I don't think I answered him very well on the spot. I've been thinking about it since, especially since I've seen that same question as the title of a religious-secular dialogue evening scheduled for Tisha B'Av. Apparently it's in vogue.
The answer I gave him: "Clearly, a rabbi could issue such a ruling, but he'd have to justify it with very strong halachic arguments. There are certain rabbis today with sufficient stature that if they were to rule that Tisha B'Av should no longer be observed, their ruling would be followed, at least by their communities."
This is true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't get to the essence of what he was asking. He wasn't really asking about the practicalities of rabbinic leadership; he was challenging the essence of Tisha B'Av today: "What's the big deal? Isn't it time we moved on?"
So here are some of the ways I could have responded:
- Haven't we celebrated Pesach long enough? Purim? Chanukah? Why is this question only asked when it comes to a day of mourning? Does this indicate that modern secular society is open to any opportunity to celebrate, but is willing to mourn only when presented with an immediately tangible loss?
- How many years should we mourn any national tragedy? What about the Holocaust? The Rabin assassination? What if a rabbi were to rule that we've commemorated the Holocaust long enough, and it's time to move on - how would secular Israel react? Exactly how long is too long? Maybe we should continue mourning so long as the lessons remain relevant?
- How can you expect religious Israelis to respect the modern days of mourning enacted by the secular Jewish state (Yom Hazikaron, Yom Hashoah) if you are not willing to grant at least equal respect to an ancient day of mourning which has been with the Jewish people over 2,000 years? Does modernity demand that we erase the past?
- "It's hard to understand why people still fast"? When something is difficult to understand, the appropriate intellectual response is to study it. Even if you continue to disagree, we will at least have a basis for meaningful discussion.
- The Beit Hamikdash was the central manifestation of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient world. In a world where politics and religion were inherently one, where national success or failure was inevitably attributed to the power of the nation's gods (l'havdil), the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash - twice - expressed the apparent finality of the defeat of the Jewish people. Each time, it was far from clear that we would survive such a devastating blow. Isn't that cause for continued mourning?
Finally, my colleague's question implies another, one which should concern us equally as religious Jews: Haven't we finally overcome the loss of sovereignty symbolized by Tisha B'Av? With Israel a sovereign independent state, with Jerusalem a thriving Jewish metropolis, how can we pray to God lamenting its desolation?
Granted, even in the rebuilt State of Israel there is much we still lack, from peace and security to internal harmony to, not least, the Beit Hamikdash itself. But all this was true throughout most of Tanakh! Fifty-six years of a united Jewish sovereignty in most of the Land of Israel is more than was ever achieved in biblical times. (Though Solomon's kingdom enjoyed greater peace, prosperity and power than we have now, it only lasted forty years.)
Can we continue mourning as before over the lack of the Beit Hamikdash, oblivious to the palpable changes in other aspects of our national situation? If we do, are we being honest with ourselves? With God? Even without discarding Tisha B'Av, shouldn't the character of the day somehow adapt to reflect our current circumstances?
Were my colleague to have posed his question this way, I don't know if I would have a satisfactory response.