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The Month of Tammuz and the Cult of Tragedy

The fast of Tammuz 17 begins a period of national mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple, ending with solemn day of Tisha B'Av. This month of Tammuz, which marks the beginning of 'the Three Weeks,' or bein hamitzarim ("between the straits"), has traditionally been associated with weeping and tragedy. These are days during which Israel is enjoined to focus on what the loss of the Temple really means.

The name Tammuz 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 by an idolatrous deity?

The month of Tammuz expresses a concept, and holds a secret that can be unlocked in its very name. The name Tammuz is indicative of the nature of this month. 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. Spiritual revolution cannot be orchestrated from an armchair... only from the belly of the beast. In your face.

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 Tammuz to cry." (8:14)

Rashi comments that this Tammuz was an idol fashioned of iron, with eyes made of lead. The lead was ignited and melted, creating an optical illusion of shedding real tears. The cult of Tammuz 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 the genre of 'modern' Greek tragedy – that celebrated the death of the god Tammuz. His death was portrayed in a play that became so much a part of popular culture, it was shown right at the 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 classic Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology describes the origin of the ancient story. Tammuz, the lover of Ishtar, was forced to die and descend to underworld. Ishtar bewailed her sorrow in bitter lamentations in the midst of a choir of weeping women. This immensely popular scene was perpetuated year after year; the scene was bewailed in funeral chants, later as Adonis and Aphrodite. The god was believed to die every year. Laments for the departed Tammuz are even extent in Babylonian hymns, dirges described by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough as "lament of the flutes for Tammuz, 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 invented in order for the pagan mindset to explain the phenomena of the changing seasons. It is a story of great pathos.

But could this be the same Tammuz that was bewailed at the gates of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem? Could this story have become part of the Jewish mindset? Could aspects of this ancient tragedy have been grafted onto the mourning of Tammuz for the Holy Temple?

Indeed, the crying associated with Tammuz is our key to understanding the real tragedy of Tammuz: The people of Israel are stuck in a cycle of meaningless mourning. For many, the mourning itself has become the end, rather than the means to an end. Mourning has become what we do; it makes us comfortable. But if the goal is the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, how did we get into this mindset, and how can we change? What is the authentic Torah response? Are we expected to just flail and wail over the Temple year after year? What of the Torah's commandment to rebuild?

Maimonides was well acquainted with the cult of Tammuz 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.

How ironic: Tammuz itself is known for the Jewish people as the time of tears. But these tears were intended to be constructive. We have become stuck in a yearly cycle, much like the cycle 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. There is a natural human tendency to be caught up in the cycle. We need a comfort zone to deal with the inevitable. The pagan mindset, in order to deal with life, death, the changing seasons, and everything inevitable, the entire drama of the stuff of life, invented a mythological representation which became a cult wherein life is celebrated as tragedy. The fabricated tears of Tammuz is 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 Tammuz 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 Tammuz. The verse in Ezekiel alludes to the weeping over our lives, the tragic aspects of our lives, because self-pity feels so good. So we do it again and again, year after year …better the devil you know…

We are confronted by this cycle of mourning every year. But what is it about? What is our relationship with this missing Temple? How will the cycle of mourning ever stop? The mourning is not over the edifice for its own sake, but rather, what our lives could be if we were focused on the level of reality for which we were created, with all of humanity at peace. Is the purpose of our mourning merely to be miserable? Sad? Or are we to seek the motivation to change the situation?

The analogy that during these days, all Israel become like mourners for a close family member is not accurate. Mourning for a relative is designed to be a catharsis, to bring about closure. The mourner needs to learn to face facts: In this reality he will not be seeing his loved one again. The mourning is designed to help a person learn to go on. But how can we use that metaphor if we pray thrice daily for 2,000 years for the Temple, and the Torah instructs the building of the Temple as a positive commandment (Ex. 25:8)? If the process of mourning for the Temple is simply about wailing it would seem not to make sense.

The truth is that Torah expects us to confront the aspects of Tammuz within our own personality that hold us back…the secret of this month is our calling to free ourselves from the hideous need for self-pity and pain. Mourning for the Temple is not about crying over the past, of 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 Tammuz feed off the human feelings of frailty, and the false feeling of vulnerability; the cult of seeing life in the negative as a tragedy.

Is our yearly cycle of crying the best we can do towards the rebuilding of the Holy Temple?


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