Surely this past Sabbath’s sermons have ringed out in unison, as we approach the Ninth of Av: We lament the "sinat chinam," the baseless hatred, and hope that perhaps our stiff-necked people can unite over a simple common wish for peace among brethren. How many religious classes have we sat in, how many lectures and blog posts decry our own inner turmoil as a people: "It was baseless hatred for which our Temple was destroyed – and it will be in the merit of unconditional love that it will be rebuilt.”
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We nod, vigorously, yes, yes, we ought to be better unified. But moments later, surely the religious person will continue to glare at the woman in a sleeveless dress, at the lone driver down a Jerusalem street on a Saturday afternoon; surely the secular person will continue insisting on the plague that is Orthodoxy, how such and such old neighborhood is now entirely black, a cult of corrupt fanatics slowly taking over.
More and more I find myself, like many of my peers, stuck between two worlds – if you forgive the cliche. In the midst of the shocking headlines emerging from Israel, stories of fanatics with glazed-over eyes (we call them "peasants" in Russian) and the images of ‘Hardakim’ posters, we are afraid to identify with anything too Orthodox. If this is what Torah Judaism is, if this is the world our teachers come from, surely we want nothing to do with it.
On a previous trip to Israel, I had spent a week in Jerusalem’s Haredi circles, evenings at local women’s lectures, conversations with rabbis and rebbetzins, navigating shidduch dates and phone calls from matchmakers – and I returned to New York frustrated by the narrow-mindedness, the fear of the neighbors, the demonization of the secular. I noticed that at Sabbath meals, I ended up on the men’s side of the table, listening and occasionally joining into the political debates; the women on the other side of me discussed wig styles, childcare, an upcoming wedding.
And then, when I venture Outside, I emerge just as frustrated. Later, on another trip to Israel, I decide to spend most of my time in secular circles. I only realize how stressed I had been there, when I find myself later at a Haredi rabbi’s Sabbath table and suddenly can breathe freely, feel myself. There is no more prodding, no more playing ‘ambassador’, no more sneering jokes at my long sleeves: “Nu, where are your seven children? Will your religious husband approve of you traveling all alone like this? Will you shave your beautiful hair off to wear a wig, rebbetzin?”
And how many times I’m told, informed, by omniscient secular friends that as an Orthodox woman, I’m an object – not a rational being. “Don’t you feel oppressed anyways?” A (secular, male) colleague insists to me one evening at a cafe. “Look at you, a twenty-one-year-old girl, you have no idea what you’re missing out on in life – and instead, you’ve been made into an object by rabbis. Ancient rabbis!”
I sigh, think how utterly boring this conversation has become, and begin to say that I don’t feel oppressed, not by the religion itself at least, that there are reasons why I choose this – but I notice he’s not listening to me anymore, his eyes are following the Russian waitress’s long legs. “Damn this country has beautiful women,” he whispers.
So who is objectifying, the rabbi who tells me to cover myself from the eyes of men, or the secular colleague who insists on commenting on my appearance before commenting on my character? Tell me, where am I to go, of the two? And what about the left-leaning intellectual, who loves to joke about wandering into Jerusalem’s Arab and Haredi neighborhoods, find them “equally disgusting and equally terrifying” – is this truly Israel’s progressive elite?
Chauvinism on all sides, bigotry on all sides – I tried to escape associations with religious zealots, but the culture of tolerance I naively expected to find in the secular world has been evasive, the moment someone realizes I’m Orthodox. It was this which haunted me as I boarded a flight back to New York: I wondered where one could find reprieve, where in this sweltering country one can find a quiet place to simply exist.
Tribe against tribe
It’s almost biblical: the way we retreat behind our walls, praying that our children are not lured over to the other side. It’s just as the Torah emphasizes the Other, the Egyptian, the Canaanite, the endless commandments to "not follow in their ways." We are taught to look at the ways of the Other in order to find therein our own counter-identity – and here we are, thousands of years later, applying that same method, only against each other. Tribe against tribe, we gather our flags and raise our spears.
And while the Sages explain the destruction of the Temple as a punishment for this very intolerance, they also consider the history of the Ninth of Av to have begun long before any Temple stood – and this year, it’s this part of the story which I find especially compelling.
It begins in a desert encampment – the spies have returned from scouting out the Land of Canaan and regale the Israelite men with stories of the land they had seen: the giants who live there, a hostile land which devours its own people. “Let us return to Egypt!” the Israelites cry out.
According to the Talmud, the sin of the spies took place on the Ninth of Av. The Book of the Zohar rushes to add that the spies themselves were holy men – tribal leaders and scholars, respected men in the community, who had not intended to slander our Land. Ah, it wasn't that they hated our mountains or springs, heaven forbid, but rather, they knew that upon entering the Land, they would lose the positions of power they had had in the desert: they would have to step aside for men who knew the taste of the earth, for warriors and farmers rather than the Diaspora leaders they had needed in Egypt.
The thought of relinquishing power proves to be too terrifying; the spies thus return with horrific reports of the Land and create chaos. The nation’s dream of an ideal homeland is now shattered, tainted with weakness and with fear of the unknown.
And it’s here that the root of the tragedy lies, in broken leadership; it’s the Spies’ greed for power which destroys the people’s collective vision. The Land is now no longer promised, but rather cursed. Once there is no longer a shared ideal, any fragile promise of unity is broken as well.
Upon hearing the Spies’ report, “the entire congregation lifted up its voice and they cried; and the people wept that night.” For this, the Israelites are punished: those who cried over the report would die in the desert, never to enter the Land. The Sages explain that it was then that God said, "Tonight [on the Ninth of Av] you have cried in vain; I will give you a reason to cry for generations." And for this, according to the Talmudic Sages – perhaps grappling for answers as they mourned Jerusalem, and unperturbed by a vengeful and merciless God – the Ninth of Av is eternally cursed.
And so, in 2013, as sunset grows close on the Ninth of Av, we lower ourselves to the floor and turn to eat a pre-fast meal of hard-boiled eggs and ash. Today we time travel. We spend the evening in our dimmed synagogues listening to the chanting of Eichah (Lamentations) and in the morning, we wake up and sense something hushed about the day.
We fast and refrain from work, forbidden from even the intellectual pleasures of Torah study: a day of shivah in which our limbs grow weak and our hearts heavy. We have wiped the pencil off our eyes, taken off our jewelry, sit barefoot with our children and tell them stories: a besieged city, shackled slaves, daughters of Zion in sackcloth, and then more stories, the Crusades, the Torquemadas, the Eichmanns.
Our joint commemoration of these events is not random, nor simply convenient. As traditionalists – or perhaps simply lovers of the literary, a people which tirelessly seeks themes and motifs – we delicately tie each event to the next, and rather than simply mourn, we look inwards. We relate each tragedy to those first moments of slander of our Land, to a group of men blinded by power, to a people who chose to cry rather than to step forward, rather than to express faith in a shared vision and in each other.
"Over these, I weep," so Zion declares in Lamentations.
"My children," she says, "have become forlorn."
Perhaps then we were forlorn to Zion – alas, today, we’ve become forlorn to each other.