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A Different Meaning of Meaning
A Facebook friend of mine, Seth Chalmer, wrote a post a few years ago about Tisha B'Av which I found very insightful, and helpful for people who have a hard time with finding meaning in Tisha B'Av or other aspects of Judaism. With his permission, I'm sharing it here:
Tomorrow lots of observant Jews will ask one another, "Did you have a meaningful fast?" Or (if they laudably don't assume everyone fasts, since you never know who has a medical issue or just struggles with that observance) they may ask, "Did you have a meaningful Tisha B'Av?"
Asking any individual Jew this question, in either formulation, is based on an interesting assumption. The assumption: that having a meaningful personal experience is highly relevant to Tisha B'Av.
Now, on a surface level, the assumption is obviously true. Rabbinic sources extensively discuss how the day's restrictions and observances are intended to give us the experience of mourning. (Don't study Torah, it will make you happy, etc.) But look past that for a moment to reflect: if the personal experience were really the point, shouldn't the halakhic details be subverted to the individual's personality and the things that would prompt mourning in her?
I am one of countless Jews for whom the restrictions of Tisha B'Av are very poorly designed, if the point is to prompt mourning. Fasting doesn't make me feel sad at all; it makes me feel thirsty, headachy, very fatigued, and too distracted to think or feel much of anything. Certainly it doesn't increase my sensitivity about hunger, or make me feel empathetic. I feel *least* empathetic when hangry. And not wearing leather shoes has, I promise you, no effect on my mood.
Now, can I work myself up into sadness on Tisha B'Av? Sure. I can think hard about sad things. But the point is, my ability to do so is not enhanced or empowered, and probably actually lessened, by the observances of the day.
So am I against these observances? Do I chafe at them? Do I reinterpret them or customize them to maximize my own personal experience?
Because that's not the main point. It's an auxiliary point, it has value, but it's not the true point. We may connect Tisha B'Av to our personal tragedies, but the essence of the day is in relation to *national* Jewish tragedies. That's why we all do this on the same day together; that's why we keep on obeying rules about leather shoes that don't make any sense to our generation given advances in modern footwear; that's why I fast even though I'm not one of the Jews for whom that feels sad or empathy-enhancing. That's why I take the rabbinic literature (and my rabbis at shul) with a hefty dash of salt when they talk about how the laws of Tisha B'Av are supposed to make us feel. They're talking, I think, about our feelings collectively, corporately, not about the individual in himself. And if you want proof, just ask your rabbi if you can observe Tisha B'Av on a different day, or with a different set of restrictions, to meet your individual needs.
And that's also why it feels so odd to me when people ask whether I had a meaningful Tisha B'Av. The answer is: *in the experiencing of it*, not at all! I had a really unpleasant day and not even in any form that was sad, reflective, emotionally intense, or particularly mindful in any way. But if I just say that, it sounds like I don't value the day, and I truly do. I value it before I do it; I value it after I have done it; I value it while I muddle through it; I value it not for its immediate experiential value but the same way I value the existence of Pesach even in November. I value Tisha B'Av being observed by Jews worldwide and I value being a part of that. Because I value the vast, beautiful, complex, intergenerational, national / tribal / extended family art project that is Judaism, altogether.
I have been completely in love with that art project for a dozen years now and my passion has not abated. And I hear this question about having a personal experience on any given holiday and I think: what, isn't just being part of this incredible production meaning enough? I should expect myself to personally "have a meaningful day" as if the existence of the meaning depended on my experiencing it? As if it were possible to do it without it being meaningful? The day was already phenomenally meaningful whether I paid any attention to that meaning or not. It would be fragile meaning indeed if it depended on my mental state. Its meaning transcends me and my experience. I am a cell in the body of the people Israel; observing Tisha B'Av I put national mourning into my body, I make it physically real. That's more impressive to me than making it emotionally real. Combined with other Jews everywhere we make the day remarkably physically different. That's a massively powerful project no matter what any one of us experiences inwardly.
Personal emotional meaning I actually know how to do for myself, thank you very much. And if that's my goal, then frankly I can do it a lot better than any Jewish holiday can provide. I can listen to the right song, at the right time, walk in the right kind of place, whatever. All customized for me. If Judaism presents itself as a source of *personal, individual* meaning, then it will always lose. Every time. It loses for me, and I'm a self-selected observant Jew. (How much more so will it lose for secular people.) If personal experience were the heart of the offer, I for one would turn Tisha B'Av down. And most of the rest of the Jewish year too. (Okay, Shabbos and Sukkos I'd keep.)
But as part of the whole sweep of observant Jewish life, a theatrical production on a global set and a runtime of millennia, with all my ancestors, contemporary fellow Jews, and descendants all in the ensemble, and with the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe as an audience/director/designer/co-star/protagonist/antagonist/lover? That I can't find anywhere else. That, and only that, keeps me coming back, and gladly. That's enough, much more than enough, to keep me fasting every Tisha B'Av.
So, to answer your question: yes, of course I "had" an inherently meaningful Tisha B'Av.
And so did everyone else, whether they knew it or not.