A reader writes: “Tishabuv?”

24 Sep

(Sorry…only now getting a chance to respond to some of these)

The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the Roman suppression of the first Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. (click)

In reference to Jadde posts: “Romney in Israel: How High To Jump?“and “Tisha B’av?,”  “Jewish London” writes: 

“it seems appropriate that he should visit on Tisha B’Av, a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people”

Oooooofffff…  This is like teaching…when you’ve spent hours researching and preparing, and then another half hour conducting, a brilliantly detailed and structured, thrillingly executed lesson on participial phrases, only to have one student, while you’re catching your breath right after, ask a question that proves none of the class has understood shit the entire time you were lecturing.

My point was simply that there’s a genre of Ashkenazi jokes, among the many, based on “When is Tishabuv?”  Beinart’s point, “Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism…” is that in the long tradition of Rabbinic and Talmudic learning, Tishabuv has been a time to reflect on why a certain tragedy has struck Jews and not just commemorate that tragedy in a victimized and ad nauseum form.

Yes, brother, “terrible calamities befell the Jewish people” on Tishabuv.  The Second Temple, the One and Only House of God in the One and Only Holy City, was levelled.  Jews were slaughtered in unbelievable numbers.  In trying to figure out whether these events happened as part of the Roman response to the Jewish rebellion of 70 A.D. or that of 135 A.D. — which has never been clear to me — I learned that there’s a trend of Jewish mystical thought that fascinatingly believes all Jewish tragedies occurred, occur and will occur on Tishabuv: the selling of Joseph into slavery; Moses’ shattering of the first tablets at seeing the Jews revert to idolatry; the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity; the destruction of the Second Temple; the first massacre of European Jews at the beginning of the Crusades; the issuing of the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492; the day the first train left for Auschwitz – all become mystically assimilated into Tishabuv.  That’s a tragic and moving idea.  However, I do know that the Roman suppression of the revolt of 135 A.D. was so brutal in its massacre and expulsion of Jews that it’s easy to say that it officially marks the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Tishabuv is also intimately related to Jewish messianic thought.  The revolts themselves were partly inspired by messianic expectations.  And the crushing of those hopes by the greatest cluster of disasters to befall Jews before the Holocaust made Rabbinic thought retreat into the sharpest of all cautions against any such expectations.  This, I suspect, is what marked the final rupture between Christian Jews and the rest of Jewry.  It’s not that Jews didn’t succumb to the temptation again.  Kabbalism is a mystic desire to correct the world that is a barely concealed messianic impulse.  And there was the great fever of messianic ecstasy that swept the Jewish world in the seventeenth century, when Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi from Smyrna, started declaring himself the Messiah – one of the most fascinating and, in the end, sadly absurdist, episodes in Jewish history.  Zevi, either a con artist or a psychotic, had raised Jewish expectations to such a frenzied pitch, that when he ended up converting to Islam and becoming a ward of the Sultan, it sent shockwaves of psychological distress, not only through Ottoman Jewry, but throughout the entire Jewish world; in fact, due to renewed persecution and massacres at the time in Eastern Europe, the effects on Ashkenazi Jewry may have been even greater than on Sephardim.  The crisis sent the Eastern European Jewish universe careening into two different directions: on the one hand a trend that reemphasized Rabbinical textualism and that eventually responded to the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the movement out of Germany that attempted to bring European Jewry into the modern world; and on the other, a retreat into the most introverted mysticism, out of which Hasidism, and an even greater immersion in Kabbalistic thought, grew.  To some extent, this split is one that old New York Jews still codedly refer to, whether they know it or not, as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers” (explanation in subsequent post).  See Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film version of S. Ansky’s Dybbuk.  I think there’s no greater primary text of Jewish spiritual impulses and its conflicts.

Lili Liana as Lea, the bride who becomes possessed by the spirit of her wronged beloved on her wedding day to another man, in Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, the Dybbuk. (click)

(Two interesting notes that I’d like to make here.  One is that the Jewish revolts of the early first millennium were partially led by political groups whom we, today, wouldn’t hesitate to compare to, not only the first New England Puritans, but even the Taliban, and who engaged in certain tactics, like the surprise slaughter of masses of innocent civilians that we like to associate with Palestinian “terrorism” – or that of…errrr….Irgun, Haganah, the Stern Gang, Mssrs. Ben Gurion and Begin and all the rest.  The other is that maybe the real basis of Tishabuv jokes is still unconsciously based in messianic expectations, the way older Greek women who, say, have missed a bus, will mumble: “Oy, now we’ll be waiting till the Second Coming.”)

But if “Jewish London” is to understand my point, he needs to better understand the transformation that Tishabuv has undergone in Israel since its founding, because I suspect that, not living among the most vibrant Diaspora communities in the world, Israel is his model.  Obviously, Zionism didn’t need to worry about the Messiah, since it had solved the “Jewish Question,” as must be obvious to anyone who throws even a cursory glance at the Middle East today and sees the peace and happiness in which Jews there live can attest to, and no Messiahs need apply anymore.  Tishabuv had been forgotten by the Jewish Diaspora, reduced to such an obscure holiday that it was the object of humour; I’ve lived most of my life in a city, and worked for a great part of it in an environment, where, believe me, it was impossible to not know that a great, or even just important, Jewish feast was being celebrated or was coming up, and Tishabuv wasn’t one of them.  In Israel, however, the “secular” Jewish state raised Tishabuv to new, official status as a holiday-fast day.  But not as a day of introspection; but as a day to remember, as “Jewish London” puts it, “a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people.”  This is because “calamities” are Israel’s justification for being; it was Israel’s down-payment and it’s still how it pays its mortgage; it’s the currency in which it trades.  And the ignorant Romney’s visit to the Western Wall with Netanyahu or whoever on that day, was just another slimy exchange in that same currency — and, in fact, a dishonour to centuries of Jewish suffering.

But back to the Diaspora, and a time when Judaism hadn’t locked itself into a barricaded nation-state.  More than just self-reflection and introspection, the repeated, century-after-century dashing of Jewish hopes may have generated an even more important element in the Jewish psyche: doubt.  The great Christopher Hitchens, quotes the equally great Rebecca West in his introduction of her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and her own ruminations about the origins of anti-Semitism:

“West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that ‘many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews.  They knew only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.’”

That’s why on Easter night, the night of the Resurrection, I always remember to have one, only one, glass of wine that’s offered to the suspicion – the same one born out of the fact that Elijah never actually walks through that open door at Passover — that this whole idea is bullshit.

So what is Tishabuv for (when we know when it is)?  Introspection, moral responsibility, skepticism, doubt and the saving beauty of being eternally able to convert suffering into humour and irony – these last may be the most important — a pretty whole summation of what Jews have given us, given me, at least.

When “Jewish London” can tell me what Israel has given us, he should let us know.  These Days of Awe might be the perfect time to think about that.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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