Thoughts on Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av — a commemoration of ancient Israel’s destruction and a warning of its future collapse.

Today in the Hebrew calendar is the 9th of Av, the second-most significant fast day in the Jewish year. (I have fasted on it for about the last 20 years). It commemorates, among other things, the days when the First and Second Temples were destroyed. According to the Talmud, it also commemorates the days when the generation of the Exodus was told that it would not enter the Promised Land, the fall of the last stronghold during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, and the day that the Romans ploughed up Jerusalem.

Few holy days are pregnant with so much irony.

First, contemporary Jews should see it as a day of joy. Without the destruction of the Temple, Judaism would still rely on animal sacrifices as it main form of worship. It would still be governed by a hereditary priestly caste. The development of the great intellectual and moral tradition of rabbinic Judaism might never have occurred. Maimonides famously — and I believe correctly — argued that had God given the Israelites a purely spiritual form of worship, then they could not have possibly understood or accepted it. God thus gave them animal sacrifices, which of course prohibited human sacrifice and served as a crucial agent of moral development. But that is no reason to mourn the Temple. It is to celebrate that it was no longer needed given the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism. (Maimonides also mentions that this process spiritual development continues, and that eventually the most perfect form of worship will be silence — a mode that some have discovered already.).

Second, we had better prepare ourselves for our new coming exile from Jerusalem. The haredim, of course, are already doing their best to exile all Jews who do not bow down to them. But more broadly, as both Mark and I have argued recently, Israel appears to be enthusiastically promoting its own destruction. In an elegant and succinct Ha’aretz commentary today, the distinguished Israeli historian Asher Susser makes the same argument. Money quote:

In the arrogance of their position, which tramples on the rights of others, the settlers are compromising the foundations of the justice of the Zionist enterprise, and acting against the State of Israel’s existential interests. By making the Land of Israel the supreme value over and above the State of Israel, they are joining, in a bizarre way, their left-wing post-Zionist “brothers,” who also propose a single state that will succeed the state of the Jews.

We have been here before, on Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai grew to recognize that under the Zealots, Jewish political power had become so corrupted that saving it was simply not worth the candle. So when the Roman Emperor Vespasian granted him one wish, he asked not to save the Temple, but rather only for Yavneh — a little town close to modern-day Ashkelon, from where he could rebuild Judaism along rabbinic lines. Little wonder that in Pirkei Avot, we are told to “abhor high office” and warned to “not seek intimacy with the ruling power.” (1:10). Political power, the rabbis recognized, corrodes our ability to act ethically.

So when the settlers achieve their dream of liquidating Zionism, and this results in the massacre of thousands of Jews, we should not be surprised. We should simply resolve, now as then, to find Yavneh.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.