Tisha Be’Av: A Failed Holiday?

If the purpose of Tisha Be’Av is to warn us about the dangers of internecine hatred, it has failed miserably.

The year 403 BCE was momentous for the city-state of Athens. In the previous years, a bloody civil war had devastated the city and caused it to fall under the yoke of its arch-rival, Sparta. Now, the leaders of the polis were trying to cobble the pieces of their society together and rebuild the ancient glory of the city. The former opposing sides were looking for vengeance and hostility still remained. So the leaders had an innovative idea: they proposed that all the citizens swear an “oath to forget”. Nobody should remember the wrongs inflicted upon them by their fellow citizens; the horrors of the civil war were to be completely forgotten. Thus was born the notion of amnesty (from the Greek a-mnestos, or, “not remembering”. It shares that origin with the word “amnesia”. Amnesty spreads out a blanket of forgetfulness over a society’s internal strife so as to rebuild trust.

That didn’t work out well for Athens, however. Yes, the amnesty ushered in a short period of peace and prosperity, but forgetting the hatreds of the past seem only to have made room for new enmities. Socrates, for example, fell prey to the new intolerance, and the war against Sparta and Corinth soon resumed. A few decades later, the Macedonian kings Philip and his son Alexander ended Athenian independence for good.

Judaism treats the memory of internal strife quite differently. Our civil wars are not to be forgotten like the Athenians’, but seared into our collective memory as a warning of the dangers of hatred between Jews. This is particularly true on the holiday of Tisha Be’Av, which commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of our two thousand years of exile.

The Jewish sources make sure we know that the destruction and the consequent millennia of suffering and persecution were caused by sin’at chinam, gratuitous hatred. We highlight those memories with a three week period of mourning that culminates in a sad day of fasting, lamentation, and prayer. Not only the Talmud, but also secular Jewish sources like the historian Josephus, describe in gory detail how the revolt against the Romans that ended with Jerusalem’s destruction was, in fact, a civil war among Jews, fueled by the extremism of zealots. These sources also remind us of a lesser-known historical fact: when the Romans originally entered Judea, they were invited by the two factions of a Hasmonean civil war who wanted their support against the internal enemy. You can guess who won that civil war: the Romans, who used the opportunity to conquer the country and make it into a protectorate and, later, a province.

My Jewish pride, of course, wants me to say that our approach to the memory of civil strife is far better than that of the Athenians. After all, if you don’t want to repeat your past, you shouldn’t erase it but remember it obsessively. Don’t we all know by heart the quote by George Santayana? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But it’s time to be honest: we haven’t had much more success than the Athenians. If the purpose of Tisha Be’Av is to warn us about the dangers of internecine hatred, it has failed miserably.

Here I am, for the umpteenth time, writing about the dangers of sin’at chinam and intolerance in the Jewish world. Probably next year I’ll have reason to write again lamenting the incivility, the polarization, and the demonization in the Jewish community and Israel. These traits and patterns become ever more pronounced, more pernicious, and more entrenched. Those who don’t live up to some arbitrary standard of “correct opinions” are attacked, trolled, and demonized as a matter of course. We already take name-calling and ad hominem attacks as a given. The situation today is worse than it was last year, and next year’s will probably be worse than today’s.

It’s tempting to blame the context. True, we live with a zeitgeist of hatred and intolerance. Just recently, a president tweeted a clip depicting him physically attacking a news network, and a comedian tweeted a picture of herself holding that president’s severed head. Certainly the political climate and the legitimation of incivility from the top are not harbingers of harmony in the Jewish community. But that’s really a paltry excuse. While Judaism is arguably the most tolerant of cultures (one only needs to look at the Talmud to see the respect with which all opinions are treated), we Jews seem to have a recessive gene of internal strife. It may skip a generation or two, but it never fails to come back. Twitter wasn’t around when Hasidim and Misnagdim denounced each other to the czarist police, and political polarization wasn’t a factor when Maimonides was excommunicated. (Yes, he was. Later, the ban was rescinded.)

So why is it that we fail to internalize the message of Tisha Be’av? Why has this holiday of introspection become an empty ritual, devoid of true self-criticism? And, most importantly, what can we do to change?

Maybe we need to realize that civility and respect are not only ideas but habits. Like other habits—such as going to the gym or eating a heathy diet—there’s a gap between believing an idea and actually doing it. Incivility has become a habit, and neuroscientists tell us that the only way to eradicate one habit is by replacing it with another. Running can replace smoking; meditation can replace drinking.

Therefore, on Tisha Be’Av, it isn’t enough to rail against sin’at chinam. Specific, repetitive, codified acts of respect will be needed to replace the habits of ugliness, demonization, and exclusion.

Researchers disagree on exactly how much repetition one needs in order for a new habit to “stick”, but they all agree that it’s a lot. They also agree that it starts with small steps, and that it’s important to accumulate small wins.

Seeing civility as a habit to be built rather than an idea to espouse implies that we, as a community, need to create specific practices of respect, and stick with them in the long run. There, too, our tradition offers us some ideas.  Jewish Law establishes specific codes of derech eretz—meaning (loosely) common decency. The Mussar movement has created specific discipline programs for people to follow in order to become more mentschlech. As soon as we want to get really serious about sin’at chinam, communal leaders and institutions will adapt these to create programs and policies, and make a hard push to make them facts on the ground.

For now, though, we’re still not serious. We fast (or we don’t), we cry about conflict in the Jewish world, and then we go right back to business as usual.

But we should get serious, in ways that change our community throughout the year—not just for three slow summer weeks. We have become used to calling every problem we face an “existential threat”, and I have often criticized that. In the case of internal strife, however, we have sound historical reason to be catastrophists. That’s what’s Tisha Be’Av has tried to tell us—so far without much success.

Whether Tisha Be’Av is a failed holiday or not depends on us. Are we, as funders and communal leaders, investing in creating habits of respect—even for those who dissent from the community’s consensus? Will we have the stamina and courage to stick with those habits for as long as it takes? Will we be role models of civility and moderation, or will we be among the demonizers and excluders?

On this sad holiday we read from the heartbreaking Book of Lamentations. We hear Jerusalem crying for her destruction, inconsolable in the destitution and loneliness that sin’at chinam brought about. Those lamentations should sound to us like alarms, warning us of an imminent and terrible danger. They should also, and above all, be a call for sustained, habitual, systematic action.  The stakes are high and we have two thousand years of exile to prove it.