By Rabbi Haim Shalom
Tisha B’Av is upon us once again. A day of mourning, of solemn commemoration. But should it be? Is it still healthy 2000 years later to be mourning a tragedy so long past? Given that this is one of four fast days in the Jewish calendar, which mark some kind of historical tragedy, together with two modern remembrance days (Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron), and given that 74 years ago, our exile ended, Jewish sovereignty was regained and an independent Israel was born, is it fair to ask – do we mourn too much? And what does this say about us?
Without reference to these fast days, when I look at the Jewish community where I grew up in the UK, which is similar in many regards to many Jewish communities in North America, I feel that our gaze is too focused on the past, and not enough on the future. Judaism seems to be something we are “preserving” rather than celebrating. Our goal seems to be how we can continue Judaism, rather than asking how Judaism can enrich our lives. I am delighted to see that this is changing. Jewish communal leaders across North America and beyond are changing our congregations into forward-looking communities of purpose and meaning. This piece is a salute to their work and the beauty I see in it.
This Tisha B’Av, as I remember the dislocation of the Jewish people, I will also remember all the richness which that dislocation added to Jewish life. All that we learned and added to Judaism in our time in exile, which can now be celebrated, in our newfound independence. This Tisha B’Av I am inspired to look towards a Jewish community that places meaning at its center. Where Jewishness is something that enriches and uplifts us and does not need to be protected.
I want Jews in “the Diaspora” to grow up in Jewish communities which give them a positive reason to value Jewish culture (which includes Jewish language(s), Jewish literature, Jewish History, and Jewish religion among other elements).
A Jew growing up outside of Israel should grow up understanding themselves as the heir to a rich tradition of rituals, ideas, practices, and texts which enrich one’s life and have the ability to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.
They should understand that Jewishness can be many things and they have the authority to decide for themselves what it will be for them. The community has the right (and perhaps the responsibility) to stack the deck and make Jewishness so attractive that they would find it hard to live without.
A Jew should feel like the many everyday acts which make up their Jewishness also make up them – i.e. who I am is someone who says Shma al hamita (bedtime recitation of the Shma, the central Jewish credo) before I go to bed (as an example). Kriyat Shma al hamita could mean something very different to each Jew, and they may use completely different nuschaot (liturgical variations). But as long as it serves the person who says it, it is doing its job.
I want Jews to reach winter and long for candles, latkes, and dreidels. Or alternatively for cheese, sfinge (a North African Jewish pastry), and chocolate coins.
I want Jews to understand themselves within a collective story, in which a people is born in slavery, creates a culture of its own, and lives out that culture – both in sovereignty and then without sovereignty.
I want Jewishness to enrich our lives.
We must recognize that with each new generation, the Jews will forever more be at home in the places where they live, and the cultures in which they live. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan envisioned the Jew of the Modern age living in two civilizations (that of wherever they live and the Jewish civilization). Globalization means that Jews now live in multiple civilizations. But to continue to live within the Jewish civilization will require great investment. This investment is undertaken, not out of guilt or a sense of obligation to those who came before us, but because we know it to be enriching.
Learning Hebrew and Hebrew culture should be enriching. (Equally learning Mandarin and Chinese culture could be hugely enriching, but it won’t synergize with your memories from childhood of lighting the Hannukiah. There is no great library of mandarin literature about the meaning of those Hannukah candles).
The goal of Jewishness never was, nor should it ever be to continue Judaism. There are many answers to what the goal is. (Personally, I don’t think there is a “goal” – Jewishness just IS.) But Progressive Judaism certainly crafts a vision. It understands that Judaism has a purpose. That purpose is to make us better people. And Judaism is a tool, or rather a set of tools to help us do that. It is no better than any other toolset (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, mountain climbing, the Scouting movement, Lord of the Rings cosplay, being French, Chinese, or Moroccan), but it is also no worse.
And it is ours.
May this Tisha B’Av serve to remind us that what we have is precious, not because it is at risk of disappearing, but because it is so rich with myriad ways to uplift our lives. As one of my rabbis used to say – may we all have a good mourning.
Rabbi Haim Shalom is the rabbi of Kehilat Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem, a congregation affiliated with the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his partner Deborah and their three children.
 I am thinking particularly of the Jewish communal leaders who have inspired me – my teachers, my colleagues, my students, and in some cases people whose work I have admired from afar. Though it is dangerous to name names, I should name a few (all from outside of Israel): Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Rabbi Danny Burkeman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, Cantor Josh Breitzer, Cantor Zoe Jacobs, Rabbi Daniel Bogard, Jewish educator Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, Rabbi Elyse Wechterman and Rabbi Deborah Blausten.