforts. But Lari has it right: education is key. My own experience is that a good teacher who can make the tradition come alive will feed the spiritual hunger, too. To quote an acquaintance, also raised without a Jewish education: "I went looking for Jews who talked about God. I couldn't find any. So I started meditating with nuns. Then one day I found Jews who talked about God -- in an Orthodox synagogue."
Adina and Rachel, I feel for what you are trying to do, I REALLY do, but there is a flaw in your (and all similar) reimagined or, as you call it, intentional paradigms of Judaism. The people you are hoping to engage by having them refashion the faith in personally meaningful ways suffer from huge levels of ignorance of even the very basics of Judaism. What percentage of American Jews even know what Tisha B'Av is? How can you observe what you don't know? How can you care about a fact, a system, or a way of being (which is what Judaism is intended to be) whose very basic elements are unknown? if you aren't committed from the beginning to putting such a system into place as the core of your life, then indeed why, as the title puts it, bother? What people will end up doing is not refashioning or renewing Judaism (as such a process presupposes knowledge), they are actually inventing a Judaism using contempory spirituality and humanism to fill in the gaps of actual knowledge, minus the collective committment. This is where, for all its quirks and flaws, the independent minyanim movement, which in its own way undermines traditional rabbinic Judaism, has it 100% right. Their movement is based upon Jews retaking ownership of Judaism back from the rabbis through educating themselves on Jewish texts, philosophy, thought, and living and then forming communities around such diffuse lay leadership. There is oodles of room for creativity, expressiveness, and individuality in such processes, but the learning is the absolute core and the "intention" grows out of mastery of the authentic and unbroken line of Jewish thought. The "intention" starts with the foundation. Without that real committment to learning by the laity, I fear what you advocate is just the latest in a long line of such ideas that substitutes well intentioned creative constructs for actual knowledge acquisition. Why do the guilt-inducing heavy lifing of learning about what you aren't doing and don't know when you can just inspirationally make up a personally relevant, Jewish flavored replacement? it's sanctioned laziness that won't undo the damage to Jewish adherence that our ignorance and lack of our families putting Judaism first in the lives has wrought...
Loved this article, but did not love the headline. I assume someone other than the authors came up with it. Far from walking away from Tisha B'Av, they are proposing a way to infuse it with new meaning, as part of seeing Torah in a post-Rabbinic Judaism way. Very creative, exciting stuff.