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When Religious Institutions Fail: A Reflection for Tisha B'Av and Every Other Day

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The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which coincides this year with sundown on July 19, recalls the collapse of ancient Judaism's central religious institution, the Jerusalem Temple. The First Temple, built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians, was, according to the Talmud, destroyed because the Israelites practiced idolatry, rape, incest, and murder. According to the same source, the Second Temple, destroyed by Rome, was destroyed because of casual hatred between people.

The rabbis taught that in each case, a religious institution failed because of the failing of those who worshiped there. In that approach lies an important lesson for all people who look to those outside their own religious community to understand why the institution they love may not be doing as well as they would like.

Rather than cast blame at the feet of others, the sages of the Talmud remind their followers that even for a relatively poor and powerless people, both the roots of past failures and the keys to future success are usually found closer to home than the faithful often imagine. This is not about blaming the victim as much as it is about empowering the victim to take responsibility for their past and reminding them of their capacity to build a better future.

Whether this is a sufficient explanation or not, the rabbis' approach is worthy of attention. Both of their answers point us toward what is essentially the same problem, one which is painfully present in virtually every religious community functioning today: the privileging of doctrine over people.

The sin cycle of idolatry/improper sex/murder, sometimes called Judaism's "Big Three," is defined by the three acts for which one must give up one's life if asked to commit. In Jewish law, all other transgressions are insignificant compared to saving a life, but not these three. Why? Because in the case of the "Big Three," transgressors imagine that nothing in the world is more important than themselves and what they want to do. God is made small, and people lose significance altogether.

According to the Sages, the First Temple collapsed because it was supported by people who had life backwards: they put themselves before others, with no limitations. The God which they worshipped was simply a reflection of themselves, never offering corrective exhortation or even an alternative view of reality, and this justified their doing to others whatever they felt like doing, including raping and murdering them. Any Temple which was central to that kind of culture should have collapsed.

When the temples in our life provide nothing but excuses for that which we already want to do, and when they fail to sensitize us to those beyond the temple's walls, as was apparently the case in ancient Israel, the collapse of those temples is a reasonable, if tragic, result. And the same can be said for the loss of the Second Temple.

The Talmud teaches that casual hatred caused the collapse of the Second Temple, and it tells stories to illustrate what that means. The stories all boil down to the same issue: people, intoxicated with their own interpretation of events, are prepared to hurt and shame other human beings who happen not to share the same understanding of reality. I know that sounds tragically like an all-too-contemporary story.

As in the events which led to the first collapse, the second was also a function of people putting themselves and their particular ideas ahead of any basic respect for the needs and feelings of others. In that sense, the Talmud's two explanations for the destruction of the Temples are really one explanation framed two ways. How Talmudic!

Either way, what was true two millennia ago remains true today: the integrity of our temples is guaranteed not by their walls, the armies that guard them, or the rituals performed within. The integrity of our temples is assured, if at all, by the way in which we treat both those who worship in them and those who don't.

When our temples, be they religious, political, cultural, or otherwise, serve people more than people serve them, then those temple deserve to survive. When it's the other way around, not so much.

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