Thursday, July 29, 2010

the groom's tuxedo

What I want to know is, will the groom wear shatnez?

I was not planning on writing about The Wedding. I wish them all the best, of course, but having said that, what’s left? To my surprise, though, it’s become a kind of McGuffin among some of the more interesting Jewish voices I read; by which I mean a narrative device that doesn’t matter that much in itself, but it provides an excuse for the real work.

The pieces I’ve read point to, indeed celebrate, the wedding as representative of a new era in which traditional boundaries are breaking down – boundaries between tribe and tribe, culture and culture, even religion and religion. Take a look at this, by Rabbi Irwin Kula, for one of the best presentations of the point. Irwin, and others like him, suggests that we are entering a new era, in which people will pick and choose the best pieces of wisdom from their traditions and bring them together in a new, compelling syncretism.

And so I wonder, would the traditional prohibition of shatnez, a mixture of wool and linen, be one of those pieces of wisdom that Chelsea and Marc bring into their new life, or might such a blend be absolutely perfect for summer formal wear?

Shatnez as one of the great examples of Jewish wisdom? It’s hard to imagine. In fact, it seems like a perfect example of that kind of picky, detail-obsessed, rule-bound Judaism that we’d like to escape. How could fretting about a fabric add any kind of holiness to your life?

Though if you know just a little bit of history it is kind of interesting to note that wool, which comes from sheep, and linen, w.c.f. flax, represent the two main forms of human society in antiquity – herdsmen and farmers, nomads and settlers – and that the two have always been in tension (thus the plot of Oklahoma). And you might even remember that the very first fight was between a shepherd and a farmer over whether flesh or grain was the better sacrifice.

If you know a little more you might be aware that both those cultures are brought together in early Judaism; Passover, for example, is tied to both the newborn lambs and the ripening of the first grain. You might be struck by how the prohibition on mixing wool and linen acknowledges the legitimacy of the two modes of life and their distinctiveness – and the fact that they are brought together in the garments of the priests, and even in the Tallit (when techeilet is used) points to the Sacred as the one space in which they come together; a union that is only meaningful because of the normal separation.

And you might go on to make a connection between the boundary-marking work of shatnez and the way a mezuzah marks the boundaries between inside and outside, and the way kiddush and havdalah function in time, etc., etc. You could, if you were of the mind, feel in these different practices the pulse of the very first story, in which God creates not by shaping or forming or hatching, but by establishing borders – making is out of chaos by establishing order, differentiating between light and dark, water and water, sea and land. And that pulse could call to you, if you paid attention to it, reminding you though each of these practices, that you are a partner in the work of creation.

What I’m suggesting is that Judaism is, or at least can be looked at as, a system, and the pieces and practices and teachings may gain their meaning in the context of that system. In doing so, I’m trying to avoid the dualistic way of thinking that offers a choice between a reactionary traditionalism and a progressive syncretism. The “whole” (and I don’t mean particularly an Orthodox whole) can be seen as having value because that’s where the parts have meaning; wrenched out of context they become incoherent, like Kachina dolls on the bookshelf or dreamcatchers above the bed.

I don’t think syncretism is evil; but I think it does threaten to turn expressions of wisdom into dreamcatchers, and they don’t really work for Anglos.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

ancient modern poetry

I will be honest: I do not look forward to the restoration of sacrifices, and neither does anyone I know. But I will fast tomorrow without a second thought. I understand that there are many for whom Tisha B’Av makes no sense any more, that it belongs to a long-departed mindset. I think, though, that the primary gulf between us and the ancient rabbis has to do less with what they believed than with how they spoke.

First: the Rabbis were not Greeks. We are heirs of the Western philosophical system, and as such we use a language of principles, generalities, categories. The Rabbis, on the other hand, used a language of the concrete and structured their discourse around cases, specifications, archetypes. We do the same thing in our day-to-day language: when we pine for the days in our fifth-floor walk-up it is not because the lack of space and the lousy plumbing made us a happier couple, or even that we always were a happier couple then; but that apartment has come to represent a way that we like to think we once were. So too with the Rabbis: “The Temple” is their way of speaking about a world in which God was experienced as directly and even intimately present, and “Destruction” is the language for the loss of that experience.

We are distanced from them, too, by our understanding of time. We moderns think and speak about historical time, understanding the difference between “then” and “now”; modernity itself is a product of the development of what we call history. And so the questions that we ask about an event are, “What were its causes?” “What were its effects?” and most important, “Did it really happen then?” The Rabbis, though, trafficked in sacred time, mythic time, for which the essential question was not whether something happened once, but whether it was eternally true. The Seder does not memorialize the Exodus, it reenacts it, because the Liberation is something we all experience. So too with Tisha B’Av. Although we recall a series of tragic events we do not mourn things that happened then but for the brokenness we live with every day.

One does not need to be wish for the sacrifices to know this brokenness, one does not even need to be Jewish to recognize that, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Yeats understood what the Rabbis called the "Exile of the Divine Presence," even if he would not have used that language any more than they would have spoken of the Spiritus Mundi or of “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…” The Rabbinic poetry was of altar and offering, and they acted it out through prayer and fasting. They invite us to recognize the Destruction that exists now, to mourn it, and to be poets with them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

it's the chickens; they're back

I’ve been thinking about a bunch of news stories from Israel: the arrest of a woman for carrying a torah scroll by the Western Wall; the bill being pushed in the Knesset that would delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions; recent efforts to demonize the New Israel Fund and various Israeli NGOs; racist pamphlets by settlers at illegal outposts aimed at the Druze soldiers who had come to evict them. But this isn’t a screed against the right. Not too long ago, the then-dean of the Israeli Conservative Rabbinical School, a brilliant feminist scholar and pioneering rabbi herself, not only ruled against the ordination of gay and lesbian Jews, but claimed that homosexuality was a choice, and that heterosexual marriage was endangered by the movement for gay and lesbian rights, and there was not a lot of public outcry (at least, not that got much press here).

And I’m wondering if all of those stories might be really one story. Maybe what we should be worried about is not who gets access to the Wall, or who is the gatekeeper for conversions (even though both of those are serious issues), but whether Israel has developed a culture in which the way you respond to those you disagree with is by totally delegitimizing them, and by using what power you can to deny them even the right to their own story.

And that makes me wonder to what extent the long, and in some circles still extant, tradition of insisting that there is no such thing as a “Palestinian people,” that they have no legitimate national aspiration and no legitimate complaint against Israel – in short, the continued delegitimization of the Palestinians – has played into this dynamic. It seems to me that if you spend enough time insisting that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, and the very claim that there is, is a threat” it’s hard to keep from moving to “there is no such thing as non-Haredi Judaism…” or “no such thing as healthy gay and lesbians…”.

To be sure, in part I'm upset because I just find it unseemly that there is so much concern within the American Jewish community about who has access to the Wall and so little about the gross inequality in the Israeli government’s treatment of Arab and Jewish citizens. But more, I’m convinced that the only society in which my group will be treated with dignity is a society in which every group is treated with dignity. And I’m worried that what I’m hearing on the news is the squawking of Pastor Neimuller’s chickens coming home to roost.