Eicha and the Calling of Bat-Zion

 

(טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ לֹ֤א זָֽכְרָה֙ אַחֲרִיתָ֔הּ וַתֵּ֣רֶד פְּלָאִ֔ים אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ רְאֵ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עָנְיִ֔י כִּ֥י הִגְדִּ֖יל אוֹיֵֽב׃  (איכה א:ט

Her uncleanness clings to her skirts. She gave no thought to her future; She has sunk appallingly, with none to comfort her. See, O Lord, my misery,; How the enemy jeers.

 

I have always had a rather unusual love for Eicha, for the book that so graphically describes the near destruction of the Jewish people, and our first moments of exile. I have never learned to chant Eicha myself, but I will often spring into song, singing the tune that I have memorized over the years. The cantillations and haunting melodies that for generations have carried our people through trauma, through distance and forgetfulness, and for so many people, to the next generation.

I do not find it surprising that I love this book. It is a work of careful, soaring narrative poetry. Eicha tells our story, during one of the most fraught and horrific periods in our history. And yet, Eicha also manages to paint an incredible picture of our relationship with the Divine. And, with unshakeable language, describes what happens when that relationship ends.

It is important to consider the language and imagery that Eicha employs. Eicha is told through the eyes of Bat Zion, the daughter of Zion, one of the most theologically resonant subjects in the Tanach. I say this because the Bat Zion offers insight both, politically and theologically, into the murky waters and early birth pangs of exilic Judaism.

טֻמְאָתָ֣הּ בְּשׁוּלֶ֗יהָ לֹ֤א זָֽכְרָה֙ אַחֲרִיתָ֔הּ וַתֵּ֣רֶד פְּלָאִ֔ים אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ רְאֵ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עָנְיִ֔י כִּ֥י הִגְדִּ֖יל אוֹיֵֽב׃  (איכה א:ט)

This verse is found early on in the book of Eicha. As we know, the desolation and destruction of Jerusalem is told through the eyes of Bat Zion. Bat Zion is a tormented subject. At once she is a mother, a bride, a widow. I find the use of Bat Zion as the mover of Eicha’s narrative extremely convincing and compelling on many levels. I also find the use of her voice empowering, and in the same moment, deeply challenging. Bat Zion is an incredibly feminine, perhaps intimate character. Throughout the book of Lamentations, we are drawn in, moved to tears, by the vivid, emotionally resonant pain of this woman in anguish. As readers, we are given an opportunity to hear, and hopefully feel, the sometimes excruciating experience of motherhood and femininity that our canon so often erases. As the subject and voice of this story, we are forced to take the Bat Zion, and with her, the woman, seriously.

And yet, for every moment of uplift, there is loss. And more particularly, for every potential triumph of the Bat Zion, there is abuse, emptiness, and distance. As I mentioned earlier, I feel a deeply emotional bond with the Bat Zion, and I am both comforted by and disappointed in the fact that she is conveyed throughout the book of Eicha in the certain way that she is. While the use of feminine voice is extremely important, and must not be diminished, it is important to point out the various and sometimes subtle ways this text attempts to condemn women and our bodies. Her uncleanness clings to her skirts. She gave no thought to her future; She has sunk appallingly, with none to comfort her. See, O Lord, my misery,; How the enemy jeers, (Lamentations, 19). Like many of my feelings about the book of Lamentations, I find this verse especially difficult. Here, the text describes an uncleanness, likely that of female ritual impurity, Niddah. In this verse, there is a muted condemnation of the Bat Zion and her body. There is an innate sense of disgust, of horror, directed at this ritual state, and perhaps the sacred state of the Bat Zion.

Here, I am left with an important and very difficult problem: Niddah as the metaphor for collapse, for exile, for death. How is it, that ritual impurity, that is often ushered in by intimacy and childbirth can be leveraged in this way?

In this particular moment of rupture, the literary power of the Bat Zion is unmistakable. Throughout Eicha, Bat Zion plays the role of Jerusalem, and embodies the various transitional stages between prosperity and destitution. The text’s invocation of Niddah, of female ritual impurity, is shocking at first, and deeply painful on many levels. And yet, we must remember what Niddah is: a required period of separation that is both initiated by and signaling of fertility.

I have thought a lot about the relationship between the laws of Niddah and actual, lived human experience and frailty. In so many ways, the Bat Zion complicates notions of intimate femininity, motherhood, and sacred, ritual impurity by at once being the voice through which our seemingly imminent end is narrated, as well as the human symbol of divine intimacy, and national hope.

I find that the Bat Zion, as well as the laws of Niddah, are actually near-perfect metaphors for my own theology. I believe in a G-d who is frail and unpredictable, unmovable and infinite. I believe in a G-d who moves with humanity, reflects the painful and jubilant transitions that we experience; a G-d who celebrates us, grows angry with us, and weeps for us. While we strive to meet G-d, to feel G-d, G-d does the same for us.  

In one of her vital essays on Process Theology, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum, writes, “That same Divinity who sustains the world constantly undermines its stability.” This assertion captures the essentials of my own theology, and gives me an important context for reading the Bat Zion as the metaphor for which she is employed. Here, Rabbi Elad-Applebaum declares the humanity of G-d, the delicacy of G-d, and sometimes, the failure of G-d. In this quote, we are given so much important clarity into the ways G-d moves through the world, and can see how a G-d that is ductile can walk with the Jewish people, and all of humanity, through trauma, and on to redemption.

Niddah, as a required period of separation between partners, is a beautiful way to tell the story of our entrance to the diaspora. Following the required separation period that Niddah necessitates, is return. Physical and divine return between partners. After Niddah, the partnership renews, and the opportunity, and sometimes pain, of conception begins again.

 

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