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July 15, 2018 11:51 am

Why I Fast in the Season of Fasts

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

We are now in the season of fasts. What actually happened on the fasts of the 17th day of Tammuz and the 9th of Av? Well, it depends whom you ask.

According to the Mishna (Taanit 4:6), the 17th of Tammuz is the anniversary of when Moses smashed the first set of stone tablets on Sinai and the day that the daily sacrifices in the Temple ended.

On the 9th of Av, the generation of the desert were told that they could not enter the land of Israel. The First and the Second Temples were destroyed. Betar was conquered. And the city of Jerusalem was plowed up.

There are problems with this. Aren’t there always? The Talmud (Taanit 28b) reminds us that the prophet Jeremiah says that on the 9th of the fourth month (after Nissan), the walls of the city were breached and all the fighting men fled (Jer. 52:7).

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The Talmud also says that it was Apostomus who both burned the scroll and put up an idol in the temple. But elsewhere it says that it was King Menashe who was responsible for the idol. The commentators cannot agree about who Apostomus was either. Some identified him with Ptolemy. Josephus thought he was a Roman soldier of around 50 CE. Some think he was Antiochus. Others that he was Syrian procurator.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:5) says that both under the Babylonians and the Romans, the breaches in the walls took place on 17th of Tammuz and Jeremiah got slightly mixed up over the dates under the pressure of the war. Similarly, there are different opinions among the rabbis about which day both Temples were destroyed. What is clear is the rabbis felt no compunction about rolling them into one: “We try to combine bad news.” (Erchin 11b)

The one thing we can all agree on, and deserves emphasis, is that for 2,500 years we have been mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple that the Babylonians destroyed. And we also commemorate the rebuilding of Jerusalem in modern times. Is there any other religion or people that does that? No, of course not.

So when fools (intentionally or not) claim that the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is a 20th century act of imperialism, I would argue that the Roman and then the Muslim conquests of the land of Israel were acts of imperialism. Indeed, the Israelite invasion of Canaan was an act of imperialism, except that they believed they were returning home too. One could go further back still to homo sapiens dispossessing the Neanderthals. But it seems to me that continuity of devotion, cultural religious connection, and the continued celebration of victories and equal mourning of tragedies for millennia ought to be a relevant factor.

But then, as with antisemitism, some people are so infected with the virus that they cannot see or entertain another point of view. This is one good reason why we should indeed remember, record, and keep the ancient practices of fasting over our losses.

It seems to me that there are some other issues here too. We recall the fact that on both occasions we were divided amongst ourselves, religiously and politically. On both occasions there were similarities to the present state of the Jewish people.

There is a lot of talk about a decline in Jewish identity. Of a rift between American Jewry, predominantly Reform and Conservative, and Israeli Jewry, which is much more traditional. And in both there are large numbers of anti-religious, non-religious, and secular Jews.

We have always had sectarian and geographic divides and conflicts. Once it was Babylonia versus Israel, Sadducees against Pharisees, or Rabbanites against Karaites. Then it was Zionists against anti-Zionists, secular Zionists against religious Zionists, and Mensheviks against Bolsheviks. In America, there were secular left-wing Yiddish speakers against the Orthodox. Now, it is Jews for Democrats versus Jews for Trump. Jews for Israel against those who support BDS. This is the challenge of open societies. So be it. Nothing is new.

This reminds me of the secular, Marxist, anti-religious Zionists I used to encounter in Israel 50 years ago. The sort who made fun of anyone religious and actively tried to interfere with them and prevent their involvement in civic affairs. In my opinion, the modern Jews who don’t care for Israel’s survival are the heirs of the Jews under Greek rule, who tried to reverse their circumcisions and preferred Greek values. Or those Jews who felt closer to Roman or Christian societies than Jewish. There have always been some Jews who would rather see us disappear. Naturally, as someone who wants Judaism to survive, this is disturbing and merits recognition.

This assimilation and the loss of so many Jews to our tradition and our people is all the more justification for mourning self-destruction, as the 9th of Av does. But I also recall that much of our religious leadership (not all, of course) failed then, too — and the Talmud has no problem saying it. I mourn the constant flow of intolerance and insensitivity, not to say corruption, that I see too much of and causes so much negative press.

This is our tragedy now, as it was twice before. We survived it then and we will survive it now. But at what cost?

That is why I fast. We have always been our own worst enemies. What has saved us is that our enemies are so busy fighting each other that they always shoot themselves in the foot.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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