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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The Prayer of the Wounded…

God, if you are there, come among us.

…if you are not…

May we be found faithful in the wake of your memory.

May we give raise to song in the remnant of the Event.

May we be found mournfully joyous in the knowledge of who we must now become,

The answer to each other’s prayers…

Amen.

Is Religion Part of the Problem?

The second entry in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (2011) defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” While this is certainly a concise, applicable, and usable definition of religion, and though it is seemingly conducive to how the text has sought surmise the basic description and functionality of the religious framework, there are, indeed, subtle and nuanced differences that are cause for a greater divergence.

R.L. Johnstone (2007), in the book Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, defines religion as “a set of beliefs and rituals by which a group of people seeks to understand, explain, and deal with a world of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery, by identifying a sacred canopy of explanation and reassurance under which to live” (p. 14). Though this defining statement is much more unpacked, drawn out, and detailed, the two working definitions as presented by that of Johnstone and Merriam-Webster do bear many intrinsic commonalities and one could conclude that they are each explicitly similar. However, upon a closer examination, one will have revealed and realized what this observer believes to be at least one dramatic difference that seems to be ripe with implications.

Merriam-Webster begins by asserting the “personal” orientation of this “institutionalized system.” This emphasizes what is believed to be or what is seen as a highly individualized set of “attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” This definition has the person as center and as its starting point. The individual and personal nature of religion is at the heart of this proposal, highlighting only the individual activities. Also, this definition then seems to simultaneously contain a contradiction, in that how can an institution and or a system be ultimately defines as personal. While participation of the individual religious observant is an integral component to the operation of the institute, it seems antithetical to postulate that religion as a whole and at its most basic of levels is altogether personal.

Johnstone is then quick to retort by underlining the communal base as primary for the religious systemization.  This is decidedly a group effort and a shared experience. This does seem to be the more logical of the two arguments, as a collective comprisal would present a substantiated progression towards and an inundation of the institutionalization of a religious ordering of belief and practice. Yet, while this view does explain and give light to the standardization of the group, the definition seems to be asocial in the greater surrounding context of the religion. This definitive phrasing, taken on its own, does seem to suggest that although it may recognize the religious event as a social system, it alludes to a detachment from society. Although religious sects can and have withdrawn from the greater society, this does not free them from its effects.

This is what I find to be so intriguing in regards to the theories of Georg Simmel. Simmel underscored the influence that society has upon religious institutions.  Johnstone (2007) writes of Simmel’s thoughts, “Many feelings and patterns of expression commonly termed ‘religious’ are also…basic ingredients of social interaction in general” (p. 30). He goes on to say that “the models for many, if not all, religious sentiments, expressions, and beliefs, reside originally in society at large” (p. 30). This theory supposes that rather than society forming around a religion, religion, contrarily, forms around society. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre once suggested that existence precedes essence, likewise Simmel proposed that “society precedes religion” (Johnstone, 2007, p. 30). Thus, making clear that “Before religion can develop, there must first exist general patterns of social interaction – that is, a society – that can serve as a model” (p. 30). If this is true then all the efforts of religious communities to revitalize the faith, to renew its fervor, or to make it more relevant is itself, a misguided and ineffectual endeavor as it still does not address the root of the problem but only a manifestation. This treats only the symptoms while never actually attacking the virus. If we are asking why our religious institutions are failing it is surely because we have ignored the depravity lurking beyond the doors or our churches, choosing only to concentrate on internal conductions. Thus, until the religious communities abandon their temples and evacuate their houses of worship and take up active residence in the world of this earth, seeking  to dismantle and deconstruct the sociological fabrications of Western culture, socially, politically, economically, and philosophically. We must serve the “least of these.” We must clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in need, not in an effort increase numbers, or as an implicit humanitarian marketing campaign, and not even as the fulfillment of some arbitrary moral imperative delivered from the pulpit or from the misinterpreted pages of a book that we have stripped of its political subversiveness, but, because the face of the other is the face of God. Until we can replace and rebuild the dilapidated frames of our culture and our society our religious institutions will forever be found in ruin.

Christian Consumerism

Annie Leonard makes clear in The Story of Stuff that “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers – not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop” (Leonard, Priggen, & Fox, 2007). Certainly today’s mass media, mass marketing, and mass producing endeavors of the supermarket and megastore have captivated both our focus and our funds. They have tapped into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp “seeking” (Glei, 2010). Emily Yoffe, in her article entitled “Seeking,” writes that this behavior is the ultimate “mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world” (Yoffe, 2009). Yoffe continues,
 
For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs…[H]umans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones…[W]hen we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.
 
The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits ‘promote states of eagerness and directed purpose…It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused (Yoffe, 2009).
 
In keeping with the movements and methods of a consumeristic society, religious institutions, themselves, have begun to adopt these capacities, all too willing to provide the “world of ideas” through which to “divine meaning” in an effort to “promote eagerness and directed purpose” in both its present and potential members. In other words, in many cases, the religious experience has become just one more commodity to be sought, bought, and sold. The dominating religions, denominations, communities, and organizations have become a kind of “brand” eliciting a type of “brand-recognition” to which one will prefer over another. Membership then becomes a semblance of “brand-loyalty.” As a result religious communities have adopted similar marketing models targeting their desired demographics. This, I think, is precisely why many churches have self-titled themselves as “seeker-sensitive.”
 
One quickly thinks of the empire building efforts of many in Evangelical Christianity. In these instances the pastors of the growing number of “mega-churches” have become equal parts media mogul and corporate CEO. As a result a religious industrial machine is created; in which constant capital must be poured into in order to keep the wheels of industry continuingly moving and producing, and will seek to do so via targeted membership who will enable the means of the organization. “[T]elevangelists can fill a stadium at the same rate as a rock star and theme park can sell tickets to the Holy Land, organized religion has in many ways put a price tag on salvation” (Christman, 2011). Those heavily inundated by this type of economic ideology will see the magnitude of numbers in the way of attendance and contribution as a sign of God’s endorsement or favor.
 
However, many of lower socio-economic statuses are disenchanted by this vision of religion. They can no longer relate to these organizations, and thus, seek to form a congregation of greater similarity, and this is precisely why many sects form. The sect members will then often condemn and forbid actions or appearances reminiscent of the overindulgent system they cry out against. Yet, as increased social mobility occurs within the membership, many will become more loose or lenient with these prohibitions or will leave altogether.
 
Just as a total separation of church and state is nearly impossibly, so the separation of religion and economics is next to an unimaginable possibility. Whether a religious institution chooses to operate upon a business model more closely resembling that of a corporation or chooses to be a more socially engaging and justice orientated organization of community outreach and grassroots activity, power, water, and lights must still be paid. Even if not at the center of a religious community, economics is a necessary evil in keeping the organization in operation. It takes money to stay in motion, the most important question that remains is then will the religious community act in fiscal responsibility, maintaining a basis inclusivity and effectuality, concerning itself first and foremost with the well-being of its members over that which is monetary, or will seek to monopolize the market in an effort to sell God?
 
 
Christman, C. (2011). Selling God. [DVD]. USA: Breaking Glass Pictures.
 
 
 
Leonard, A. (Writer), Priggen, E. (Producer), & Fox, L. (Director). (2007). The story of stuff. [DVD]. USA: Free Range Studios.
 

The Economy of Justice…

In his book, T.A.Z., Hakim Bey describes the functionality of the strategic socio-political creation of temporary zones or spaces which defy all formalized and authoritative structuring. Bey calls these spaces, “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” or T.A.Z. for short. Here he suggests that the most effective way to create social relationships free from the influence of hierarchal systems is to concentrate on both the present moment and the relinquishment of one’s mind from the impositions of mechanized control.

I think this is precisely what we see in the Occupy Wall Street protest, and there may be no better place to create such a space. The critics of this protest have critiqued the event based upon the protestor’s lack of focus i.e. there is no set of standardized, unified, or identifiable demands being presented by those protesting. Yet, in many ways that is exactly the point and is the principle of its power. Its lack of definition is possibly its greatest strength in that it is the opposition of the facelessness of a systemic and systematic rigidity. The protestors are united by desire rather than demand. Peter Rollins said that “the point is not that you know what to do, the point is that you should do something.” This is what is being played out. It is the enactment of creative potentiality that is truly empowering.

In the same manner, Cornel West spoke of the Occupy Wall Street protest, “It’s impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands. We’re talking about a democratic awakening.” I think he’s absolutely right. This is not only the democratization of the philanthropic but also, in some ways, the democratization of the prophetic tradition. Not ‘prophetic’ in the Pentecostalist capacity but, in the Judeo lineage of social criticism i.e. the Hebrew prophets who were unafraid to speak against priest and king. This is the tradition that Jesus himself was firmly rooted within. In this present form it is being transformed into a communal event. The sound resonating from the side walk is a harmonious ensemble desiring mercy and not sacrifice, longing for sentient sensitivity over systemization. The purpose is to create tension rather than resolution, to present questions rather than answers, to give criticism and critique rather than offer arbitrary solutions, and to call for return.

Aristotle asserted that human species is, in essence, homo politicus, that essentially a political being. Marx made a similar summation, suggesting that mankind is homo econmicus, an economic being. Wall Street is certainly a monument to both these proposed facets of human identity. Yet, what is being performed in the face of the brick and mortar edifice of the political/economic institution is far more organic, agrarian, and egalitarian. Perhaps, we should realize that first, foremost, and primarily homo ecologicus, that is, ultimately, an ecological being, created from the dust of the earth. There is a median in the center of the road at the traffic light where Robert J. Conlan meets US1. I pass it every morning on my way to work and I am enamored by it. It demonstrates the persistence and perseverance of nature finding a way when there seems to be no way, even when the way is blocked because there we find grass and wild flowers growing through the cracks and crannies of the pavement, breaching the barriers, protruding defiantly, reaching for daylight, and taking over the surface of the curb, ever surviving. This is what we see happening in the Occupy Wall Street protest, man rising; pushing through every crevice of Wall Street’s concretizations, refusing to be inhibited, claustrophobic from the steel girders of an unforgiving frame. The message is then the reiteration, “man shall not live by bread alone.” Humankind cannot ultimately be sustained by the unholy union of natural provisions and mechanized production, scorched by the fires of industry. Instead we shall live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” that is the divine logos, the numinous lurking throughout every aspect of the created order that has been since the beginning, the logos that was with God and the logos that was God, the divine energy of the universe. This is the word that spoke life and creation into being, the word that created in the image of the numinous, and the word that breathed into the nostrils of mankind, filling both lungs and imagination.

Perhaps this is what it looks like and what it sounds like when the rocks cry out, when the mountains tremble, when the hills break into song, and when the trees clap their hands. Mark Twain wrote that “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. I think this relates quite well to what is taking place upon the streets of the protest. This is not the sign of vengeance or retribution, but nor is it passivity. These are the lilies and violets of the field tread upon, broken under the weight of our own structures, perfuming the cold sterility of an arid landscape with the call for justice.

In her poem, “KitchenetteBuilding,” Gwendolyn Brooks asks to poignant and pertinent questions. “Could a dream rise up through onion fumes and yesterday’s garbage ripening in the halls?” And more importantly, “would we let it in?”

Help and Thank You

help and thank you
blessings and despair
help and thank you
the greatest of all prayers
help i am thankful
distressed i am grateful
help and thank you
blessings and despair

help and thank you
the praises sung in hell
help and thank you
cherished gifts of the unwell
help i am thankful
broken i am graceful
help and thank you
blessings and despair