In Seattle, where I live, a depressed Muslim gunman opened fire on six women at the Jewish Federation office, killing one. Later the same weekend, Mel Gibson shot off his mouth in an insane tirade blaming all the world’s troubles on, yes, the Jews.
From a secular perspective, it is all extraordinarily hard to process, to understand what drives such diverse expressions of contempt. From a Jewish perspective, a biblical one, it’s not so hard at all. And in that thought lies hope and comfort both for Jews and for the world.
Tisha b’Av, beginning Wednesday night, Aug. 2, is set aside for contemplating the tragic aspect of Jewish history. Its observances include fasting, the chanting of the Bible’s book of Lamentations, and the singing of ancient dirges. We recall the destruction of the First and the Second Temple in Jerusalem, both of which occurred on this day, along with a string of other catastrophes including, for example, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
But Tisha b’Av—Hebrew for the ninth of Av—also climaxes a period of three weeks, beginning on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and concluding on the 9th day of the month of Av. Traditionally, these three weeks, and especially the first nine days of Av, are viewed as an ominous time for the Jewish community. When bad things happen to the Jews, tradition tells us, they tend to happen in one or both of these periods, called simply the Three Weeks and the Nine Days.
If secular materialists are right—that the world has no supernatural aspect, that reality is composed simply of atoms bumping up against each other, that human beings exist because of an unguided process of natural selection operating on random genetic variation—then it’s impossible to understand historical patterns like the Three Weeks and the Nine Days. If history as a whole is unguided and therefore ultimately meaningless, there should be no unpropitious periods associated with sadness year after year.
Yet the disturbing events of the past three weeks, the past nine days, remind us that history indeed follows patterns fraught with meaning. Israel under attack, the Seattle shooter, Mad Mel of Malibu–these things remind us that history is meaningful after all. Someone set up these patterns, and the biblical view holds that it is God.
Where is the hope and comfort in that? It means that God is in control after all, and He has a plan. For Jewish suffering has a dual aspect. On one hand, it is almost always understood, whether by the Bible or the Talmud, as collective punishment for Jewish sins. The idea is disturbing, but unavoidable in Jewish literature. In this way God actually works through the deeds of anti-Semites. His chastisements are intended to remind us of the purpose He had in mind in making us Jews: to do His will and thereby represent Him in the world.
At the same time, the spectacle of Jewish suffering has an educational purpose for the rest of the world. Seeing God’s hand revealed so clearly, other people are confronted with the realization that God is at work among us. Thus, Jewish pain brings both Jews and non-Jews closer to God.
We can see evidence of this in the way many Christian churches radically revised their negative views of Jews and Judaism in light of the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism itself is part of God’s plan, chastening Jews and enlightening others, an observation that makes sense of what otherwise would be senseless. The hatred of Jews, the obsession with this tiny group of people, which threads through history is otherwise inexplicable.
There were anti-Jewish pogroms in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century C.E., before Christianity had spread across the Mediterranean world. While Europe has entered its post-Christian phase, contempt for Jews persists. The spirit of anti-Semitism made use of the Christian religion, then discarded it and took up residence in other belief systems. The hatred of Jews is clearly supernatural, like the creature in a horror film that can’t be killed and keeps coming back in changed but recognizable forms.
That’s comforting? From a big-picture perspective, yes it is, because the only supernatural explanation we know of is the one offered by the Bible. God uses other peoples to rebuke us, yet history moves in the direction of redemption, toward the promise of peace and justice in a messianic era. The rebukes remind us all, Jews and non-Jews, that the world does not run on purely natural principles. They are like an unpleasant and slow-acting but ultimately powerful medicine.
Those who hold the Bible as a divinely revealed guide to understanding reality can hardly be surprised at all this. The prophet Isaiah speaks of God’s suffering “servant,” repeatedly identified with the people Israel: “He was oppressed and afflicted, but he did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to the slaughter or a ewe that is silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth” (53:7). In Hebrew, the words translated as “oppressed” and “afflicted” respectively connote economic exploitation and physical torment, elegantly summarizing the thread of tragedy in more than 3,000 years of the Jewish experience.
According to biblical tradition, however, there is a redemptive aspect to this suffering. “The Lord desired to crush him and He made him ill; if his soul would acknowledge guilt, he would see offspring and live long days and the desire of the Lord would succeed in his hand. He would see [the purpose] and be satisfied with his soul’s distress. With his knowledge My servant will vindicate the Righteous One to multitudes; it is their iniquities that he will carry.” (53:10-11).
This means that when Jews suffer and recognize God’s purposes at work in their affliction, they vindicate God before the world. Paradoxical as it may seem, God’s “desire,” His plan to bring the world’s people to Him, is advanced by the spectacle of anti-Jewish feeling in its various manifestations. In this way, the patterns He weaves in history are continually placed before the world’s eyes. The Weaver Himself is revealed.
The Jews bear the world’s iniquities, suffering them, for a higher purpose. It improves us, as rebukes do, and–so goes the biblical view–it ensures the betterment of the world. Each spasm of hate hastens the time when there will be no more hate.
Which brings us back to Tisha b’Av, the day above all others when we are called to contemplate the purpose behind centuries of tears. How cruel it would be if all that pain had, as in the secular and materialist perspective, no meaning whatsoever.
On the other hand, if Israel’s torment, the Seattle Jewish community’s distress, and everyone’s disgust at Mel Gibson’s ranting, if all these things indicate that God guides our lives, that is a different matter altogether. Even in pain, then, there would be hope that at the end of the painful process is redemption. History is not out of control, hurtling blindly forward without meaning. On the contrary, with every Tisha b’Av, we are given a fresh reminder that all the world is under a guiding hand, bringing us all closer, however slowly, to God.