nex (nextian) wrote,

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whose stories are they?

This is a personal essay I have been trying to write for a very, very long time. It isn't sparked by one thing in particular, but it comes in response to, and accord with, things I've read by chopchica and miriam_heddy and roga and dafnap and abyssinia4077 and xiphias and kita0610 and ... yeah.

I'm not speaking for all Jews here, and I'm not speaking for those listed above, but I am also not just speaking for myself.

“The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief-call it what you will-than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.”

-- A. A. Milne

These days, Kabbalah is a thing you play around with if you're Madonna, or Jane Krakowski on 30 Rock. It's "all the fun parts of Judaism, mixed with magic! :D" It's a hobby, or at best a fad with those little red string bracelets. It's been used to make Jews sound all freaky and weird, which, to be fair, we totally are, and it contains some of the strangest fringe concepts present in our cult. Even growing up, Kabbalah was always a little funky to me, if extremely attractive. Of course, as a woman, I shouldn't study Kabbalah; investigation into the sefirot is traditionally limited to men willing to devote their entire life to the practice.

It was also an ordinary thing that came up every so often in class or in sermons, tied with gematria. (Gematria is frequently referred to as Jewish numerology as if the discipline were a matter of adding up all the numbers in our name and going "That means you will meet a dark stranger on the beach," instead of a form of investigation into the inner meanings of complex texts that were quite possibly deliberately employing such a system.) In one speech I remember, during a Simchat Torah service, my rabbi stood, carrying the Torah, and rolled it open to the very last word. "The last letter of the last word of the Torah," he said, "is lamed. The first letter of the first word of the Torah is bet. Lamed-bet. Lamed-vet. Lev. The Hebrew word for heart."

"The Torah," he said, "is a beating heart. It beats slowly, once a year. But it's been beating for a long time."

27 The man said, "What's your name?" He answered, "Jacob."
28 The man said, "But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it's Israel (God-Wrestler); you've wrestled with God and you've come through."
... 31-32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don't eat the hip muscle; because Jacob's hip was thrown out of joint.)"

Genesis 27-32/Parshat Vayishlach (my Torah portion)

The things you know about the opening of the Bible are probably wrong. Not all of you, obviously, but ... some of you. For one thing, there was no apple. Just about the only thing we know is that the apple was made up out of whole cloth later, as a Latin pun. There's a tradition I love that it was a pomegranate -- that the myth ties to Persephone, that early example of the complexities of choice -- or a tamarind, or a grape, as the Talmud holds. (Some of these details I got from Wikipedia. You don't even know how much that depresses me.)

I took a class in Genesis at the University of Chicago with a number of Christian students; it was probably the origin of me wanting to get out, to go home. I couldn't take one more person looking at the naked, undefined, unillustrated KJV and suggesting that "well maybe God wanted them to eat the apple." As though in this undergraduate class they were the first to have thought of it; as though they were the first to struggle through this question, to wonder if they could question an act of such obvious cruelty. No one asked if the apple meant sin in the first place, as no one would agree with me that, perhaps, when Abraham questioned God and Israel fought with God, such things indicated that we were allowed to do so as well. They said instead, "Well, this proves how special he was." One put forth the idea that the Akedah was a foreshadowing of Jesus.

It was the second time I'd read a naked Bible, a text without extensive annotation and commentary, without doing straight-up line searches online. It looked rude, or like I was missing half the story. I'm Reform, and I don't believe that the Talmud came down to us from sacred inspiration (Rebecca was three years old? Please, even the Talmudic scholars disagreed on that one), but -- without years of argument and debate surrounding every line, how were you supposed to work past your first assumption about the text? How were you supposed to understand what it meant to your fathers, to those of your mothers who snuck looks at the stories, to Maimonides in Al-Andalus and to Akiva who didn't think much of Jesus when he met him and to the thousands of years of commentators thinking under the yoke of the Christian world?

How was I supposed to sit in class and listen to people say, Maybe we're just not supposed to understand the contradictions in the text?

Or to the new grad student teacher, a Jew himself, telling me, We try to read the text in isolation here?

What does that even mean?

In order to perceive the prodigious paradox of faith, a paradox that makes a murder into a holy and God-pleasing act, a paradox that gives Isaac back to Abraham again, which no thought can grasp, because faith begins precisely where thought stops—in order to perceive this, it is now my intention to draw out in the form of problemata the dialectical aspects implicit in the story of Abraham.
-- Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard

Yesterday, Rick Warren got up on the podium and said, "History is your story. The Scripture tells us, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.'" He didn't go anywhere with it; he just wanted to say, "Hey, y'all, I believe in God," which we already kind of knew, especially when he invoked the Hebrew name of Jesus, his name in every language he could apparently think of. In so doing he quoted the most fundamental prayer of the Jewish faith.

Two years ago, in an attempt to make myself feel smart, I tried to read Fear and Trembling, one of the most seminal philosophical texts in Western culture. In it Kierkegaard takes up the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Abraham binding and attempting to sacrifice his son. He wrestles with it over a hundred pages, and concludes (in part) that it is impossible to understand the kind of man who would sacrifice his son, or God's motivations in commanding him to do so. He never once references any of the thousands of Jewish thinkers who have talked about the text. He acts as though he has invented this struggle, as though he were the first to wonder about it, as though every year at Rosh Hashana I did not have to wonder again, would I--?, as though generations of whichever Jewish kids were paying attention during Rosh Hashana and not dreaming of apples and honey did not have to think, would my father--? As though the story alone, robbed of the ambiguity of the rest of the Torah, in translation, made any sense at all, or as though "God doesn't make sense" is enough of an answer.

It's a traditional test of Christian faith, but it isn't what made me lose my faith, because I had already been forced to wrestle with it by the time I was ten, and with Jacob's inhumanity to his brother and his daughter by the time I was thirteen, and God's random cruelty to man by the time I was old enough to know the history of my people, which was very, very young.

Love work,
hate authority,
don’t get friendly with the government.

-- Shemmayah and Avtalion (Pirkei Avot 1:10)

We don't have a hell of a lot, as Jews. There is not a lot we are allowed. In the country we lay claim to, we are settlers, with all the heartbreak and disaster that implies, and for me at least it is not a "back where you came from." Our language is mostly constructed, the day-to-day stuff; the prayer language is the only thing we have preserved in perfection, because until the 1920s Hebrew was basically like Latin and used at best for scholarly communication. Yiddish and Ladino and our other hard-won creoles are dying with their speakers, as we assimilate into America piece by piece and as Noah uses us to sell bagels. Our history is mostly forgotten or erased, and God, that's a whole other post, and that's part of why I never make this post, because I don't know how to fit into one thing, all the misery and heartbreak and confusion and love and pride and joy -- because despite it all we are triumphant, and yeah, part of that is because a lot of us are white and so we're not dead, and we're remembered, and by God we're ubiquitous, but most of our story nonetheless disappeared into the many rivulets of the diaspora.

What we have are, essentially, four books. We have the Nevi'im and the Ketuvim, our prophets and our poetry and the history we remember. We have the Talmud -- the Mishnah and the Gemarah -- and the commentary that sprung up around it, those footnotes that pile on footnotes and ideas that pile on ideas, divinely inspired or not. And we have the Torah, our beating heart.

Out of four books, you call three of them your own.

It's not cultural appropriation, because it is truly part of your culture. It's been part of your culture for about two thousand years, so you'd think I'd find it easy to let it go. It's not like this is a new thing. They are your stories, fair and square, the heroes and heroines of my childhood -- Abraham and Sarah, Deborah, Tamar, Reuben and Judah, Joseph who bears that uncanny resemblance to my little brother, Moses, Miriam, Elijah. They're yours too. You don't have to know what they mean to us to know what they meant to you.

But, still, you think that the sacred texts of our culture, the things that we are left with, those are just the optional preludes to your story. That four thousand years of a struggle to survive can be summed up, completed, by the New Testament and the story of Jesus Christ. And that is an almost unbridgeable gap. It's so big that all we can do is ignore it: ignore that, to you, we are incomplete, regressions; for all you say, and no matter how wonderful you are, and no matter how much you say everyone's interpretation is correct, the texts at the heart of our culture are still to you the optional and infrequently understood prologues to the story of your heroic and saintly lives.

I know as I write this I'm hurting some of the devout Christians among my friends, and for that I apologize, because it is of course possible to recognize that Judaism went on and grew and expanded at the same time as Christianity did, and that the story doesn't end just because our testaments are shorter, because they are thicker and more tangled with years and years and years of thought that, mostly, you guys just ditched to start anew. I know it's totally possible because on the same day and about half an hour after Rick Warren took our central prayer to fill his God quota per minute, Reverend Lowery stood up and took another, Lo yisa goy el goy cherev -- nation shall not lift up sword against nation, something I sing in temple every time I go, as the Torah goes around the aisle. It's a biggie. And I knew he meant it, and that he'd thought about it and loved it and lived by it and wished to make it true. That to him they were living words.

But by and large when you speak about the beating heart of my religion, the words that define me and my family and my friends and my people, you treat them as the dead message written by a primitive people. (It was considered Judaizing, and illegal, to study the Old Testament too much in Reformation England.) You don't know the midrashim, even the obvious ones. You don't know about Moses and the coals or Abraham and the idols. You've never seen a page of the Mishnah. You don't know the gematria or the trope or the crowns on the letters, you probably don't know the Hebrew at all, you know the naked text in translation, and you take it and call it your own. Or you quote it, Christian atheists, to prove how ridiculous the Bible is -- how absurd it is to believe in God.

To which the words I want to say definitely aren't written in any religious text.

I don't know where I was going with this. I wish I did, though. It has something to do with the way it feels to hear misreadings of our tradition, and something to do with wishing more Jews got to tell the stories of the Bible besides just The Red Tent. It has something to do with not being dead. It has something to do with the way that Kabbalah is trendy and the way that you have never heard of my holidays, but your savior sure celebrated them all. It has something to do with the way that atheists talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition, as though it made any sense, and something to do with the way they talk about the Christian tradition, and forget us altogether.

We're still there. It may be nearly drowned out by all those hymns, but that beating heart under your floorboards and in my chest and on the scroll is still audible, if you listen close enough to hear.

very small eta: Some comments have been screened or frozen. all such comments were done so at the request of the individual commenters, and not because of any abuse of my journal's policies or something!

There are now six pages of comments and I'm teary just thinking about that; I'm trying to work through them and give you guys the responses you deserve. If it takes a while, I'm really sorry.
Tags: rl: yisroel

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