The Logic of Lament (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The book of Lamentations is read on the Fast of Tisha Be'av, which is observed on August 10 The saddest day of the Jewish year, Tisha Be'av, originated as a commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, first by the cohorts of the neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and then, and more enduringly, by those of the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Although the Bible never speaks of the 9th of Av in connection with the destruction of the First Temple (dating it variously to the 7th or the 10th century) and some sources speak of the 10th as the actual date of the destruction of the Second Temple, Tisha Be'av long ago became fixed in Jewish memory and liturgy as the date of our greatest tragedies. As the centuries have gone by, still other national catastrophes have come to be associated (whether accurately or not) with that fateful date - the fall of Bar Kokhba's fortress at Beitar in 135 CE, the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the Nazi deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka, to name but a few. Already in the time of the Mishna, the rabbis were finding this sad day in the Torah itself: It was, they tell us, the date on which it was decreed that the generation of the Exodus would never enter the Land of Israel, dying in the wilderness instead; the high hopes of Passover had turned to grief on Tisha Be'av. No wonder, as the Mishna puts it, "When Av comes in, joy is to be diminished." Beginning with the mournful chanting of the book of Lamentations in the evening, the act of vividly recalling the national tragedies of the Jewish people suffuses Tisha Be'av. But to what end? Why recite the dirges that bring the catastrophes to life again every summer? One answer centers on the victims of our historical calamities. We dare not forget what they endured, this thinking goes, lest we break faith with them and lose the thread of continuity that defines us as a people. Instead, we must share in their suffering, if only symbolically, through the minor deprivations of the fast day, magnified, however, by the vast emotional force that its liturgical recitations convey. A variant of this answer conjoins the memory of past victimizations with the determination that they shall not recur. In this case, the catastrophes serve as a warning against stances thought to be dangerous, for example, military or political weakness, the failure to take threats to Jewish survival with the requisite seriousness, or a general lack of pride in our identity. When we turn to the book of Lamentations, however, we find different answers altogether. Its powerful evocations of the shocking atrocities that Zion and Jerusalem endured are not offered in illustration of any political or military lesson, nor can we assume they originate primarily in a desire to show solidarity with the victims and their memory. "Jerusalem," we are instead told, "has greatly sinned," and "the Lord has afflicted her for her many transgressions."* Although Lamentations occasionally protests that God has punished Zion and Jerusalem too harshly or for too long, it does not, for the most part, deny his justice or proclaim the innocence of those afflicted. They fall not because of a lack of pride, but because of a lack of covenantal faithfulness and obedience. The horrific afflictions they have endured - described in some of the most exquisite poetry in the Bible - are actually punishments decreed by God, though executed by a savage and arrogant enemy. "Whose decree was ever fulfilled, /" Lamentations asks rhetorically, "Unless the Lord willed it?" According to this theology, we find another reason for reciting the dirges of Tisha Be'av - to evoke repentance precisely by illustrating the unbearably brutal effects of avoiding it. "We have transgressed and rebelled, / And You have not forgiven." Zion's repentance alone, however, cannot alleviate her agony; there must also be mercy from God's side. And this brings us to another reason that Lamentations and the other dirges of Tisha Be'av detail the horrific suffering - to bring to God's attention the full measure of torture that he has decreed: "See, O Lord, and behold, / How abject I have become!" If God has "screened [Himself] off with a cloud, / That no prayer may pass through," and if the people have not repented, or their repentance has not caused Him to relent, then perhaps an unsparing description of Zion's agony can yet bring relief. As one rabbi puts it in the Talmud, "Even though the gates of prayer have been locked, the gates of weeping have not been locked." The very act of weeping may hasten the long-delayed redemption. • Jon D. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, is the co-author, with Kevin J. Madigan, of "Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews," recently published by Yale University Press. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.