Mourning the Narrowness of Today’s Judaism



Amid the summertime clutter of towels and beach umbrellas lies something darker and more painful on the Jewish calendar: The Three Weeks mourning period,which began July 19 with a fast. Also known by its name from the book of Lamentations, Bein Ha-mitzarim, between the straits or narrow places, the Three Weeks commemorate the ancient siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the city and the two Temples. On the ninth of Av, which this year falls on Aug. 9, the period closes with another fast as the apogee of our mourning.

On the second fast day, we have two public readings. The book of Lamentations is read in the evening with a haunting melody, while sitting on the floor. In the morning, congregations read a series of medieval poems, or kinot, that describe persecutions and collective losses that we have experienced as a people, including the York massacre in England in the 12th century and the burning of the Talmud in France in the 13th century.

Over time, more layers of kinot have been added, reflecting more recent trauma, like the Holocaust. The kinot book is a repository of tears and sadness.

You may be reading this and thinking that the Three Weeks is observed today only by the more religious, and you would be right. No one is going to snatch away your summer or diminish its breezy quality with a mourning period that's as anachronistic as it is difficult to capture emotionally. It's a struggle to mourn losses that you have never experienced personally.

But when it comes to this period, perhaps it's not the personal that's mourned. When I think of the missing Temples, I don't focus on sacrifices or bricks and mortar. I think about how amazing it must have been to watch an entire people on pilgrimage there three times a year.

There is something transcendent about being in a space shared by tens of thousands of people with a similar mission and vision. There is something deeply moving about atonement, guilt, thanksgiving and joy when it is celebrated collectively rather than merely personally.

Regrettably, Judaism today is an expression of self much more than it is an expression of the collective.

Many of my formative moments came about through the Soviet Jewry movement, which sought freedom for those trapped in the USSR. I was swept up by rallies on the National Mall in Washington and at the United Nations in New York. I remember taking off my Anatoly Sharansky bracelet and taking down his poster when the new "Natan" took his historic walk to freedom out of the clutches of the Soviets. I experienced this joy not as a single individual but as part of a wave of consciousness that the community voice is always louder.

A few years ago when I spoke at a conference in Jerusalem, a young woman from Latin America said, "We have no causes today, only organizations." Her words still ring true. My children know nothing of large-scale Jewish movements that transformed the world. Absorbed in our own limited spaces, we have no spiritual center as a people, no gathering place for our causes.

Our collective voice needs a platform. The prophet Zechariah laments that people fast over the Temple's destruction but have lost the true meaning of community. It is not about the building but about the builders.

We have compassion for people when we have face-to-face encounters. Bringing people together in a sacred space generated that bonding. But no such place exists today. We call this time period a narrow place because for us, Judaism has been narrowed as a result of this loss. For that I mourn.

Erica Brown is the scholar in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.


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