One of the current graduate course I’m taking is a Humanities course exploring Antiquity and the Medieval World. As most courses do, this one requires the completion of a research paper and a presentation outlining the scope of the research project. One of the texts we’ve been examining is the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, and more specifically the “Commentary on Habakkuk” found there within. This is what I have decided to focus my research upon. Above you’ll see my presentation describing the criteria by which I will be attempting to investigate the text and topic. Feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you think. Also, please ‘Like’ the video on YouTube.
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).
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.
In what may be one of the most quoted passages amongst the works and writings of Karl Marx, Marx writes in his introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that “Religious misery is in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). “Religion,” Marx continues, “is the moan of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions” (3). “It is,” Marx says, “the opium of the people” (3).
Marx’s description of the religious endeavor, in many ways, also serves as an appropriate description of the functioning of both Eschatology and Apocalyptic literature. Both are imbibing means of giving “expression of real misery,” utilized in giving vivid voice to “the oppressed creature.” The Eschaton and the apocalypticism, as it appears within the narrative and writings of the Kethuvim, serve as what Marx called “the sentiment of a heartless world,” and “the spirit of spiritless conditions.” John Edgar McFayden seems to sympathize with a similar summary suggesting that “the apocalyptic writers derive the future from the past and present, and make it an object of consolatory hope” (273). McFayden goes on to say that “with the apocalyptic writers the future is the brilliant counterpart of the sorrowful present, over which it is to lift them” (273).
A common feature in exilic/post-exilic thought is the revelatory realization of the immense incongruence and inapplicability of the ideas of retributive justice in the everyday workings of the world. Weeping by the waters of Babylon brought with it the all too real and cutting knowledge that the wicked more often than not go unpunished and the righteous all too often are down trodden, oppressed, exploited, and cast asunder. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “The caged bird sings of freedom.” Thus, with their brows bruised by the heels of their oppressors the Hebrew people begin to dream of the future, looking to a time when justice will roll down like a river, when the righteous will be raised to the right hand of God, when, as Marx has written, “the imaginary flowers which adorned the chain” will be plucked, “not that man should wear his fetters denuded of fanciful embellishment, but that he should throw off the chain, and break the living flower” (3). In this way, the apocalyptic/eschatological vision became the “opium of the [Hebrew] people” (3), as it was a way in which to self-medicate, dulling the pain and trauma captivity and oppression.
Yet the purpose apocalyptic vision of the eschatological imagination is twofold. Restating Marx, “Religious misery is in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). There is not only expression of misery but, also protestation. Perhaps then, when Marx further suggests that “The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is the demand for their real happiness” (3), the demand of Marx most resembles that of the Hebrew apocalyptic literature in that “The demand to abandon the illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions” (3). It is equal parts consolation and critique, as it only truly consoles via its critique of illusory consolation. Thus, continuing this parallelism of a kind of Marxian Dialectical Eschatology, when Marx describes the task of philosophy in the historical realm, he is at once elucidating that of the eschatological, in that “The immediate task of philosophy [/eschatology] when enlisted in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its unholy shape, now that it has been unmasked in its holy shape” (4).
There is, therefore, something of a paradoxical negation at work within these systems.
[It] includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary (Marx, 17).
In this regard I would also suggest that the description of the Eschaton as “the ultimate fate of individuals persons: death, posthumous, heaven, hell, and resurrection” (Harris, 250), does not fully grasp the full expression of that which is eschatological. There is a profound “this-worldliness,” an immanent rather than a simply transcendent functionality available within the eschatological undertaking. It is not simply talk of “End Things” but it too serves as a critique of the functions of the world, a critique of power, politics, economy, and authority. Perhaps one could say that that which is most purely apocalyptic is the apocalypse that tears away the very fabric of apocalypticism. Likewise, perhaps that which is most truly eschatological is the Eschaton that ruptures and breaks apart the very framework of eschatology. Perhaps, prodding further still, that which is most fully messianic is the Messiah that not only disrupts but, utterly destroys the very structures of messianism. This is the eschatology of the everyday, which “defies the perverse reading of eschatology as some triumphant End of History where the divine trumps the human” (Kearney, 11).“Thus the criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics” (Marx, 4).
Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.
Kearney, Richard. “Epiphanies of the Everyday: Toward a Micro-Eschatology.” After God: Richard Kearney and the Religious Turn in Continental Philosophy. Ed. John Panteleimon Manoussakis. Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2006. Print.
Marx, Karl. “A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right.” Selected Essays. Amazon Digital Services: Public Domain Books, 2006. Kindle Edition.
—. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Das Capital) . Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle Edition.
McFayden, John Edgar. Introduction to the Old Testament . Amazon Digital Services: Public Domain Books, 2004. Kindle Edition.
I was recently participating in a class offering an introductory examination into the Hebrew Bible. In the second week of discussions the following question was posed:
Discuss the possible reasoning and implications as to why God might have placed Old Testament Israel at that particular location and time in history for the growth of this religious faith?
A question as succinctly stated as this bears with it an air of simplicity. Yet, upon closer inspection or when viewed from an alternate vantage one will quickly find that this semblance of the simple is illusory at best. Unless one is of a particular persuasion than the question itself and any answers that may arise are a dead stop and are stillborn. Stated another way, if one does not subscribe to what is implied within the context and framework in which the question was constructed then, the question is unanswerable and is void of meaning.
The question as to “why God might have placed Old Testament Israel” within the geographical and chronological confines of the Ancient Near East, stated as such, is leading and loaded, to some extent, as it has within itself a very specific set of presuppositions. To begin with, the question presumes there is a God. Secondly, the question posits a precise set of characteristics and traits corresponding to “God.” It implies that this “God” is strategically decisive and, to some degree, interventionistic. Along these same lines the question is suggestive of a God that is omniscient, and in this case has an all-seeing eye, an all encompassing knowledge and awareness of time and place throughout the entirety of history. Here also is the presumption of omnipotence as well, as implicit within the question is the assumption that God, having known and seen all infinitesimal aspects of history, has the power and capacity to place the development and position of a people in any area God sees fit.
From a simple position of belief, if one disavows the existence of a “God,” then there is no reason to even attempt an answer, i.e. if there is no God then obviously “God” did not place anyone anywhere. Yet, from a literary critical perspective, which would be most applicable as it pertain to textual study of the biblical literature, Jack Miles clearly writes that “Knowledge of God as a literary character neither precludes nor requires belief in God” (4). As God is the primary character of the Hebrew Bible, this perspective at least provides anyone, regardless of their belief pertaining to God, a moderate piece of ground and equal footing on which to stand and begin to tackle this question.
Yet, even here the question proves complex as there is not a single conducive explanation or picture of the nature or composition of this character upon which all the various books of the Hebrew canon agree. Even the varying sources within a single book disagree, i.e. the God of J is as different from the God of E and the God of P. If this were not enough, thanks to the Redactor, God, as a character, has thus become “an amalgam of several personalities in one character” (6). In many cases the God presumed in the question is not displayed in the text, especially given that the authors wax and wane between immanence and transcendence, presenting a God that utterly anthropomorphic or a God that is wholly other. In other cases I would go so far as to say that it is not always necessarily clear as to whether God is the protagonist or the antagonist.
Here the task is complicated further when we consider Derrida’s deconstructive engagement with literature, in that “what a text means cannot be separated from the reading process used by readers as they draw on personal and literary experiences to make meaning” (Schilb and Clifford, 1603). Perhaps more simply stated, “the text is not an object but an event that occurs in readers over time” (1603). Thus, “what a text means cannot be separated from the reading process used by readers as they draw on personal and literary experiences to make meaning” (1603).
Perhaps then, the question is better answered from a sociological perspective. With this in mind the pioneering work of sociologist Georg Simmel can be substantially pertinent. Simmel proposed that “the models for many, if not all, religious sentiments, expressions, and beliefs, reside originally in society at large” (Johnstone, 30). Simmel made 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” (30). In other words, “society precedes religion” (30). Perhaps then, the reason “God chose” to place Israel within the Ancient Near East is because this is precisely when Israel began to develop themselves as a society, thus, beginning to formulate and systematize “God” and their religious organization and attachment to him as a society.
Far from being only an ancient practice, as a culture and society we have continued to systematically construct, codify, and invoke mythic tales and “creation” stories of “God’s” decisive pre-ordination of events, conventions, and institutions as a means of legitimating the maintenance our ideological observance and adherence to the status quo.
Johnstone, R. L. Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion . 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.
Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1995. Print.