Sunday, July 11, 2021

Review: Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World


Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World

Yael Ziegler

Maggid Books


Reviewed by Rabbi Ari Kahn


Learning, studying, and writing about the churban (the destruction of the Temple) can be painful; it is a physically draining and emotionally taxing yearly requirement. Nonetheless, it is a significant religious endeavor.  Over the past generation, the focus of the Ninth of Av has shifted for many, from reading the Book of Lamentations (Eicha) and chanting the often-impenetrable kinnot, to lectures, movies and other ‘content’. It often seems as if summer camp programing has overtaken and replaced what was once normative practice in Jewish communities around the world.


The Jewish bookshelf has been enriched in recent years with the publication of new works for Tisha b’Av, most notably those of Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik that examine the topic of suffering in general and the themes of exile and destruction in particular. These volumes were mostly culled from the explanations of the kinnot Rabbi Soloveitchik offered to his congregation in Boston (and the expanded audience that came from afar for the opportunity to hear ‘The Rav’). Ever since he began what quickly became a modern tradition, many rabbis have followed in The Rav’s footsteps, and as a result many congregations recite less kinot and hear more explanations of the texts selected for recitation.


Now, a new work joins this august bookshelf, adding insight and meaning to this sacred but painful day.


Dr. Yael Zeigler has written a masterful commentary on the Book of Eicha. Dr. Zeigler melds traditional approaches to the biblical text from the Beit Midrash and classical exegesis, with skills learned in the academy. The result is a learned, enlightening study of one of the more difficult books of Tanach.


To appreciate the deep thought and scholarship invested in each word of this new study, consider Dr. Ziegler’s translation-interpretation of the first chapter:




איכה פרק א פסוק ח - ט


(ח) חֵ֤טְא חָֽטְאָה֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם                     Jerusalem has surely sinned

עַל־כֵּ֖ן לְנִידָ֣ה הָיָ֑תָה        Therefore, she has become an object of head wagging

כָּֽל־מְכַבְּדֶ֤יהָ הִזִּיל֙וּהָ֙  All those who have honored her belittle her

כִּי־רָא֣וּ עֶרְוָתָ֔הּ         For they have seen her nakedness.


גַּם־הִ֥יא נֶאֶנְחָ֖ה        She too groans

וַתָּ֥שָׁב אָחֽוֹר: And she recoils backward


(ט) טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ         Her impurities are on her hems


לֹ֤א זָֽכְרָה֙ אַחֲרִיתָ֔הּ             She did not consider her end


וַתֵּ֣רֶד פְּלָאִ֔ים           She spirals downward wondrously


אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ          There is none to comfort her


רְאֵ֤ה ה֙' אֶת־עָנְיִ֔י               “Look, Lord, at my affliction


כִּ֥י הִגְדִּ֖יל אוֹיֵֽב:        For the enemy is exalted



The translation captures the pathos: The proud city called Jerusalem has become the symbol and object of scorn. Once exalted, it is now a pathetic, stained remnant of the holiness and dignity which once was synonymous with its name. Every word of text is weighed, and the translation and meaning only offered after considering the context, consulting the commentaries, and comparing biblical parallels. 


One of Dr. Ziegler’s less-conventional choices is the translation of the word nida (1:8,9) as “head wagging.” The footnote informs the reader that the author has chosen the Ibn Ezra’s definition; an explanation of this choice ensues. 


The reader may find this translation awkward and even misleading, and (wrongly) conclude that puritanical considerations influenced the choice of the words in English. Dr. Ziegler explains that the rationale behind Ibn Ezra’s translation is based on hypersensitivity to Hebrew grammar: 


“…the dalet in the word nida lacks a dagesh, the diacritical mark that indicates the doubling of the letter. Accordingly, the root is not n.d.d., but rather n.o.d., meaning to wander.”


The potential weakness of this translation is noted in another footnote, albeit not as a weakness, but as an observation: The use of “nida” to denote head- wagging would be a singular use of the word in this particular form. We must ask, then, whether it is justified to use a translation which is a hapax legomenon. Was it the intent of the verse to chart new, untested symbolic terrain, or was its purpose to evoke a recognizable image by invoking a familiar and highly-charged term?


Dr. Ziegler notes that Rashi translates nida as ‘exiled,’ from the phrase na v’nad (which invokes the aspect of wandering, based on Bereishit 4:14), but does give (in my mind) enough weight to the next verse, where Rashi explains that the impure stain is metaphorically related to menstrual blood (an observation only found in a footnote).


Dr. Zeigler proceeds to explain that the feminine identity of Jerusalem has been belittled by those who once honored her (though in my opinion the translation of hiziluha is closer to “cheapened” than to “belittled”, and I would have liked to see the Talmudic description of the cherubs that were dragged out of the Holy of Holies, recounted in Yoma 54b, utilized here to bolster the metaphoric interpretation of this section). The meaning of the verse is that the sins of the people of Jerusalem were committed in public, for all to see.


The underlying tension, in this verse and elsewhere in this very carefully crafted work, is the challenge of translating poetic literature: Does one choose the more literal interpretation, translating and explaining the words, or instead focus on the intended meaning, the effect those words were intended to have on the audience? Part of the beauty of this book is Dr. Zeigler’s talent for translating and capturing the feeling of the original text, the texture that lies between the words - and this is no simple feat.


Thus, in the verses at hand, even if the Ibn Ezra’s rendering of nida as the object of head-wagging is correct, I personally would have preferred that observation to have been presented in a footnote; the concept of nida is too familiar, too evocative, to expect the audience to understand it as anything other than ‘menstruant’ or perhaps ‘wanderer.’ The question is not whether one translation is more or less correct in a literal sense, but whether the words that follow paint an image that is more consonant with one interpretation rather than the other. The quandary is the choice between the literal and the literary.


Perhaps an argument can be made that bridges this gap, based on the words of these same verses:


 טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ                   

Her tum’ah (impurities) are on her hems

                  (Verse 9)


I would argue that the concept of tum’ah represents, at its most fundamental level, a situation that generates distance from the Temple (the Mishkan, the Beit Hamikdash – and in the Middle Ages, as a result of this deeply-ingrained sensitivity, Jewish women in certain communities intuited that this distance should be maintained from the synagogue, as well).


In other words, the status of nida (describing the personal status of the menstruant) may have a close relationship with the word nod, the wandering that results when distance is created. This duality is borne out by the two distinct biblical contexts in which nida appears.


Vayikra contains two lists of arayaot, forbidden relations (first, the list of prohibited relationships, followed by a list of the punishments for transgressors). In Vayikra 18:19, the law of nida is sandwiched between the prohibition of sexual intimacy with two sisters (18:18) and the prohibition of intimacy with a married woman (18:20). The two “bookends” are each described with a form of the word erva. Two chapters later, in Vayikra 20:18, the nida (although not specified by name) appears between the punishments enumerated for sexual intimacy with a sister (20:17) or aunt (20:19); again, each is described with a form of the word erva.


On the other hand, the laws of nida and zava were taught in an earlier chapter of Vayikra (15:25-28), where, interestingly, the dominant concept is tum’ah rather than erva. This earlier section of Vayikra lists the various sources and types of tum’ah and enumerates the relative distance from the Mishkan which is generated in each case.


Erva and tum’ah are two independent concepts (though the word tum’ah is also used occasionally to describe the stain of sin). In Vayikra, both of these concepts are encapsulated in the word nida, and the law reflects both a suspension of sexual intimacy and the physical separation from the Mikdash. By choosing the grammatically meticulous translation of the word nida, the Ibn Ezra and Dr. Ziegler miss the layers of meaning afforded by reading this section of Eicha through a “Vayikra” lens:  The sin of the Jewish people has had two devastating results. It has adversely impacted our proverbial marriage with God, and has caused us to be distanced from the Temple. These layers of meaning, the reverberations of Vayikra, are the canvas upon which the verses of the first chapter of Eicha are painted.


עַל־כֵּ֖ן לְנִידָ֣ה הָיָ֑תָה       

כִּי־רָא֣וּ עֶרְוָתָ֔הּ        

טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ     


Moreover, Vayikra also articulates the consequences of failing to obey the laws of nida -of tum’ah and of erva: The land will “vomit” out and expel the inhabitants and cause them to wander (Vayikra 18:24-30, 20:22-24, and in even greater and more horrifying detail in the tochahcha of Parashat Bechukotai). 


All of these “literary allusions” – the halachic constructs that ruled every aspect of the lives of Eicha’s audience – lead me to prefer a translation of l’nida as menstruant, rather than the more arcane “object of head wagging” – but I stress that this is a matter of personal preference; Dr. Zeigler’s choice of translation and interpretation not only stands on solid ground, she is most likely correct on a literal level. My comments are intended as an illustration of the amount of thought, consideration, scholarship and learning that await readers on each page, in each verse, in every phrase of this important work. 


Read this book; learn this book. A deep and exciting intellectual experience awaits you. Students and teachers alike will find in it new insights into the pathos and emotion of Tish b’Av through the words of the elegy. I pray that Dr. Ziegler’s Faith in a Turbulent World gives us not only quality material to occupy our minds on Tisha B’av, but new emotional and spiritual insights that will enable us to learn from and rectify the fatal failures described in the book of Eicha.


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