Reflections on Fasting (and not Fasting) of Tisha b’Av (2018)
I am lucky. I fast pretty easily. I always have. Once in 1978 when I was a steadfast macrobiotic and living in Albuquerque, New Mexico I fasted 52 hours, no food, no water, just to see what it would be like. It’s a story for another time. I’ve been fasting on Tish b’Av for forty years. Some years ago Rabbi Tuvia Friedman of the Masorti Movement in Jerusalem published an interesting responsa of a half day fast for Tisha b’Av. Built on a creative rendering of rabbinic and medieval sources, the upshot was that today with the state of Israel the reality of exile simply is not what it was before. He was not making a
messianic claim as much as an empirical one. With the state of Israel and the fact that over 90% of Jews live in democratic countries and are free to practice their religion, to enact Tisha b’Av without any recognition of that is, for him, dissonant. I recall a story David Hartman used to tell about Tish b’Av in 1967 when he was a rabbi in Montreal and how he got up and forcefully challenged his congregation how they could fast in light of such miraculous circumstances. I don’t recall whether he observed Tish b’Av that year or not but he certainly questioned its relevance.
I always thought the half day fast responsa was an interesting although I did not abide by it. I am not sure how much traction it actually had, or has, in the Conservative Movement. Jews tend to be weird about fasting, even a rabbinic fast like Tish b’Av. I left Orthodoxy years ago but continued fasting for years, not only Tish b’Av but minor fast days as well. Fasting served a religious, and not only a halakhic, function for me. But my suggestion here is clearly a post-halakhic one and for those who fast purely as a halakhic precept I am quite sure it will be unacceptable.
Given a variety of events today, especially in Israel, the abduction of a Conservative rabbi for performing marriages in Israel, and more pointedly the Nation-State bill that undercuts Israel as a democratic state, I have thought about curtailing my fast this year as act of protest. Why? First, I know that many things I have read respond to these events as a stronger reason to fast, fasting to mourn the demise of Israel’s democracy, the humanitarian crisis among Palestinians etc. I can respect that. But I find that is simply holding onto a halakhic precept and then adding new reasons to maintain it. This itself is quite traditional as we read in the Tisha b’ ‘Av Kinot (prayers of supplication) where the medieval sages added new tragedies to be included in Tish b’Av reflections. For me, many of the new reasons give, even as they are subversive, seem a bit too convenient. There are always things worth fasting for. My suggestion is something else.
I find it the epitome of hypocrisy, on the one hand, to use one’s power to marginalize, persecute, and de-legitimize minorities in the country where you have ultimate power – and then sit down and lament and mourn your victimhood. When I think of anyone who voted for, defends, or supports the Nation-State Bill fasting on Tisha b’ Av, I think of Isaiah’s crushing critique of the Israelites, saying that God doesn’t need their New Moon festivals or their sacrifices. God doesn’t need your fasting when you take the opportunity to have a humanistic nation-state and make it into a ethno-centric, spiteful, and nationalistic polity. I personally feel unable to mourn with a collective who spit at the opportunity given us to be better and to be a “light unto the nations” and instead choose to mirror the xenophobic turn among too many nations. I find it difficult to mourn with a people who I believe are simply on the wrong side of history. Some may accuse me of a misappropriation of tradition here so let me be clear. I am not making an argument from tradition, in some way I am making a counter-traditional argument. I cannot allow the tradition I have devoted my life to, to be used hypocritically to oppress another people, to make that the law of the land. If that’s not “traditional” so be it. I’ll take that up with my maker in due time
And yet, Tisha b’Av is more than that. But it is also that. So this year I am taking Rabbi Tuvia Friedman’s teshuva and “queering it” as it were. He suggested a half day fast to recognize Jewish sovereignty. I suggest a 2/3 fast, until “plag ha-minha” (about 4 or 5 pm) to mark both the recognition of exile and to protest the abuse of power and the hypocrisy of exercising that abuse of power and then acting like victims. This is my Isaiahean compromise. You cannot be the oppressor and the victim simultaneously, at least not in such egregious and cynical ways. You cannot feel piety in your fasting while you victimize another people while claiming it is you who are the victim. At 4 or 5pm on Tisha b’Av I will eat and drink in protest, not with joy, but with sorrow. I will eat while sitting on the ground the way Jews do for the meal before Tisha b’Av. You may disagree. And I respect that. But sometimes the world just crashes in on one’s religious life and there is nothing to do but recognize it. This is madness. I will not sit in mourning with oppressors. At least not on their terms.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University, rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue, and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. In 2018/2019 he will be the Brownstone Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. He is the editor of Jewish Through and Culture for Tikkun magazine.