Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Settled and the Strange: Seven Thoughts for Sukkot

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Today is the first full day of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, one of several Jewish holidays that I have long felt a certain amount of holy envy for. I love it for several reasons: because it is, at heart, a harvest festival, associated with the "ingathering" of crops and taking comfort in the bounties of the land; because it focuses our attention on the element of "place" in those rituals (both divine and mundane) that attend our building of our own homes and lives; but mostly, I think, because it conveys a permanent sense of the transitional in those very same bounties and that same sense of hominess and belonging. All Israel was commanded, during the days of the feast, to build booths or temporary shelters for themselves out in the fields, to leave their homes and beds and sleep and eat their meals inside them for seven days, to remind them of their special--but also always perilous--dependent relationship with God, who led them out of Egypt and made possible everything they were or had. Anyway, herewith, seven thoughts:

1) I embarked on a reading of the Old Testament some months ago, using the Revised English Bible and Robert Alter's translations. I've worked my way through Genesis, which fascinated me as I became reacquainted with myths and miracles and folklore that, centuries after they were first recorded, would become the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity; and through Exodus, which fascinated me even more as an ancient narrative which depicted a people who recorded through their lives the slow, inconsistent realization of a monotheistic and genuinely moral God. Right now I'm in Leviticus--amazing enough, right around the announcement of the Feast of Tabernacles--and the concept that rings through the words of the Pentateuch most strongly, as God is presented as revealing to Moses in exhausting detail the proper way to slaughter animal sacrifices and perform rituals of purification and expiation, is just how important it is for God's people to understand themselves as divided from the rest of the world. Sometimes it seems that all of creation which is not under God's covenant is subject to His judgment and condemnation, whereas other times God appears wholly unconcerned with, even basically accepting of, the actions and practices of the non-Jewish world--but either way, always Israel is to remain apart, keeping themselves clean and separate and distinct.

2) There is, predictably, a complication with that maintenance of ritual distance. Unless you are a self-sufficient farmer (and honestly, I think it's quite arguable that we all should be) then you will necessarily have to interact with others in pursuit of ones livelihood--and for all of those of us who live in a social and economic world which has been historically defined by the way Christianity appropriated and transformed the implications of God's revelations in the Old Testament, that interaction will be a commercial and secular one, in which attempting to abide entirely by the terms of God's separation is basically impossible.

3) It is for that reason, I suppose, that for some groups and individuals, traditions and rituals and conventions become so important. Dressing in a particular way, consuming (or not consuming) a particular food or drink, honoring a particular holiday, building a sukkah in one's backyard or one's living room and living in it for a week every year--these become ways of being in the world but not of the world, of remembering that which makes one distinct even as one lives a life which is, otherwise, entirely

4) I've long believed that God wants us to be settled, in and through our families and communities, because it is through membership that we are most likely to obtain the kind of local knowledge and trust which enables us to truly love and serve one another as we (selfishly, instinctively) do for ourselves. Real gratitude, and thus real charity, comes with a feeling of familiarity and dependence, I think. When we live lives that are transient, self-motivated, and essentially independent, it is easier to forget or set aside traditions, and harder to experience that feeling of obligation and connection which lies at the heart of God's commandments--the greatest of any such sense of obligation and connection being with God Himself, of course.

5) But another complication: God Himself frequently upsets our experience of being settled, forcing us to make due with change in the midst of multiple abiding responsibilities. God in the Old Testament argues with Abraham and Moses, putting them on the spot, obliging them to engage in (or at least tolerate) human actions and sometimes even divine responses that seem tragic and strange. (In Leviticus 10, God announces Himself glorified through the ritual deaths of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, because they brought coals rather than a proper fire before God's altar, and Moses and Aaron have to work out how to properly mourn but also provide atonement for these two unthinking men.)

6) But that strangeness has its uses. The perplexity of the Old Testament record of God's actions and the responses of those who covenanted with Him, I've come to realize, is one important contributor to the way in which God's call for His people to become separate and holy became, over the centuries, especially as the world that Jews and Christians moved through became individualized and cosmopolitan and commercial, characterized by an irony, a rueful openness, a contradictory kind of mournful joy. We are strangers and exiles, says Paul, as he paradoxically (yet confidently!) traveled the world, presenting himself and his message to courts and priests throughout Roman empire. The Gospels themselves demonstrate, again and again, the value of being estranged, confused, and frightened by what God may do.

7) And so it seems that we are localize and settle ourselves, but also be conscious of--and perhaps even always be ready to engage with--the multitude of ways in God and the bountiful, but also tragic, and perhaps fundamentally strange, world He made can alienate us from (that is, make us see our separation as something which sets us as individuals against) our own traditions, our conventions, our communities, and our homes...which might include both literal and ideological ones. The distance from God's commands to ancient Israel to a recital in St. Louis last Sunday is immense, but in another one of her wonderfully careful and thoughtful essays, Rosalynde Welch demonstrated exactly the kind of ambivalent celebration that I think lays at the heart of this powerful holiday. Reflecting on a protest which interrupted a concert she attended, she wrote:

The next morning, naturally, I looked for coverage of the event online. Second-hand reactions crossed the gamut, from those who found the protest to be a powerful and moving indictment of injustice to those who found it a pointless or disrespectful intrusion.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I did not find the protest rude or inappropriate. On the contrary, it seemed tailored to match the nature of the event: it was organized, peaceful, musical in nature and indeed related specifically to the theme of the program, death and remembrance. There was something undeniably beautiful about the moment, about inviting the death and loss that shadows the neighborhoods surrounding Powell Hall inside its exclusive walls to make meaning in duet with the most beautiful Requiem ever written.

Nevertheless, the experience ultimately left me unsatisfied, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why. An insightful friend of mine made the observation that peaceful public actions share much in common with religious ritual: both are cooperative, choreographed symbolic behaviors that use the human body to represent a larger meaning. Ideally, both ritual and public actions invite our souls to commit to a shared moral vision of justice and compassion. This struck me as both true and profound.

But there’s one important difference, and it made all the difference for me. Religious ritual is inherently participatory: the individual is ceremonially invited to partake, to immerse, to covenant, to pray....By contrast, public actions are, it seems to me, primarily meant to be observed by onlookers. Why else stage them in public settings?

In the best of circumstances, public actions meant to be visually consumed by the public can indeed change hearts and minds. But...[the] element of surprise and shock, of deep social rupture of convention--perhaps necessary to jolt the audience out of its complacency--made it impossible for us to join in, precisely because we did not know the governing conventions of the action.

Again, the distance between Rosalynde's experience and that of a 21st-century Jewish family moving temporarily into a plywood booth in their living is huge, materially speaking. Symbolically speaking, though, perhaps they're both capturing something of the same ambivalence which I read in Leviticus. God has graced us with this wonderful (though also violent and unjust and often simply strange) world, in which we are called to act in accordance with His commands; we are to build understandings and communities, to engage in rituals that settle us in our duties and joys...but we are also in a public world, and there we find our acts of settlement always challenged, potentially disrupted, perhaps turned against it, sometimes even by those who themselves are acting in accordance with God's commands as well.

In the end, I think, every act of making a home and bringing in the harvest must be understood as an act of celebration, if we are to take God's words seriously. He wants us to be at home. But every such act reminds us how perilous, how demanding, how abiding, how ungovernable and unsettling God's call to separation, even in our contented, conventional homemaking, always remains. God wants us to join Him, but that joining may never be complete. It took Israel 40 years, of course--but ultimately, even those four decades were only a start.

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