The key theme of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ searing best-seller “Between The World And Me” is the deep pessimism he feels about race relations in America. In terms of the Jewish calendar, his book could not have been better timed. As Tisha B’Av, commemorating the twofold destruction of Jerusalem and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people throughout history, is observed this Saturday night and Sunday, Coates resonates especially meaningfully.
“That’s the thing that linked Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Coates said in a recent New York Magazine profile. “People say Malcolm was a pessimist. He was a pessimist about America. But he was actually very optimistic. Malcolm very much believed in the dream of nationalism. He believed we could do it. And Martin believed in the dream of integration. He believed that black people could be successful if they did x, y, and z.”
In fact, Dr. King and Malcolm X mirrored different rabbinic positions during and following Judea’s Great Revolt against Rome from 67-70, which ended with the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. As the Revolt began, many Rabbis feared the consequences of confronting the overwhelming military power of the Roman Empire. Rather trying to defeat it, they attempted to carve out a safe space within it.
Most dramatically, the Talmud relates how Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai escaped a besieged Jerusalem to meet with Vespasian, Commander of the Roman forces encamped outside its walls. Rabbi Yochanan bowed before Vespasian, conceded the destruction of the city, and asked for his protection over a rabbinic leadership in exile. As the Talmud tells the story, it implicitly indicts those Zealots who remained to fight to the bitter end; if only more people had been like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, perhaps all would not have been lost.
Later, rabbinic positions with more stridently nationalistic views began to take hold. The Babylonian Talmud records the tradition that Jerusalem fell on account of sinat chinaim – the sin of baseless hatred reflected in the sectarian infighting that ravaged the city from within even as the Romans waited from without. Had the people been properly unified, the Talmud seems to claim, they could have withstood the Roman assault and emerged victorious.
Another tradition goes even further, declaring that for “any generation in which the Temple is not built, it is as if it had been destroyed in their times.” In other words, the tragedies that shape the landscape of Jewish history happened because the Jews themselves consistently failed to rectify the internal flaws and mistakes that enabled them to occur. In either case, these oft- referenced sources tell us that Tisha B’Av is a day to rue the shortcomings, sins, and failings that led to calamity so that we can adjust our own behavior accordingly.
Coates, though, rejects this choice categorically. “I suspect they were both wrong,” he concludes of Dr. King and Malcolm X. “I suspect that it’s not up to us.” The New York Magazine profile explains how Coates believes that “if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.”
But even as he offers no cure for the burden of racism, Coates relieves his community of the burden of responsibility for it. By claiming that the black community possesses agency to combat racism, either through integration or nationalist struggle, Dr. King and Malcolm X each claim the right to blame the black community, at least in part, for its perpetuation. Coates responds that black people cannot end white supremacy, but he is also saying that they did not cause it, nor can they exacerbate it through their own “bad behavior.” A foundation of Coates’ writing is the rejection of so-called “respectability politics,” beginning with his 2008 feature in The Atlantic critiquing Bill Cosby’s denunciation of contemporary black culture as a cause of modern racism. Coates strongly advocates self-improvement and struggle, which he models in his own life, but doesn’t believe it will solve what his community faces.
As we look realistically at Jewish history, similarities emerge. The fate of Judea was likely sealed At the Battle of Actium, decades earlier than the Great Revolt and hundreds of miles away, as Augustus Caesar defeated Mark Antony and consolidated the Roman Empire, inaugurating a hegemony that would endure for centuries. Over time, ever-developing and ever- expanding imperial institutions inevitably created tensions with idiosyncratic local populations and cultures. The limited expansionism and relatively secure borders that characterized Pax Romana meant there were endless resources to quell internal strife. The ultimate results, for the Judeans as well as many other indigenous groups caught in this dynamic, were as terrible as they were inexorable. However dramatically its particular story played out, Judea was simply caught up and swept away in the larger flow of history.
Coates will resonate for me this Tisha B’Av as I sit on the floor reciting kinot, the traditional liturgical elegies that accompany the reading of the Book of Lamentations. In the afternoon I will attend a series of public screenings of video lectures describing the harmful effects of lashon hara (gossip and slander) and strategies for avoiding it in everyday life.
On one level, this traditional choice of afternoon focus is a hyper-literal attempt to rectify the aforementioned sin of sinat chinam. In light of Coates, though, I also choose to read the narrow response to tragedy as an implicit recognition of powerlessness. By meeting the most tragic events in my history with such a deliberately mundane response, we implicitly admit our inability to significantly impact the larger forces that negatively impact our world. This Tisha B’Av, I will not just be mourning for the tragedies of my people and the brokenness of my world, but also for the impotence of our collective response, for the churban that we do not have the power to fix.
At the same time, though, perhaps we are also asserting that those larger problems are not ours to solve. We did not create the conditions that brought the wrath of Rome down on the Temple, nor the history and culture of anti-Semitism that led to the Crusades, Inquisitions and Holocaust. We respond to historic calamity by referring back to the rhythms of day-to-day interaction and simple, everyday life, self-consciously not grappling with anything larger or more encompassing. We choose the path of self-improvement, but disassociated from guilt or blame. If Coates lays the legacy of slavery and discrimination at the feet of White America, we place centuries of blood-soaked Jewish history at the feet of God’s throne.
In “Between the World and Me,” Coates teaches his son to accept “struggle over hope.” Tisha B’Av, heavy with the weight of a terrible history and a legacy that continues to this day, is a day with little hope. But from one perpetually oppressed group to another, it is telling that the answer to hopelessness remains proud, noble struggle.
Rabbi Avraham Bronstein writes and speaks frequently on topics of politics, Jewish thought, and their intersection. He has served a Program Director of Great Neck Synagogue and Assistant Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, and currently lives with his family in Scranton, PA. Follow him on Twitter @AvBronstein.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.