August 6th, 2003

words

Lamentations

Tisha b'Av this year was an experience I want to record. I rather stupidly volunteered to run a 'creative' service, mainly on the grounds that there really isn't much formal liturgy for Tisha b'Av. I'm not very good at creative services, mainly because I'm not very creative. Anyway, I put together a few readings, trying to emphasize the modern relevance of the occasion over esoteric stuff about the destruction of the Temples. But I wasn't very convinced by what I'd done.

Two people turned up: Prof S, and the male half of J&J (the female half having sensibly elected to stay at home with their two little ones). I wasn't disappointed by the small numbers, though I would have liked J (female) to be there too, as Prof S and J (male) are the two people of our very mixed community I am closest to both religiously and as people. They both understand what I mean when I talk about challenging texts.

Somehow (and I take no credit for this), the whole mock mourning thing worked very powerfully. We sat on the floor reading and discussing in the gathering gloom. Deciding deliberately not to turn the lights on would have been a bit corny, but since it happened by an oversight, it really contributed to the mood.

The discussion went very deep. Can we, the post-Shoah generation, really hold accept a view that the sufferings of the Jewish people are the result of our sins? A little theodicy, but with people speaking from the heart, not debating academic philosophy. And the core dilemma for committed Jews of liberal (small l) leanings: how can we take such a particularist view of history? Can we really regard Jewish suffering as uniquely filling a place in God's plan? Where is the balance between remaining loyal to Judaism and our own view of the Covenant, and living our commitment to the whole of humanity?

I hadn't intended to quote the piece from Echa Rabbah (collection of midrash on Lamentations), but it seemed totally apt. The midrash portrays Rachel (the matriarch) voicing a challenge to God: is this what you call mercy? is how a loving parent behaves towards his children? And God does not answer the challenge, but only weeps, exclaming: "Woe to the King who prospered in his youth, yet in his old age no longer prospered".

In the end very little modernizing was needed; we 21st century people found something personal in the Biblical account of an ancient catastrophe, and in a third century response to it. I ended by reciting the memorial prayer, asking people to remember the suffering of human beings throughout history, whatever conclusions we might come to about suffering in the abstract.

After the service, as almost always when any of the community meet together, we spent a little time trying to talk our way out of the fact that the synagogue has no real future. Firstly we have a certain level of expenditure and literally no income, and secondly most of the current members have no definite plans to be in Dundee in a few years' time. But we're still desperately racking our brains for some way to overcome these apparently insurmountable problems.
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