The Eicha problem?
The public conversation on antisemitism has recently turned to an unlikely source. Read in synagogue on the night of Tisha b’Av (July 28), Eicha has prompted reflection on the degree to which Jews wrongly take responsibility for antisemitism, both today and throughout history.
In February, author Dara Horn gave an online talk in which she questioned our inclination to blame ourselves for our national setbacks. She referred to Eicha, the book of Lamentations, which describes the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem more than 2,500 years ago.
While describing a myriad of Babylonian war crimes, Eicha almost never mentions the perpetrators.
Who are the villains in Eicha? They are the Jews themselves, who brought about their own destruction with their sins. Our sages in the Talmud further cement this idea by explaining that the Second Temple wasn’t destroyed by the Romans’ hatred for Jews, but by senseless hatred of Jews toward other Jews. Horn calls this tendency of Jews to believe that antisemitism is our own fault the “Eicha problem.”
While in its classical form the Eicha problem might be phrased as, “The way to stop antisemitism is to stop sinning against God,” it also has secular forms. Chaim Nachman Bialik, in a poem on the 1903 Kishinev Pogroms, criticized traditional Jews for reciting the confession of sins in response to the tragedy. Yet, Bialik’s Zionist response was likewise informed by the “Eicha problem.” He blames the Jews for not having defended themselves from attack. Either way, Jewish suffering was the Jews’ fault.
Horn argues that we’re foolish to take responsibility for other’s aggression against us. We must stop blaming ourselves.
While Horn is right to call attention to how we process national tragedy, Eicha is not the problem. It’s part of the solution. Eicha is a symptom of a fundamental Jewish philosophy that has allowed us to survive through history despite our political weakness. We believe that we matter. We believe that our actions matter. We don’t believe we’re victims. We believe –whether in religious terms through our commitment to God and Torah, or in secular terms through our engagement politically, militarily or diplomatically – that our fate is in our own hands.
To fully assign blame to others is to lose our belief in our own capacity to act. The belief that no matter our enemies’ actions, we control our own destiny has allowed us to consider a future that might be different. It has allowed us to hope for better tomorrows.
British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expressed this idea beautifully in a recent article on Jewish leadership, “At the heart of Judaism are three beliefs about leadership: We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.”
Eicha, problem or solution, is a signal of our beliefs about ourselves. To believe that Babylonian, Romans, Germans or Iranians control our fate is to lose our freedom and our responsibility. By taking on our shoulders the heavy burden of our own destruction, we protect our freedom. May we never lose our belief in our power to change our world.
Chaim Strauchler is rabbi of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto.