"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings."
--Richard II, Act III, Scene 2
We sit quietly, maybe a dozen of us, in the little synagogue a couple of blocks off the interstate here in Little Rock, and wait for night to fall -- like Anne Frank and her family in the Secret Annex, not stirring during the day lest they attract attention, waiting for dark. Or the knock on the door. Which would come just before the war ended. Anne and her sister would die in Bergen-Belsen. Only her father would survive, along with her diary, which still lives. Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Bergen-Belsen, they all meld into one tonight as the sun sets.
It's the Ninth of Av, the low point in the Jewish year, the day Jerusalem fell. The siege had been going on for months. Three weeks before, the Babylonians had breached the walls. A lone voice here and there, an occasional street preacher, tried to warn the people, but to no avail. Prophets may be honored but not in their own country.
Life in the teeming city continued much as usual. People ate and slept, bought and sold, and quarreled as always, blaming each other as the enemy's grip on the capital tightened. But defeat, destruction, captivity, exile? Unimaginable. It couldn't happen here.
But before the sun had set, the city was a ruin, the Temple aflame, the princes and priests and people, Levites and laymen alike, were all taken captive and led away to God knows where. And tonight we still mourn. All over the world, wherever we were dispersed.
Again the ancient words are recited: How doth the city sit solitary, she that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She weepeth sore in the night....
There are not many of us here tonight, just some of the regulars, joined by an irregular or two like me, and maybe a few Jews who happened to be passing through this distant part of the Exile, and remembered what day, or rather dark night, this was.
Since that first time, Jerusalem has fallen time and again. To the Romans in their turn to strut and fret upon history's stage. And according to custom, the ninth of Av was also the date in 1492 that the decree came down from their Christian majesties Ferdinand and Isabella that the Jews must convert or leave their realm at once. Our golden age in Spain was over, and another exile had begun.
I thought of all that when it was reported that the latest terror-state in Iraq, which styles itself a caliphate, had given the Christians of Mosul 72 hours to clear out of the city or convert to Islam. Naturally they were robbed, their property seized, their homes pillaged as they fled. New cast, same old play.
It must have been on such a mournful night in 1913 that a young German graduate student named Franz Rosenzweig, already the hope and pride of his mentors, with a promising career in academe awaiting him, decided to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement for the last time. He had determined to complete his assimilation into the dominant, enlightened culture of the age by giving up the ancient faith into which he had been born. But he would say a proper goodbye. So he found an obscure little synagogue that night on a side street of the great city, and then ... something happened.
He never said just what it was, but by the end of the service, he could not leave the faith. Or his people. Or ... something. Whatever it was that held him, it held him.
As he would write a friend later, "I must tell you something that will grieve you, and may at first seem incomprehensible to you. I have reversed my decision. It no longer seems necessary to me, and therefore, being what I am, no longer possible. I will remain a Jew."
He never did go on to become a renowned member of the history faculty at the University of Freiburg, despite the urgings of his professor and mentor, the great Meinecke. Instead he would be sent to the Eastern front in the First War, and his unit assigned to some backwater in the Balkans. He never did go back to university; his old professor attributed his decision to a case of war nerves. Surely there could be no other explanation for his cutting short so promising an academic career.
But if it was shock that had changed Franz Rosenzweig's course in life, it was the shock of recognition. In the war he had come into contact with the Ostjuden, the vast numbers of poor, simple Jews in Eastern Europe who had been passed over by the Enlightenment, and so continued to follow the ways of their forefathers as they sunk deeper and deeper into poverty, persecution, and desperation. Despite all that separated them from him, something about them called out to the young, thoroughly assimilated German.
Franz Rosenzweig would go on to become the foremost Jewish theologian, or maybe anti-theologian, of his between-the-wars time. He eschewed elaborate, enlightened, abstract theories about religion and despised the kind of theatrical sermons that characterized the most eminent rabbis of the age. Instead, he embraced simplicity, shunning preachments and embracing practice. He knew that practice may not really make perfect, but it does make habit, and habit somehow becomes faith. Till it becomes impossible to abandon it.
I thought I saw young Herr Rosenzweig slumped against a back pew of this other little synagogue so far removed from his own time and place. He was still young, slender, uncertain, as if he had just returned from his stint with the Kaiser's Reichswehr, and was just listening, not speaking, sharing our grief, comforting the mourners by his silent presence. Maybe something about us had called out to him.
The thought occurs that Franz Rosenzweig might not have stuck with us if on that fall night in 1913 he had chosen to attend some sleek, anonymous modern temple, complete with blank windows and blank thoughts in the latest fashion. Instead, something had brought him to that small synagogue on a side street, just as something had brought this remnant together Mondaynight, old and young, ghosts of the past and intimations of the generations to come. All are here to mourn and to comfort one other by our scattered presence in the pews, few as we are, knowing as the prophet did that the remnant would always be few.
The lamentations went on. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. ... How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning....
There was comfort in the words, solace somehow in the full recognition of our utter desolation. This was the end. Jerusalem had fallen, our holy of holies desecrated. Only ruins were left. And yet....
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.