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.


AVIVA said...

Dear Joshua,

Thank you so much for your recently-posted piece. We will use it tonight in our community to reflect on our ancient modern existence.

I very much appreciate your perspective on the differences in how the ancient rabbis viewed time.

I respectfully disagree with your perspective that the rabbis "weren't Greeks." IMHO, the rabbis "eternalized" the very Hellenistic influence of thinking in categories (thanks to Aristotle.

But, that detail aside, your thoughts, as always, provide a helpful and insightful insight into rabbinic thought.

Kol tuv,

Rabbi Aviva Berg

spin0za1 said...

Excellent insights, Josh. I started to write a response here, but it quickly got very long, so I wrote a post over on my blog instead. I'd love for you to read it:

Tzom kal