Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In the Mood of Mourning

[According to Jewish tradition, the month of Av is a month of morning and serious reflection particularly on the destruction of Yerushalayim / Jerusalem. The 9th of Av is a 25-hour fast commemorating the ultimate destruction of our Holy Temple and many other disasters of the Jewish people. This is a reflection on my experience of Av]

I sometimes imagine Al-Quds and Yerushalayim as transparencies projected on the same blank piece of land. They are different worlds inhabiting the same time and the same space originating in two realities. I know that I don’t fully appreciate either. I am very much an outsider to both. Al-Quds, I see from a distance, the dots of worshippers at Al-Aqsa seen from a “safe” distance, Arab children puzzled as I slip by the gate few Jews slip by, or the gold dome overhead as I pray by the ruin of the wall.

Yerushalayim, I know a little better. “Yerushalayims” I should say, the tourist center, home of the fancy institute I attended for a few summers, the somewhat dour religious neighborhood where I stayed, the synagogues tucked into corners pumping out prayer services, places to shop and look cool and be kosher in an outdoor cafĂ©.

There is the Yerushalayim of Zionist triumphalism that I don’t know so well. When I saw the videos of the Jerusalem Day parade this year, I was acutely aware that I did not understand the pride of ownership and entitlement to G-d’s city.

Right or wrong, my Yerushalayim is the Yerushalayim of the month of Av. It is the Yerushalayim of the old time Jew of the Diaspora. My Yerushalayim is an orphan. My Yerushalayim embodies the brokenness of the world. Like the homeless beggar who has found a fancy fur coat, the external beauties of Yerushalayim only make it look more pathetic. Each new luxury high rise offering the wealthy the authentic Jerusalem experience seems to me, in the mindset of the month of Av, to thinly veil the fragile spiritual city wasting away beneath the fancy garments. The squabbles over Jewish land grabs, the violence that simmers barely beneath the surface where Yerushalayim and Al-Quds inevitably rub shoulders, speaks to me. It reminds me again and again. “This is not it.”

The Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.
-Talmud Bavli (Yoma 9b)

Mourning is a strange mode of service of G-d. Mourning Yerushalayim means projecting the transparency of our ancient destroyed city over its modern successor. More importantly, it means piercing through all the transparencies and laying bare the human reality that in Yerushalayim, the center or our world, we are still ruled by baseless hatred. That hatred was the force of destruction that marred our connection to G-d, that destroyed our Holy Temple and sent us to the ends of the earth, as if shoved from the table of our Father. That hatred still corrodes the heart of the world. The channels that once conveyed the light of Yerushalayim to the rest of the world convey a darkness and entropy that is felt in every corner of the world. The un-rectified Yerushalayim is not just a Jewish tragedy it is a universal, even cosmic, tragedy

There will be those who will see “baseless hatred” in narrow national terms. Hatred between fellow Jews caused the destruction. As they say, “you have what to depend on.” It’s true that is certainly how most commentators have probably understood it for most of our history. We have been very inward looking. That has made us very introspective and in many ways extraordinarily attentive to each other’s needs. It has also made us myopic. It is time to consider that maybe baseless hatred is a bigger problem.

Rabbi Yehoshua said: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others (lit. of the creations) remove a person from the world.
-Pirkei Avot 2:16

Rashi glosses hatred here as “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred. The very same baseless hatred mentioned in the Talmud, not just of fellow Jews but also of all others.

As Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out here, the term for “others” is simply “briyot” creations. It’s a word that points to the lowest common denominator in mankind, our being creatures. Our respect for human beings originates in the creation of man by G-d as the pinnacle of His creation. We need no other reason not to hate and beyond that no other reason to love.

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam.

-Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)

Ribbono shel Olam,
Please give us more than vain tears. Let us really feel the brokeness of Av and help us transform that pain into a drive to repair, to really believe that we can repair what is destroyed. May confronting the rule of hatred in ourselves and in our world motivate us to initiate and cultivate the rule of love.


  1. Just to put that I visited this blog and have bookmarked it, so that I can drop in at a later point of time. :)


  2. The need for the spiritual rebuilding of Jerusalem remains great. But it is still a beautiful thing to see it physically rebuilt as well- I heard once in a shiur that if we look at certain pesukim in the Navi carefully, it actually teaches that the physical "Jerusalem" must be rebuilt before "Tzion" is rebuilt as well.

  3. I sometimes imagine Al-Quds and Yerushalayim as transparencies projected on the same blank piece of land. They are different worlds inhabiting the same time and the same space originating in two realities.

    This idea really resonates for me. Thank you for this.

  4. The destruction of the temple was not caused by baseless hatred. There is no evidence for that historical view. There is a lot of evidence that it was an imperial response to an uprising. The hatred, and I'm sure there was plenty to go around, was based in the conflict - which killed many on both sides. I'm sure the uprising was against Roman oppression, but I'm also pretty sure that the rebels were not nice people. There is evidence, for instance, that the rebels who withdrew to Masada burned the food stores of Jerusalem to incite the inhabitants to fight the romans rather than hold out against the siege. They were then kicked out of Jerusalem before the city fell - although you'll never hear that on a tour of Masada.

    This whole "we're perfect and those killing us are baseless animals" is the same idiocy (in the sense of its Greek root, idios, meaning private or alone) which makes it so difficult for Israelis to see the genuine democratic and anti-sectarian motivation in the militant anti-zionist resistance movements. The idea that whenever someone opposes you, its "baseless hatred" is the kind of unthinking that makes it so easy to conflate anti-zionism with anti-semitism. Other people's motivations are complex, and you can take them seriously rather than reducing them to the level of the animal or the monster.

  5. Northernsong, it is patronizing for you to describe groups that have carried out and continue to broadly support the deliberate murder of Jewish children as "democratic" and "anti-sectarian". This is not vitriol, it is fact.

  6. One doesn't need to be "perfect" in order to condemn things that are so obviously evil and horrendous that any normal, decent person of any religion or nationality should be able to condemn with clarity. We do not need to be "perfect" to "deserve" not to be murdered.
    We should obviously seek to improve ourselves and our society as much as we can, starting in each of our own homes. But this should be done intrinsically and not because horrible crimes become "understandable" if we aren't perfect or because we want so badly to rationalize them.

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  8. Salam, this is a very interesting article in light of the fact that as a shia muslim, we have many similar occasions of mourning. I believe that faith should be about embracing times of sadness as well as times of joy. In the first month of the Islamic calendar(Muharram) shia ithna ashari(twelver shia) muslims remember the battle that resulted in the oppressive killing and martyrdom of Imam Hussain(as), who is the youngest grandson of the Prophet Muhammad(sawas) and the third Imam of the ithne ashari shias. He rose up against the unjust ummayyad leader Yazid(la). It also commemorates the struggles and martyrdom of many of his relatives and supporters that fought with him on the 10th day of this month of Muharram, known as Ashura-10th day in Arabic. The moruning period continues for a further 40 days(40 days is the main mourning period after death according to the shia school of thought). Some continue this mourning period for a further 19 days, until the day of eid zahra(the eid named after the daughter of the prophet Fatima zahra-as), this is a day that is considered as a possible date for the birthday of the Muhammad(sawas), and is the day that the killers and oppressors of Imam Hussain(as) and his family were brought to justice, it is also the day that our 12th Imam(the current Imam, who is in occultation-ajtf) inherited the position and began his leadership. So, many shias see this as the day to begin celebrating and being happy again, just as the family of the prophet(sawas) did. Ofcourse these events didn't happen all in the same year, but they occured in the same part of the Islamic calender months in different years.

    As part of the commemoration of Muharram and ashura in particular, shias recite eulogies for the martyrs and those that were oppressed. Poetry is recited, and many cultures use models of coffins and standards, flags etc, to represent those slain and to remember them. We also sometimes perform passion plays for the same purpose. There is also the ritual beating of ones chest or head, in order to show solidarity with the martyrs and the oppressed. There is a controversy about the extent of such mourning, though personally I feel that it is a persons choice, so long as a person it does not endanger their life or anyone elses. Many mourners wear black throughout this time of year, not only as a sign of sadness, but also because black is seen as the colour of standing against oppression in the shia school of thought. This mourning is not only to send commiserations to the prophet Muhammad(sawas) and his family(as), nor is it only about being angry and sad about the actions of the so called 'muslims' that perpitrated this crime, it is also about celebrating and commemorating the heroic actions of Imam Hussain(as) and his helpers. It is about seeing what can be truly achieved when you love and know Allah(swt) so much that you are willing to sacrifice your own life, and that of your family and close friends in order to achieve justice in the world. It shows the battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil, that good will always triumph, even if in the outer way of 'loosing' a battle it looks like the enemies have won. The triumph of the soul over all adversity, and the fact that the martyrs of Karbala(southern Iraqi city), and the prisoners that were taken to Damascus(syria), maintained not only their belief in Allah(swt) but the fullest observance of his commands and teachings, even in this most trying of times.

    1. 2nd Part
      The heroics of many during that awful time are astounding, not just the men that were killed, but the women and children who were subsequently taken prisoner, and paraded through the streets like a common criminal. In partuicular,Imam Hussain's(as) sister Zaynab(as), who just like her mother Fatima(as)-daughter of Muhammad(sawas), was heroic and extremely calm and strong in the face of so much horrific and terriying incidents, and supported all of the women and her nephew(who was the next Imam after his father, and was saved from fighting due to sickness). To see or hear men and women sob and cry out with such sincerety is so moving, to see the faces light up with guidance and inspiration upon hearing the epitomy of good character of the martyrs and the oppressed, and the distain for the opposite, is so enlightening. Every year and even as I write and I am reminded, I cannot help but come to tears in rememberance. Many tell us that because this occurred around 1400 years ago, it doesn't matter any more. However it is more importent then ever, we use this peice of important history to remind ourselves not to align with the oppressors of the world, nor to become oppressors ourselves, whether over our own sould by stifiling it's growth with a lack of religion and spirituality in our lives, or over our families by either stopping their rights to worldly matters or spiritual counterparts, or over others by backbiting or slander, or by taking prisoners and killing unjustly, as is the case with ashura etc. It symbolises and represents the ultimate struggle in the heart of every human being, between good and evil. There are many lessons about how to win this battle, including the most obvious one, patience.

      Inshallah(hashem willing), next week I will be visiting Iraq to pray to Allah(swt) and remember those buried, as well as the many amazing incidents that took place, at the many shrines/holy sites and graves of important persons in Islam(in humanity too). I prayed to make this journey on so many occasions, and now that I am able to do so, I can hardly believe it. To see these places that I have heard and dreamt about on so many occasions will be truly moving, and to walk the land where so many of my Imams(by the way, sunnis use this title mainly for those who lead prayer, whereas shias tend to use it for only the 12 Imams, who are divinely appointed leaders and guides, sent to protect and continue to teach the truth of Islam after the death of Muhammad-sawas) as well as many of the prophets(we believe that many such as Noah-as, Adam-as, john the baptist-as etc are buried there and that thousands of prophets have prayed in Masjid kufa near the city of najaf where our first Imam, Ali-as is buried)

      Sorry for the long comment, but I would also like to add that although I have seen many chassidic Jews who come together with many muslims in their dislike of zionism(especially on Al quds day-the last friday of the month of Ramadhan) and join protests against Israel, it is so good to see a religious jew acknowleging and celebrating the many similarities and differences between Judaism and Islam. I have always felt that certain people have a vested interest in splitting up our communities, the fact that our religions have so many similarities is one of them. I would also like to ask whether you consider muslims as idol worshippers, and whether the disallowing of idolators into Israel as commanded in the 613 mitzvot, applies to muslims? I will assume from your views that I have read on this blog, you believe that we worship the same deity, even more then Christians(considering the emphasis in both Islam and judaism regrading monotheism). Is this view of muslims worshipping the same god as followers of judaism do, a common thing in the jewish community? Salam/shalom and many blessings for you and your family and I really hope that inshallah our communities can come together more often.