Let’s Face It: We’re in Exile

אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם
Eichah yashvah badad, ha-ir rabati am.
Alas it sits alone, the city once great with people.

These were the words that arose in my heart when I walked into the synagogue’s sanctuary to lead a streaming-only service for the first time. They comprise the opening of the book of Lamentations, the heart-wrenching and gut-turning biblical poem that attempts to process the calamitous destruction of the First Temple. We recite it on Tisha B’Av, when Jews perform rituals of mourning and weep over the calamities that have befallen our people throughout history, over the feeling of never quite being at home wherever we are.

Many progressive Jews, like we in the Reform Movement, have excised the language of exile from our theology and liturgy––a choice that dates back to some of the earliest Reformers of 19th century Germany. We no longer give voice to yearnings for the restoration of the Temple, as many other Jews still do in their daily prayers, and we substitute phrases like “World Jewry” for “Diaspora” because we refuse to define ourselves by what we lack.

There is good reason for this. Over half a dozen generations now, we have built a comfortable religious life in America. We established our large suburban congregations, built massive institutions to distribute resources, and we created a vibrant religious life within those structures. And it’s been a good religious life. Not perfect, but pretty good and pretty comfortable.

But now, thanks to COVID-19, we can’t gather in those sanctuaries, we can’t fund those associations, and we can’t celebrate our joys and mourn our losses together. We have been displaced from our spiritual homes.

We need to dust off the theology of exile some of us (myself included) once put on a shelf. Not the “we sinned and God kicked us out” part; that bit can stay in the bin. But the part that says, “We had to leave our way of life, and we’re sad and we’re lonely and we miss what we once could do. And we really, really hope we can someday return.”

But, Sam, aren’t you being a little dramatic? Surely you can’t compare COVID-19 to the destruction of the Temples or to the other events associated with Tisha B’Av and Lamentations (e.g. the decrees of the Crusades, the expuslion of Jews from various European countries, and the start of WWI), right?

Right. Each disaster brought its own pain, and I’m not interested in equating one with the other or debating which is worse. What I mean is that, in doing away with the concept of exile, we left ourselves without a uniquely helpful tool for understanding times like these, when we feel removed from what should be.

Here are some ways exile is a useful frame for our current situation:

Exile is wrought by destructive forces. All the calamities we recall on Tisha B’Av were violent or precipitated violence. Today, the novel coronavirus renders public spaces unsafe, just as it wrecks bodies and causes deep emotional and spiritual suffering. The disruption has ripple effects, too, which will persist into the coming year. There are the financial implications of not being able to run our organizations as we have in the past. And as we habituate to physical distancing and to being wary of gathering spaces, we’ll become reticent to resume “normal” operations and we’ll acclimate to new ways of doing things––thus rendering the old models unfit for a post-COVID-19 world. I fear that, in the short term, some of our communal organizations will close because of financial pressures, and in the long term, some will close because they’ve become irrelevant. Those of us who fell in love with and trained to serve people within those structures will find ourselves without jobs and, worse still, feeling useless, and those of use who call those structures our spiritual homes will find ourselves spiritually homeless.

Exile is really, really sad. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, when we pause and allow ourselves to sit with the brokenness of the world without trying to fix it. I don’t get the sense that most Jewish communal organizations have allowed themselves to mourn the loss of what we’ve loved. Some have publicly taken a little of that time: last week, when the URJ camps announced their collective decision to cancel in-person summer activities, many convened online to offer a virutal hug and give space for tears. And some individuals have privately done so (I’m thinking of the grief that students, families, and couples feel at not being able to celebrate their simchas as they’d like). But as communities? Most jumped to replace in-person programming with as close a digital mimicry as possible. And then we posted them all on social media, projecting the image of “we’re fine, we can adapt.” But we’re not fine. The first tasks of grief and mourning are to acknowledge the reality of the loss and to experience the sadness and anger that follow. Eventually we’ll adjust to the new reality and reinvest our energy into new endeavors, but that takes time. Let’s slow down and allow ourselves to grieve what is now beyond our reach.

Exile is about bodily displacement. After the destruction of the First Temple, it was by the waters of Babylon that we sat and wept and remembered Zion. This was not a mere act of imagination; our bodies were not in their homes. In this pandemic, as a collective we are paying attention to our bodies in ways we haven’t for a long time. While many individuals have long considered how the environement affects their physical safety or how they have been homebound for a significant amount of time already, the rest of us are now thinking about how we breathe, where we can go, and what it’s like not to be touched by others. Exile is physical; it is about our bodies not being in a place safely. No amount of virtual connection can replace physical proximity. And it attunes us to the sacred spaces themselves that rest empty. אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד Eichah yashvah badad. Alas, it sits alone.

Exile makes us question life in the “before.” Perhaps as a coping mechanism for grappling with exile, rabbinic tradition cites baseless hatred within our own society as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple. In reality, Roman conquest caused the destruction, but that also doesn’t preclude the presence of internal societal fractures. And this is as close as I’ll get to the aspect of exile theology that inculpates us in our own suffering. To say pain is necessary for a meaningful life is bad theology. But what is fair is examining all the assumptions and systems we once took for granted, now laid bare by the exile we find ourselves in. What really is the role of a building in creating community? Did we really need all those programs? What inequalities did we ignore previously that now confront us dramatically? Who was alone before, and who is alone now? These are worthwhile questions to ask, and, in time, they may even prompt growth.

Exile makes some activities impossible. When the Second Temple was destroyed, with it went the sacrificial cult. Jews simply do not do animal sacrifices anymore; the early rabbis did not reinstate them elsewhere, though many liturgies still pray for their restoration. It may be less drastic than that shift, but our current situation also renders certain things once integral to our religious lives impossible. We can no longer build relationships in the unstructured time before and after services and classes. We can no longer go to the places that once brought us peace of mind. We can no longer sing in unison together. I understand why some movements, like the Reform movement, have ruled interactive online gatherings to be legitimate minyanim in these pressing times. But because it does not allow for those functions (the singing together especially), it truly does not suffice as a minyan for me. Much can be done online via Zoom and streaming, but some things simply cannot be mimicked virtually. And that is sad, and it’s okay to miss those things.

Exile forces creativity. All is not lost. When the early rabbis of Yavneh sought to maintain Judaism, they devised a whole new system of prayer. The new system was related to the old sacrificial system, but it was not a replacement. It was what the moment required of them. So too for us, the needs of this moment are different than the needs of three months ago. We have had to devise new ways of staying connected, new forms of rituals, and new networks of support. Many used to go out of their homes to a place where a specialist would facilitate their spiritual experience, and now most have to take their spiritual lives into their own hands at home. This is a good thing, but it changes the way people need a religious community. We don’t yet know the whole calling coming for us as we settle into this exile for months to come. A little patience and listening will reveal what new forms of service we will need.

Exile carries the hope of return. Last month we ended our seders, some of us on Zoom, with “Next year in Jerusalem!” (Funny how that bit of exile theology persisted even in liberal circles.) We also joked/cried, “Next year in person!” We sensed, innately it seems, that this state of affairs is not going to last forever. No exile does––or, rather, by calling an experience exile we tell ourselves a story that says our current circumstances are temporary. We yearn for return. Oh, how we yearn for return: for the ability to hold one another again, for the ability to sing together again, for the ability to be a little more carefree again. That’s the prayer with which we end Lamentations, the prayer for return:

הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah; chadeish yameinu k’kedem.
Return us to You, Adonai, and let us return; renew our days as of old.

I’ll conclude with the following lines from the Shabbos song Tzur Mishelo, which capture the particular yearning I feel to fill a space with people sing with a large group once again:

יִבָּנֶה הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, עִיר צִיּוֹן תְּמַלֵּא, וְשָׁם נָשִׁיר שִׁיר חָדָשׁ וּבִרְנָנָה נַעֲלֶה
Yibaneh hamikdash, ir tzion tamaleh, visham nashir shir chadash uvirnanah na’aleh.
Let the Temple be restored,​ Zion refilled,​ that we may come up singing a new song.

2 comments

  1. […] I do believe that Tisha B’Av is valuable. Back at the beginning of the stay-at-home orders, I wrote a whole piece about how its themes are particularly useful for framing our current pandemic-…. I also know that there is a lot of brokenness in the world, and I do think that it’s okay, […]

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