Friday, August 04, 2006

Ritualization

Argh! I should not be posting, I should be packing, considering as how I am leaving the blinking country in less than three days and have thus far...placed some shirts in one of my suitcases. Not a very good pace, I'm afraid. But I had a blog post sparked in my head yesterday and this is the first time that I've been able to get the computer since then, so here goes:

I listened to an interesting shiur yesterday about the mitzah of
keriah and how it has evolved over time. One of the most striking aspects was watching how what we do today is not only different from the original mandated way to perform the mitzah, but even diametrically opposed to the whole point. Example: In the gemara, it says that keriah that is not done in the moment of anguish is not valid. Today, however, we tear keriah not by the death bed nor when we first hear of the loss, but only after the burial, a good day or so later. Example 2: Keriah for parents is supposed to be done with one's own hands. Today, we have somebody else start the tear and then continue it. And this is not even bringing into account the strict halachot of how far to tear and from what direction and so forth (not that I, thank G-d, am in a position to be familiar with those details).

The pretty clear trend in these changes is from spontaneity, an organic expression of grief, to ritualization. Looking even in tanach, we see tearing clothes as an expression of grief, along with putting ashes on the head and so forth. It's a very human, believable gesture- in the throes of grief, you tear at your clothes, seeking... to what? To vent your rage, to express your feelings that everything is nothing, is useless, perhaps even to induce grief if you are in shock. (All of these are, by the way, the explanations for the mitzva of keriah given by the rishonim).

On the other hand, what is keriah nowadays? A carefully planned ritual. At a certain time, somebody comes over with a scissors and makes a small cut, then explains to you exactly how far and where and how to tear. The sentiment- in fact, the purpose- quietly fades away in the flurry of details.

Which is not to say that I oppose details. The halachic system largely consists of taking a general idea and transforming it into a set of specific, sometimes ridiculously detailed instructions. And it is good that it should do so. Nice ideas without details have a habit of evaporating or being transformed into vague mushy-gushiness without any anchorage in reality. Mitzvot without details become pretty hippy rituals- rather like a Tu B'Shvat Seder- full of sweetness and feeling, signifying nothing.

On the other hand, it is a pity when the original organicism of the mitzvah is lost entirely. And, to the degree than it can be avoided, I think it ought. Which brings me to the other thing that was nagging at my mind all through the lecture: I shouldn't be here.

I shouldn't be sitting on a kindergarten chair listening to an interesting halachic dissection of the laws of mourning, or a mussar shmooze about being nice to people. Nor should I be working my way through a book of kinnot, trying to say all of them with some modicum of understanding.

Tisha B'Av is a day to weep. Not to learn, not to pray, not even to become nicer people. Just to weep. If kinnot help you do that, wonderful, but I would suggest that it's more useful to find a couple that really rend your heart and say them slowly, and stop in the middle and cry.

There seems a curious inability to sit and cry on Tisha B'Av. Instead, the day gets filled with this and that, with shiurim and inspirational movies and endless mumbled kinnot. Maybe you pull out a Mo'ed Kattan or hear yet another way of slicing and dicing the Bar Kamtza story. Very nice. But it isn't Tisha B'Av.

And, I mean, I understand why this trend develops. First of all, sitting and crying is hard, not to mention depressing, especially for people who are less given to emotion. But I think that there's a more deep-seated objection. Maybe this is just in my head, but I think that people would see that as a waste of time. 'What's the point of crying? It doesn't make anything better. Go, go to a shiur or a shmooze, become a better person.'

Perhaps a good point, in general, but it's not Tisha B'Av. The whole point of Tisha B'Av is to act simply as a day of mourning, simply as a chance to weep. Not to move on. Nobody tells an that they should move on, that they shouldn't just sit around and cry all day. We don't feel like onenim on Tisha B'Av. But the point of the day is that we should.

And you can see this clearly in the halachot of the day. No torah study, except the sad bits. And personally, I think that the sad bits should be a bit sadder than a fascinating halachic chap on some muddled sugya in Mo'ed Kattan. No tehillim, even skipping bits of davening. No chiyuv, I might add, to say all those kinnot.

But the point of the mitzvah-its actual, emotional soul- has been eaten up by a focus on the details and the rituals, on avoiding what's forbidden and still ignoring the point. I'm not saying that I'm not guilty of it as well. But I do think that it's a pity.

6 comments:

Halfnutcase said...

it is a pity.

so much of the mitzvah gets lost in dedication the rules, but with out the rules you wouldn't have the mitzvah. . .

such a pity.

Miri said...

I think the point is that at this opint in time we've already lost the organicness. meaning, we might rip as a first instinct; but then, how many would stop themselves, thinking for the clothing? how many peolpe simply wouldn't react that way out of shock, and need to be shocked into grief with the motion? there's a reason these things were ritualized; they're supposed to have meaning beyond spontaneity. if the spontanaiety was the mitzvah, G-d woul've said "when in mourning, be spontaneous," not "when in mourning tear keriyah."

Tobie said...

Granted. But there's some distance between "this is a way to express your grief" and "this is a careful, detailed meaningless ritual for you to carry out days into your mourning process", no?

Richard said...

Granted, I am not familiar with this particular ritual; however, I find a problem with the phrase "meaningless ritual."
The point of a ritual is that it has meaning, usually on multiple levels. There are the actions done, which might be useful of themselves; and there is the symbolism of the actions; and there are the literal and symbolic meaning of whatever accompanying liturgy or other spoken words accompanying.
What I'm trying to say is that a "meaningless ritual" is no longer a ritual, but rather an empty set of motions and words.
Also, you don't use the phrase "hapax legomenon" enough. Not complaining, just observing.

Tobie said...

Alright, Mr. Lexicon, amend my statement to "meaningless set of actions that once was a ritual", if you prefer. The point stands.

And I don't think that I've ever used the phrase "hapax legomenon" in my life. Which may actually be quite enough, at least for me

e-kvetcher said...

I finally watched an episode of "Six Feet Under", which is about a family running a funeral home. There's a scene where a man loses it at his father's funeral and goes on a rant about how in our culture we feel it is improper to show our emotions and really grieve. Contrast to, say a funeral in the Middle East...

At the same time, even in those cultures it was customary to have professional mourners, women who would lead the funral processions weeping loudly and getting everyone else in the mood.