How Should Reform Jews Observe Tishah B’Av? (published on URJ.ORG)


I had never even heard of Tishah B’Av until I was 12 years old and participating in the inaugural season of the Camp Institute for Living Judaism (later to renamed URJ Eisner Camp) in Great Barrington, MA. Since then, I have struggled with the significance of this day for me as a Reform Jew.

On Tishah B’Av, traditionally observant Jews fast in memory of the two magnificent Temples of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE. The day also commemorates other historical tragedies. For example, it is said that the beginning of the first Crusade in 1095, a time of persecution and slaughter of the Jews of Europe and in 1290 the expulsion of Jews from England both took place on that date. Tishah B’Av also coincides with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

The destruction of the two Temples and the exile of Jews from our sacred land that followed were occasions of death and suffering, so sorrow is an appropriate means of commemoration. Certainly, all the other historical tragedies associated with that date are important to remember, too.

On the other hand, the destruction of the Temple ended the control of a hereditary priestly class over Jewish life and ended animal sacrifice as our chief way of communicating with God. Today, only ultra-Orthodox Jews would like to see the restoration of the Temple and the practices associated with it.

How can we reconcile the remembrance of genuine tragedy with the growth and development of the Judaism that the destruction of the Temple made possible?

I observe a fast on Tishah B’Av until midday, when I study the traditional text for the day, the biblical Book of Lamentations. Then, at 1:00 p.m., I partake of a midday meal in which I express gratitude for the Judaism that has been bequeathed to us over the years, a Judaism that no longer slaughters animals and sprinkles their blood as a sign of gratitude or as a petition to God. I celebrate the fact that a Judaism without the Temple and its hereditary priestly class has been replaced by a Judaism that, through study, prayers and acts of kindness, calls on each of us in our own way to make the world a better place.

Tishah B’Av, for me, is also the day when I begin preparing for the period of introspection culminating in the rituals of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Impetus for beginning the process of repentance comes from the middle of the book of Lamentations: “Let us search and examine our ways and return to the Eternal One!” (Lamentations 3:40)

For Reform Jews, Tishah B’Av can be both a day of mourning and a day of joy. We mourn for the destruction of the Temple, but we rejoice that we have developed strong and resilient ways to thrive as Jews. Mourning the tragedies of the past we let us search and examine our way forward and face the future with hope and courage!
About the Author
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT.

View all posts by Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
Published: 7/20/2015
CATEGORIES: Jewish Holidays, Tishah B’Av

” … And No Religion Too!” Really John Lennon?

It’s surely unwise to start an essay that you hope will sway people’s thinking by denigrating a song millions love, but I have to say it: I detest John Lennon’s iconic, Imagine. Not only do I find the melody insipid, but the lyric “And no religion too,” punctures my soul.

Oh yes, I have heard how many problems religion causes -–all the wars, and all the destruction.

And lately Bill Maher has weighed in on the question, saying:

“When I hear from people that religion doesn’t hurt anything, I say, ‘Really?’ Well besides wars, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, 9/11, the suppression of women, the suppression of homosexuals, fatwas, honor killings, suicide bombings, arranged marriages to minors, human sacrifice, burning witches, and systematic sex with children, I have a few quibbles.”

To Mr Maher and Mr Lennon, I respond as follows:

Of course religion has caused great harm. Different religious expressions have perpetrated all of the horrors, Mr. Maher, that you note!

The problem is not with religion itself but with the distortion of religious ideals. Those wars result from our inability to accept that well-meaning people can view religious questions and practices differently. We do not need to do away with religion. We need to do away with our compulsion to force OUR religion on others. We need to learn to not only tolerate, but to respect and affirm religious diversity.

No doubt there are many thorns in the rose garden of religion, and many have felt the sting of those thorns. But on balance, we are far better off with religion than without it.

Without religion humanity would never have perceived that life has purpose and meaning and that we are each called in our own way to treat others with dignity and respect and to use our talents to create a more just, caring and compassionate society.

Without religion no one would have ever felt the call of a good, caring God, to feed, the poor, clothe the naked and house the homeless. Of course many people today do not believe in God but still do wonderfully positive things. But would they have ever discovered the impulse to do those things had people long ago not done them because they felt God commanded them to?

I doubt it.

Religion is like fire, the automobile, the internet and many other things we can name. All of these can be horribly destructive, but I would not want to Imagine the world without them.



Wir müssen mehr zuhören! Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Mattot (Numeri 30,2 – 32,42)

Der griechische Philosoph Epitctet (55 – 135 d.Z.) lehrte: Wir haben zwei Ohren und einen Mund, damit wir doppelt sie viel zuhören wie wir reden.

 Moses hätte diesen Rat befolgen sollen:

Als die Stämme Ruben und Gad fragten, ob sie auf der Ostseite des Jordan siedeln dürften, weil das fruchtbare Grasland für das Vieh sehr nützlich wäre, geriet Mose in Rage, unterbrach sie und sagte: “Wie könnt ihr eure Landsleute in den Krieg ziehen lassen und ihr haltet euch in sicherer Entfernung aus dem Kampf heraus?”

Erst nach langem Geschimpfe hörte er sie sagen. “Wir wollen als Stoßtrupp an der Spitze des Heeres gehen. Erst wenn das Land besetzt ist und Frieden hat, wollen wir zurückkehren in unser Gebiet auf dieser Seite.” Als das Missverständnis aufgeklärt war, stimmten Mose und Gott dem Wunsch der Stämme zu. (Numeri 32, 2-10

Unsere Weisen lehrten, dass die Verbannung aus Jerusalem und die Zerstörung des Tempels (70 d.Z.) nicht durch die Römer herbeigeführt worden war, sondern durch “grundlosen Hass” zwischen Juden.

Mehr zuhören und weniger reden hätte die jüdische Gesellschaft zu römischen Zeiten vielleicht bewahrt. Mehr zuhören könnte heute die israelische Gesellschaft bewahren, wenn die Frage brennt: Wer ist ein Jude?

Ultra-orthodoxe Autoritäten erklären regelmäßig, dass nicht-orthodoxe Juden nicht wirklich Juden seien. Aber nicht-orthodoxe Juden stellen die große Mehrheit der Juden Nord Amerikas. Ohne nicht-orthodoxe Unterstützung würde Israel nicht überleben.

Orthodoxe und nicht-orthodoxe Juden können durch konstruktive Gespräche viel gewinnen und viel verlieren, wenn sie sie vermeiden.

Hoffentlich werden wir lernen, einander zuzuhören, voneinander zu lernen, unsere Unterschiede als Juden zu akzeptieren und sie beiseite zu legen, wenn es darum geht für ein bessere Welt für alle Kinder Gottes zu arbeiten.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

A Living Torah! Quick Comment: Parashat Massey (Numbers 33:1-36:13)

The Book of Numbers ends with a modification to the ruling that Zelophehad’s daughters could inherit their father’s property (Numbers 27).

The tribesmen of Zelophehad appeal the ruling saying if the daughters marry outside the tribe, the tribe’s holdings would diminish.

God and Moses uphold the appeal and rule that Zelophehad’s daughters are free to marry whom they wish but only within their tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 36:12).

Without diminishing the enormous gain for women’s rights that the original ruling represented, the appeal verdict maintains tribal integrity (perhaps not important to us but certainly important then).

As it turns out Zelophehad’s daughters victory opened the door to the expansion of women’s rights in subsequent Jewish law, a process that the rabbis of the Mishnah (200BCE – 200CE) pursued enthusiastically.

By the first pre Christian century Jewish law instituted the Ketubah, a contract, as the basis for marriage. It’s most important provision was a lien on the husband’s property for a substantial sum to be paid to the wife if he divorced his wife or if he died (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 82b).

Although technically a woman could not divorce her husband, the rabbis approved a broad array of circumstances under which a woman could take her husband to court, which would force the husband to divorce and pay his wife the value of her Ketubah. These circumstances included changing jobs or location without his wife’s consent, (Babylonian Talmud, 52b, 110b; Mishnah Ketubot 13:10) and refusing to try to meet her sexual needs, (Mishnah, Ketubot 5:6).

The final words of the Book of Numbers testify that the Torah must prudently adapt to changing realities while maintaining Torah’s sanctity. The Rabbis of the Talmud and MIshnah were up to that challenge. Are we?

We Need to Listen More — Quick Comment Parashat Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42)

The Greek philosopher Epictetus (55 CE -135) taught: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we speak.”

Moses might have heeded this advice.

When the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked to settle on the east side of the Jordan to avail themselves of the fertile grazing land for their cattle, Moses flew into a rage and interrupted them saying, “How can you let your kinsmen go to war while you remain safe outside of the fray?

Only after a long angry rant did he hear them say:

“We will go as shock troops at the head of he invasion. Only when the land is settled and at peace will we return to our holdings on this side of the Jordan.” With the misunderstanding cleared up Moses and God consented to the tribes’ request. (Numbers 32:2-20)

Our Sages taught that the exile from Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) came about not because of Roman might but because of “baseless hatred” among Jews.

More listening and less talking might have saved Judaean society in Roman times. More listening might save Israeli society today where the question burns? Who is a Jew?

Ultra-Orthodox authorities frequently declare that non-Orthodox Jews are not really Jews. Yet non-Orthodox Jews are the vast majority of the North American Jewish world. Without non-Orthodox Jewish support Israel could not survive.

Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews have much to gain from constructive conversation and much to lose by avoiding it.

Hopefully we will learn to listen to one another, learn from one another, accept our differences as Jews, and put them aside when it comes time to work for a better world for all of God’s children.


For My German Readers: Korachs Kinder Kurzkommentar zum Tora-Abschnitt Pinchas (Nummeri 25, 10 – 30,1)

“Die Söhne Korachs starben nicht.” (Nummeri 26,11) Obwohl ihr Vater viele zu schwerer Sünde verleitete und Gott ihn entsprechend bestrafte, machte Gott Korachs Söhne nicht verantwortlich.

“Die Söhne Korachs starben nicht”, ist eine Metapher dafür, warum meine Frau Vickie und ich letztes Jahr zehn Wochen in Deutschland verbracht haben und werden es mit Eifer in diesem Herbst wieder tun.

Einer der beeindruckendsten Momente unserer Reise war, als unsere Gastgeber Pastor Martin Pommerening und Pastorin Ursula Sieg und ich Exodus 34,6-7 studierten. Der Abschnitt lehrt, dass Gottes Liebe und Güte bis in die tausendste Generation reichen, aber Gottes Ärger nur bis in die dritte Generation.

Jeder von uns predigte am nächsten Tag in einer Lutherischen Kirche über diesen Text und wir lernen alle voneinander.

Für mich ist der entscheidende Punkt des Abschnittes die große Differenz zwischen den Tausend und den Vier – zwischen Gottes Fähigkeit zu Liebe und Güte im Gegensatz zu seiner weniger ausgeprägten Fähigkeit zu Ärger und Strafe.

Es gibt einige biblische Beispiele (Deuteronomium 24,16; Jeremia 31,28-29; Hesekiel 18,19-20), die betonen, dass Kinder nicht verantwortlich gemacht werden dürfen für die Vergehen ihrer Eltern.

“Die Söhne Korachs starben nicht”, ist vielleicht das herausragendste Beispiel für diese wichtige Lehre.

Ich zitterte als ich in der Michaeliskirche sprach, weil es in dieser Kirche einen Pastor gab, Ernst Biberstein, der aus der Kirche austrat, um als Nazi ein Oberkommando zu übernehmen. In den Nürnberger Prozessen wurde er wegen des Mordes an tausenden Juden verurteilt.

Ich rief dem Geist Bibersteins zu: “Du wirst weiter in der Hölle verrotten, aber wir Juden sind immer noch hier!”

Dann sah ich Tränen bei vielen der Gottesdienstbesucher, als ich sagte:

“Ihr seid nicht verantwortlich für das, was dieser Mann tat. Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ändern, aber die Zukunft gehört uns, um sie gemeinsam zu gestalten!”

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Korach’s Children: Quick Comment: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

The sons of Korach did not die.” (Numbers 26:11)

Although their father led many into a grave sin, and was punished accordingly, God did not hold Korach’s sons responsible.

“The sons of Korach did not die,” is a metaphor for why my wife Vickie and I spent ten weeks in Germany last fall and will eagerly do so once again this year.

One of the most meaningful moments of our trip was when our hosts, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Pastor Ursula Sieg and I studied the Exodus 34:6-7. The passage teaches that God’s love and mercy extends a thousand generations, but God’s anger to only three or four.

We each preached in a Lutheran church on this text the next day, and we each learned from one another.

For me the point of the passage is the vast difference—between one thousand and four–between God’s capacity for love and mercy opposed to God’s much smaller capacity for anger and punishment.

There are specific biblical examples (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:28-29; Ezekiel 18:19-20) that emphasize children are not accountable for their parents’ sins.

“The sons of Korach did not die,” is perhaps the most magnificent example of this vital teaching!

I trembled as I spoke at the Michaeliskirche in Kaltenkirche because the one time pastor of that church, Ernst Biberstein, left the church to become a Nazi Oberkommando. The Nuremberg tribunal convicted him of the deaths of thousands of Jews.

I addressed the ghost of Biberstein, saying, “You continue to rot in hell, but we Jews are still here!”

Then, I saw tears in the eyes of many worshippers when I said:

”You are not responsible for what this man did! We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape—together!

Before You Sing Mah Tovu Again, Please Read This! // Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

This essay originally appeared in:

Torah from Around the World

Published by The World Union for Progressive Judaism,


By: Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, Former World Union president, author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT, USA. He can be reached at, and his website,


So many times, I have heard rabbis or Cantors announce, “We begin our service with Mah Tovu!” And then the rabbi, Cantor, choir and congregation or some combination of those resources begin to sing: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!“ (Numbers 24:5)

As thinking Jews, and especially as Progressive Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly.

We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is, and most importantly, how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives.

This is particularly important with Mah Tovu.

When I first came to Israel as a student in 1970, I purposely woke up in time to hear the radio station begin its broadcast day with the singing of Mah Tovu! We say Mah Tovu each and every morning when we enter the sanctuary to remind us of the lesson of the biblical story from which it comes.

As the Children of Israel neared the end of their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab, was afraid that we would overrun his land. So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us. Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam – try as he might – could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…” (Numbers 24:5)

Balaam is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah.

He was smart enough to be considered a prophet and even the intellectual equivalent of Moses. (Numbers Rabbah, 14:20; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106A) And yet he was so dumb that he was clueless when even his donkey – an animal synonymous in all cultures with stupidity – perceived God’s will.

Indeed, it is a perplexing exercise to reconcile Balaam’s brilliance and his spiritual blindness, but in the end he sees the light and blesses Israel with the words we use to begin our prayers.
When we understand its biblical context, the prayer teaches us a vital lesson.

It is a lesson I have been privileged to teach over the past five years as visiting rabbi in Kiel, Potsdam, Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Bad Segeberg, Prague, Vienna, Milan, Florence and Turin. It is a lesson I was proud to proclaim in my visits to 65 Progressive communities in Israel and around the world during my tenure with the World Union. It is a lesson that I hope lies at the heart and soul of our mission as Progressive Jews wherever we find ourselves on this planet.

No outside force – no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Antiochus, no Torquemada, no Tsar, and no Hitler, no one – can ever destroy us! Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant. We can destroy ourselves by not seizing every opportunity we have to re-enforce the Covenantal imperatives with which God charged Abraham and Sarah in order to make our world a more just, caring and compassionate place for everyone:
Be a blessing (Genesis 12:2)
Walk in God’s ways and live lives that are worthy of them (Genesis 17:1)
Be living examples and teach our children to be living examples of Tzedakah and Mishpat, of justice and righteousness. (Genesis 18:19)

No! No outside force has ever destroyed us, and please God, none ever will. But we can destroy ourselves through apathy to our ideals and assimilation to the ways of the world around us.

We can destroy ourselves by ignoring our obligation to care deeply not only about Jewish life in our own communities but about the viability of meaningful Progressive Jewish life and its ideals in all of North America, Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, Africa, Australia and New Zealand–everywhere.

No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to apprehend and appreciate the message of the prayers we say, and failing to find purpose and meaning in our lives as Jews! With and only with that understanding, should we begin our service with Mah Tovu!