Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av begins tonight at sundown.

Often, when I think about Jewish observance, it is in terms of process theology, or the notion of Jews changing God, or even God changing God’s self. Other times, I consider Jewish practice in terms of Jews changing the world.

ImageThis is different. When viewed from my usual head space, Tisha B’Av makes no sense. It’s not just a fast day, it’s a fast day with the outward severity of Yom Kippur: no food, no drinking of water, no bathing, no hand cream, no leather shoes, and no sex. On Yom Kippur, these things make sense. We are forgoing earthly pleasures to transcend the body and join with Hashem in a moment of metaphysical union and ecstatic joy. On Tisha B’Av, we are transcending physical pleasures to more fully be miserable. On Yom Kippur, we are surrounded by whiteness and light and beauty. On Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor in the dark.

When we think of spirituality, we think about being uplifted, and finding comfort. When we think about religion, we think about developing a relationship with whatever divinity we believe in.  Yet there is pointedly nothing uplifting about Tisha B’Av. The focus is not communion with deity. As if to underline this, the sages passed a law forbidding Torah study on Tisha B’Av, with the exception of certain incredibly depressing sections of the Tenakh, and studying the laws of fasting. They forbade it because it was too spiritually enjoyable.

In any other religion, there would be an explanation about how we deserved to suffer because we are unworthy, or doing penance or some nonsense. On Tisha B’Av, we read the Book of Job, a story about a righteous man who suffered because fuck you, that’s why. So, that’s not it.

In fact, with the exception of Yom Kippur, penance is never the reason for fasting in Judaism. I might even argue the case that it isn’t really the purpose on Yom Kippur, either. Another time, perhaps.

Let’s take a look at some other fast days.

The Fast of Gedaliah – Remember that time that religious zealots murdered their own governor because the Torah says that people from the tribe of Levi shouldn’t be political leaders? Well, it’s a fast day, so now, I guess you do.

Asarah B’Tevet – Commemorates when Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.

Fast of Esther – Esther fasted to gain spiritual strength in order to save the Jewish people. We fast to remember the dark time she faced, and in remembrance of her fast.

Fast of the First Born - The first born fast to remember the plague of the first born that was visited on the Egyptians during the Exodus narrative.

Notice a theme here? In each of these cases, the fast exists to remind us of something that is inappropriate to celebrate, but that shouldn’t be forgotten. As I am sitting here, struggling to come to spiritual terms with my up-coming 25 hour fast, the main thing I ask myself, and will continue to ask myself throughout the fast, is why am I doing this to myself?

Why indeed! 

Not only that, but the people around me who aren’t observant, or who aren’t Jewish will see me sitting on the floor, abstaining even from such comforts as water, and will ask me the exact same question. “Why are you doing that?”

More than me asking myself, other people asking me is the key. I’m not a stupid person, I’m not a mindless person. If I am doing something, there is a damn good reason. I am challenged to answer with something compelling. It starts with a history lesson, and ends with philosophy, and neither the recounting of the history nor the deep thinking that comes alongside it would happen without the observance. The fast provokes the question.

So, what is Tisha B’Av supposed to remind us of?

burning

I’ll start with the very canonical answer. Tisha B’Av the fast commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples,[2] which both occurred on Av 9, about 655 years apart.

Actually, though, it’s more than that. It commemorates the “sin of the spies,” when those sent to look upon the land of Israel came back and thereupon decided that it would be far better to wander in the desert and complain to Moses about how there was no food than to go and conquer the promised land.

It commemorates the date that the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Israeli bid for independence from the Roman Empire. It likewise commemorates the date that the Romans plowed the site of the Temple and the surrounding area.

It commemorates the Holocaust, too. Indeed, it commemorates, in a greater sense, absolutely every bad thing that has ever happened to the Jewish people. It isn’t just a day of mourning, it is THE day of mourning.

It is the day of the archetypal bad thing. It is the day that, more than any other day, makes us question why bad things can happen to good people, and why bad things especially seem to happen to Jews. 

Tisha B’Av isn’t just a day for us to ask why we are fasting, it is a day for us to ponder a larger question about our history. If we are the chosen people, the favorites of the creator, why did our temples get smashed, and why was there a Roman Occupation, a Diaspora, or a Holocaust?

The question of why we do what we do isn’t limited for going for 25 hours without water, in this case. It is a broader question. It is, effectively, why bother being Jewish, if being Jewish entails such inherent hardship and darkness?

It gets bigger, and even more essential. Tisha B’Av begs the ultimate question: Why would God do this? Why would God create a place full of darkness and harm?

Let me ask you: If you were Creator, what would you do?

oils

Here is your paint. Make me a world.

rain

No, that’s wrong. I hate it. Look at all the dark colors you’ve put into it. Even the lights aren’t purely white. That’s ok that you screwed it up, God, I’m sure you’ll fix the painting in the Final Redemption.

washed_out

We can make it look more like that, you know, when you are ready to make a world such as I actually want to live in. You’ll take out those rich russet tones and the deep forest green, and all other manner of darkness.

Truth is, though, that our definition of “ultimate bad” is set by the worst thing we’ve experienced. People who experience very little in the way of hardship worry about less severe things than people who have suffered much. People who have experienced little in the way of luxury want for more modest things, while the wealthy always seem to find more indulgences to spend their money on.

The depth of our experience is measured from the depths of our misery to the height of our pleasure. If we remove the darkness, or the light, or mute them, it renders a shallow experience, devoid of intensity. 

“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you oughtta go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid.” — Q (Star Trek: The Next Generation “Q Who?”)

We, the Jews, worship Creator. Our religion is designed to mirror the universe in full. Our observances are not all ones of happy times and joy, because the universe isn’t all light and gladness. We worship the Creator. That means turning a blind eye to nothing.

On Tisha B’Av, we recognize the darkness in the universe and in our lives. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t confuse it with goodness. We give the depths of hell and misery which are a natural part of creation a context in which to exist and a proper, human response: sorrow.

mirrorBut the truth is, we aren’t just recognizing the darkness in the universe, generally, and expressing sorrow for what God did wrong, nor are we mourning a past event, a long-ago sacking of an ancient temple whose appearance no living person can recall. We are mourning because the darkness that exists in the universe also exists in us. We are mourning not to punish ourselves, but rather, so that we don’t turn a blind eye to what is evil inside of us.

More than being just a building, the Temple was where people gathered to honor their deity together. The Temple may have been the body, but community was its soul.

We need Tisha B’Av because Jews still hate Jews for no reason. We need it because of snark and gossip, and people who destroy reputations of others to snag just a little extra power for their own viewpoint.

I need Tisha B’Av because I’d rather stay home than go to synagogue.

We need Tisha B’Av because two Jews alone on a desert island need three synagogues: one for the first Jew, one for the second Jew, and one that neither of them would set foot in.

We need it to give a home and a context and a proper response to that aspect of human nature that favors having petty ideological disagreements over doing what is right for the community.

We need Tisha B’Av because, in a very real sense, the Temple is still burning.

We need Tisha B’Av because we tell ourselves that the problem is too big for us to solve. We need it because we’d rather paint the situation as being insurmountably terrible, rather than admit that we need to make ourselves better in order to solve it. I need it because sometimes, on other days of the year, I’d rather sit around suffering than create a solution for myself. We need Tisha B’Av because the sin of the spies is still on-going. 

As I fast, and kvetch, and over the next 25 hours, ask myself, hundreds of times, why, I will remember the darkness, and I will curse it. I will remember that cursing the darkness, rather than being at peace with it, is what gives my life depth and meaning. I will remember, too that I should summon up joy and excitement during times of light and gladness, when they come, rather than being angry that they don’t last forever.

I will give my inner slug, that would rather kvetch than fix things, a time to exist, so that lazyshe won’t go rampaging around my life.

I’ll be grouchy and snarky and sit there hating the world for 25 hours, and then I’ll endeavor not to do that for the rest of the year.

To all of you Jews reading: I wish you a miserable, awful, sad, snarky, difficult fast. 

Just kidding. Tzom Klal everyone.

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For those of you fasting, hope it is an easy one

esther-a-portrait-of-courage

 ‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ (Esther, 4:16)

Today, I fast, and remember this tenacious female hero who asked the whole Jewish people to fast in order to bring her luck in dealing with the man who held the fate of her Tribe in his hands.

After Shabbat, I raise a glass in honor of her bravery.

To Esther! Cheers!

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For those unable to attend a Megillah reading.

For those unable to attend a Megillah reading.

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The Book of Esther and the Enuma Elish

It has often been suggested — and by often, I mean every single Pagan I have ever talked to has mentioned it, and half of the Jews who knew anything about Judaism have said it to me, personally, at least once– that the Book of Ester was actually a veiled myth about Marduk and Ishtar.

Can you blame them?

Purim is widely known to be a Jewish adaptation of a Babylonian drinking holiday. Just listen to the names, too. Mordechai and Esther. They sound like the dames of those two deities.

I decided to do some investigation into this Babylonian drinking holiday, and was lead back to an ancient Babylonian tale about how the hero, Marduk, defeated Tiamat. In it, there are indeed many similarities to the Purim story.

The antagonist, Tiamat, is terrorizing the good gods (or the ones that the reader is supposed to be rooting for). In the third tablet we learn,

17. “All the gods have turned to her,

18. “With those, whom ye created, they go at her side.

19. ”They are banded together, and at the side of Tiamat they advance;

20 . “They are furious, they devise mischief without resting night and day.

21. ”They prepare for battle, fuming and raging;

22. “They have joined their forces and are making war.”

“The gods” here are sort of a faceless multitude.

Likewise, in the Book of Ester, there is a faceless multitude waiting to do evil to the Jews:

“And the letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” (Esther, 3:13)

In both, there is also a wine feast that is instrumental in swinging the tide of history over to the side of the “good guys.”

In the Enuma Elish, Tablet 3:

133. They made ready for the feast, at the banquet [they sat];

134. They ate bread, they mixed [sesame-wine].

135. The sweet drink, the mead, confused their […],

136. They were drunk with drinking, their bodies were filled.

137. They were wholly at ease, their spirit was exalted;

138. Then for Marduk, their avenger, did they decree the fate.

and in the Book of Esther:

“Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house: and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house.

And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the sceptre.

Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom.

And Esther answered, If it seem good unto the king, let the king and Haman come this day unto the banquet that I have prepared for him.”(Esther, 5:1-4)

An aside: Scepter? Do you mean his staff? His power rod? The big long thing he likes to have in his hand? Yeah. It’s tip. She touched it. Oh yes, the Jewish people went there.

The stories also have a very similar ending, too.

From the Enumah Elish (fourth tablet):

27. When the gods, his fathers, beheld (the fulfilment of) his word,

28. They rejoiced, and they did homage (unto him, saying), ” Marduk is king! “

29. They bestowed upon him the sceptre, and the throne, and the ring,

and then,

101. He seized the spear and burst her belly,

102. He severed her inward parts, he pierced (her) heart.

103. He overcame her and cut off her life;

104. He cast down her body and stood upon it.

105. When he had slain Tiamat, the leader,

106. Her might was broken, her host was scattered.

107. And the gods her helpers, who marched by her side,

108. Trembled, and were afraid, and turned back.

109. They took to flight to save their lives;

110. But they were surrounded, so that they could not escape.

111. He took them captive, he broke their weapons;

112. In the net they were caught and in the snare they sat down.

113. The […] … of the world they filled with cries of grief.

And in the book of Ester:

“8:1 On that day did the king Ahasuerus give the house of Haman the Jews’ enemy unto Esther the queen. And Mordecai came before the king; for Esther had told what he was unto her.

8:2 And the king took off his ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it unto Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman.”

and then,

“8:17 And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”

and then, just in case the Hebrew Mythos left it unclear as to who, exactly, is wearing the pants:

“And the king said unto Esther the queen, The Jews have slain and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the palace, and the ten sons of Haman; what have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? now what is thy petition? and it shall be granted thee: or what is thy request further? and it shall be done.

Then said Esther, If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews which are in Shushan to do to morrow also according unto this day’s decree, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows.” (Esther, 9:12-13)

Do not. Mess. With Jewish. Women. Ever.

So, I think I’ve successfully proven that these two are roughly the same myth. Because the Enuma Elish is huge and fragmentary, let me give you a plot synopsis. For those interested, of course, the text can be found here:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/stc/stc07.htm

Once upon a time, the world was ruled by Mother Earth. For some reason, a few of the male deities decided that this was not good. A wine feast was set, and during it, while all the gods were drunk, Marduk was appointed King, and charged to go and slay Tiamat and all the gods who supported her. Marduk slew Tiamat, and fear of Marduk fell upon her supporters. Marduk was merciful with them, and punished them, but didn’t slay them. Everybody does what Marduk says forever and ever.

I want you to notice who is conspicuously absent from the myth. WHERE IS ISHTAR? This myth sucks! It’s about a bunch of male deities raining domination on the Earth Mother. What the fuck?

Actually, I think even in ancient times, this must have been a pretty typical reaction for a Jew. I’ll explain why by telling you what happens in the Book of Esther. If the Book of Esther was a covert version of the Enuma Elish, then let me give you a plot synopsis, reconstructed as a Babylonian Myth.

(You can find it online here: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Bible/Esther.html)

Once upon a time, the world was ruled by a careless and foolish male deity (let’s call him Apsu) who simply did whatever the evil gods around him told him to do. He most especially listened to Kingu, and Kingu essentially ruled everything.

Apsu had a consort, but Kingu told him to get rid of her, so he did. Then, Apsu was sad. He held a beauty contest and commanded that all of the goddesses come before him that he might choose who was the most beautiful, then force her to marry him.

Ishtar thought about it for thirty seconds, then said, “I’ve got this covered.”

Because she is Ishtar, she obviously was the sexiest, and soon she was made Queen of Heaven. Meanwhile, Marduk just kind of hung around outside not doing much.

Irritated with Marduk’s unwillingness to bow down to any other god, Kingu decreed that all the gods ruled by Apsu should destroy the Annunaki, thus sticking it to Marduk. Little did Kingu know that the King’s new bride was a princess of the Anunaki, and would not sit quietly while this occurred.

Ishtar, who had not been summoned by Apsu, went to him, and touched his penis. Apsu declared that she could consequently have whatever she wanted. She said that she was having a wine feast, and that Kingu should attend.

At the wine feast, Ishtar announced that she was one of the Anunaki, and that Kingu was trying to kill her. Apsu was furious. Kingu threw himself on Ishtar’s mercy, but Ishtar has no mercy, because she is Ishtar. Apsu ordered his guards to take the Queen’s enemy and have him executed, instantly.

Apsu then gave the rule of the Kingdom to Ishtar, who in turn, appointed Marduk in Kingu’s place.

The Goddess of Love and War used all the forces of the King to reign fiery blood and terror upon her enemies, and when Apsu asked what else she wanted, she declared that she wanted MORE bloodshed. Everyone either joined the Anunaki out of sheer terror, or died a horrible, bloody death.

Everyone lived happily ever after.

Read: Achoshverosh in place of Apsu, Esther in place of Ishtar, Mordechai in place of Marduk, and Haman in place of Kingu, and that is the story of Purim. Mother Earth is not slain, Ishtar is Queen, Marduk gets a position in the court. Male and female deities participate equally.

Babylonian mythology, fix’d.

But wait, there is more.

If you read the Book of Ester, someone, or maybe something, is conspicuously absent. Hashem is not mentioned in this story. Hashem’s consort, however, is.

“Thus said Hashem: ‘I recall for you the lovingkindness of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.’ ” (Jeremiah 2:2)

In this, Hashem makes clear the identity of Hashem’s spouse. Who was it that followed Hashem into the wilderness?

“And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 16:1)

It is the Jewish people, the consort of Hashem, that is very much in evidence during this story. Is it any wonder, then, that where the Babylonians write about gods, our corresponding myth talks about us?

Look, too, at our Tauroctony myth. Where the “sacred cow” is slain by Hermes in the Greek Mythology (Homeric Hymn #4) and the Roman Tauroctony involves a god named Mithras, who is the corresponding figure in Hebrew mythology?

“And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.” (Exodus 32:19-20)

We, the Jewish people, are the gods of our own mythology, and on Purim, we are commanded by the customs of our people to, “make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions of food one to another, and gifts to the poor.” (Esther, 9:22)

Go, my friends: feast and drink like gods! Do not, however, forget those less fortunate than yourselves, for a good deity is thoughtful of those who are in need, or who are less powerful than themselves.

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According to Shas…

In medieval France and Germany, women did wear tefillin. Rabbenu Tam, Rashi’s grandson, ruled that a woman doing any mitzvah that she is not obligated to, including tefillin, must make the appropriate blessing.

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Celebrate!

“Celebrate your heritage, not because you belong to the Torah, but because the Torah belongs to you.”

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The New Moon: A Time for God to Atone

I want to open my discussion about Rosh Chodesh with a passage from Tractate Chullin 60b.

Rabbi Shim’on ben Pazi pitted one against another: “God made the two big lights” (Genesis 1:16a) and “the big light… and the small light” (Genesis 1:16b)!

The moon said before the Blessed Holiness: “Ruler of the World! Is it possible for two kings to wear the same crown?”

He said to her: “Go and make yourself smaller!”

She said before Him: “Ruler of the World! Because I said something reasonable before You, I am to make myself smaller!?”

He said to her: “Go and rule by day and by night.”

She said to him: “What importance does that have? What use is a lamp in daylight?”

He said to her: “Go, and the Jewish people will reckon days and years by you.”

She said to Him: “It is impossible for them not to reckon seasons by Day also, since it is written, ‘And they will be for signs and for set times and for days and years’!” (Genesis 1:14)

“Go, and holy people will be named after you: Small Jacob [see Amos 7:2], Small Shmuel [a sage of the Talmud], Small David [see I Samuel 17:14].”

Seeing that she had not been appeased, the Holy One, Blessed Be He said [to the Jewish people]: “Bring an atonement sacrifice for Me, because I made the moon smaller.”

That is to say, bring a sacrifice to atone for God’s sin.

Rashi expounds, in his commentary on Megillah 22b, that Rosh Chodesh is a woman’s holiday, given to the Jewish woman as a gift for refusing to participate in creating the Golden Calf, but there may be other reasons why women are supposed to celebrate this holiday more than men.

וְהָיָה אוֹר-הַלְּבָנָה, כְּאוֹר הַחַמָּה

“And the light of moon will be like the light of the sun.” (Isaiah 30:26)

There is no doubting that the ancient world was sexist. It was sexist in absolutely every faith at that time. Yet, even so, Judaism was already discussing what to do to aide the plight of women. In a time when women could simply be discarded, the Rabbis instituted the ketubah, which guaranteed either martial rights, or a year’s living wage. Recognizing the hardship certain mitzvot imposed on women before birth control was invented, the Rabbis gave her exemptions. It was progressive for 2000 years ago, but even at that time, it was essentially recognized that the solution wasn’t perfect.

Many Chassidic Jews believe that women gaining equal rights with men is the fulfillment of this verse from Isaiah, a promise from our Deity to correct the mistakes of early human history.

During the New Moon, Elokim comes to us, as women, to atone for His sins against us.

For women, it is a propitious time to approach our God. However, according to Kabalistic tradition, in accordance with  the teachings of the Zohar, it is dangerous for men to approach the Presence of God during this time. The Moon (Shekhina) takes on the aspect of Judgment toward them. The part of God that is female is angry with men for the degradation of womankind which happened in years past, and which continues to happen. She is angry that we aren’t paid fairly for our work, She is angry that we are objectified, She is angry that we are denied equal power for our equal potential. Is it any surprise that they should avoid Her? The part of God that is male approaches women in the spirit of contrition, He is sorry for all of those things.

I’d like to take this a step further and talk about others whom history has wronged, and who have been marginalized in Judaism: the LGBT community. It is time for a repair between the notion that God created these people exactly as they are, and the notion that God will not accept them as such. It is a time for all who have been diminished –as the moon was diminished– by history to entreat Hashem for equality in Judaism and globally.

It is a time to honor our Deity’s ability to recognize His own faults, and to bring grievances. It is a time for forgiveness.

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