I “Like” Lamentations (Tisha B’Av)

(Ad Reinhardt with Black Paintings)

I “like” the Book of Lamentations. It’s a grim little book. Maybe also because I read it as an “anti-theodicy.” I don’t think its point is to justify the ways of God. I think the book has as much to say against God as it does about “man.”

About this I’ve written in a recent volume on the book of Lamentations by Robin Parry and Heath Thomas. I wrote about how much I like the juxtaposition of 3 distinct types of image in the text.

 [1] Grotesque images, the image of an enemy God, the image of Fair Zion, and the terrible things he has done to her and that she has suffered –rape, destruction, death, and the cannibalization of children. The abject interminable crying of Fair Zion in chapters 1-2 and kindred laments throughout the entirety of the text lends itself to this paraphrase: God did this to us, to me, God is a cruel enemy, why have we deserved it and why we have deserved it, look at what God has done to us, to me. The great medieval commentator Rashi concludes that even if we have sinned, You should not have raged as much as You raged (Rashi, Lamentations 5:22).

[2] Pious images, the figure of repentance evoked by the man of suffering in chapter 3, whose purpose may or may not be to restore meaning and reconcile the reader to God. Tod Linafelt argues that although most Christian (and not just Christian) readers consider this confidence to be the center of our text, the poet’s hope may only be relative at best (3). The contemporary modern orthodox thinker Irving Greenberg wryly notes the same, “the memory of God’s past kindness restores [the poet’s faith] –barely”(297).In this vein,scholar Ed Greenstein observes that the faith declared in the middle of chapter 3 is followed in both this chapter and the next by more bitterness (God looks down from heaven at my ceaseless tears; do not shut your ear; you have seen; vindicate my right). Greenstein identifies the small concentration of theodicy in chapter three, its scarce presence in chapters 1 and 5, and its total absence in chapters 2 and 4. He maintains that there is no reason to search for the text’s meaning at its center (chapter 3), and points instead to more frequent motifs and to the text’s conclusion (29-31).

[3] The ironic image, the final image in chapter 5 of God on his throne sitting above or beyond the suffering of the people. This image testifies to the God upon whom the poet’s misery depends. Looked at carefully, the onus of our repentance seems not to rest upon our own decision to act; God instead is challenged to make the first move. Compare this with how the prophet Malachi hears God charge the errant people, “Turn to Me and I will turn back to you” (3:7); or with our own poet who tentatively declares at a more pious moment in the text, “Let us examine our ways and turn back to Lord” (3:40); the onus would rest upon the people. Exactly opposite is the im/pious upshot of our text’s conclusion, the poet’s imperative communication, “Turn us back, O Lord, to You and we will return.” This final position would resemble Christian grace (reconciliation depends upon God, not human works) were it not for the challenge implicit in the call for God to turn back and repent..

[from “Lamentations in Modern Jewish Thought” in Robin Parry and Heath Thomas(eds.), Great is Thy Faithfulness? Reading Lamentations as Sacred Scripture, Pickwick Publications, pp.92-97]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to I “Like” Lamentations (Tisha B’Av)

  1. efmooney says:

    I “like” Lamentations, too, and like your threefold taxonomy of images. Of course — well, I’ll say “of course” — God can’t be acquitted of ‘crimes against humanity’, not even by “the memory of God’s past kindness.” But — He has gifted us with — we retain intact — the wonderful resources of artistic-religious expression embodied in the very cries of lamentation. The material depth of those cries attest to an unbroken spirit we can be thankful is unbroken — even as in so many other ways God breaks our hearts (and often our bodies) and a good deal of our spirit.

    • zjb says:

      Hi Ed: Thanks for your warm thoughts about the gift. I’ve been likinig a lot the theo-aesthetic musing over at your blog, as they are very close to my heart. I think, though, that here, in this context, they relfect a kind of theodicy that doesn’t work in the bitter frame that is Lamentations. It belongs to another frame, a good solid one, just not this one. Somewhere, I think that James did not quite work through the transitions or non-transitions between happy soul and sick soul thinking. That’s at least how I’m trying to think through the juxtaposition between different modes of theological expression. Like a multiple windows interface, I’m beginning to think that the two modes are discontinuous.

  2. efmooney says:

    Thanks, Zak! – What if modes of theological expression are plural (as you suggest) but stacked, one leaking through the other, like transparencies laid one on another — then there wouldn’t always be a transition from one distinct phase to another, one window abutting another, but, when stacked, something like mixed moods — now one ourline salient, now another, now both? One aspect of a lament might be “I’m glad at least I can cry, things would be worse if I just turned to ice or became somnambulistic.” The other would be “I’m angry the world is so messed up that I HAVE to cry.” This would leave the attempt to redeem an all just / all powerful God in the dust. But something like human spirit would be redeemed (the capacity to cry makes for a better world than one in which one can’t cry or lament. And if the spirit in lamentation is thought to be s shade divine, then a shade of immanent divinity is redeemed.

    • zjb says:

      nice, but i’m not sure about the redemption part. not yet, at least

      • efmooney says:

        Under the blow of suffering, I’ve been pawned to darkness, utterly empty. If a bit of myself returns, it’s redeemed, no longer in hock. I can just pass on what to say, be speechless on what to say about the marvel of return or redemption– maybe I won’t even have the resources to think it a marvel. If I do think it’s a marvel, still, do I feel like thanking God, thanking the depths of human spirit, or just the depths of my spirit? Perhaps I don’t know, and just pass on these questions, feeling something has been given back, but speechless about what or who is the giver. But then, I might move to the alternatives, trying out tentatively a thanks to God, or to the resources of my spirit (that might or might not be linked, as I think of it) to a divine dimension in human spirit.

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