Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

The Three Week Challenge by Erica Brown

July 12, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

There are certain features of an Orthodox life that you don’t expect non-Orthodox people to know or observe. If you’ve never heard of cholent, you’re not likely to encounter it on a cable food program any time soon. If you haven’t heard of the prohibition of tearing toilet paper on Shabbat or the intricacies of kashrut and rabbinic supervision, you’re not likely to encounter them in everyday conversation. And even if you have slightly more than the average Hebrew school education, chances are good that you have never heard of the Three Weeks.

Some mitzvot and customs have made a surprising début in the non-Orthodox community. It’s startling to read a responsum asking if one can build a sukkah on Shabbat because we once assumed that the only people who build sukkot are Sabbath observant. Not any more. The mikveh – once regarded as a relic of a blood taboo culture and deemed anti-feminist – has made a remarkable come-back among the non-Orthodox. Tashlikh is another one of those Jewish surprises that has been gaining traction for years now.

What chance do we have that the Three Weeks will ever invite that kind of notice? Not much chance, it seems. Firstly, the Three Weeks takes place not at the beginning of the school/Jewish holiday year but in the thick of summer when few are in an educational or disciplined spiritual structure to have a serious conversation on loss. Kinot do not make for great beach reading. Secondly, recalling Temple customs and their obliteration is not high on the usual list of affirming and meaningful rituals for moderns. It’s not hard to make the case for the joy of Sukkot, the transformative powers of water immersion or the easy wipe-the-slate clean-in-a -few minutes ease of Tashlikh.

Lastly and most significantly, Tisha B’Av and its surrounding rituals is not winning any popularity contest in the non-Orthodox competition for meaning because we have created a modern, history-free Judaism where what reigns is largely what is compelling of the moment. The present is all consuming. The past is instantly forgettable. In this kind of culture – where at best there is benign neglect of history that is anything past the Holocaust in date – it is near impossible to bring people into the landscape of loss that is the Three Weeks.

What does this mean for Orthodox people who do observe this mourning period? Honestly, we are not doing a good enough PR job. Unlike other rituals or holidays that we proudly speak about to others, we are often hesitant to talk about the Three Weeks to office mates and colleagues. It doesn’t seem relevant. Maybe we don’t have the language ourselves. Maybe we fiddle with turning the radio on or off and silently confess that it may just not be meaningful enough to us to share it with others. We can’t make a really compelling case.

And yet we’ve made that case successfully with other rituals that have brought depth and meaning to people who aren’t traditionally observant. Why stop when it comes to the Three Weeks? Don’t we all know – observant or not – the price Jews have paid in history for our spiritual commitments? Isn’t that worth a thought or two and a pause on the calendar year?

Of course, mourning is hard, especially for a building we’ve never been inside. But just watch any “secular” Israeli or tourist at the Kotel. It is not only religious people who know how to cry. It is not only people who keep halakha who understand what loss means. Mourning puts us in the framework of redemption and helps us appreciate what it means to have a collective spiritual center and a different kind of relationship with God. If we don’t have the monopoly on those sentiments then let us not have a monopoly on the knowledge that leads to observance. When it comes to the Three Weeks, we must not only be mourners. We must all become educators.

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her latest book is In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks (OU/Maggid).

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