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Asara B’Tevet: Protesting Secular Jewish Identity

Thursday this week marks one of the minor fast days in the Jewish calendar, Asara B’Tevet.  If you are a supporter of Israel advocacy or Jewish identity, then you should feel compelled to mark this occasion through fasting, tefillah and other reflective means.  Notably, this day is used by many to observe a yartzeit for a relative whose date of death is unknown, in particular, for victims of the Shoah.  Unfortunately Holocaust Institutes and organisations around Australian tend to be unaware of this contemporary significance completely and fail to appropriately mark the occasion with a commemoration or presentation.

The biblical origin of thid fast day can be found in Melachim Bet, Perek Chaf Hey, where the siege and fortification of the walls of Jerusalem are sealed by the Bablylonian King Nebuchadntezer.  The Tanach describes the famine that resulted from supplies being unable to enter the City.  This all happened in 586 BCE, some 2,598 years ago.  Jewish memory is enduring, at least for those that guard its transition.

Another commemorative moment associated with this day is the Septuagent.  The Megila Taanit describes as follows: “On the 8th of Teves the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy and darkness descended upon the world for three days.”  The incident surrounded the day on which 72 elders concluded translating the Torah into Greek under duress.  The historical significance of this was that for the first time, the Torah, previously imparted in a language that never separated its text from its oral interpretation, was now accessible outside of traditional modes of transition, and susceptible to misinterpretation.  Rabbinic tradition holds that the Elders each made changes to the literal meaning of some areas of the text to avoid persecution.  This was miraculous as the changes were consistently applied, despite the imposed isolation of the translators.

However the real tragedy that was marked by the Rabbis was that the Torah could be reduced from its status as a doctrine to become a literary or “cultural” document that could be applied to anthropological and secular study by those who cared not to be influenced by the ethos and dynamism of its construct.  William Kolbrener writes as follows:

What Ptolemy did with the translation was to take the Torah out of the house of study and put it in the Gymnasia, his version of the university library.  Ptolemy gave the Torah the Hellenist version of a Library of Congress call number, and in so doing gave it the status of other books in the Greek library.  ‘Study the Bible in the university library’ Ptolemy says ‘but do not learn Torah in the house of Study.’…. The fast after Chanukah marks the time when Jews become enlightened outsiders to their tradition, unemotional ‘objective’ observers, distant and disengaged’.

Jewish identity is an amazing construct that is hard to understand.  Irrespective of belief of value base, a Jew is genetically defined by birth.  A Jew cannot be counted amongst klal yisrael unless they bring forward the freakish status of their birthright or undertake an arduous conversion.  Yet at the same time, without a commitment to Jewish tradition and the practical adherence of day to day observances, a Jew cannot fulfil their obligations towards their birthright (and more often than not will lose the mantle of Jewish continuity).  The element that holds these two aspects of identity (birth and observance) together is that of nationhood.  This is physically manifested by the land of Israel, the homeland that is biblically bequeathed to the Jewish people.

Due to this dichotomy of Jewish identity, one cannot be fully Jewish with beliefs and values (ideas) alone, and one cannot be fully Jewish without the beliefs and values that were established through the covenant of Abraham.  There is a place for cultural Judaism, but not to the exclusion of Judaism in its totality.  There is a place for Zionist identity, but not to the exclusion of Judaism in its totality.  There is a place for Jewish religious identity, but this remains incomplete if it is bereft of cultural Jewish expression and  Jewish national aspiration.

Each component of Jewish identity is inherently integrated, and serves as the basis of the definition of Jewish unity.

When we fast this week, it is not a superficial commemoration of the Greek military machine that overpowered and ultimately terminated the first Jewish Commonwealth.  There is a need to take this tragic moment of Jewish history back to its source, and to once again recall that Jerusalem only stands tall and proud as the centre of the Jewish world when the Jewish people unite to recognise its holiness and use its spiritual power to set an example of universal harmony.

Such a vision of Jewish unity may seem illusory, but it is really far closer than we realise.  It is only held back by those amongst us who disregard the importance of Jerusalem as the Beit Hamikdash that brings shamayim to haaretz, and who fail to understand that cultural Jewish identity is no surrogate for Jewish identity in its totality.

Perhaps Asara B’Tevet can become a contemporary “Jewish Spring” – a protest against the unfulfilled potential of the Jewish people.

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