Tisha B’Av (Vicarious) (Misery)


I’m fasting now for Tisha B’Av. I could mention habit, cultural memory, and ideological commitments as component features that give “meaning” and narrative drama to the day. But as I’ve gotten older, I’m not so interested in these kinds of motivations, whose importance I regard as secondary. Now it’s primarily for the Book of Lamentations itself and for the fast itself, and for the unpleasant sensation they convey under a hot summer sun. One goes through the motion for the sake of the motion. In this deflationary interpretation or theory of ritual, it’s that more simple sensation of awful and unvarnished misery that constitutes the “essence” of the day, and around which all the other meanings form. Lamentations starts with the destruction of the city as a hollowed out and painful memory. As for God, the text is furious. “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall return; renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21, King James modified). Offering no neat and easy resolution, its conclusion leaves the onus on “Him.”

Of course, for Jews today in the United and in Israel, where Jewish life is no via dolorosa, that misery is not “unvarnished.” Instead of simple, the sentiments are mixed. To pretend otherwise would be to place the day somewhere between emotional kitsch and political manipulation. Contemporary Jews might remain always anxious about the future and that, to be sure, contributes to the “meaning” of the day. But in this day and age, my guess is that the shared sense of misery can only be understood as a form of vicarious misery, mixed up as a kind of group negative aesthetic pleasure. If a person fasts today, it’s probably because they “like” it. The unhappiness remains for all that unhappy. Even vicarious misery is still sensed as bad, in the way it casts a pall on things. Without resolution, one gets through the day and then gets over it. It’s that mediated form of an unpleasant sensation with which one comes to live.

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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