Insights from the S&P Sephardi Community Rabbis on the Parsha
Vaethanan: Tu B’Ab – Sephardic Love and Independence
The 15th day of the Jewish month of Av is a minor festival called Tu B’Ab. It is considered a joyous day, when in Biblical times young people went out to the fields to find a marriage partner (Mishna Ta’anit 4:8). However, the joyous day’s incidental proximity to the 9th of Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the exile of our people, and our travails in the Diaspora, is striking. Perhaps this quick turnaround from mourning to matchmaking simply represents Jewish resilience and eternal hope.
However, I believe there is another, more nuanced, point to consider. Our sages tell us that the Temple was destroyed on account of sin’at hinam, baseless hatred, between Jew and Jew. The Talmud is replete with stories of internal division and discord in the lead up to the Roman invasion, siege and destruction. So beyond the contrast between mourning and celebration, from 9 to 15 Av we move from the memory of animosity and personal conflict to the commemoration of love and relationships. Perhaps this disparity is calling on us to consider why sometimes we hate, whilst at other times we love. I believe one difference between the two lies in another dispute, one that occurred in the S&P long ago during this time of year.
On the 16th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, in 1705, the London Mahamad issued a resolution. They declared that they would never again request a decision or judgement from the Amsterdam Bet Din or Mahamad. It is startling that their divisive ruling was made just the day before the fast of Tammuz when we begin the three weeks of mourning leading up to 9 Ab. This must surely speak to the significance of their proclamation and the frustration that lay behind it.
In 1702, David Nieto, the London community’s recently arrived Haham, was preaching in their newly built Bevis Marks Synagogue. He delivered an address in which he argued that there is no distinction between G-d and Nature. Some in attendance accused him of heresy, denying the existence of G-d, and being a Spinozist and pantheist. When the controversy would not go away, the Mahamad wrote to their parent community in Amsterdam to rule on the matter. However, the Dutch authorities were unwilling to involve themselves in an affair which pitted people with connections to their community against one another.
Ultimately, the London Mahamad turned to Hamburg’s prominent rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi to rule on the matter. He determined that Nieto’s sermon was in keeping with Jewish tradition and that London’s Haham was a scholar of the highest calibre. This decision is printed in R’ Ashkenazi’s collection of rabbinic reponsa called Haham Tzvi (No 18).
While the controversy was therefore laid to rest, the matter was not concluded for London’s leadership. Frustrated with Amsterdam’s reluctance to support their cause, they distanced themselves from their mother community. They determined that from that point forward they would no longer seek council from Amsterdam and instead rely on their own Bet Din. It was a declaration of independence. Indeed, from this point forward, London herself now took on the role of parent community to a growing number of congregations in Gibraltar and the New World.
Importantly though, we know that the London/Amsterdam relationship was not severed completely. In fact, on a whole variety of social issues they continued to collaborate, particularly when it came to the care for the poor, fundraising in support of Jews in the Holy Land, and other such matters. In other words, what had really happened was that they went from having a dependent relationship to an interdependent one. Interdependence is conditional on each party first having independence. Only through independence can two parties freely choose to work together in a manner in which each contributes and grows through the encounter.
Returning to Tu B’Ab, the same principle is applicable to our personal lives. Relationships wherein each person values the other person’s independence and that are based on mutual respect are more likely to lead to growth and fulfilment for everyone involved.
The juxtaposition of 9 and 15 Av therefore draws our attention each year to reflect on the characteristics which lead to healthy and productive relationships and communities. After the Nieto affair London and Amsterdam began to treat each other as equals. This led to a beautiful relationship of a new type between these two communities which spanned centuries. Whilst many factors contribute to successful relationships, independence, mutual respect, and collaboration are surely high on the list.
Happy Tu B’Ab!
Rabbi Shalom Morris
Rabbi, Bevis Marks Synagogue