Culture, Politics, Religion

Echad Asar b'September, OR A 9/11 of the Jews

By Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City.
Its my second 9/11 in two months. Today its the Towers – last month, our Temples. Today, an utter hate explodes into senseless loss – in August, it was “senseless hate” bringing out utter catastrophe.  The ninth month’s eleventh day, 9/11, becomes Tisha B’av – the ninth day of the eleventh Hebrew month.  Maybe its just an exile Jewish thing.  We have two days of everything.
The dark similarities run deep and tragic.  Consider how both holidays are constructed around architecture.  Yes, the loss is truly about the lives destroyed and political trauma inspired, but in our imagery and imagination, its about two buildings razed to the earth.  Beautiful buildings; buildings conceived as a “world center”; buildings whose wreckage casts a shadow over the entire calamity.  Indeed, shadows which stretch farther and more permanent, now that the buildings are gone forever.
There was a First Temple and a Second Temple; a Tower 1 and a Tower 2.  And now, there are only memories. 
And in those memories,  a sense of watershed.  We speak of “Temple Judaism” and post-Temple Judaism.  We recall America pre-9/11 – Pax Americana! – and how it felt to confidently lead a unipolar world. But we live in America post-9/11, with our heads peering over our shoulders, nervously awaiting the rise of the next global powers.  I can tell you exactly what I  was doing just before I heard the news – and whom I called right after.  We tend to remember days when everything changed.
Finally, both holidays bring with them a sense of obligation.  As a Jew, that’s nothing new. My  Judaism imposes obligations upon me. Those who refrain from food or sex on Tisha B’av, or spend the night wailing out the biblical Book of Lamentations, usually do so from a sense that fasting and mourning are obligations of the day, imposed upon them by their faith.  But obligation is not a dominant trope in American life.  There are very few things that Americans, as Americans, must do.  (In fact, there may be nothing more American than restricting political authorities from their historical ability to impose obligation.) And yet, in the aftermath of 9/11, there was an almost universal refrain: We must do something.  Some kind of memorial, some kind of ceremony.  We must. And Ground Zero became holy ground, carefully managed and tailored according to some unseen guide of … propriety. Out of calamity sprouted a sense of the Sacred; and from the sacred, a notion of right and wrong, and from that notion, the weight of an obligation: to those who passed on that day and to those who still remain.
Yet when it comes to how we commemorate these days, we find only contrast.  Those who observe a traditional Tisha B’av know exactly what to do. (No showers, no food, no comfortable shoes. Sit on the floor, an egg dipped in ash, synagogues stripped of décor.)  But we struggle with what to feel.  Its been two millennia since we lost the last Temple. A lot has happened since.  And a lot has been forgotten.
But those who commemorate 9/11 don’t worry about what to feel.  For many, the loss isn’t a part of history; its a part of life. Our feelings are legitimate because they are so damn real.  Instead, we struggle with what to do.  We have no ritual. No song, no text, no special food. Maybe a list of names, maybe an American flag – but mainly just that nagging sense.  We must do something.   We must do something.
The strongest voice in that “something” opened over this summer: the completed National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Its construction was dogged with fierce debate, because the task at hand was not just putting up a building, but building a national story.  Should our story include discussion of the lives and intentions of the perpetrators? Who even were the “real” perpetrators?  And did the victims die as individuals or as Americans? Or perhaps as New Yorkers?  What, if anything, can their death teach us today?
The recent opening of the museum makes this 9/11 a unique one. Marking  September 11 of2014 gifts us a unique opportunity to remember what it was like to commemorate Tisha B’av in 114.
Because there was a time when the fall of Jerusalem wasn’t mythical, but unbearably real, and when, despite the pain, Jews had no idea how to mark the day or explain the story.  Should we fast? For how long? Should we cut ourselves? And on what part of the body? Should we mourn the loss of this building, or the loss of our family members? Damn it, what about the loss of Jewish sovereignty?
For Jews, these questions weren’t debated with brick and mortar.  As Walter Benjamin has pointed out, only victors build memorials – and Jews have only recently become victors. Instead, we had the opportunity to fashion a cathedral in time.  Real people forged together a holiday called Tisha B’av.  They debated and refined and re-framed the actions we would take and the stories we would tell.  Those who celebrate Tisha B’av today live in the wake of these debates.  Let the new museum and the coming September 11 remind you that how we celebrate Tisha B’av should never be taken for granted.  Real people had to decide what our story would be. Real people had to create meaning out of the Jerusalem calamity.  Their choices seem obvious now – but they were radical then, and, as contrast to 9/11 proves, they remain radical now.
Consider two such radical decisions.  First, we resolved that on the very same spot it once stood, the Temple shall one day be rebuilt.  Do not take this for granted; it is certainly not part of the World Trade Center story. There was never a serious plan to just up and re-erect what once stood.  In fact, the winning design does just the opposite, marking off the space to never house a building again.  Ground Zero is a place for mourning and memory; har habayit a place for reconstruction.
I think there is excellent reason America chose reconstruction: we know that a reconstructed World Trade Center wouldn’t solve any of our problems.  The dead would still be dead; the specter of American vulnerability would still haunt us.  RR Reno, writing in First Things, laments the lack of religious or even patriotic symbolism at the 9/11 museum.  But I’m glad that crosses,  Jewish stars, and flags are absent from the site.  The great consolation of religion and patriotism is that somehow, someway, these deaths were part of a larger story: that one day all accounts shall be paid and sacrifices recognized, and that in some more pristine future, we will look back and it will all make sense. But there is nothing in America’s secular civic religion to inspire such hope. They are dead and it is awful and the only thing left to do is acknowledge the absence.  In America, neither the flag nor the cross – nor even a rebuilt World Trade Center – is enough to redeem our suffering.
Thus the miracle of the Third Temple.  Our ancestors created an icon that represents a future so splendid, so peaceful, and so repaired from our present brokenness, as to offer us that final consolation. When the Messiah arrives, no one is going to ask her about all the Jewish blood spilled over the millennia.  Because if we’re still hurting over our broken past, that person is not the Messiah. The Third Temple, though not yet built, offers the promise of all temples everywhere: a future so whole as to redeem even the most broken past.
A second contrast:  The 9/11 Memorial is built as a place to reflect.  The complex is essentially a set of neatly rowed trees, some calming open space, and at the center, two aptly named “reflecting” pools.
But Tisha B’av is not a day not to reflect, but to relive.  Its rituals are all as if the destruction had occurred but a few hours ago.  We sit on the ground, eating ash covered eggs, as if its all that is left in our ransacked city.  We are far too impoverished to afford shoes; far too emotionally repulsed to consider sex.  We lay on floor, wailing, lamenting, eulogizing.  It is theater of the most immersive and holy kind.  Reflection is for tragedies of the past; in Tisha B’av, we create an eternal present.
The theater of reliving provides a devastatingly successful model for prolonging memory. Because actual memories fade – they too are destroyed, much like the Temple.  Give it a generation or two, and on September 11 visitors will greet those reflection pools with almost nothing upon which to reflect.  But a ritual of relived destruction creates new memory, year after year.  We don’t fast on Tisha B’av because after 2000 years we still somehow remember the loss of the Temple.  We still remember the loss of the Temple, because after 2000 years, we fast on Tisha B’av.
Its been two long millennia since the Temples were consumed.  But through the dream of a Third Temple and the mechanism of relived mourning the opposite occurs – the Temple consumes us.   Chazal found a way to keep the Temple on our minds. They had us transport the Temple’s loss – memory through re-created memory  – across the four corners of the earth. And they  had us imagine the Temple’s meaning across the vagaries of our history.  Yes, we told ourselves, again and again, there is a place on this Earth where man meets God and together creates a world of ultimate peace and final consolation.  And so, in their construction of a day called Tisha B’av, the geniuses of our tradition didn’t just memorialize the Temple.  They did the one thing that Americans can never do.  The Americans lost their temple.  We rebuilt ours.

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