Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review July 15, 1999 / 2 Av, 5759

Jonathan Rosenblum

Abolish the Three Weeks?

RELIEF IS AT HAND for those suffering through the final and most intense stage of the Three Weeks of mourning over the destruction of the Temple.

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and de facto head of the world Conservative movement, has declared observance of the Three Weeks neither necessary nor desirable.

The immediate impact of Dr. Schorsch's pronouncement last year was not great. As he candidly admits, Conservative Jews who observe the laws of the Three Weeks are almost as rare as polar bears at the Equator. Nevertheless Dr. Schorsch's words are worthy of attention.

For one thing, they highlight the extent to which his supposedly halachic movement is driven by sociology. A generation ago, Marshall Sklare, a leading student of the Conservative movement, wrote, "[Conservative] rabbis now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a poll of their membership.''

Econophone If that laity knows at all of the restrictions of the Three Weeks, it rejects their observance. Either irreconcilable conflicts with personal lifestyle are cited: "What? Fast twice in three weeks. I'll be hungry.'' "Why did they have to put it during summer vacation?''

Or else individuals find that these observances don't "work'' for them.

They do not provide the feelings of spirituality that have become the sole measure of modern religious experience.

Here one would hope to see Conservative clergy providing some assistance.

They might explain to their congregants that while the restrictions of the Three Weeks, like most aspects of halacha, should arouse particular emotions, their observance is not contingent on those emotions. If the inner feelings are absent, more study, reflection, and introspection are required, not a spurning of the practices.

Let them teach how the nature of the spiritual universe changed with breaking of the first Tablets of the Law, which is the spiritual root of all the tragedies commemorated on the 17th of Tammuz. Let the congregation study the sin of the spies and the meaning of our ancestors' pointless crying on Tisha B'Av night, in order to consider how we are still guilty of the same failings and how we can correct them.

Instead we find only ratification of the congregants' lack of instant spiritual gratification. Choices based on lifestyle and/or ignorance are given post hoc theological justification.

Consider Dr. Schorsch's efforts in this regard. He would abolish the Three Weeks, he says, in order to give more importance to Tisha B'Av itself. Come again. Who attaches more importance to Tisha B'Av -- those who observe the restrictions of the Three Weeks or those who do not?

Every important achievement in life requires preparation. Can anyone imagine the U.S. women's soccer team skipping training to better concentrate on the World Cup itself?

It is the same in spiritual world. We spend the entire month of Elul in intense preparation for the High Holidays. And we count forty-nine days in eager anticipation of the receipt of Torah on Shavuos. Similarly, the ascending levels of mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av are preparation for the day.

The Jewish calendar, Dr. Schorsch claims, is too saturated with mourning, leading to a mentality of victimhood. Well, Dr. Schorsch is certainly right that the Jewish people today suffers from a mentality of victimhood. But it is primarily found among the liberal denominations -- i.e., those least likely to observe the Three Weeks. Holocaust remembrance and fear of anti-semitism have overwhelmed all other aspects of Jewish identity.

According to the American Jewish Committee's most recent annual study, 98% of American Jews view Holocaust Remembrance as important to their Jewish identity. By contrast, only 15% view religious observance as important.

The seven weeks leading up to Shavuos and the Three Weeks culminating in Tisha B'Av are not periods for cultivating hatred of the gentile nations, as Dr. Schorsch seems to believe. The mourning practices observed during the former relate to the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva, which were a direct consequence of their failure to properly honor one another.

And even during the Three Weeks, which commemorate the destruction of the Temple, we do not concern ourselves with long gone oppressors, who, in the words of the prophet, were nothing more than the rod of G-d's chastisement. Our service during the Three Weeks focuses on the collective failings for which the Temple was destroyed and has yet to be rebuilt.

Thus, this coming week 30,000 Jews in nearly 200 communities around America will watch a video produced by the Chafetz Chaim Heritage Foundation on some aspect of improper speech. And over 200 classes will be given in forty locales around Jerusalem this coming Sunday on the subject of Kavod HaAdam (the dignity of man). More than 20,000 men, women, and children will participate in one or more classes and the night's speeches at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Are such efforts to improve our own behavior really "psychologically damaging,'' as Dr. Schorsch describes this period of mourning?

Truth be told, the Three Weeks don't "work'' for many Orthodox Jews either. A Jew in his seventies once told me that when he was a boy in Antwerp one did not see a Jew smiling during this whole period. Such internalization is far rarer today. Many of us who observe all the restrictions of the Three Weeks do not really feel the absence of the Temple. We have lived for so long in a world devoid of that degree of sanctity that we have no comprehension of what was lost. Even worse, we cannot conceive of how that level of holiness could once again become part of our world.

But if we only dimly feel the loss of the Temple, we are nevertheless acutely aware of the deadness of our hearts and how far our outward mourning is from reflecting our inner feelings.

For that awareness we truly mourn.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum