Rabbis Worry that an Ancient Jewish Tragedy Could Repeat Itself

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is a reminder of the baseless hatred that led to a 2,000-year exile. adobe stock ./ Alexeiy

By Philissa Cramer and Ellen Braunstein

A few hours before Tishah B’Av began last week, the Rockville-based Jewish Studio sent out an email blast that was the digital version of a shofar blast of alarm.

“Tisha B’av comes fast on the heels of a dangerous political development in Israel,” Rabbi Evan Krame wrote.

Two days earlier, the Israeli Knesset had passed a law restricting the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws, the first piece of a proposed overhaul of the country’s judiciary that has led to massive street protests and a growing movement of civil disobedience.


Opposition was spreading to army reservists, some of whom announced their refusal to serve the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if called to duty.

With this in mind, Krame quoted Rabbi Jennifer Singer, a Florida rabbi:

“It is said that the destruction of the second Temple was brought about by baseless hatred. … It feels as though a third destruction is happening before our eyes. I pray that it does not destroy the Israel that we cherish,” she wrote.

Rabbinic tradition says that collapse of Jewish sovereignty resulted as much from infighting as from external attacks — if not more so.

“No one is missing the symbolism on the left,” said David Selis, a graduate student at Yeshiva University who is researching the use of Jewish text and images in Israeli protests over time.

In Washington’s Jewish community, Tishah B’av this year was a potent reminder of the Jewish divisions and missteps that led to a 2,000-year exile from the land of Israel.

“I am reminded by this holiday that the current struggle in Israel is not only for democracy but also for compromise and moderation,” Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe wrote to congregants at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. “The greatest thing we can do for Israel is to help prevent an ancient tragedy from repeating itself today, to help society withstand the pressures of extremists and strengthen the unity of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, who last month became rabbi of Ohev Sholom in the District, spoke on Shabbat about doomscrolling the news from Israel while waiting to pay for an order at Giant before Tishah B’Av.

“It would seem to be rabbinic malpractice to speak publicly about Israel, in a time of fierce division and struggle there, in what is only my fourth week serving a new community,” he told the congregation. “But when I saw pictures of Israel on the front page of every single American newspaper that was for sale in Giant earlier this week, I realized that not speaking about Israel, in a week such as this one, was just a different way of making a statement about Israel.”

Across the country, Jewish leaders invoked the fast day in their statements and rabbis planned to speak about Israel at their congregations’ services. The groundswell of attention, some say, could make Tishah B’Av newly relevant to non-Orthodox American Jews and secular Israelis, who have historically been less likely to observe its rituals.

“We are now a little over 24 hours away from Tisha B’Av, the day when we mark the loss of our sovereignty 2,000 years ago, due to internal fighting,” Julie Platt, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, said during an online briefing about the legislation on July 25. “The parallels to today are frightening.”

Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, added on the call, “I see radicalization right now on the street. And I really hope we’ll be able to contain it…. Let’s hope Tishah B’Av will be only a memory, not a reality for us.”

According to Jewish tradition, a string of calamities have befallen the Jews on the Ninth of Av. The destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE — both known as “churban habayit” in Hebrew — are the most prominent in a list of events cited by talmudic rabbis in prescribing a day of fasting, prayer and mourning rituals.

Back in the District, Wolkenfeld said American Jews by now know how to respond to crises in Israel. But the current crisis is different.

“And I began to ask myself, why had I not been invited to a Tehillim rally to pray on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Israel? Why has Federation not yet organized the American Jewish community in solidarity with Israel?… We have been silent as Israel careens toward a cliff in its most dire and destructive political crisis in my lifetime.”

The answer, he said, is because Israel is not under attack from external foes.

“Who are we supposed to rally against this month? The elected government of Israel or the sizable majority of the country who oppose their program of judicial reform? I count personal friends and family… on both sides.”

“This is a moment where we have to worry for the unity of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Michael J. Safra of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rockville. “And that makes it an existential moment for the Jewish people.” ■

Philissa Cramer is editor and chief of Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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