Kinot: The Language of Loss

My birthday is on Purim. But my destiny seems to be linked with Tishah B’Av.

For more than twenty years I have had the privilege of leading presentations of the kinot every Tishah B’Av morning. Initially I conducted these programs in my former synagogue, Shomrei Emunah of Baltimore, Maryland. There the attendance grew by leaps and bounds, and I became aware that there was a great need for programs that made the reading of the kinot more meaningful and relevant.

Some of those sessions were edited and distributed by the Orthodox Union before I became its executive vice president. Since then, and for the past eight years, the Tishah B’Av morning program I have led has been webcast to an international audience of thousands.

I have, of course, been humbled by the enthusiastic response to the program, and have come to understand that part of my rabbinic vocation is to teach and expound upon this unique set of poems of lament.

It therefore felt most appropriate for me to respond affirmatively to the invitation of my dear friend Rabbi Menachem Genack, who, in his capacity as general editor, OU Press, asked me to author a new translation of kinot. This new translation, copublished by OU Press and Koren Publishers Jerusalem, would accompany a commentary upon the kinot drawn from the works of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rabbi Genack’s revered mentor.

Although this was my first experience working on an extensive translation, I have long been aware of the particular difficulties of translating any text into another language. Each language has its unique expressions and reflects the idiosyncrasies of its culture or nation of origin. Translating medieval Hebrew poems, written for a Jewishly learned audience thoroughly familiar with Biblical references and Talmudic lore, would, I knew, surely present formidable difficulties.

As I plunged into my task I did indeed find myself facing the usual challenges of translation as well as the particular complexities involved in translating such powerful poems.

As those familiar with the kinot know, a great many of them were composed by Elazar HaKalir, whose very identity is shrouded in mystery. Despite this, his poems carry his personal imprint and are organized around the Hebrew alphabet in a variety of configurations. They assume that the reader is familiar with the subtleties of a wide range of ancient texts. An expert knowledge of midrashic literature is a sine qua non for even a superficial understanding of his complex lamentations.

All the kinot, regardless of who the author may be, express strong feelings of loss, grief and despair

I began translating with the assistance of the standard editions of the kinot in pamphlet form, some recent translations in Modern Hebrew and the scholarly volume prepared by Daniel Goldschmidt and published by Mossad HaRav Kook. In order to assure the freshness of my translation, I avoided consulting the two available English-language translations by ArtScroll and by Rev. Abraham Rosenfeld of Great Britain. I did find the Yiddish “Ivreh teitsh” translation especially helpful.

It soon became apparent to me that I would have to make a sharp distinction between translation and commentary. Since our publication would include the comprehensive commentary of a master of the field, Rav Soloveitchik, I felt free to try to convey the emotional impact of the poetic texts and not elaborate upon the many layers of meaning embedded in the kinot.

I recommend reading my translation aloud on Tishah B’Av day, and attempting to empathize and identify with the feelings that the poets struggle to convey. All the kinot, regardless of who the author may be, express strong feelings of loss, grief and despair. On Tishah B’Av day, the reader must come away from a reading of the poems with similar feelings, for that is the purpose of reciting them. The analytical study of the scholarly references, literary nuances and allusions to the Bible and Talmud is not necessary on Tishah B’Av day, and may even be inappropriate. In my translation, I therefore felt justified in eschewing erudition in favor of emotion.

As I lived with these texts for many hours daily over the course of several months, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of depression, darkness and desperation. I soon realized that I could not expect to live with the intricacies of these heartbreaking poems without deeply experiencing heartbreak myself.

I found myself spiritually exhausted by the process, and held on to those few phrases of hope with which almost all the kinot conclude. Sometimes, I discovered, these conclusions had a ring of artificiality, almost as if the poet felt obligated to tack on words of consolation at the conclusion of his poem. These “forced” concluding sentiments did little to dispel the darkness I experienced.

While working on the translation, it became clear to me that the authors of the approximately fifty kinot differ greatly in style and, frankly, in talent. Elazar HaKalir was brilliant in the intriguing manner in which he organizes each of his poems, each one differently. He is certainly characterized by originality, while some of the lesser-known authors simply imitate their predecessors. The unique gifts of Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah HaLevi become all the more apparent as one translates their few contributions to the kinot corpus, especially when compared to some of their lesser rivals.

Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet, the Rashba, wrote in a responsum that Judah HaLevi was the chief of Jewish poets. How accurate are his words! Nearing the end of the translation process, I encountered the first of the kinot dedicated to Zion by Judah HaLevi. The sadness in which I was mired throughout the process of translation began to lift as I read his moving descriptions of the beauties of the Land of Israel. Although he writes mournfully about the lost Zion, somehow, his imagery instills not grief but longing, not despair but hope.

As I concluded my onerous assignment, our editorial committee faced a difficult decision: Would we include recent kinot occasioned by the Holocaust? The Rav, we knew, frowned upon the recitation of any but the traditional kinot. But our people seem to have spoken in favor of the inclusion of some Holocaust lamentations; the inclusion of modern-day kinot has become prevalent if not universal in the years since the Rav’s passing. We decided to respectfully diverge from the Rav’s opinion and to include several contemporary kinot related to the Holocaust. But I felt compelled to decline to translate them, and so someone else translated them.

Although all the Holocaust kinot that we eventually selected are beautiful, appropriate and impactful, they seem to lack the ardor and depth of the kinot of old. They inspire sadness, anger and images of catastrophe. But I come away from them wanting more. It is as if their authors tried their best but could not adequately express all, or even close to all, of the horrors of our century’s Churban. I certainly do not fault them for this, but I could not bring myself to translate their efforts. I felt that had I done so, I would have done a disservice to the poets of old who deserve the special reverence that history has accorded them.

Now I better understand the Rav’s objection to premature attempts at lamentation. The passage of years, even of decades, is not enough. With very few exceptions, the kinot that I translated are written from the perspective of history by individuals who lived long after the events they describe.

Although Tishah B’Av presentations have become a part of my inner self for more than twenty years, my presentation this year will come from an even deeper place. Living with the words of these profound poets these past few months has intensified my sense of the tragedy of Jewish history. It has taught me a lesson that often eludes the intellectual “yeshivah bachur” that is part of my identity. It has taught me that there is a powerful emotional component to Judaism that must be experienced if one is to really feel a part of our people.

How true it is: All who mourn, passionately mourn, for Jerusalem, will be privileged to see her in her joy.

This article was featured in the Summer 2010 issue of Jewish Action.
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