7/31/17

Shall we fast and mourn on Tisha B'Av? No!

No. I believe we should abolish the practice of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B'Av (falling on August 14 in 2016).

Now before you convene a synod to excommunicate me, know that I am in good company. In the third century CE the greatest Tanna, Rabbi Judah the Prince, tried to abolish Tisha B'Av.

My son Yitz called my attention to this passage below which records the rabbi's action [Soncino Babylonian Talmud (2012-04-25). Megillah and Shekalim (Kindle Locations 739-743). Kindle Edition.] and to Tosafot's glosses (at Megillah 5b) which reject the premise that someone could entertain the notion of abolishing Tisha B'Av.
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Rabbi planted a shoot on Purim, and bathed in the [bathhouse of the] marketplace of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz and sought to abolish the fast of the ninth of Ab, but his colleagues would not consent. R. Abba b. Zabda ventured to remark: Rabbi, this was not the case. What happened was that the fast of Ab [on that year] fell on Sabbath, and they postponed it till after Sabbath, and he said to them, Since it has been postponed, let it be postponed altogether, but the Sages would not agree.
Of course, if Rabbi Judah the Prince (compiler of the Mishnah) once tried to abolish Tisha B'Av but the sages would not agree to it, I do not expect that the sages of our times will agree with me to abolish Tisha B'Av.

Yet here is why they should.

I concur that as a culture we need to remember the calamities of the past so that we can be vigilant and prevent the calamities of the future. But we need effective ritual memories that are clear and unequivocal. Tisha B'Av commemorates that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in it were destroyed.

Because the city has been rebuilt in modern Israel, this befogs the symbolism of the past destruction and renders it less effective.

I have been mulling over this issue for thirty years or more. In 2012 I mused as follows (with a few edits added).

Is Tisha B'Av relevant? No I do not think that the fast of Tisha B'Av is relevant anymore. I need a holiday from Tisha B'Av.

That day was for a long time a commemoration through fasting and prayer over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple. I visited Jerusalem in May of 2011 (ed.: and again in 2013) and can attest that the city is not desolate. It is without reservations, glorious.

Who then wants the bleak story to be told? Archetypally the militant "celebrity" archetype wants to keep recalling defeat, destruction and desolation, to spur team Jews on to fight the foes and to triumph at the end of time. That scheme may work for that archetype as long as the facts of reality do not fly smack in the face of the narrative. And when they do, what then? The narrative loses its force.

I cannot imagine Jerusalem in ruins. Period. And indeed, why should I perpetuate an incendiary story of gloom and doom into a diametrically opposite positive world of building and creativity? The era of desolation has ended.

For over twenty-five years, I've been lamenting the irony of lamenting over a city that is rebuilt. It's more rebuilt now -- way more -- than it was twenty five years ago. What do I do then about Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of lament and mourning? Here is what I said those many years ago.

7/18/17

NYC Triathlon Swim: My Hudson River Diary 2013

New York City Triathlon, July 14, 2013, 6:45 AM

Minute Zero: Coming down the ramp onto the race-start-barge in the Hudson River at 99th Street.

Goggles, check; swim cap, check; stopwatch on zero, check. Interview with the race announcer over the public address, I’m Tzvee from Teaneck, New Jersey. Yes, it’s my first triathlon; yes, I’m on a relay team.

Line up, look into the river. Fourteen other swimmers in my wave and many of them sit down on the barge and jump in at the tone. So do I. It’s four feet from the barge to the water.

Minute One: I’m in the Hudson. It’s dark. I go in much deeper than I thought I would. It’s dark all around me. This was a mistake. I need to get out.

Wow, I now finally understand the psalm, “Out of the depths I cry out to you O Lord.” I do not like this at all. I’m back to the surface. It’s choppy. My heart is racing. My chest is tight. I’m not swimming. I need to swim. But where am I? Not sure. Start to do the breast stroke. Others around me are swimming. It’s cold. What a bad idea this was.

Minute Two: Still not swimming the crawl. Wetsuit. Should have worn one. Would float better. Another real dumb decision. Still doing the breast stroke and my breathing is too shallow. Realize that I am in full panic. Adrenalin starting to pump.

I’m not gonna make it. I see tomorrow’s obituary, “Teaneck Rabbi Drowns in Hudson… He always loved swimming, family recalls.”

I pray, “Shema Yisrael.” “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

Okay, so how do I get out of here? I am dizzy and disoriented. Just in case, I pray some variations, “Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Oh heck, “Hail Mary full of grace.” Hey, you never know. Oh, cover those bases, “Allahu akhbar.”

Minute Three: Still floundering. Tell myself to take deeper breaths. Urge myself to start to do the crawl. You can do this! No I can’t. I will swim over to that kayak and hop on board.

“Put your head down and swim!” That tight chest feeling is just panic. Not a heart attack. You wimp, you have six stents in your coronary arteries. You will be okay. Breathe, just breathe. Stroke, just stroke.

Minute Four: I’m coming back to grips with my reality. Ha! I muse that I will call out to the lifeguard on the surfboard, “I made a pledge to the United Jewish Appeal and haven’t paid it yet.” Old joke. The UJA definitely will make sure I get out alive.

I’m swimming now but going sideways. A guy in another kayak is pointing and waving at me to go in another direction. I am zigging and zagging. I’ve been swimming nearly every day for thirty years but boy, am I sucking at this swim.

Minute Five: I’m starting to get awareness for where I am and where are the other swimmers. “How long O Lord?” I sure haven’t made much progress. A long, long way to go.

Guess I really don’t like open water swimming in the Hudson. A little late to think about that now. Okay. Just stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

Minute Six to the Exit: Okay wow, we are doing this. Holy moly, it is far. No turning every 25 meters at the end of the pool. Can’t see any lane markers on the bottom of the river. No plastic lane dividers to gauge the direction. I am still veering right and left. There are currents and wakes. Salty I don’t mind. But feh. It’s dirty water.

Starting to bump into other swimmers. That’s good. Seems like a very long time. Stroke, breathe. Heart is strong. Breathing is better. Panic is easing.

Seems now like forever. Finally see the exit ramp ahead at 79th Street and a crowd of swimmers in front of it. A New York moment. Traffic jam is slowing us down at the Henry Hudson River off ramp.

Get to the ramp, a strong hand grips my hand and pulls me up. I’m out! Alive. But oh crap, I never started the stop watch. And double crap, now I have to run barefoot on asphalt to the bike transition. It’s long, it’s annoying. I reluctantly jog over half a mile. Hey, I am getting happier anyway.

I give my chip to my teammate, our rally team biker. He rides off.

I am done.

Check off that one.

Halleluyah.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, who lives in Teaneck and writes the monthly Dear Rabbi Zahavy column for the Jewish Standard, was inspired by his triathlete son Yitzhak, who did the entire NYC triathlon and raised money to help victims of terror through Team One Family. Tzvee did the NYC Tri swim leg with help from his two Team One Family teammates, Harvey Lederman and Leiba Rimler, who did the biking and running legs.

Donate here to help the families.

Published in the Jewish Standard, July 26, 2013.

7/7/17

Talmudic Advice from a Swim Addict: Swim 100 laps every day

The Tosefta quotes Rabbi Meir (2nd century CE) saying that everyone should strive to recite 100 blessings each day. It then goes on to explain how one can do this.

Blessings are berakhot ברכות in Hebrew. In modern Hebrew the laps that one swims in a pool are called berechot בריכות.

I playfully and read the Talmud this way: Don't say 100 berakhot, say 100 berechot.
More about Meir from Wikipedia: Meir was buried in a standing position near the Kinneret. Pictured here. It is said that he asked to be buried this way so when the Final Redemption occurs, Rabbi Meir would be spared the trouble of arising from his grave and could just walk out to greet the Jewish Messiah. He requested that he be buried in Israel by the seashore so that the water that washes the shores should also lap his grave (Jerusalem Talmud, Kelaim 9:4).
And so I have my Talmudic encouragement to swim 100 laps a day. On many days each year, I get to that goal.

Here are a few of my past reflections on swimming...

7/6/17

Transgender Kids, Covert Convert Bat Mitzvah and Vintage Necktie Aliyah Quandary - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - Your Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice for July 2017

Dear Rabbi Zahavy Your Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I recently asked my friend how her young grade-school kids — a boy and girl — were doing. She replied that they are fine, and they have new names. The boy now has a girl’s name and the girl has a boy’s name. I asked why? She matter-of-factly replied that they both are transgender.

I was dumbfounded to hear this. I said nothing to her. Should I ask her more about this? Should I discuss this with a responsible authority?

Worried About Trans Kids

Dear Worried,

Yes, you have every right to ask the parent for more details, and to seek out, with sensitivity, more information on this topic from friends or experts or from your own counselors. The mother makes no secret of the facts. She is open and proud of her children and their gender identities.

Gender dysphoria is a seriously hot topic this year in social and political discussions, and in the media. You will find many experts and pundits out there willing to share advice and counsel on the subject.