Zacharia, God and Berl Katznelson on Tisha B’Av

by David J. Steiner

Making decisions about educational approaches to Tisha B’Av is epistemological by nature. Our world view guides the way we approach the curriculum. Do we see ourselves as a people living in exile or as a sovereign and empowered people among the comity of nations? Should we still mourn when we are happy with where we are today?

As educators, we always have to teach with ends in mind, because teaching is an art and skill of means. The question this poses for all teachers is whether the ends justify the means or whether the means must be consistent with the ends. This is not an easy question. I still debate it in my head with my teacher, Rabbi-Dr. Donniel Hartman, who has implored me to take a pragmatic approach because, in his view, means are usually inconsistent with ends in the real world. I respectfully disagree because I believe that, as a teacher, I do not have the leisure to despair. Education is not about preparing students for the world that is but for the world as we would like it to be. This is what has occupied my mind since I entered the three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av in preparation for this traditional day of mourning.

Ironically, even in the time of the Prophet Zacharia – during the rule of King Darius – the commemoration day for the fall of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem was controversial. Indeed, this inquiry was posed to the priests of the House of the LORD and to the prophets, “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” (Zacharia 7:3). The Divine response, “Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; and do not plot evil against one another….”(Zacharia 7:9).

Of interest, and important in this response, is the fact that God avoids the question and goes directly to the end sought by the Tisha B’Av commemoration. God later continues, “Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate.” (Zacharia 8:16-17). The self-denial and mourning attendant in Tisha B’Av, thus, are merely means to an end. Abstinence is not the goal – it is a means. Assuming that to be so, how should I behave in preparation for and in commemoration of the ninth day of the month of Av, when our Temples were destroyed, marking the end of our independence as a nation?

When I have trouble coming to conclusions on my own, I often seek counsel from the elders who live within me through their texts and the teachings that brought them. One of these elders is Berl Katznelson, the famous socialist-Zionist leader who published the Devar newspaper and helped establish Kupat Cholim, the Israeli-socialized medical system. Berl, as he is affectionately known, wrote in his essay, “Tradition and Revolution” (1935):

“I am not setting specific rules as to the form our holidays should assume. Suitable forms will grow from a living feeling within the heart and an upright and independent spirit. However, I want to refute the opinion which asserts: “Certainly, we should not forget Tisha B’Av, but a nation which is returning to rebuild its home now has to turn the day of mourning into a festive holiday.””

Berl, unlike many of his peers who desperately wanted to reject traditional Judaism, believed that we must continue the mournful commemorations and never forget “the most fearful day in our destiny – the day of our destruction.” But even Berl had an end in mind. He believed that we should remember “until all of our exile has ended.”

I’m not sure that Berl would call the modern Jewish communities of the western world a forced exile. I suspect Berl’s “end” was not the end God had in mind. I conclude this because, when I return to Zacharia, he prophecies the exact goal of the Divine. “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.” (Zacharia 8:4-5). In other words, no segregation at the Kotel or on buses or schools, (and we should make time for our children to play). God also wants our fast days to become “occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zacharia 8:19).

Are we there yet? Have we achieved our goals? Have the means served their purpose? I submit that these are important questions to ponder during the three weeks that precede Tisha B’Av. And if we find that we haven’t achieved our goals, we should take collective account of ourselves and ask whether our means are serving our ends. Zacharia, God and Berl Katznelson are among the many we can turn to in this important mission, but ultimately we need to ask ourselves: who do we want to be? How shall we get there? And what kind of discourse do we need to engage in and educate toward to achieve the goals we set in the world as a sovereign, responsible and ethical people?

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.