Friday, July 21, 2017

Curious changes (more of what didn't get past the summer intern)

Part 3

What is there actually in it, apart from its large abstract attractions? I joined having read old books and expecting therefore to meet old stereotypes, characters out of Tales from the Hasidim, filled with joy. I met nice ordinary people heroically fitting their children’s b’nai mitzvot preparations into their busy lives. I met mostly the very elderly.

 For me for a while there was a lot in it. When you consult only your own right reason plus personal study to make a dramatic interior change in life, you can hum along for quite a while thinking “I’ve joined.” I’m now authentic, doing new things, cooking new foods, deciphering the base text under all the others. I now believe what is true. The new experiences and the learning resemble slow-growing technical proficiency at a job. You can be reassured you will build memories, which is exactly what might be said to a new hire anywhere.

However, years of observation and even very enthusiastic participation taught me what my grandmother, anybody’s grandmother in any previous Western era, could have told me instantly. Judaism is for Jews. It exists as a perpetual motion machine to keep them Jewish, united, and practicing, which is fine. But if, by any chance like me, you find after all that you do not wish to keep kosher or observe what seem rather bleak holidays, largely unrelated to the seasons; if you do not have a Jewish family and lack the memories, the “support networks” and anyway the desire, to name one item, frenziedly to prepare for and then rest on every Sabbath; if you find you instinctively and even childishly believe things which Judaism does not very vigorously address (“we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”); if in sum you learn a sort of negative print of the convert Ruth’s lesson, that to convert must be to marry and go to the land, no more and no less; if you learn also that most of the rest is fierce liberal politics, to the point of such moral bankruptcy that you sit in a sanctuary knowing that while God may be loving and everywhere and these are excellent people, you would never dream of consulting this denomination’s authority on any question; then you might find you have had enough. Remiss though it was not to explain yourself, you might slip gradually away.

A curious change did come, just shortly before. The Reform movement jettisoned its old prayer book, Gates of Prayer, for a new one called Mishkan T’filah. I got to see firsthand what it looks like when a group of far off intellectuals, who know thoroughly the language and the rubrics they are changing, impose their changes on a faithful who lack the tools to understand what’s been done. It was kind of like seeing a little Vatican II imposed on someone else. “It’s memory-erasing,” even I, who had no real memories, commented to another woman as we looked at the open book. “You’re right,” she said. Not that anyone except the very keen knew much what the old prayer book had been about. Thick lines of Hebrew stood mystifyingly over translations you trusted were accurate. “I want to know what the Hebrew says,” an old lady once complained. The English made for “a synopsis,” her scholarly man friend replied carefully, of a still older prayer book. She wasn’t satisfied. Palimpsest upon palimpsest, dilution after dilution. Will a future time look back on this as the era when intellectuals and priests stood like angels with flaming swords, blocking the peasants’ path to religion? Except Muslims, who open the gates wide and want all crammed in.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What didn't get past the summer intern: how to be a religious badass

Part 2. Of course there's more.

Believers will leer in turn at this fresh groping after truisms. “Of course it’s Christianity.” But for me it makes a new thought, that what has been lost is an ability to credit the Gospels with what we have. People call Western civilization Judeo-Christian, but most Westerners are not Jews. We have also a great heritage from classical antiquity, but we’re not reading Aristotle all day. If there is any legacy that churchgoers at any rate are exposed to regularly, it would be the Bible. For churchgoers that means the Gospels. In turn we mean the life and person of Jesus, not mere compassionate teacher and nice man but Lord and Savior.

Who was he, yes what did he teach, that Islam did not, such that Christian or even Christian-informed Western (liberal) men respectfully open doors for women, and Muslim men shroud them? What groundwork did he lay, such that tearing it up means a new culture based on the holiness of abortion and gay marriage?

As for the personal side. (It is still there.) What the individual seeker wants, even if he knows enough to know things like Buddhism would be too foreign to pursue, is to “sign up for what is true.” The phrase comes from a Prager University video.

For a long time I thought Judaism must be it. The Old Testament’s stout evidence of the God who does not change his mind appealed. So did the fact of patriarchs and prophets saying things which already had a meaning for centuries, before anxious and sometimes it seems, precious recastings into a new they secretly meant Jesus mold. I liked its healthy freedom from the main pagan trope, tales of gods fathering gods on mortal women. And I have a great yen for origins, for authenticity. Show me always natural fabrics, from-scratch recipes, unabridged books. I desire to peer through the palimpsest. What was the first writing? Why was it erased?

I am sure a Catholic high school education circa 1980 helped to chop off at soil-level what was naturally a religious personality, and might even have remained a Catholic one. There is a lot to enjoy and be proud of in the supernatural pageantry of the Church and in its tactile pleasures too. All those saints’ days and litanies and solemnities; holy cards, angels, the rosary. Gregorian chant, next to which I sometimes think all music is cacophony.

But gardeners call it damping-off, when seedlings fall over and die in a moldy soil. Damping off happens, I should say, when you learn that all the Gospel stories were made up years later, to make Jesus seem like a god. Our Vatican II stands, all of it, like a break of scorched earth itself. When the liturgy admires Jews as “first to hear God’s word,” you reflect. Very well, how are they wrong? Especially when the record seems to show Jewish behavior as a group across millennia is very good, even without belief in vicarious redemption. Judaism can seem more humane than Christianity. No Jew proclaims “no man can come to the Father except through me.” There is a freedom to it: the new convert likes the expression “Israel will be vindicated at the end of time.” You can look forward to being that speck in space then, shouting “I knew it all along!” God is not Jove, to mate with women. God does not change his promises. Notice the only people of antiquity whom a Greek or a Pharaoh would recognize are, spookily, still here.

Let me add something that only occurred to me very recently. Even with these religious sums and, if you were ever a convert, more of your own added up under the credit and not debit column, almost no one would convert to Judaism today, were it not for the existence of the state of Israel. I am glad the state lives – having been brought into being without a Messiah, mind you, which was once the crux of it – but we converts and ex-converts cannot deny that Medinat Yisrael with an army and everything makes the Jew badass. That’s fun. I am talking about a generation like mine, children of World War II veterans, grown up vaguely aware of Israeli heroisms like Entebbe and the Ethiopian airlift. Further generations brought up on college BDS campaigns may never darken a temple’s door. A hundred years ago, splendid credit column or no, the Jew in turn might have seemed only cringing and Oriental and weird. For the bulk of history before that he would have seemed much worse. Unjoinable. I wish it had all been friendlier back in those days, but it was not.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Changing and changing about, or -- what didn't get past the summer intern

Part 1. Well of course there's more. 

I sit down for the third time in my life to write about my religious experience. This may be a dangerous thing, since each of the previous two times, I made a decision, announced on paper, which in fact so served to clear my head that I instantly turned around and did the opposite. At 25 I wrote about accepting my native Catholicism, got published, and turned Jewish. At 40 I at length digested my Jewish “journey,” got published, and found that after all it had become too thin a gruel to live on. And shortly left. With no pained or weepy explanations to my friends there, which was remiss of me. I did get a few phone calls, which I ignored. Which was remiss of me.

In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom wrote that in his teaching experience, “students who had had a really serious fling with drugs, and gotten over it,” seemed emptied out of much ability to experience much else with freshness or enthusiasm. “It was as if their vision had been drained of color.” Religious experiments, changing and changing about, may be like that. I remember cleverly telling my journal, after all my efforts now it was over, that one might say the Master of all and I had agreed to shake hands and say no more about it.

That was ten years ago. I find I would like religion in my life again, or rather no, that isn’t quite how it begins anew. It is almost no longer personal. And I was never a “seeker” in some vague way. I never approached Buddhism or anything else. What has happened to the whole Western world has been two things, Islam’s rise and liberalism’s fall. (Now anything further that I write touching these two topics will be derivative, just other people’s observations and conclusions on politics or “elite agendas,” so you must excuse me if I seem to fling off the occasional truism.) Islam’s violence is an everyday shock and Western liberalism seems to have nothing left in its tank but a kind of leering, white-eyed boredom causing it to decide idiotic things like there aren’t two sexes anymore, and to administer the resulting lawsuits. If the latter half of this observation, about Western collapse, did not use to be so, what has been lost or forgotten and where did it come from?

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