Culture, Religion

Tisha B'Av, Spiritual Tourism, and Depression.

This amazing post was written by a friend of Jewschool.

You may know Oliver and Abigail, the Social Justice Tourists. They swoop into a deprived area, get their hands dirty for a week, and then fly home feeling all good about themselves.

This is a post about spiritual tourism and the Ninth of Av.

The Ninth of Av is one of the two major fast days in the Jewish liturgical cycle. It is a time of mourning, commemorating various sad things which have happened to the Jews at various times (wikipedia).

In the Three Weeks beforehand, Jews act a bit sad:

In the Nine Days beforehand, Jews act somewhat sadder:

And on the Ninth of Av itself, we act very very sad:

Which is all well and good. One of the things we like about the liturgical cycle is its ability to swing us through a whole range of emotions.
The thing is that the misery induced by the liturgical cycle is emotional tourism. The liturgy takes you in hand and leads you through a landscape of devastation and despair, and then you go to a break-fast, you have the Seven Weeks of Consolation, and you’re feeling renewed and strong again by the time the High Holy Days come round. Even if you take it very seriously and you’re genuinely miserable on Tisha b’Av, you get to go home afterwards, just like Oliver and Abigail.
This is depression (not everybody‘s depression, bear in mind):

Depression is an enormous dark pit. If you fall into the pit, you’re going to have a hell of a time getting yourself out again. If you have suicidal tendencies, there’s a very real chance that some day you may not make it out at all. And even if you’re not depressed right now, you always know the pit is there. You spend a disproportionate amount of time making sure you’re not sliding back towards the pit.
So this is what the Three Weeks mean to me, when I see you doing it:

Oliver and Abigail making titillating little jumps towards the landscape of horror I spend my days trying to get away from. Here they are in the Nine Days:

But it is tourism, because they get to go home afterwards.


I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with tourism. Even social justice tourism apparently has its mitigating factors. Just – for pity’s sake, remember that you’re a tourist, and try to be sensitive to the natives who can’t leave and go home because this is home.
Intellectually, I can understand compartmentalizing the destruction of the Temple, and engaging with its Jewish significance without sinking into the pit. Sure. Some years I even manage it. But emotionally, the runup to the Ninth of Av, and the day itself, can seem more like this:

And perhaps now you understand a little better why some of us don’t
really want to play.

9 thoughts on “Tisha B'Av, Spiritual Tourism, and Depression.

  1. This is interesting, but mourning isn’t the same thing as depression – I live with a person with the illness, so I have some familiarity, although not the personal one you do. Tisha B’Av isn’t supposed to make you depressed, it’s supposed to make you aware. Although ostensibly the feelings generated are for sadness about the Temple, it’s really supposed to be to help us focus on what our role is as individuals and as a nation in our national tragedies. Granted this is not a perspective that we like today: it seems like blaming the victim, but we know that for example, rape victims who claim that they a have role in being attacked (“my skirt was too short,” or whatever) actually recover faster. This is part of what the rabbis were about. With depression, there is no role of the sufferer, and claiming one anyhow doesn’t help with healing, because it’s largely a chemical issue.
    It is also interesting to compare this to spiritual tourism, because unlike what Tisha B’Av is supposed to accomplish, spiritual tourism doesn’t usually generate change in one’s life and making a real and permanent difference (granted Tisha B’Av doesn’t usually either, so maybe that’s not a fair criticism).

  2. KRG– I think part of the point is that some of the mourning rituals, such as lessening self care, can be “going in the wrong direction” when a person needs to working extra hard at self-care as a means of dealing with depression.
    And mourning and depression are related, in that depression involves similar feelings, only caused internally (brain chemistry), rather than externally (by life events.)

  3. Slightly unrelated, but I still find the obligatory roller-coaster through the liturgical year a little odd to ride. Similar to you—maybe not to the same extent—I used to have some serious bouts of depression, and I have to admit certain customs like not greeting people etc. seem quite false when they’re, you know, prescribed. And it can be a little disconcerting knowing that you can “go home afterwards”.

  4. Interesting comparison. I think engaging in the Jewish calendar is also about doing it community which helps to take out the depression elements.

  5. The Piacetzner Rebbe, writing from the Warsaw Ghetto said, “In the past, we read about the destruction of the Temple. We even cried a little bit. But really, we had no idea. Now we really see. If these are the birth pangs of Mashiach, we can understand why the sage Ulla said, Let Mashiach come – I will not see it!”

  6. Issues of mental health and disability are so often marginalized in the Jewish community and I feel strengthened by this excellent piece. I am thanking God that some critical and creative discussion is taking place here.
    KRG – How can you make such a generalization – that victim blaming (on the part of the person who was raped) helps with recovery???? This is incredibly problematic. While each person’s experience of recovery is different, I don’t understand how this kind of general statement is not blatant re-enforcing of the rape culture that, unfortunately, we still live in. If you are concerned that the Rabbis (who are not infallible) are engaging in victim blaming, I would think about engaging in critical dialogue with them. Taking away the agency of someone with depression doesn’t resolve the issue either. As Rebecca M mentioned, the neurological nature of depression is inextricably connected to external factors (such as barriers related to class, race, disability, gender, and more). Since you say you are not someone who experiences depression, I would recommend reading the article again and reflecting on the truths related to the ways a community can aggravate (as well as be a support for) depression and, indeed, mental health and disability in general.

  7. …to clarify, i feel that it’s a problem to make, as KRG seems to, depression essentially about neurological problems. there is agency for people struggling with depression in terms of providing self-care. there is also responsibility for everyone to challenge structural barriers as well as social norms that aggravate mental health issues and detract from self and community care/support.

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