Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Notes from Ari Elon

Over and over, for the last few years, I have read and reread Ari Elon's Alma Dee, translated by Tikva Frymer-Kensky as From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven. I think about Jewish poetry, Jewish education, really just about everything Jewish using its terms and methods; it's also, inter alia, one of the most haunting, beautiful books I know, in any genre. When I finally get around to creating my workshop / reading series / mentoring program for Jewish American poets here in Chicago, my "Jewish Cave Canem," as I've called it to friends all spring, I'm going to name it Alma Dee in Elon's honor.

Central to the book is a distinction between two kinds of Judaism, two kinds of Jews: rabbani (rabbinic, Orthodox, normative) and ribboni (self-mastering, free-thinking, autonomous). I find these very useful: much more useful, in fact, than the usual American distinction between "religious" and "secular." (Elon calls himself a hiloni religiosi, or "religious secularist," for example, which oxymoron makes perfect sense to me, and is embodied in the ribboni ideal he articulates.) This morning, I'm just going to copy out here a couple of passages where he uses these terms; in later posts, I'll come back to them as they might help us read, say, Norman Finkelstein, or Mike Heller, or Alicia Ostriker, among others.

Over to you, Ari Elon:

The ribboni person is master of himself or herself.

She has no other master in her world, and is not the master of the world or of other people. A rabbani person is not the master of herself or himself. He creates a rabbi for himself. The rabbi creates God for him.

The Jewish people is a typical rabbani people: Am rav. (26)

For the rabbanim, The Torah of Israel is first and foremost their source of authority. For the ribbonim, the Torah of Israel is only a source of inspiration. As long as the Torah of Israel continues to be the exclusive property of the rabbanim, they will continue to treat the Jewish people as their private property while they shake their threatening Torah at them. On the day that the ribboni leadership succeeds in wrestling the Torah of Israel from the rabbanim, then each and every Jew will know the Torah has seventy faces. Seventy thousand myriads. From that day on, every single Jew will begin to treat the sources of his and her culture as private property. Then, for the first time, the Jews will begin to be a free people on their own land (27).

The ribboni revolutionaries placed an exalted challenge before the Jewish people: to turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source of inspiration. Their heirs were not able to rise to this challenge and left Israel's Torah in the hands of the ribbani leaders. [...] The rabbani person sees Israel's Torah as a source of authority. The ribboni person cannot relate to this Torah as a source of authority, for this person is the source of authority for him or herself. So the ribboni person can approach the classical sources with great freedom and can claim them as her own. She can learn from them much about herself, her people, her collective memories; he can learn much about his passions, his repressed urges, etc. The ribboni finds in these sources an endless field of organic symbols.

Of course, in order to be able to harvest these symbols at will, the ribboni must be familiar with the actual field in which they grow. In order that ribboni refinements should not be artificial, they must be anchored inthe classical heritage. Innovation without tradition creates alienation and sows a short-lived field of rootless symbols
doomed from their inception. Tradition without innovation strangles a person's chances of being ribboni. (35-6)

The only way to cultivate organic symbols is midrash. As a discourse, midrash is completely different from scientific discourse. [...] Scientific analysis strives to reveal the conceptual world of the creators of symbols; midrash tends to ignore the conceptual world of these symbol-creators. Scientific analysis sees the symbol as a means to reach the past; midrash sees it as a way to reach the future. Scientific discourse aspires to be objective; midrashic discourse is intentionally subjective. Midrashic discourse takes symbols out of context; scientific discourse strives to place symbols in their contexts.

Analytic, scientific discourse is necessary for being ribboni, but it is not sufficient. The one who does not know how to ask, "Who was the person who created ex nihilo the sentence, 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth'?" cannot be ribboni. Only one who strives to understand both the manifest and latent motives of each generation's god-creators can be ribboni.

But a scholar who doesn't know how to speak to his or her child in science-fiction language about the chaos that preceded God's creation of the world also cannot be ribboni. That scientist's academic rank may reach the highest heavens, but his ladder does not extend down to earth.

In short, only a ribboni beit midrash could be a crucible for taking the organic symbols that are part of the fabric of many generations and processing them into treasures of liberated expression.

Children do not like to be spoken to in the analytic mode of discourse. They are eager for midrash of organic symbols. At a very young age, they discover that the world is round, but their inner world stays pre-Copernican, and angels climb the ladders of their world and slide down slides into their sandboxes. If we really want them to grow up autonomous (ribboni), knowing how to be their own divinity, we have to teach ourselves how to give them many midrashim about gods, angels, demons, and spirits. After all, we created God, and only in aggadah can our creature rise against its creator. A ribboni isn't afraid of legends. A ribboni loves them. (37-8)

From this, Elon goes into an inspired reading of Hayyim Nahman Bialik's little poem "Nad Ned" (See-saw), but that will do for now. What do you think?

(Memo to Anne J, et. al.: isn't that ribboni beit midrash what we want our new school curriculum to look like?)


Mike Heller said...

Dear Eric,

Elon's book seems fascinating, conceptualizing a personal modality that has existed post-Diaspora for 300 hundred years. And, today, perhaps more crucial to survivals of all kinds than ever. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


Rachel said...

I'm not familiar with Ari Elon, but your post has completely fascinated me. I love this rabbani/ribboni distinction, and see some terrific resonances between the ribboni mindset as he describes it and the Jewish Renewal "revelation of the Silent Torah" mindset I'm coming to appreciate so deeply in my own life. Time to go look for Alma Dee on Amazon... :-)