7/27/2006

In Defense of New Kinot

As Menachem recently wrote, and as Joel commented here, the Rav, zt”l, didn’t like the idea of ‘new’ Kinnot. Given that I composed one, it would seem fairly obvious that I don’t toe that line, though I was not aware of the Rav’s position when I wrote it. I’d like to submit an explanation as to why I don’t follow the Rav on this.

First of all, it is quite clear that the Rav’s position is not the consensus. Other gedolim, notably R’ Shimon Schwab and the Klausenberger Rebbe composed Kinot for the Holocaust. It has become extremely widespread to recite these Kinot and/or other Holocaust-themed Kinot. In general, the standard kinot earned their status as classics. These were selected from amongst many that were composed in Medieval and Early Modern times (R’ Elazar Ha-Kalir lived during the Geonic Era; he was not a Tanna). Thus, it’s very hard for anyone today to outdo what was done then, but it’s not impossible. Bialik and Agnon are prime examples of modern writers whose prose and poetry could rival the ancients in terms of literary complexity and depth, as well as aesthetic value. I would rather not discuss the Rav’s historical claims regarding the composers of the standard Kinot, ve-hamaven yavin.

‘New’ Kinot are often easier to understand, but that doesn’t mean much. Limericks are easier to understand than sonnets. There’s definitely a trade-off, as with pretty much everything else in life, between complexity and intelligibility (The Rav actually has an awesome exposition of a Gemara in Mo’ed Katan on this theme; it appears as the introduction to his eulogy for R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzensky). It’s not surprising that the Rav stood completely in favor of preserving complexity and not conceding an inch to something less that might resonate with the contemporary crowd. I am in good company with those who don’t stand with the Rav on this issue. Perhaps I might be part of what the Rav would characterize as Korach’s ‘Common Sense Rebellion’. I’ll have to live with that.

Another issue, far more personal, pertains not to the question of reciting new Kinot, but to the question of writing them. Although the Rav laid the foundation for finding religious value in individual creativity, his application was almost exclusively to Talmud Torah. When it came to the liturgy, his sensibilities were much more conservative. Nevertheless, having now undergone the experience of writing a Kinah, I submit that it is a much more effective means of relating to the themes of the day on a very personal level. If reciting the standard Kinot or learning about select ones – a la Rabbi Weinreb or Rabbi J.J. Schachter – works for you, great. Both are excellent Kinot speakers (Ouch! Awful Rabbinic pun!). But if you can find the opportunity to record your own feelings and formulate them through a literary medium, I’d recommend it. It’s a wholly different level of engagement in the mourning process. And if it’s good enough, it may have posterity.
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