Most liberal Jews either don’t know about or don’t like the Tisha B’Av fast, and they certainly don’t like the book of Lamentations, the reading of which marks the commemoration-fast. Spiritually and politically the whole thing would seem too claustrophobic, too lachrymose, too myopic, and too mired in the past. But, I’m not so sure it’s such a bad thing to be just a little lachrymose.
My mother still thinks it’s funny that I have been fasting Tisha B’Av longer than Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur meant nothing to me as an adolescent, whereas I understood the importance of Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70CE. An antiquarian book dealer, my mother sometimes sold rare Judaica to the great historian Yosef Yerushalmi. He explained to her once that this peculiarity of mine had nothing to do with God or repentance or anything “religious.”
The Tisha B’Av fast was my act of solidarity with the suffering of the Jewish people. Growing up, we observed Tisha B’Av every summer at Camp Moshava, the Maryland based summer camp of Habonim-Dror, the socialist Zionist youth movement. Every summer he was there, counselor Gene Berger read “The Jewbird.” It’s where and when I must have seen Night and Fog for the umpteenth time, and movie adaptations of Bernard Malmud’s The Pawnbroker and The Fixer.
It was the 1970s. Tisha B’Av was very much about the Holocaust and Holocaust memory. As Yerushalmi surmised, it had nothing to do with God or the Temples. Tisha B’Av taught us attention to human misery and solidarity –solidarity with the Jewish people, solidarity with suffering people.
I have since come to distrust melancholy, including the uses to which melancholy and megalomania has been put in Jewish conservative politics and thought. Yerushalmi was right about the past, but the past is a funny thing. On the one hand, it can stick you into its own temporal mode. On the other hand, the past is never stable.
I still always fast Tisha B’Av, and I understand and appreciate the larger sense of history it evokes better today than I did growing up in the 1970s, when Tisha B’Av was “just” about the Holocaust. But what I think I am coming to understand better today is that the temporality of Tisha b’Av is not in the past. It’s for the future.
In “Lamentations in Modern Jewish Thought,” I have written about “the future tense as an alternative temporalization to melancholy and nostalgia. In this view, associated by [Eliezer] Schweid with paganism, “[t]he past is a future that may recur, and the future is a past that is about to recur, just as the present has already been and shall be” (17). Perhaps the power of Lamentations, perhaps of all religious imagery, lies not in its power to re-present the past or create cultural memory as much as the way it anticipates future possibilities.
Let us assume for the moment with W.C. Gwaltney that the book of Lamentations’ authorship is late, that it belongs to the period of restoration, and that one purpose of lamentation is to avoid ruin (258, 256). With its eye on a past that might very well recur, Lamentations is a platform from which to consider future disasters of our own making…Recalling ancient Jerusalem reminds us that our own cities hang on the verge of destruction. Lamentations foments terrible premonitions, whose only cognitive resolution rests upon the image of [an unreliable] God who must ”turn,” a theological irony so subtle as to avoid the notice of readers preoccupied or repelled by the text’s own surface pieties, both the traditional piety of sin-repentance-reconciliation and the modern piety of meaning-memory-hope.
These days, everything seems all at once perched on a precarious balance –Israel, the Middle East, the Euro zone, the American economic order, world capitalism, the global eco-system. Reading Lamentations and fasting Tisha B’Av, I think the future tense makes all the difference.
The book of Lamentations and Tisha B’Av are both weepy and clear eyed, bound together by what seems to me to be a caustic temper. It’s like acid. I love the attention to “the city” in the opening lines to the book of Lamentations, and I like being out late in the city at the nighttime start of the fast. It frames the affect of disaster with less mawkish, melancholic affect than might otherwise be the case.
[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