Sitting in a cafe on Pico Blvd. in West LA that is way hipper than I am, there seems nothing further from this cultural moment than fasting. Yet, we are on the brink of one of the two most significant fast days on the Jewish liturgical calendar. The better known of those fast days is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, which is a day of prayer and forgiveness. It is also, at least in the eyes of the tradition, not only a holy day but a holiday, a day of celebration. Celebreating the possibility of renewal and atonement. The possibility of piety and holiness.
The day that is upon us in the heat of the summer is the fast of the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is a day of unrelenting sadness and mourning, a day of lamentation for the many, many evils that have befallen the Jewish people through the ages—the shattering of the Tablets in the desert, the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, even the expulsion from Spain and the "final solution."
The question some raise is understandable. They ask: How do we—sitting in cafes in Los Angeles or in Tel Aviv—relate to this holiday? Jews as a people are not in any existential danger now. The opposite is the truth. The State of Israel, though facing challenges, has the strongest army in the region and is allied with the strongest power on the planet. The American Jewish community is probably the most affluent and politically powerful Jewish community to have ever existed on the planet. Why do we don the sackcloth and ashes of the eternal victims?
But this, dear reader, is to misunderstand the point of the fast.
On the Ninth of Av, when the congregation gathers to read the scroll of Lamentations, people do not greet each other. Everybody sits on the floor, each engaged in his or her own mourning and reflection. The ritual of the Ninth of Av performs the radical possibility that it is impossible to create a just society.
The first verse of the Scroll of Lament which is read on the Ninth begins: O, how she [i.e. Jerusalem] sits alone. This opening verse echoes with Isaiah's castigation of Jerusalem: O how she has become a harlot, the faithful city; full of justice, righteousness dwelt there, but now murderers. (Leaving Isaiah's sexist imagery to the side for the moment.) The fast of the Ninth of Av is not intended to decry only past pain (though that too) but present political misdeeds. The sins we need face on the Ninth of Av are the sins of the polis, the wrong choices we continue to make which could lead us down the path away from ever achieving a country righteous and just.
And just so, in these times, when on the first of Av a graduate student clad in legally purchased full body armor, deployed legally purchased automatic weapons to deadly effect we are I think, still in need of this day of reflection.
Weeks after the Levy report declared that the Israeli occupation was not an occupation at all and then with brazen effrontery the head of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria (sic) declares that the settlements will never leave and that the only solution to the conflict is a one-State solution with some more sensitivity to Palestinian quality of life (which, apparently is not in need of citizenship); following upon the continuing attempts to deport Sudanese refugees back to imminent danger, and the racist incitement which led to rioting against those same refugees; in the year which has seen "price tag" incidents flourish, we are I think, still in need of confronting the possibility that we cannot create a just society.
And here in these United States, where freedom seems to mean that guns are legal but taxes should not be; when claiming that we have no responsibility as a society to the poor and the weak among us passes as a political platform; when teachers are seen as targets of opportunity by billionaires who characterize those teachers as freeloaders; when the president has become judge and jury beyond appeal, using unmanned drones to assassinate perceived enemies abroad; when we are the lone industrialized democracy that still executes criminals on a regular basis and yet still has many thousands more murders a year than those other democracies; when there are annually two dozen mass murders with more than four victims and neither presidential candidate will say that there is no reason for a private citizen to own an automatic weapon, we are still in need of a day to don sackcloth and ashes and mourn for the country we could be, before it is too late.