Discussion Guide: Eichah
Eichah: A Modern Commentary on the Book of Lamentations
Discussion Guide by Owen Gottlieb
1. Chapter 1 of
uses the metaphor of a violated woman in order to communicate the state of ruin of Jerusalem. Today, we can consider the use of such discourse through the lens of feminist analysis and gender studies. Throughout history, violence against women has been used as both a metaphor for war and an act of war itself. What are some implications of depicting the destruction of Jerusalem through the metaphor of a woman’s body? As an early and important depiction, how might chapter 1 of
relate to rape discourse in war through history? What might such a depiction teach about the place of women in society in biblical times? While acknowledging the troubling nature of the metaphor by today’s standards, what deeper truths may exist through the use of such a metaphor—that of a Jerusalem whose allies have turned and whose inhabitants have been exiled?
For more on contemporary academic writing on issues of war and rape discourse in the twentieth century, see the writings of Klaus Theweleit and Diana Taylor,
Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War”
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).
is written from the perspective of a theology of reward and punishment. Modern Jewish theology tends to reject traditional notions of reward and punishment by God. In fact, Kravitz and Olitzky cite
and Job as providing theological alternatives that can be found even from within the Bible itself (p. 17). Moving beyond premodern theologies, Kravitz and Olitzky elucidate the underlying message of 1:12 as “Look what can happen when you sin, when you lead a life devoid of the Divine. Look how empty is your life without God” (p. 13). Does the personification of a tale of God’s reward and punishment help or hinder your own approach to the text? Why? What are ways that we can either approach or retreat from the Divine? If not reward and punishment in the classical sense, what can keep us from retreating from God today?
3. One of the tropes in the first chapter of
is that of menstruation in connection to notions and implications of ritual impurity. Through metaphor,
links ritual impurity to moral impurity. Typically, in the Bible, ritual impurities, including contact with the dead, skin disease, or genital emissions, could be addressed through washing, the passage of time, or physical healing (in the case of skin disease). Moral impurities (such as idol worship, bloodshed, or sexual transgression) required atonement and sometimes sacrifice and/or punishment (Christine Hayes, “Purity and Impurity, Ritual,” in
, 2nd ed., ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik [Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007], 16:746–56). But in chapter 1 of
, the metaphor of the menstruating woman with blood on her garment is used to embody, personify, and symbolize moral sins of the Israelites. While early Leviticus passages do not assign such negative connotations to menstruation, such attitudes are found in later passages and books, including Ezekiel and Ezra (Elaine Goodfriend, “Laws about Menstruation,” in
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 668). Why might the author of Lamentations have felt the need to use a ritual metaphor to describe moral impurity? What unintended implications might arise from creating such a metaphor, both in biblical times and in modern times when we have a contemporary understanding of biology?
For more on menstruation in the Torah and Bible, see
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press, 2008), specifically the chapters on Tazria and M’tzora, pp. 637–78.
stresses the centrality of Jerusalem (Kravitz and Olitzky discuss this on pp. xiii and xiv). In the book, the city of Jerusalem is personified, representing the Israelites. What place in the identity of modern Jews does the city of Jerusalem hold? How might an understanding of Jerusalem as central to Jews in biblical times inform our current connections to the city?
1. In the section entitled “The Problem of Theodicy: How Can God Allow Evil?” (p. 52), Kravitz and Olitzky link Lamentations to the discussion of the theological issue of attempting to reconcile a God who is good with the existence of evil in the world. This is a basic theological question that the great thinkers have addressed since the Bible and likely even earlier. Some of the answers provided in this commentary on Lamentations include the idea that free will necessitates the possibility for evil. Some post-Holocaust theology suggests that God is omnipresent (all-present) and omniscient (all-knowing), yet not omnipotent (all-powerful). One ancient model stresses justice in the afterlife. One type of perspective on theodicy not mentioned in the commentary is the various mystical approaches, some of which suggest that a larger truth lay beyond our ability to understand evil’s distant connection to God. In Isaiah 45:7, God says,
Oseh shalom uvorei ra
, “I make peace and create evil.” Does your current conception of God require an omnipotent God? Does your current understanding of God account for or consider the existence of evil in the world? Is your sense of meaning in the universe dependent on an all-good God? Is your experience at times of feeling close to God diminished at all by horrific acts and occurrences in the world? Explain your answers.
Further reading on Jewish theodicy: Green, Arthur. “What about Evil?” Chap. 10 in
Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow
, pp. 138–52. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003. Kushner, Lawrence.
God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning
. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993. Morgan, Michael L., ed.
A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination
. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
2. Kravitz and Olitzky write, “The contemporary desire to teach about a Judaism that is not built on a history of destruction makes it difficult to relate to these verses and gain insight and contemporary meaning from them. . . . Those of us who feel close to Jerusalem must acknowledge that whenever Jerusalem suffers, we all suffer” (p. 43). They go on to say that the pain expressed in Lamentations reflects such suffering in our history. Some might argue that the expression of suffering is an inexorable part of being Jewish, just as is the expression of joy. How might the observance of Tishah B’Av or Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) provide a space and time in which expression of extreme suffering can be framed in a meaningful, safe way? In Israel, the somber and solemn Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) are followed by the joyous Yom HaAztma-ut (Independence Day). The contrast of joy and celebration provides both a sense of relief from the weight of memory as well as the opportunity to have hope for the future. How might American Jews juxtapose Jewish joy in close proximity following communal memorializing of extreme sadness?
3. In commenting on 2:18, Kravitz and Olitzky ask, “Who is being given the permission to cry incessantly? Is it the wall, God, or the people? This verse is pivotal to our understanding of the Book of Lamentations and to the entire Tishah B’Av observance” (p. 48). How does changing the subject of the crying change your reading of Lamentations, and how could it change your understanding of Tishah B’Av? First, look back at the verse. Next, consider the wall, then God, then the people. Might you conceive of a combination of subjects for the weeping? What would each one mean to you in terms of expression of suffering?
4. Kravitz and Olitzky show the connection between ancient and contemporary Jerusalem, bringing to the foreground our connection to the Jewish people living in Israel today. When we immerse ourselves in the horrifying literature of the destruction of Jerusalem, we are reminded of the losses of both soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli civilians hoping to live a peaceful life. Israelis continue to struggle daily for security.
Song of Songs enchants us with imagery of the beauty of the land of Israel. The Ein Gedi of ancient times is the same Ein Gedi whose waterfalls flow today. The text gives us a window into the land of today’s Israel. In a similar way, how might imagery in Lamentations about Jerusalem being under siege give us an opportunity to empathize with our Israeli brothers and sisters in their moments of suffering?
1. Rashi’s comment on 3:21 is “After my heart tells me that my hope from
is lost, this is what I respond to my heart: ‘I will yet hope in
.’” Kravitz and Olitzky follow Ibn Ezra, remarking that “given the situation . . . it is amazing that they [Israel] find any reason to be hopeful. This is among the most profound expressions of faith in the entire Bible” (p. 70). Later, in 3:32, the commentary notes that while Eichah’s author acknowledges that “God is responsible for the disasters . . . God is also the source for the support that will be necessary to survive this crisis” (p. 75). What constitutes faith for you? Why is faith or hope against the odds important? What bolsters your faith? How might faith bolster you in times of need? Is hope alone enough? Why or why not?
2. A reading of
through the lens of modern theology requires wrestling with some of the most difficult questions we face. One such question is that of suffering: Why do people suffer? (p. 76). Contemporary thought often rejects the connection of suffering to sin, just as did the Book of Job in biblical times. In the midst of moments of suffering, pondering such a question will likely not help to console someone. However, in moments of reflection, at a safe distance from suffering, one can consider this question. Arthur Green refers to a kabbalistic notion of “uplevelling” in which one searches for the hidden sparks of the divine that have been covered over by pain (Green, “What about Evil?” p. 142). If you look back on your suffering from a safe distance, is it possible to find a moment of the divine? What makes this process challenging? What could be useful in such a process?
3. Often in our lives, we are confronted with powerlessness, whether in trauma or illness. Kravitz and Olitzky note that both the
and Ibn Ezra interpret 3:34 as being essentially about God demonstrating God’s power and human beings’ powerlessness. Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Przysucha said, “A person should have two pieces of paper, one in each pocket, to be used as necessary. On one of them [is written], ‘The world was created for me,’ and on the other, ‘I am dust and ashes’” (http://tinyurl.com/2178tq). When is it important for us to be aware of our powerlessness? When is it important for us to feel empowered?
4. In 3:64, the author asks God for vengeance on the enemies of Israel. And yet, as Kravitz and Olitzky point out, “Should the nations be punished for what they have done if it was God who instructed them or directed them to do so . . . ?” (p. 93). There are reasons why this request would not violate the standard injunctions against revenge. “Vengeance is appropriate when it is directed in a legally just war against the enemies of the entire people of Israel, who are at the same time considered enemies of God: ‘To execute vengeance upon the nations and punishments upon the peoples’ (Ps. 149:7)” (Joshua Shmidman, “Vengeance,” in
, 2nd ed., ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik [Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007], 20:498-499). In addition, the plea in Eichah is for God to exact judgment, not Israel. And yet, this plea to God raises more questions. Given the events portrayed in Eichah, how might we wrestle this apparent logical conundrum of anger toward the agents of what the book itself demands are God’s decrees?
1. In 4:5, those who were at the top of society have fallen to the depths of society. And in 4:7 and 4:8, the high have been brought low. Kravitz and Olitzky note that “because it [Jerusalem] was once so beautiful, its demise is that much more devastating” (p. 105). Do you feel that something lost is more devastating than something never realized? What lessons can we learn from regrets? When can regret become destructive?
, famine transforms the Israelites into a brutal, desperate people. The book even describes cannibalism of children. This horrific trope appears in other world literature, such as the Roman myth of Saturn devouring his children. In
, this image reveals the depths to which the Israelites have fallen. Vivid imagery like this, though disturbing, can also serve as a tool for communal introspection. How are hunger and famine in your own community an issue? Does your community have a food bank, soup kitchen, or other place for the hungry to be fed? How might your community raise awareness of issues surrounding food, such as eating disorders, how your food is produced, and the benefits of natural foods? Beyond your own community, how are concerns of food and hunger playing out currently in the world?
3. In 4:13, the author of
blames, in part, the priests for the overthrow of Jerusalem. Specifically, the priests are guilty because they “shed the blood of the innocent.” In 4:16, the author writes that God would not look at them, “for they did not respect the priests.” This verse raises the question, even if only some of the priests had shed blood of innocents, how can God expect anyone to respect the priests as a class? Is the passage to be understood to mean that despite the sins of the priests, for which God punishes the entire people, God expects the people to respect the priests? Could this apparent contradiction be a redaction issue, meaning that the book was stitched together from various sources, or might there be a political agenda in mind? Is it possible that we should be expected to respect a group of people in society despite the group having corrupt individuals? Is this a helpful notion or a dangerous notion? Why?
4. In the gleaning from Irving Greenberg, the author suggests that coming out of times of defeat and despair, the Jewish people have exhibited hope and renewal. After the destruction of the Temple, Yochanan ben Zakkai began a new form of Judaism in Yavneh. In a similar way, after the Holocaust, there have been a variety of responses in modern Judaism both within the Reform Movement and other movements such as Jewish Renewal (Shaul Magid, “Jewish Renewal and the Holocaust: A Theological Response,”
, March–April 2006, 59–62, 68). Jewish camping transformed Reform Judaism in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing changes to liturgy and music. And Judaism continues to evolve to this day. What changes do you think could be made today to bring Judaism into the next stage of its evolution? What areas of despair can we address with innovation? How might we begin today?
1. Chapter 5 of
reminds us of the need for repentance,
. If the underlying point of the book is to call for repentance, how might we see the descriptions in
metaphorically? How might we be more aware of the times in which we fall short, in which we ignore what we know is right and the destruction caused in those moments? Does it take catastrophe to bring us back to a humble relationship with God? How might we increase our humility in relationship to those around us, even without experiencing a truly humbling, powerless time in our lives?
2. The story of
understands the suffering of Israel as a result of the Israelites’ turning away from God’s path. How might the power of a story such as
encourage us to invite positive change into our lives? Many professionals would argue that serious life change often requires a dire circumstance. For example, an addict often needs to hit “rock bottom” before seeking treatment, and families will often not deal with turmoil until an unbearable crisis occurs. Is it possible to make large change without having to plumb the depths of despair? Is there value in knowing that despair firsthand? Can a story of despair reach us, if in the right setting? What might it take for humans to make large, difficult changes in order to grow, survive, and thrive?
deals with human power and powerlessness in the starkest of terms. We can make decisions with our free will, but we can seldom control outcomes. God seems to expect that we make the “right” decisions. But how can we always know what the right decisions are? Torah is to be our guide, but as we can see, there are many ways, even with the help of generations of rabbis, to interpret Torah. Is it enough to do the best we can? What absolute boundaries do you expect of yourself when it comes to the treatment of others? How harshly do you judge others? How might the suffering of our people in
encourage us to be more forgiving and compassionate to others? How might we demand more of God with regard to compassion after reading
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