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Why fast?


We have just ended a period in the Jewish tradition called “The Three Weeks” of mourning for our own disastrous ethical and political mistakes of the past. For thinking we can arrogantly control every aspect of our own destiny with no regard to external pressure or objective standards. At least we do not blame others for our misfortunes.

There are many people who argue that the fast of Tisha B’Av is redundant and should be cancelled. It is true that it commemorates two massive destructions of Jerusalem, the Temple, and our sovereign states. But those are historical events, not timeless spiritual ones of self-fulfillment, atonement, and forgiveness. Times change. Jerusalem today is, if anything, overbuilt and certainly not desolate. The Temple is indeed still destroyed, and true, we are so divided amongst ourselves that we cannot even agree on whether we actually want one, how to build it, who will run it, or whether we actually could, if we did, or whether we must wait for God to do it. But we have sovereignty over our own land. And even if we have no King David, I’m not at all convinced that monarchy is the answer to Israel’s governmental problems anyway.

So why fast on Tisha B’Av, or on any of the other, minor fasts that are still in the calendar? As Zecharia 8:19 says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall become times of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah; therefore love truth and peace.”

Ah, you see, there’s the answer in the codicil–truth and peace. And as yet we have neither.

Here is a quote from the Talmud, Sotah 49b:

“In the lead up to the Messiah, arrogance will spread and honor decrease…amongst scholars there will be immorality and no one will dare to rebuke them. Wisdom will degenerate and good men despised. Truth will be rare…the face of the generation will be like that of a dog.”

Yes, like a dog. That’s how I feel when I see rabbis carted off in handcuffs. Outwardly religious or simply overtly Jewish men arraigned for corruption, money laundering, and dishonesty. And it keeps on happening year after year, sect after sect, community after community, country after country, and there is no let up. It is embarrassing when men who should know better behave like dogs.

I only hope the Mishna will be right that this is indeed a sign that God will intervene, because frankly none of our religious leaders seems capable of stopping it. Oh yes, they will excoriate us for eating the wrong food, for wearing short sleeves, for using teabags on the Sabbath, or making the wrong blessing. They will ban the use of computers, cell phones, and television, but remain silent on corruption and deceit. Some will even argue that Laws of the Land are not sacrosanct, and they will praise and honor the criminals who subsequently pass on chunks of their illegal booty to religious institutions.

That is why I fast on the Ninth of Av. Because when I read the first chapter of Isaiah that is the haftarah on the Shabbat beforehand, and I read the words he used of his generation, I realize we have not changed in nearly 3,000 years. His words still accurately and correctly apply to swathes of Jewish life today. Last week, corruption once again, in New Jersey in the USA. Rabbis involved. It makes no difference if corrupt politicians outnumbered them. It is irrelevant if others are more corrupt than we are. Should we judge ourselves by scum or pure water? I fast for my inability to make our own world a better place. I fast for the desecration of God’s name WE are guilty of. I fast because we have not learnt. Because we make money our god, and because not one of the so-called Great Rabbis of our generation comes out publicly and condemns corruption the way they do any petty minor infringement of their own political and social standards.

Think of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, Isaiah makes the comparison. The Torah in Genesis (13:13) says, “And the men of Sodom were evil sinners to God exceedingly.” But if you look carefully at the traditional punctuation, there is a comma between “sinners” and “to God exceedingly”. I wish I knew who first made the point that the verse, if read according to its punctuation, really says, “And the men of Sodom were evil sinners,” take a deep breath, “[But with regard] to God [they were] exceedingly [pious]!” That is how it is nowadays. All outwardly holy and pious, but inwardly rotten to the core.

There’s another crucial line in the first chapter of Isaiah. “Had it not been for a tiny minority, we would be no better than Sodom and comparable to Gomorrah.” Thank goodness for the tiny minority. But sadly, it is all but silent. And for as long as this is the situation, Tisha B’Av remains as relevant as ever. Because we are in danger of destroying ourselves once again, if not physically then certainly morally.

17 thoughts on “Why fast?

  1. There seems to be no shame on the part of these rabbonim and their cohorts. How can they possibly think they are obeying God's laws? Do they have no moral compass?

    Once again, Jeremy, your overview is totally accurate BUT what can the ordinary Jew do in the face of such pig ignorance and arrogance (and I use the words advisedly)?

    Keep on with the good work; your erudition seems the only hope we have.

  2. I can disagree with none of this.

    However, I think that there are issues overriding this. We believe in an abstraction called Mashiach. I say abstraction because, in spite of all the comment upon this concept, I defy any of our current leadership to explain in simple and clear terms what we wait for and how we bring this about.

    In relation to the "Dvarim" that give their name to last week's sidra, commentaries stress that these are words of rebuke – because sidra Dvarim always falls before 9 Av. Yet, aside from the description of the failure of the Spies, last week's sidra is less replete with open rebuke than several that follow it. In fact, to me, what links this most with 9 Av are two positive phenomena in the discourse. First, there is the development of a philosophy of how Israel relates to other nations. For 40 years the Israelites lived in a splendid desert isolation, with no need for contact with outsiders and thus, no basis for outward national identity. Now, coming into the Land, where some nations are their enemies but others are not to be interfered with, they need one and fast. Secondly, they need to understand that the victories over Og and Sichon were as much providential as military; and it follows that the conquest of Canaan would be providential too. In a purely military sense, the Spies were right: an army of the field can't capture and overthrow walled cities. But, which is critical, and which only Joshua and Kalev appreciated, this ignored the providential aspect completely.

    These two themes, national identity and providential circumstance, underpin Moses' opening remarks in Dvarim, and it is the fracture of the former and the disavowal of the latter which cost us two Temples and condemns us to our current state of affairs.

    The difficulty, of course, is that even though we have a State of Israel, and can pin a degree of national identity to this if we wish, it is not possible (not realistic) in the state of current world affairs to try to regulate Israel in a providential way. Providence would arguably suggest that Israel vanquishes its political and military enemies, slays the inhabitants of cities which are on its providential territory as Joshua and the Israelites of old were commanded to do, and ignores what the rest of the world might think about this. Somehow, we know that this cannot be done. More than that, there is real pressure on modern Israel to cede territory to Palestinian self-rule, and the ddebate (whether we like it or not) is largely not about whether this should happen but about when and how much. Even the fact that Israel has survived 61 years and is economically and militarily strong in the face of harsh and implacable enemies does not, it would seem, provide Israelis or Jews worldwide with an uncontested national certainty.

    Moses offered us outward national identity and the promise of providential support. We have lost contact with both of these pillars. We may be free people, by and large, and in better economic shape than generations before us, but we are trapped, cut off from this promise, and that, it seems to me, is why 9 Av continus to be our fast day.

  3. Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    I would like to respond but my response is quite long. So I am breaking it up into multiple comments.
    Thank you

    Thank you for your beautiful words, which are always spoken from the heart. But, please don’t be surprised when I say that I fundamentally disagree

    Let’s take an analytical approach: despite having fasted for 2000 years since the destruction of the second temple, we still have, apparently, deteriorated in all aspects of our day to day lives. So I would argue if during the “intervention period”, i.e. fasting, we have seen continuing declines in outcome, then this should be HARD proof for adopting another approach. I am thankful that the modern methods of research have recognized this critical point; otherwise, we would still be chanting prayers and wearing amulets rather than take PENICILLIN when we get sick

    The fact is that we are living in a fundamentally improved Jewish world than even 60 years ago. And that is because a group of Jews, labeled very negatively as Zionists, who did NOT fast BUT took it upon themselves to act and to push for the recreation of a Jewish homeland. It is exactly when the Jews of the world recognized that fasting does not produce results that finally, action was taken and results were evident.

    In terms of scripture and the prophets, then let me say the following:

    1) We do have, for all intents and purposes, a reestablished monarchy. We have a sovereign leader who is master of the treasury and army. We happen to call him (or her) a prime minister. However, unlike monarchies of Israel past, we have the power to challenge this monarch and PEACEFULLY depose him or her every 3 to 4 years. And despite what people will say about governmental responsibility, there IS a mechanism for making our leaders take responsibility for their actions: it is called voting !!
    2) The Jews of Yemen and Ethiopia called the planes flying overhead, bearing the magen david adom, “kenfei nesharim”. I would hope that no one really expected mutated eagles, each the size of Boeing 747s to be the actual conduit for our return to Israel. Admittedly, it would have been cool if Power Ranger Zords were the vehicles of our return. And Zords were the creation of an Israeli imagination. So, I think overall, we can check that one off in terms of “fulfillment of prophecy”
    3) The oft stated message of “face of dogs” is in my opinion, improperly understood. The true message of this statement is that in the time of redemption we will RECOGNIZE that our leaders are NOT saints and in fact are dogs. 30 years ago, Moshe Dayan was prince of Israel. Today, despite his accomplishments, we would openly challenge him as being a womanizer and driven heavily by personal goals. No longer do we live in a time when Rabbis are above reproach JUST because they put on tfillin and wear long black robes. Thank G-d, that we finally live in a period where young children can openly challenge their parents for sexual and physical abuse. Many leaders of the past 2000 years have been dogs but for the first time, we are requiring them to clean up after their own SHIT !! Once again, I see redemption rather than doom

  4. In general, the argument to fast ONE specific day as a marker of our troubles seriously concerns me. If we truly fast for all the continuing tragedies that we face, then we should be in a constant state of mourning and gloom. During a war that threatens the existence of our people, there are not days that we declare as gloomy and others that are happy. To fast ONE day and then say “we are covered” almost mocks the tremendously heavy message that the three weeks are meant to remind us of.

    It is my HUMBLE opinion that fasting is truly a relic of a time when people had no effective way to deal with their surroundings. Fasting is the means of a poor man to sanctify his hunger. But the real challenge comes when the poor man becomes rich and has food every day. He could continue to fast as a plea to G-d to bring wealth to all of his brethren. OR he could use his new found wealth to lend people money and invest in development and to CREATE a paradise on this world. And if in the process of all of this he “forgets” to fast, does anyone see this as a problem ?

    The argument is made that without the three weeks we would have forgotten how important Israel is to us. PLEASE !!!! Had all the Jews in 1939 been living and prospering in the US, the urgency of the reestablishment of Israel would NEVER have been felt. It wasn’t fasting that made people realize that we must have Israel back – it was the desperate need to find a solution for the mass of Jews seeking a homeland. And I find it hard to believe that it is ONLY because of Tisha B’av that someone thought to say “hey, let’s have the Jewish homeland be in Israel (rather than Uganda)”.

    Fasting is an outdated pagan ritual just as is sacrificing innocent animals. Judaism is meant to elevate these practices into valuable experiences that ULTIMATELY are meant to positively affect human behavior. Sacrifices are meant to remind us to be thankful. Fasting is meant to remind us of past tragedies. But considering that today, we would probably be horrified by Kohanim standing ankle high in blood, and that today the most solemn day of the year is MEMORIAL day (without any fast), I think FINALLY we have outgrown these specific rituals.

  5. Interestingly, the Rambam states that the reestablishment of the third temple will only have the TAMID sacrifice bought from the machzit shekel. The machzit is a sign of unity of the Jewish people – something each and every Jew contributes to equally. I would like to think that the Rambam understood long ago that the meaning of our rituals MUST overcome the details of those rituals if we are every to MATURE into a proper G-d fearing nation.

    I see as plainly as anything that we are living in the time of redemption exactly as described by the prophets. And I thank G-d for having been born into this time period. I can think of no other time in the past I would rather live in. Unfortunately, so many people who sit and cry on Tisha B’av are blinded by their tears so much so that they cannot realize the gifts we have been given. I feel this SO strongly that I think it is an INSULT to G-d that we continue to fast on Tisha B’av as if nothing has changed. I think that redemption will be complete when we simply declare it to be so.

    Let all the sinners, who think that black coats and kippot protect them from their own evil, be run out of their homes in chains

    Let all those in power who forget their responsibility to the people be cast out

    Let all those, who think that passivity will answer the needs of the people, be sequestered into their own worlds so that the others WHO ACT can freely do the work that is needed

    The fast is dead. Long live the redemption

  6. Nahum:
    Controversial as your views are, I actually agree with the spirit which recalls the great Rav Avraham Isaac Kook zl in its radical pro-Zionist position. Nowadays, sadly, it is out of fashion in many religious circles, which only reinforces my view that they have almost all gone mad.

    I am so grateful to you for posting your views here. It is so important to have contrarian voices, just as it is also important to value, reinterpret, and practice tradition (though of course in medicine that might not always apply!).

    Yes, there are so many different explanations of Penei HaDor Kipnei Hakelev (the Talmudic phrase that things have sunk to their lowest level when the generation looks like dog!). One of my favourites is that a dog runs ahead and always looks back to see if its master is following. So too (what with opinion polls, etc.) our leaders now are always looking back to see what the public wants instead of giving a lead!!!


  7. Nahum:
    Still, fasting CAN be both healthy and a spiritual discipline, otherwise we would not have been given Yom Kippur. But I agree, after the grief over the Temple died down it was the Medieval masochists who really went in for the fasting craze. The proof is that the prophets were quite eager to see the fast days turned into celebrations.

    I confess that I do fast of Tisha B'Av very largely because most of the time I take a very lenient position on halacha, so that every now and again I like to be strict just to prove to myself I am not just a self-indulgent sybarite! But I have in previous blogs excoriated fasting as a pointless exercise in religious oneupmanship, so I cant claim to be entirely consistent.

    One could also argue that it's an antidote to excessive indulgence and materialism. And what with cosmetic fasting and dieting, etc., it does seem that fasting has its supporters nothing to do with religion.

  8. Nahum:
    As for Rambam and the Talmid sacrifices, you are half right; that was in reference to public sacrifices, but if the Temple were rebuilt (and frankly I can't see us agreeing on an architect, let alone who the High Priest would be, so I'm not holding my breath) we would still bring Shelamim, peace offerings, as individuals. I like this if for no other reason than that Shelamim could be vegetarian!!! And, of course, reminds us of good interpersonal relations!

    But looking back on your posts the only real gripe I have is your rather excessive admiration for politicians! Like dirty nappies (diapers), they need changing regularly!

  9. Daniel:
    Excellent point. I would only add that the important exhortation in Chapter 4 is one of the most significant and yet most ignored parts of the Torah:

    5. Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to take possession of it.
    6. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
    7. For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?
    8. And what nation is there so great, who has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day?

    Sadly, the reality is now that we are too often more of a laughing stock than an admired example!
    Shabbat Shalom,

  10. Leila:
    As the Ethics of the Fathers quotes Hillel as saying, 'In a situation where there are no men (read humans) strive to be a man (mentsch)!' Never let the antics of hypocrisies of outwardly religious people deflect you from your own sense of what is right.

    Here's a thought. Yosef the Son of Yehoshaua fell ill and went up to heaven. When he returned his father asked him what he had seen up there. He replied, 'A crazy world–those who were important on earth were unimportant up there and those disregarded on earth were important in Heaven.' His father replied, 'You did not see a crazy world but a true one (how it should be)!'
    Talmud Bava Batra 10b

  11. A very stimulating discussion, thanks all. I also liked the way the Youtube news video was embedded within the email (I use Gmail which gives you the option of watching Youtube links within the email itself). Very slick use of technology Jeremy, you're starting to look like a one-man broadcaster ! Shavua Tov, Robert.

  12. In all media offices there is probably a file labelled 'religious scandals' into which will be filed stories of rabbis and priests caught red handed doing something illegal. There are probably other files for 'obesity stories', 'baby animal stories', 'house prices up or down stories' and in the UK 'royal family stories'. News channels do not report news, they select what they believe to be newsworthy. Rabbis behaving like rabbis are not supposed to behave makes headlines so we are all bound to read more of these. That does not mean necessarily there has been an increase in corrupt rabbis. For example, did the youtube news report conclude with a remark that the events took place in the same location as the Sopranos is set due to a desire to make the story more colourful? It didn't actually add anything to the known facts.

    The accused by the way, are still just that, accused but not yet convicted. If they are found guilty, why not assume that the yeshivas (in America at least) will jump to deal with the problem directly just as they did over the Madoff scandal?

  13. Rabbi Rosen

    Going slightly off topic, but picking up a comment made by Nahum above, I would be interested in your thoughts on the case of Dale and Leilani Neumann who were found guilty of allowing their 11 year old daughter to die because they prayed for her recovery rather than call for medical assistance.

    It wasn’t that long ago in terms of human history that praying would have been the only option available.

    Faced with a similar situation, most people would call the paramedics without a moments hesitation, but does anyone genuinely believe that this couple wanted their daughter to die?

    It begs the question as to whether God gave us the capacity to learn to heal ourselves, or if medicine a sin against His order.

  14. HS:
    You are right. Man helps Old Lady ONTO the bus is not newsworthy. Pushing her OFF is.

    Sadly, you are right too about 'everyone' jumping on board. Yesterday I heard from a relative who experienced it firsthand that in New York a certain well-known movement continues to offer and push the very same scam.

  15. Don't Call Me Dave:
    Talmud Bava Kama 85a&b The Torah allows using doctors to cure. But of course this does not mean we should not pray, just that we are not allowed to rely on miracles. Brachot 28b etc.

    This couple must be very weird and no major halachic authoritry I have ever heard of would support their actions.

    On the wider theological issue, there is a constant tension between freedom, human choice, and on the other side Divine override or intervention (Hishtadlut v Bashert). In principle we accept the possibility of miracles and intervention, but of course we cannot rely on them, as the Holocaust sadly illustrates only too well.

    As for placebos or rabbis promising cures, etc., dont get me on that subject!!!!!


  16. I know it seems weird in the sense of "not mainstream", but this happens much more often than people realize, especially in rural areas. It is not always brought to public notice, because that depends on someone who disagrees knowing about it and reporting it to authorities, and authorities then following up.

    One of the clients I worked with as a behavior consultant was from such a family. His father disagreed with his grown son even having an eye or dental exam, so you can imagine it was difficult for them to accept that he was on numerous medications for schizophrenia and anxiety.

    And just down the road from where that young man lived, a mother had been allowed to die due to a postpartum infection, rather than seek medical intervention, leaving her several children motherless. Again, the family had been relying on the outcome of prayer.

    The underlying belief seems somewhat similar to Christian Science–that disease is a matter of spiritual imbalance and we should have perfect faith in G-d's control over the physical world. In fact, they might not say that it didn't "work" if the person dies, as we all know that G-d's response to prayer isn't always to simply give us whatever we ask for. Perhaps they would feel that, all things considered, G-d had allowed the death for His reasons.

    Some of those reasons could be along the lines of how we think about Tisha B'Av and so forth–that we are acting in such a way to bring these things on ourselves.

    And, in fact, the belief that we should take what's coming to us from G-d has been around at least as recently as the 1800's, when people argued that women should not use medication to relieve the pain of childbirth, since it was decreed by G-d as punishment for Eve's sin. (I am generally against medication used in childbirth, myself, but for different reasons.)

    On a related note, I heard some time ago from some very frum women who were putting together a book about how they had had completely painless childbirth, based on the extent of their piety, presumably as this reversed Eve's sins. I wonder if that was ever published?

    But in situations like this there are at least two questions. First, is it right to act in such a way (in this case to eschew doctors in favor of prayer), and second, is it criminal to do so. There could then be a third question–if it IS criminal, what is the appropriate punishment.


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