Tisha B'av - Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

“How desolate lies the city, once so full of people,” begins the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah’s wail of grief over the (first) destruction of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was laid waste and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.

In Lamentations, which Jews read on Tisha B’Av (9th of Av -tonight and tomorrow), Jeremiah assigns blame for the catastrophe, not with Nebuchadnezzer (the Babylonian king), but at the feet of the Jews themselves - it was our own behavior that brought on this calamity.

Six hundred years later history repeats itself as the rebuilt Temple and Jerusalem are again destroyed, this time by the Romans.  Incredibly, both events occurred on Tisha B’Av.

The destruction of the 2nd Temple is an event that weighed heavily on the rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the centuries following that tragedy. They sought to explain the cause of the disaster. Like Jeremiah, they found the need to look no further than a mirror.

Sinat chinam or “groundless hatred” -led to their downfall, the rabbis claim. Groundless hatred does not refer to disputes or controversy. Makhloket l’shem shamayim,a “dispute for the sake of heaven,” celebrates the notion that we can disagree and even argue over important matters. In the Talmud, even when the rabbis agree on an interpretation - the alternative approach is presented as well.

At the end of a dispute over law between the followers of Hillel and those of Shammai, the Talmud reports a heavenly voice saying: Elu v’elu devrei elohim chayim - “These and those are the words of the living God.” It proclaims both sides of the disagreement are worthy. “But the law follows Hillel,” concludes the heavenly voice. Why? Because the followers of Hillel were “kindly and modest and studied both their rulings and those of Shammai.” (Eruvin 13b)

We are a disputatious people. Part of Jewish education involves learning how to manage these “disputes for the sake of Heaven” without tearing ourselves apart in sinat chinam, petty and groundless hatred.

The last vestige of the destroyed Temple is haKotel, the Western Wall. In a religion that exalts time, the Wall is the closest we Jews get to sacred space and once again it is in our sacred space that sinat chinam has reemerged. Visions differ on how that space should be used. These could be respectful “arguments for the sake of heaven,” however, the Women of the Wall have seen more of the sinat chinam that our rabbis suggest brought about the destruction of the Temple.

Last month, as their prayer service was disrupted, a woman carried a note from a friend fighting cancer, a prayer for healing to be placed in a crack in the wall. Once it was clear she would not get near the wall, the woman asked those who were blocking their way if one of them would please take the note and place it in the wall. “Your friend should die,” was the response.

In his Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis cites Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of “these and those are the words of the living God.”

“...the truth of the light of the world will be constructed from many points of view and varying approaches, for “both these and those are the words of the living God.”... the multiplicity of views that emerges from the differences of souls and education is just that which enriches wisdom ...”

In Rabbi Lewis’s view, Rav Kook challenges the equation of peace with “oneness.” He suggests that peace (shalom has the same root as shalem - wholeness) emerges out of the “diversity that includes all of the unnumbered dimensions and pathways to wisdom” (R. Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation).

The young men and women in Jerusalem who have been mobilized in violent opposition to the Women of the Wall are being indoctrinated in the ways of groundless hatred rather than educated in the ways of arguing for the sake of heaven. Education, in contrast to indoctrination, equips our minds with the kind of critical thinking the rabbis of the Talmud modeled for us, and it is this critical thinking that enables us to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with one another.

The Jewish world is filled with disagreement - religious, political, cultural. The lessons from Tisha B’Av are not to engage in zealotry and dehumanization of the “other” in a never-ending spiral of hatred. They are, rather, to find and respect the humanity and merit even in ardent dispute.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av and mourn the destruction that has accompanied this day, let us mourn and challenge sinat chinam, the groundless hatred that plagues us still. And may our educators prepare our students for a meaningful Jewish life which requires engagement in meaningful and respectful “disputes for the sake of heaven.”