This week, my article is divided into three sections. Please feel free to read any or all of these sections, based on your time, inclination and focus.
1. The first describes the mournful holiday of Tisha B’Av and how it is observed. This section is short, contains basic Jewish knowledge and is suitable for those with limited time.
2. The second section examines the architectural meaning of Tisha B’Av. This is a longer and more intermediate piece.
3. The third section is my personal reflection on how to understand the concept of “sinat hinam” or senseless hatred, in the political realm. It deals with more abstract concepts, is therefore more difficult and is also the longest of the three sections.
Tisha B’Av: What it is and How it is Observed
Tisha B’Av means the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On that day, we commemorate and remember the destruction of the first and second Temples. Over the centuries, people hostile to the Jews maliciously chose that day to inflict further tragedies upon us. For example, the tradition records that we were expelled from Spain on the 9th of Av in 1492.
This year, Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, when it is never observed. Shabbat, after all, is a day of joy, and Tisha B’Av is a day of national mourning. The commemoration instead occurs on the 10th of Av–Saturday night and Sunday until sunset. Because it is a day of mourning, we follow many of the same customs as on Yom Kippur. We don’t eat or drink, bathe, shave, wear leather shoes, engage in intimate relations or even study Torah. It is also customary to refrain from idle conversation or frivolity. Instead, we will gather in the Zidell Chapel on Saturday night at 8:45 and on Sunday at 9 am to hear Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, chanted to a dirge like melody.
What Buildings Teach Us: Tisha B’Av and Architecture
To make great architecture, at least until the modern period, demanded a sense of place. In addition to being connected to a specific geography, enduring buildings of worth also have to be grounded in a set of values. The built environment, as some speak of it, tells a story of what matters to a particular people in a particular time and place. Medieval Europe was a place of castles and cathedrals. A look at contemporary Los Angeles, meanwhile, quickly establishes large roadways as an essential part of how people there live-in their cars.
For most of Jewish history, we have been a people without a geography to which we belonged. A sudden whim of a ruler could result in our eviction from a country where we might have lived for centuries. In addition, until after World War II, few Jews were even permitted to practice architecture. As a consequence, it is hardly controversial to argue that there is no such thing as Jewish architecture-buildings built by and for Jews that are rooted in both Jewish values and Jewish geography.
It was not always the case. The clearest example of a great Jewish building was the Holy Temple. Not only was it included on some lists of ancient wonders, but it clearly communicated many Jewish values: It was the nexus where heaven and earth, God and humanity met. It was the place where ordinary people could atone for their failings and their guilty feelings, as well as offer up their prayers of gratitude. People would go there to seek lost objects or to mourn lost souls. It was a place of both national contrition and national pride and it was available to rich and poor, man and woman alike.
A midrash, or rabbinic fable, states that when the first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE (some say 423 BCE), the young priests (kohanim) were so distraught that they climbed to the roof, carrying the Temple keys with them. They then called out to God, saying, “since we were unworthy guardians, let us return the keys to You.” With that, they threw the keys to the heavens, where a hand magically appeared to retrieve them. Their task completed, the young priests threw themselves into the fires burning below.
When it was destroyed for the second time in the year 70 CE, our Sages also understood this as more than a political fact. They viewed it as divine punishment because of our “sinat hinam,” our senseless hatred for one another.
The tale told to illustrate this senseless hatred concerns two characters, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. A man who was hosting a party told his servant to invite his friend, Kamtza, but not Bar Kamtza, whom he hated. As the saying has it, “good help is hard to find,” and the servant confused the invitations. When the host’s enemy arrived instead, the host proceeded to humiliate him. In retaliation, Bar Kamtza went to the Roman emperor and told him the Jews were rebelling. Because of this false report, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the second Temple.
In other words, the building whose architectural purpose was to bring all people together had to be destroyed when the people could no longer hear its message or incorporate its teachings into their lives.
Sinat Hinam: Senseless Hatred in Our Time and the Permissibility of Political Discourse
As we can understand from the above story, one man’s dislike and public spurning of another resulted in the humiliated person outright lying to the authorities. This helps us to understand the concept of “senseless hatred,” and how to balance the need for political discourse with the precepts to refrain from “lashon hara.”
The laws of “lashon hara” would have us refrain from sharing any speech about another person, even if that report is true. The primary author who assembled and expanded the traditional rules around speech was a man named the Hofetz Hayim. It is important to understand that if we applied his understanding of the laws of speech in a wholesale manner, without concern for other important Jewish values, no political discourse would ever be permitted nor could newspapers operate. Indeed, the Hofetz Hayim himself had no interest in the news, and apparently never picked up a paper.
Yet modern democracy demands a free exchange of ideas. The protection of our freedoms requires this. Thankfully, Judaism also espouses that we must refrain from “geneivat da’at,” literally the stealing of another’s mind. We are not permitted to say falsehoods about another person, we are not permitted to mislead others, and we are not permitted to mislead ourselves. Political discourse, then, if handled properly, not only doesn’t abrogate the Jewish laws of speech, but can share important information that will protect the public. Information that is useful to another person’s well-being not only may be shared, but in many cases also ought to be shared, and is not considered an example of “lashon hara.” Taken together, we come to see that talking about a candidate’s character, truthfulness or the culture that develops around that candidate is important information that should be shared with the public. Lying about that candidate’s character, truthfulness or the culture that develops in response, however, would be a tremendous moral wrong.
What has occurred in our age, however, is that if we don’t like a particular set of facts, we tend to discount them. We will accuse the person who shares them of being partisan, dishonest or ill-informed. Large swaths of people have come to assume that all politicians are liars, or that all lies are equivalent to one another. In an era of confirmation bias, research has shown that many people only seek out information that confirms their point of view, and will argue against others who have a different point of view. Worse, showing such individuals facts and information that disprove their beliefs will actually strengthen their commitment to those incorrect beliefs.
This phenomenon is quite dangerous. It also demonstrates the multiple layers of “geneivat da’at” in action; such individuals mislead themselves and others. It seems to me that in our age, this is a particularly pernicious form of “sinat hinam,” or of senseless hatred. It is our modern example of mistruths told to destroy the other because our feelings have been hurt or because we desire our agenda at unreasonable costs. As in the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, such behavior can spin out of control and destroy much that we all value in common.