Tisha B’Av on a Kuwait Military Base Gives a Chaplain a Lesson in Unity
The holiday never resonated for me, until I understood its message about connecting with other Jews—even Messianic ones
Since childhood, my parents had taught me to avoid Messianic Jews at all costs, much as one would avoid body-snatching aliens or evil wizards. More recently, the issue of Messianic Jewish military chaplains had almost derailed my own efforts to become the first cantor ever endorsed for such work: Messianic Jews had petitioned the Department of Defense to recognize them as fully Jewish chaplains, instead of as one more denomination within Christianity, and only the unity of Judaism’s three major movements had thwarted their efforts. This unity was more severely tested by the idea of cantors serving as chaplains. Many rabbis protested that Jewish religious leadership, in both the military and civilian worlds, was their job alone, and I was allowed to proceed in spite of vociferous objections that allowing cantors to join them was a slippery slope that would end with Messianic Jews doing the same. Having never had the opportunity to engage in sustained dialogue with a Messianic Jew, my sideline view of these disputes had only furthered my impression that such people were now dangerous for both Jews in general and my chaplaincy aspirations in particular.
All of that changed once I arrived overseas. Just as my success at being a cantor and a chaplain softened the debate over its propriety, so too did my actual encounters with Messianic Jewish soldiers soften my initial feelings toward them. On every installation I visited, from Jordan to Afghanistan, men and women who considered themselves Messianic Jews came to my services not to proselytize but to seek relief from the loneliness of their deployments and a safe space to practice a version of Christianity that bothers almost as many Christians as Jews. After my awkward and unexpected introduction at Havdalah, I always welcomed them. But I never felt completely comfortable about it until that Tisha B’Av.
The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred between Jews. Jerusalem, it is said, had enough food stored to withstand the Roman siege for years, until rival Jewish sects began burning each other’s supplies and eventually reduced the entire populace to starvation. I’ve always believed that divisions and boundaries are essential for sacred life. Cantors are not rabbis, and Messianic Jews are not Jews. But while separation is holy, baseless hatred fueled by wild fear is not. I’ve found that the Jewish world is full of doomsday predictions—that all rabbis will be replaced by cantors and all cantors will be replaced by soloists, or that all liberal Jews will be converted by Messianic Jews and then everyone will be converted by Chabad—but only on my deployment was I forced to see how such attitudes take the fire that we could share to illuminate people’s lives in different ways and use it to disfigure each other instead. Good fences make good neighbors, as the poem goes, but if the fences get so high that you can’t even see your neighbor, you’ve got a problem.
Like most Reform Jews since the 19th century, I struggled to find meaning in the observance of Tisha B’Av because I thought it focused on the destruction of the Temple, and I found myself less troubled than relieved by the end of the sacrificial cult. I still believe that Judaism has evolved for the better in the 2,000 years since then, but I learned that to emphasize what is gone and not what has stayed is to miss the point. Perhaps Tisha B’Av takes us to the very darkest places of the human experience to make us realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. “Cause us, O God, to turn to you, and we will return,” the Book of Lamentations promises. In a world where we so easily stray from God the moment things don’t go our way, I discovered that a day to restore our understanding of what true suffering is and isn’t, of which differences are and aren’t important, and of the potential consequences when we mix those things up, is really a precious and sacred gift after all.
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