It has been nearly 2,000 years since the Roman Empire's highly efficient army brutally crushed a five-year-long Jewish rebellion in the land of Israel. First led by the future emperor Vespasian and then by his son Titus, the Roman Legions, numbering 80,000 troops, finally captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Holy Temple in the summer of 70 A.D.
Actually, it was the second temple of the Jewish people. The invading Babylonians sacked the first in 586 B.C., and in an act of collective punishment, the victors sent the defeated Jews into exile. But the vanquished returned to Jerusalem and erected a second temple dedicated to the worship of God.
However, the victorious Romans went one better than the Babylonians. After destroying the temple, the Romans banned Jewish residence and worship in the city and even gave Jerusalem a Latin name, Aelia Capitolina, in an arrogant attempt to eradicate all Jewish connections with the city. Of course, the effort failed.
The physical destructions of their central shrine became indelibly etched into the collective consciousness of Jews. Those traumatic events are solemnly remembered each year on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, corresponding this year to July 29th.
Over the centuries the ninth of Av _ Tisha b'Av in Hebrew _ became the generic day of mourning for other catastrophes including the 1492 expulsion of Jews from the Spain of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Until now, the observance of Tisha b'Av was always linked to a sad distant past, particularly since a vibrant Jerusalem is now the capital city of modern Israel. Today Jews are totally free to pray at the Western Wall, a surviving remnant of the Holy Temple and Judaism's most sacred space. Indeed, they can visit the wall 24 hours a day, seven days a week, something that was often impossible when others controlled Jerusalem throughout history.
But this year's observance of Tisha b'Av is different because, once again, there are attempts to sever the inextricable Jewish link to Jerusalem.
Earlier this year Sheik Ikrema Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority's leading Islamic leader, told Die Welt, the German newspaper, that ". . . there is not the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place (the Temple mount) in the past. In the whole city (Jerusalem), there is not even a single stone indicating Jewish history."
If the mufti's distortions go unchallenged, then the New Testament narrative is called into question since the Holy Temple played a key role in the life of Jesus.
We read in Chapter 2 of Luke: "His parents (who) went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of Passover" took their 12-year-old son along. . . . The boy Jesus lingered behind." After searching for the missing boy for three days, "they found him in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions."
If Sabri's false assertion is believed, there were no Jews in the land of Israel, no holiday pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and no Temple that Jesus visited.
Vespasian and Titus would enthusiastically applaud the mufti's "Big Lie." But unlike Sabri, the two Roman generals were keenly aware there was a temple in Jerusalem. After all, it had taken five bitter years of warfare before they were able to defeat Jewish resistance, and the temple itself was the last holdout before the Roman conquest of the city. Were the Romans fighting apparitions for half a decade? Was the Temple a giant mirage?
I am certain Sabri's mischievous attempt to rewrite both Jewish and Christian history will fail just as the Romans were unsuccessful in separating Jews, whether physically or spiritually, from Jerusalem. But "Big Lies," if repeated often and loud enough, are frequently believed.
Tisha b'Av represents an excellent opportunity to reverently remember the past and repudiate those who distort and corrupt that reality for malevolent purposes.
_ Rabbi Rudin is the senior interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee.