Melancholy as Mitzvot

Last semester I took a course in Modern & Contemporary Judaism. I found it to be intriguing and enlightening. As someone who has devoted a considerable amount of my own personal studies to understanding the specificity of  the Jewish faith, I relished the opportunity to engage with it in an academic format. Below you’ll find a short paper I wrote for the class exploring the ways in which Judaism both embraces and welcomes ‘melancholy’ within the very fabric of its praxis. Enjoy!

In October of 2010 the Dalai Lama, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr all came together to join in a public conversation, dialogue, and debate surrounding the meaning of happiness (you can find the audio and transcript here). In the course of the evenings proceedings a question was posed to Rabbi Sacks in which it was pointed out that large portions of the Hebrew Bible, including sections such as Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, etc., “really wallow in sadness and suffering and anger” (Tippett). Rabbi Sacks responded by stating:

It is true that if you read the Jewish literature and you read Jewish history, happiness is not the first word that comes to mind. We do degrees in misery, post-graduate angst, and advanced guilt… And yet somehow or other when all of that is at an end, we get together and we celebrate…And that to me is how I have always defined my faith as a Jew (Sacks).

Sacks elaborated saying,

The definition of a Jew, Israel, is, as it says in Genesis 34, one who struggles, wrestles, with God and with humanity and prevails. And Jacob says something very profound to the angel. He says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And that I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it (Sacks).

This is truly something quite profound and unique within the Jewish tradition. In an age of consumeristic, satisfaction driven, seeker-sensitive culture, most Western centered religions have promoted themselves as sources of comfort, consolation, satisfaction, joy, and happiness. Judaism, however, rather than seeking to overcome or subdue the angst and anxiety that is inherent within the human existential condition, has contrarily allotted ample room within its rituals, practices, and observances to these dark and pensive moods, choosing instead to embrace and to more deeply abide within sorrow, suffering, mourning, and grief.

It seems that from the abstinences of Yom Kippur, to the extensive mournful customs and sorrowful liturgy marking the Ninth of Av, to the deeply imbedded observance of sitting Shiva, Judaism has constantly seen “melancholy [as] an authentic response (‘positive’) to accurate perceptions of life experiences that are incongruous” (Frost, 82). Rather than seeking merely to cope by partializing experience, or by dimensioning expectations in order to achieve a homeostatic state of balance and equilibrium, the Jewish faith has instead sought to “learn to live with the gaps between one’s expectations and what life actually offers,” seeing “incongruity as intrinsic to the human condition” and “melancholy as an authentic, positive response to these conditions” (82). Thus, it should be noted that this “religious melancholy is not considered an answer, a solution, either to incongruity in general or to questions without answers in particular” (83). The Jew is one who does not see tension, ambiguity, or contradiction as problems to be solved, incongruity requiring resolution, but instead sees them as mysterious perplexities to be experienced and inhabited. “[M]elancholy is a response to such conditions – an active, lively response that, given the alternative safe and comfortable illusion, is freely chosen by the [Jew]” (Frost, 83). Even more so, within Jewish praxis, it is “a highly creative and visionary response to the most terrible events to which human beings can submit each other” (Dudley, 89).

Through these Judaic rituals and observances, one purposefully and decidedly submits themselves to the trauma and solemnity of authentic human existence, sacrificing comfort and consolation in exchange for the authenticity of grief and distress, fully living within “the gap between the promise and the real” (88). It seems then that by expressing a “willingness to experience incongruity” and by “refusing to erect premature arbitrary boundaries regarding life possibilities” these practices allow “one…to experience a wider swath of life” and to “approach life in a state of perceptual openness” (Frost, 83).

In contrast to the absolutist answers offered by the claims of many other religions, Jewish practice avoids such finality and totalizing notions. Embracing darkness and melancholy in ritual and observance, word and deed, comes with it the understanding made clear by Elie Wiesel:

All ready-made answers, all seemingly unalterable certainties serve only to provide good conscience to those who like to sleep and live peaceably. To avoid spending a life-time tracking down truth, one pretends to have found it (239).

Works Cited

Dudley, Michael. “Melancholy or Depression, Sacred or Secular?” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2.2 (1992): 87-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Frost, Christopher. “Melancholy as an Alternative to the Psychological Label of Depression.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2.2 (1992): 71-85. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Dalai Lama, Seyyed Hossein, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “Pursuing Happiness.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Being. American Public Radio, 28 Oct. 2010. MP3 file.

Wiesel, Elie. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Print.

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