Friday, August 17, 2007

But Seriously, Folks...

--about what Alecia calls "living in the blur," the space between "secular" and "religious":

1) It seems to me that these terms, both Latinate, both based on Christian norms, fail to get at something essential in Jewish, or at least Jewish American, identity. I don't have a copy handy of Daniel Boyarin's brilliant Border Lines: the Partition of Judeo-Christianity, but his argument that our very notion of "religion" as a category was invented as part of the invention of Christianity in late antiquity struck me as well-founded and convincing. So did his even more intriguing case that this idea ("religion" as a category) was entertained but finally rejected by the men who created and eventually imposed rabbinic Judaism as a norm.

2) As a result, the identity documents we Jews have in our pockets ("your papers, please!") are a palimpsest of conflicting and competing terminology. This means, at least to say for us as 21st century American Jews, that they contain a palimpsest of options. Some are "religious," some national, some ethnic, some cultural; some are imposed from outside ("are you a member of The Jewish Faith?"; "how does it feel to be a Question?"; "must you mow your lawn on Shabbos?"), others from within, and others not imposed at all. "Secular observant Jew" is an entirely possible category. Arguments within the self are, therefore, commonplace.

3) Without speaking for anyone else, I'll testify that my own place on a "religious / secular" continuum has shifted many times. On reflection, I'd have to say that this motion has never, never been the result of reason, argument, or anything a Christian would call "faith" or "belief" or the loss thereof. It's all about mood, social context, family dynamics, the vagaries of my literary, professional, or sexual life. (Among the varieties of religious experience, James forgot to mention summer camp kisses--but at 14, they were Sinai, Horeb, a still, small voice all in one. I got your column of fire, baby, right here! "Arise my love, my fair one, and come away": all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.)

4) I live, now, in a neighborhood filled with "religious"--which is to say, shomer shabbos, Jews. I live on the fringes of that world, and must always do so: intermarriage will do that to you, as I've learned. Were I to learn enough Hebrew to chat with my thoroughly secular Israeli neighbors in the schoolyard, or enough Yiddish to chat with the ghosts of their grandparents, or enough Russian to chat with the architect-turned-custodian at my synagogue, I could see their religion and raise them a language. Maybe some day I'll do that, if the mood strikes--or maybe I'll start going to shul with my kids every week. None of that will make me be more or less Jewish, more or less a Jew; it would be about action, rather than ontology.

5) A proposition: The real divide today isn't between "religious" and "secular" Jews, but between ardent, ambivalent, and anti-Zionist Jews. That's where the rubber bullet hits the road. Case in point: the "conservative / reconstructionist" synagogue a couple of blocks from me, the one I could walk to, if I chose, has as the final topic in its conversion-class syllabus a history of the State of Israel. "Palestinians: No 'Right' of Return," one bullet point reads. My own politics are ill-informed and amateurish, but I'm struck here that this is one of the few "articles of faith" in the whole course. No shrimp, no Jesus, no Right of Return, and we don't really care about the shrimp.

6. In no particular order (from Siddur Kol Hevel):

“When he, too, who abhors the name, and believes himself to be godless, gives his whole being to addressing the Thou of his life, as a Thou that cannot be limited by another, he addresses God.”
--Martin Buber, I and Thou

"The human mind has all sorts of tricks of consciousness beside rationality, one of which is to address a projected part of the self or the universe as you, and both the 'simple' and the sophisticated take it as seriously as they need to on any given occasion." --Catherine Madsen, The Bones Reassemble

"All deities reside in the human breast."

--William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

For liturgy, God is always a moving target: we pray to him and get equivocal answers, or none; we ask to see his glory and are shown only his back. Any assertion we make of God's grace and mercy is at once undercut by the contingency of our daily experience. Any assumption we make of God's indifference or hostility is eclipsed by the appearance of mercy and grace in our lives. The declaration from the burning bush, ehyeh asher ehyeh ("I will be what I will be"), is a promise and a threat in equal measure, and hints at the simultaneous presence and absence of God at the other end of our prayers. Yet whether God is present or absent is not a final or even an answerable question, only a sort of spiritual brain-teaser by which our minds stay alert. With or without God, what is unequivocally present is the human other in need. --Catherine Madsen, The Bones Reassemble.

O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:

O one, o none, o no one, o you:

--Paul Celan, from “There Was Earth Inside Them” (Es war Erde in ihnen)

7) My own creed? Ani ma'amin b'emunah sh'leyma b'viat hamashgiach. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Kashrut inspector. Someone always shows up to check your work, stamp your papers, keep a watchful eye. But until then, as my son says: "Get your treif on!"


myshkin2 said...

Best post anywhere on any topic I've read all summer! Thanks.

alicia ostriker said...

Yes I said yes I said yes. Great post. Covers the ground. Regarding this bit--

Among the varieties of religious experience, James forgot to mention summer camp kisses--but at 14, they were Sinai, Horeb, a still, small voice all in one. I got your column of fire, baby, right here! "Arise my love, my fair one, and come away": all the rest is commentary. Go and study it--

I would only add, why stop at age 14? If Akiba thinks shir hashirim is the holy of holies, it's good enough for me at any age. I like to picture the Song on one side of a set of scales and the rest of Torah on the other, and see how nicely they balance.

E. M. Selinger said...

No age discrimination meant, Alicia! Adolescence was simply my moment of initiation into such mysteries; they themselves continue, thank goodness.

As for those scales, I think you have your thumb in them. The Song outweighs the rest by a long shot, in my book!