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The Cult of Tragedy

reposted from The Jerusalem Post
June 27, 2013 Thursday 19 Tammuz

by Chaim Richman

The month of Tamuz, which marks the beginning of "the Three Weeks," has traditionally been associated with weeping and tragedy.

The fast of Tamuz 17 begins a period of national mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple, ending with solemn day of Tisha Be’av. The month of Tamuz, which marks the beginning of "the Three Weeks," has traditionally been associated with weeping and tragedy.

The name Tamuz originates from a major Sumerian and later Mesopotamian deity, ultimately transposed in the Greek pantheon as Adonis. The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1,2) states that the names of the months originated in the Babylonian exile. But even if that was the accepted practice of nomenclature, why would the sages of Israel allow for Jewish tradition to be so influenced by pagan culture as to identify one of the months of the sacred calendar with an idol? The month of Tamuz expresses a concept, and holds a secret that can be unlocked by its very name. This month is about transformation, and by its name it issues a challenge to Israel to rise to its national calling: Face idolatry head on, do not shirk or hide from the responsibility of bringing about change.

We find a mysterious verse in the book of Ezekiel which requires explanation: "He then brought me to the entrance of the gate of the Temple of Hashem that is to the north, and behold, there were women sitting, causing Tamuz to cry" (8:14).

Rashi comments that this Tamuz was an idol fashioned of iron, with eyes made of lead. When the statue was heated, the lead melted, creating the illusion the idol was shedding tears. The cult of Tamuz was about weeping – fabricated, crocodile tears.

In his famed Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that this verse refers to an immensely popular cult of performance art – the precursor of "modern" Greek tragedy genre – that celebrated the death of the god Tamuz. His death was portrayed in a play that became so much a part of popular culture it was shown right at gates to the Temple.

How odd! Pagan matinees performed at the gates of the Holy Temple? Women were so taken by this tragic story that they would sit and cry over the pitiful, painful story of the death of this character.

The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology describes the origin of the ancient story. Tamuz, the lover of Ishtar, was forced to die and descend to underworld. Ishtar bewailed his death with lamentations in the midst of a choir of weeping women. This immensely popular scene was perpetuated year after year; the scene was reproduced in funeral chants (later with the names Adonis and Aphrodite).

The god was believed to die every year. Laments for the departed Tamuz are even extent in Babylonian hymns, dirges described by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough as "lament of the flutes for Tamuz, to shrill mourning of women with flutes... melancholy rites." The story reflects the cycle of the year, the onset of winter and spring, and was an invention of the pagan mindset that served to explain the phenomena of the changing seasons. It is a story of great pathos.

But could this be the same Tamuz that was bewailed at the gates of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem? Maimonides was well acquainted with the cult of Tamuz referred to by Ezekiel. It was the expression of cyclical, communal mourning; a twisted image of the life cycle. From time immemorial, people have gotten "stuck" in the cycle of life: despondent and in need of an explanation that makes them feel they are but victims of malignant forces. The institutionalized theatrical culture of Greek drama has its origins as a religious cult that romanticized sadness.

The crying associated with Tamuz is our key to understanding the real tragedy of Tamuz: The people of Israel are stuck in a cycle of meaningless mourning. For many, the mourning for the Holy Temple itself has become the end, rather than the means to an end.

But if the goal is the rebuilding of the Temple, how did we get into this mindset, and how can we change? Are we expected to just flail and wail over the Temple year after year? How ironic: Tamuz itself is known to the Jewish people as the time of tears. But these tears are supposed to be constructive. We have become stuck in a yearly cycle, much like the ancient pagan cycle of lament, which seems to bring us back to the same old place, satisfied with the mourning itself. Subliminally, instead of being motivated to rise up, we are caught in the cult of tragedy.

The fabricated tears of Tamuz are the romanticization of pain; being comfortable with the pain because it is what we are used to. This is what Maimonides alludes to. We can become so stuck in a place, so part of the cycle, that there is no way out of it.

But the whole idea of Tamuz is for us to confront those idolatrous forces within our own psyche. Parts of the Jewish mindset have been taken over. We have been lobotomized by the pagan mindset of weeping over Tamuz. The verse in Ezekiel alludes to the weeping over our own lives, the tragic aspects of our lives, because self-pity feels so good. So we do it again and again, year after year.

Mourning for the Temple is not about crying over the past, or obsessing about something we cannot change; it is about becoming motivated to rise up from mourning, to transform this world into a place for the Divine Presence.

The seductive qualities of the ancient pagan cult of Tamuz feed off the human feelings of frailty, and the false feeling of vulnerability; the cult of seeing life in the negative, as a tragedy. The very name of this month beckons to us to break the cycle of pain and tragedy, to dry the tears and to rise up out of the dust of mourning.

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of the international department of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem. For over three decades the Temple Institute has been dedicated to every aspect of the biblical commandment to build the Holy Temple.

Through its research and educational programming, the institute seeks to highlight the universal significance of the Holy Temple as a house of peace and prayer for all nations.



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