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Tisha B’Av—an Ecological Holiday?

What the day of the Temple’s destruction can teach us about divinity and religious life in the shadow of COVID-19

Jonathan Schorsch
July 29, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

A story attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, offers a surprisingly radical—and timely—take on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. “When the king is in his palace,” the great rabbi taught, “it is not possible to approach him the same way as when he is traveling. For then anyone who desires can approach him, even a villager who is not fit to come before the king in his palace. And on the king’s way to his inn, he [the villager] can come and talk with him.”

The destruction of the Temple, the central and beloved site of Judaism as an indigenous religious culture, is mourned not just on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. The Temple’s destruction, the consequent ending of the sacrificial services, and the exile of the Jews from their homeland stand as central theological markers of a tragic and still mostly unrepaired breach between God and God’s people. But the Baal Shem Tov audaciously overturns this narrative to find a redemptive countertheology: Certainly God resided in the Temple, he teaches, but when God dwelled there, access to the divine was mediated and thereby to some degree prevented by everything from the priests to the Temple’s architecture to the onerous ritual formalities and rules of ritual purity. For as long as God resided in the Temple, in other words, it was hard, if not impossible, to get genuinely close to the divine. But once the Temple had been destroyed and the Creator sent into exile, God was freed from the formalities that glorified but essentially hid Him. He is now truly everywhere, easily accessible, approachable and available to everyone who can muster the pietistic skill of devekut, or cleaving to God.

With this parable and other like-minded teachings, the Baal Shem Tov, known as the Besht, updated and recuperated Jewish history and theology, turning with a mere shift of perspective the bitterly lamented and resented exile into a positive spiritual advantage for worshippers and lovers of God. Now that we’re living through our own time of upheaval and destruction caused by ecological recklessness, with synagogues shut down, leaving many Jews without access to their places of worship, it’s time to push his liberating update even further.

Let us reflect on a well-known Jewish legend, cited in the Talmud. In it, four of the greatest rabbis strolled amid the fresh ruins of the Second Jerusalem Temple shortly after the Romans destroyed it. They saw a fox scampering out of the shards of the former innermost sanctum of the beloved heart of their religion, culture, and people, the Holy of Holies. Three of the sages began to weep. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, broke out in laughter. The others confronted him, challenging his inexplicable, seeming madness. He quoted for them two verses from the prophets, one describing Zion plowed under like a field (Michah 3:12), the other, a later prophecy depicting the streets of Jerusalem filled with elderly men and women, and children playing (Zecharia 8:4-5). Said Akiva, “Now that I have seen Uriah’s prophecy [of destruction, offered by Michah] fulfilled in full detail, I know that Zecharia’s prophecy [of redemption] will also be fulfilled.” The other rabbis felt comforted by Akiva’s holistic reading of the scriptures.

What to make of this strange and wonderful story? The Talmudic anecdote was likely inspired by a passage from the Book of Lamentations: “Over Mount Zion [do we mourn], which lies desolate, foxes going about therein. You, Adonai, [on the other hand,] for eternity [le-olam] will sit, your throne endures through the generations” (Lam. 5:18-19). The foxes, wily as ever, are the key to understanding it all: Those who mourn the destruction of edifices that used to house our religious life misunderstand the scampering creatures; the seat of the divine in the world nonetheless endures forever. The foxes do not signal a collapse to be lamented, heavy with loss and nostalgia; rather, they are the embodiment of a necessary and positive transformation of spirituality, from something contained in structures to something open, boundaryless, even transspecies. Sacredness is incarnated for the world, as the Hebrew can playfully be read (adonai le-olam teshev); the world, with its foxes gleefully transgressing deconstructed walls and doors, will host the sacred. The Temple as container has been dissolved, like a seed that can only birth the seedling through its own dissolution. The third Temple, the future home of the divine, will not be a building, but a bramble, a meadow—an ecosystem.

If this sounds like a hippie flight of fancy, consider the assertion of Nachmanides and other medieval rabbis that vegetarianism was humanity’s original—and ideal—diet in Eden, or the understanding of Avraham Hakohen Kook and other rabbis that the only sacrifices to be brought in the third Temple will be the meal offerings (korban minḥa). Obviously, the point is that the service of God in the utopian imagination will have evolved beyond requiring the killing of animals. Such acts of rabbinic messianic constructivism assume that finding new interpretations of tradition grounded in evolving human understanding is the way tradition works.

As we try to imagine what Judaism will look like in the shadow of the Anthropocene era, when humanity’s playing with planetary systems brings about destruction, we can learn from our sages and remember that we have no choice but to be self-conscious, thoughtful, careful, and bold; playful, like foxes, knowing that play is always serious business. This, after all, is how the history of religions works: Change masks itself as tradition’s original intent. In the face of environmental catastrophe, some religious leaders have proven themselves creative and intrepid in putting their traditions to use. In just one example, Buddhist monks in Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka ordain trees as monks, wrapping them with colorful sashes, to remind people of their sacredness and prevent their being cut down.

This year, then, let our Tisha B’Av ritual mourning extend to creation and its creatures. Powerful models for an expanded Tisha B’Av abound. To mourn species that have gone extinct, some people have come up with “Lost Species Day.” Artist Marcus Coates produced a thought-provoking video about a 2017 Irish project to issue a public apology to the great auk, which had just been declared extinct. Trebbe Johnson and her Radical Joy for Hard Times project use ritualized personal encounters with impacted sites in nature to “make beauty in wounded places.”

Let us heed the radical call of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who urged his followers to pray outdoors, amid the trees, grass, and flowers:

When a person becomes worthy to hear the songs of the plants, how each plant speaks its song to God, how beautiful and sweet it is to hear their singing! And, therefore, it is good indeed to serve God in their midst in solitary wandering over the fields between the growing things and to pour out one’s speech before God in truthfulness. All the speech of the fields enters then into your own and intensifies its strength.

Let us hear the message in the global coronavirus plague currently felling hundreds of thousands of innocents. Let us hear the message of the environmental crises through which we are overwhelming our local and planetary ecosystems. Let us learn to hear the songs of the plants. Let us learn wisdom from foxes. Can they teach us to stop destroying God’s Temple?

Jonathan Schorsch teaches Jewish religious and intellectual history at Universität Potsdam and is the founding director of the Jewish Activism Summer School (Berlin).