The problem we encounter when reading Eikhah, like so many other canonical texts, is that we are too familiar with it. Texts like Eikhah are built into the routine of our calendar so that by the time we’re old enough to read them, we barely notice they’re even there. They rest unseen, like glasses on the bridge of our nose, rather than smacking up on the face the way they otherwise might.
Any good book on Eikhah will attempt to re-sensitize its readers to the power of Eikha’s language and imagery, and this is exactly what Dr. Yael Ziegler’s Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World sets out to do. Ziegler treats Eikhah first and foremost as poetry—as a collection of five poems, to be precise—meant to capture the experience of destruction, and to grapple with the theological issues this experience raises.
One of poetry’s most salient features is its rich language. Making full use of both traditional and academic commentaries, Ziegler explores the ins and outs of Eikhah’s words, “assum[ing] that Eikha intentionally weaves multiple meaningful interpretations” into a given verse (398). Notably, poetry often puts a variety of meanings in front of its readers, meanings that don’t always create a harmonious whole. Ziegler does not shy away from the different possible meanings a word might bear, preferring to present a thorough picture than one perhaps more streamlined.
One notable upside of looking at Eikhah as poetry is that he primary concern is the meaning of the words, and only secondarily what that meaning says about God and Torah. By way of example, take Eikhah 2:5, which Ziegler translates as “The Lord was like an enemy, He swallowed Israel.” This is neither the first nor the last time Eikhah refers to God as an “enemy,” but the straightforward, almost abrupt nature of the verse always shocks me: God was like an enemy.
The first time I read this verse provided me with two lasting memories: the moment I read it, and the moment I asked a teacher how it could possibly say what it says. Commentaries and thinkers concerned with religious significance of the verse often leap—as this teacher did—to show how the verse doesn’t really say what it says. They lean into comparative “like”—God was like an enemy, as opposed to actually an enemy. The word “like” suddenly serves to highlight the fundamental dissimilarity between God and “an enemy.”
Ziegler doesn’t take this approach. Instead, she explores what the author of Eikhah was trying to express by referring to God as “like enemy,” noting that the second chapter generally highlights God’s violence toward Israel without attempting to provide justifications for it. Other chapters, such as the first, do focus on God’s justification—on the sinfulness of the people, their deserving punishment. But the second chapter, as well as the fourth, attempt to express a sense of loss and bewilderment that flows not just from physical suffering, but also from a loss of theological footing that comes from suddenly experiencing God “like an enemy.”
Another important feature of poetry is intertextuality, the way one text cites or is in dialogue with other texts. Throughout Lamentations (both in the body of the text and in helpful charts), Ziegler shows how Eikhah constantly makes reference to or echoes other texts from Tanakh, particularly the punishments listed in Devarim 28 and the promises of hope in the second half of Yeshayahu.
One function of this is to destabilize or “take the edge off” Eikhah’s harsh emotional tenor. Ziegler hardly makes it through commenting on a single verse—and certainly not through a chapter—without referencing visions of a restored Israel from elsewhere in Tanakh. Many of Eikhah’s expressions of grief turn out to simultaneously be references to hope.
Reading this critically, one might say that if words or phrases mean one thing while also referring to its opposite, they might just be overly common expressions rather than “subtle (nearly indiscernible) reference[s]” (185). Reading more constructively, however, we might say that this is an unavoidable part of the richness of Tanakh—or any “broader canon” (211) within which a text finds its place. Biblical Hebrew—and Jewish language more broadly—is simply too rich to be used unequivocally. You cannot express one thing without referencing its opposite, because all of the words available have already been used so often and so variedly.
This point is brought home by a rabbinic text Ziegler quotes in full, twice, once in one of the introductory essays, and once near the very end of her commentary. In Bavli Makkot (24b), Rabbi Akiva sees a fox walking through the Temple Mount (an image drawn from Eikhah 5:18). When he sees this raw desecration, he smiles because—unlike his companions in the story—he cannot see destruction without also seeing redemption. One automatically references the other. In Jewish language, there can be no loss without hope.
A final feature of poetry worth mentioning is structure, because it is not only an interpretive tool of which Ziegler makes use again and again, it is also a key to her larger argument about the theology of Eikhah. Ziegler notes throughout her commentary how chiasms are fairly common in Eikhah, on both the micro and macro level. Chiasms are literary structures where two halves of a text mirror each other in their thematic or linguistic elements, with some key element lying in the center between the two halves. The largest chiasm in Eikhah, she argues, is the composition and arrangement of the book’s five chapters. Chapters 1 & 5 mirror each other, as do chapters 2 & 4, with chapter three lying in the center.
Moreover, if the book is a chiasm, then what it certainly is not is a linear progression. The book does not simply proceed apace from one theological position or emotional posture toward another, leaving the former behind. Instead, Ziegler argues, the book puts forward a circular, progress-less vision of religious life, with a key element at its center, and with mirrored elements surrounding it on all sides. For Ziegler, Eikha’s theological “center” (Eikhah 3:21–39) contains a “lengthy reflection on God’s essence, ongoing graciousness, and fidelity” (34), demonstrating the importance of “maintain[ing] a deep core of faith in God’s enduring goodness despite the ever-present suffering” (35). This theological heart beats deep within the cracks and crevices of Eikhah’s loss-wracked chapters—hope persists, but it is not given the final word.
If Eikhah had simply ended on a positive note (and the traditional practice of repeating the penultimate verse does move us in that direction), then we might have said that Eikhah is a book about overcoming loss. Instead, Ziegler argues, Eikhah is a book about the persistence of loss and the insufficiency of theology or theodicy for overcoming loss—as well as about the persistence of faith in the presence of loss. If loss and hope are inextricable, they are also not incompatible. The two come together, and neither one rules out the other. Human commitment to divine fidelity doesn’t keep a person from seeing God as “like an enemy,” nor does such an experience necessarily require a person to abandon their own religious fidelity.
The only downside of the book is that it is, in fact, “too much of a good thing.” For a commentary on one of the smaller books of Tanakh, Lamentations weighs in at a shocking 528 pages, not including the acknowledgments and bibliography. Part of the reason for this is that the book is provides its reader not with thematic or chapter-based essays so much as a line-by-line commentary on the entire book of Eikhah. While she will sometimes group a few verses together for the sake of coherency, Ziegler leaves no word unturned as she lays out the meanings of the text for her readers. Additionally, the book begins and ends with supplementary essays on Eikhah’s historical background, theology and suffering, biblical poetry, parallels between Eikhah and other biblical texts, and the goals of Eikhah Rabbah.
All of this is incredibly valuable, but it makes for an incredibly long book. Any reader who wants to use Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World to help prepare for the communal reading of Eikhah in just under a month might find it difficult to make it through the whole book cover-to-cover by then. My recommendation in that case would be to perhaps read the introductions and summaries accompanying the commentaries on each chapter of Eikhah, as well as some of the supplementary essays, and then diving in to Ziegler’s commentary on specific verses that catch their interest.