Friday, October 3, 2008

Stranger at the Gates?

There's a category in the Torah repeated: "ger toshav," that affords protection to what we'd call a "resident alien." "Ger" means "stranger" in Hebrew, and in ancient times when you'd damned well appreciate being let into a walled city at night amidst nomads and brigands, such a status may well have been welcomed. There's no real equivalent, interestingly, for "convert" in the scriptures to match what we know. This does contrast with what I learned the case when studying for conversion nearly two decades ago. Then, I heard that a "ger toshav" overlapped with a convert.

Many people use the "ger toshav" category today within liberal strains of Judaism and Christianity to argue for sanctuary to illegal immigrants as well as those seeking political asylum. Although to me this conflation of the former with the latter status appears another case of inevitably adjusting Holy Writ for our own globalizing relevance, purported or actual, it's understandable. If people insist on setting their lives according to statutes conceived two-and-a-half-thousand years ago by half-literate desert tribesmen, they better undergo some interpretation within their old and new contexts. Or else, we'd still be all to eager to apply that capital punishment clause to our rebellious, cursing, insolent offspring.

Layne and I, now officially parents of two teenagers as of this week, have been discussing religion a lot lately. Our recent darkening of the gates of our local temple sobered us. We rarely show up anymore, as frankly in terms of our souls and our brains, there's little nourishment. Of course, this makes us guilty. We feel as if we're snobs, hopelessly too pampered or skeptical for any nostrums, any homily, any blandishment offered from people whose hearts may be less complicated and whose yearnings more easily expressed in a working-class mixture of downscale demographics, upscale hipsters recently arrived, and the oldsters who, unlike us, show up each Shabbat to keep the minyan alive and the bills paid as they've been for seventy-five years in what's now a barrio.

On the other hand, we ask ourselves hard questions. I ponder how the three legs of the Jewish tripod are Israel as both land and nationality, alongside God and the Law. A Buddhist's Three Jewels are the Buddha himself, Dharma teaching, and Sangha, the community of practitioners. You can see the importance of the collective rather than the individual for both spiritual disciplines, their grounding in the macrocosm. For Catholics, growing up I can still remember how people'd identify with their parish affiliation. Therefore, are we as stuck with the random assortment of fellow worshippers, if we are Buddhist, Jewish, or Catholic, that's accidental depending on our residence? Or, like Protestants, do we roam away from what the traditional alliances have made into temples and shrines, in search of our own individual connection with the divine, freer from intermediaries like gurus, priests, or rabbis?

Is belonging to a religious congregation less a sign of faith, especially in the Jewish context of community, and more a witness to continuity of the ha-am, the people? Like family, do those in our vicinity who share our denomination haphazardly as any other assembly muddle along into a group of misfits and masters with whom we must learn to get along with regardless of our personal choice? In America, secularizing Ireland, the developing world, we find a common predicament.

Which takes precedence? Ties to the tribe, keeping pace with the elders? Or, as shown above, do we hop on the bike and find our own friends? Maybe we spend a holy day as a holiday? After all, we can leave family and custom behind for our own route towards fulfillment and perhaps enlightenment. Yet, will this freedom make us spoiled? Will it lead us to wisdom?

Should our own postmodern melange of beliefs or their wavering diminishment matter compared to the time-tested necessity of an ethnic-denominational alliance? And, unlike Buddhists or Christians, there's the added burden that Jews must carry on as a tribe going back three thousand years. Even the kohanim, the priests, have now been proven as of about 2,500 years ago to parallel the founding of their caste with the DNA genetic marker appearing then to confirm their separation within a nascent Israel. A place that, as the "Who's a Jew?" debate fomented by the haredi continues there, claims in the spirit of Ruth to welcome newcomers. Yet, as any people long mistrusted themselves grow suspicious, Torah-true Jews insist upon following the narrowed rules of who gets to enter the gates-- or who gets to be married and buried within them, as opposed to whom must peek over them. They don't open the entrance to just anybody. Wary tradition holds that anyone seeking to become a Jew be rejected three times first.

As the neighborhood population shifts, lesbian couples, Latinos with charismatic effusion, intermarried couples from more educated backgrounds, and the regularly stalwart folks wander in. They come often, I surmise, for the schmooze and shmears as much as for the spiritual uplift. I'm reminded of what a shul means in the shetl. It's a beth knesset, a house of gathering for the settlement. People chat on the sidelines during services. Kids cavort as our sons once had on the bimah. The women's bathroom door slams loudly over and over. It's an assembly hall, rather than a place to sit still and shut up and look solemn, although by the end of 2 1/2 hours of a rather traditional service most Saturdays, most of those gathered do look both reserved and restless. Not a parish or a church that opens Sundays, but somewhere to hang out, drink whiskey, kibitz over Leviticus, tell the kinder their aleph-bet, and pray along the way.

I've written here last month, responding to an article published on the temple by a fellow member, about my own mixed feelings about belonging. Layne and I go back and forth about our commitment or its lack. We feel burdened by taking up the duty that her ancestors have for millennia, whether they liked it or not. The difference today? We can like it or not. I can leave my own religious affiliation. My parents, birth and adopted, detest my decision, but I cannot tell a lie. Yet, I lack the Yiddishe mama, the mamaloshen, any ties that pull my longings back to a imagined past of payes, shuckling, shtupping, and kvelling. There remains a depth within me that no census box, dogtag, or label can contain, and I find this fitting, if unsettling. It's truest to the way, if you translate "torah" such, that I stumble along.

Many of our people, hidden in the "inarticulate speech of the heart," or the ragings of a tormented conscience that expected damnation for such scrutiny, may have done so. They lacked, at least communally, the choices we make. They were informed upon if they shirked Mass. They were expected to stand up for their persecuted people no matter where they were driven by Christian or Islamic or Communist despots. We can go to synagogue or stay home. Nobody's there to care, really. No bubbe or zayde, no oul' Father Pat or Mother Mary. Moderns, we got what we wanted in this land of the Four Freedoms.

Our sons note that while they belong to the clan, it hasn't "taken" as much as their parents or perhaps themselves had hoped a decade ago, when we tried to marry the hipper crowds back then to the alter kockers who for most of the past century had stubbornly held on to the last bastion of Yiddishkeit on the Eastside of a city that had long seen all its other Jews move to westerly tracts. I tell Layne that in time as we had, they will come to accept what they wish from their traditions, and they will choose at their own pace when needed. I'm not worried about them. Scholars today track young people through a period in their adolescence and early adulthood which, in our society, will bring many along paths that lead far away from where they began. Layne and I have travelled them too.

For me, I'm most at home there in the silences of the services, however brief. My communing with myself and whatever forces may or may not swirl about there or anywhere else gives me fleeting moments of calm, but I wonder if I romanticize. The soft light filtered through the golden-glazed windows, the wooden pews and their burnished glow, the half-recalled cadences of Ashkenazi niggun chants do work their spell, but such magic comes to most anyone who lingers a few minutes within any dimly lit house of worship.

I read my friend Anthony McIntyre's column at his blog "The Pensive Quill" and posted a response the other day. He addresses Cardinal Brady's reaction in Ireland to the EU's decision to downplay Christendom in its constitution. Brady, naturally, feels that Brussels is letting the clerical side down, and laments this as another in a series of ill-considered secularist capitulations. McIntyre, typically, disagrees. Here's two paragraphs from "Damnation with Faint Praise" on Sept. 21st, 2008.

There is no reason for Christians, as the Cardinal may claim is happening, to lose their ‘Christian values and memory in Europe.’ That such values may be undergoing sustained erosion could have more to do with the fact that men walking on water and raising the dead are phenomenon which do not sit comfortably in the modern world where as Richard Dawkins puts it planes fly, witches don’t. Where it is on the decline in Europe Christianity is not being repressed, simply ignored. And the more it is allowed to slip into that sector reserved for fairy tales and make-believe the greater the church hierarchy feels the concomitant loss of its power.

As religion abates and societies grow more secularised, humanity stands to benefit from the success of knowledge over myth. In a secular state every body is free to live their lives with or without regard to any religion they may or may not espouse. Secularism is the freedom from religion for all. Those who wish to practice religion can but it should be their own affair. The freedom to observe exists but Cardinal Brady wants to make it an obligation, denying freedom to those who for good reason want nothing to do with religious observance. Human beings should be subjected to no religious law.

While McIntyre and I disagree gently over whether the retreat of Irish Catholicism has been a plus or minus overall for the national psyche-- given the alternative appears to be largely unchecked capitalism-- I do accept his response to my post. I had paraphrased the arguments made by Ken Bruen in his "Jack Taylor Galway noir" crime novels that while the horrific abuses perpetrated by the Church leave its current weakened state perhaps a position to be rejoiced in rather than lamented, there's still a void in the present island's culture.

McIntyre pointed out to me that charity certainly had flourished outside of ecclesiastical oversight. Much that can be blamed on the prevailing greed and incompetence that invades Ireland should be traced not to some ebb-flow floundering unshriven Irish, Hibernians gasping for breath of the S/spirit at the mall or the mortgage lender, but to the massive crest of the marketplace within which nearly all the world's values have been submerged. As a skilled exegete of Marx, Dr. McIntyre would doubtless finesse my clumsy metaphor. Not being a political philosopher, I confess!

So, as usual a conclusion left inconclusive, as befits such musings on the possibility of the supernatural and the natural course of human events. Can you turn within yourself, and by reading, thinking, contemplating, and acting turn the world around you towards goodness at least as effectively as the Church once tried? Many people do whom I admire, and McIntyre and I agree in our readings of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris that we need such secular leaders to guide us towards truth.

Well, if my Irish correspondent's correct, what about the place of religion in the realms that the neo-atheists might welcome? Could religion survive and even flourish as an example for the rest of us doubters and naysayers and discontents? One example from my recent travels comes to mind.

Layne and I remembered our stop at St. Jacobs, plucked from a guidebook entirely by chance on our Ontario visit two months ago. We found a Mennonite museum. Despite a very Canadian balance of ecumenical tolerance with a earnestly liberal economics, it matched its insistent eloquence with a thought-provoking moral for us tourists. Simpler living, less striving for goods, more emphasis on social programs that forged community-based co-ops and banks and trade for communities. A sanctuary far more austere than any synagogue. A no-frills, severely curtailed, and even minimalist approach towards the sacred encounter.

This apostolate perhaps mirrors perhaps more the old shetl or the rural Irish village. "Small is beautiful" despite the bugs, dirt, and lack of dentists? However, unlike the imperial and institutional prejudice that kept the beyond the Pale for millions more than a rhetorical term for the tsarist settlements segregating the Jews or the reservations of Gaelic Ireland, the Mennonite model encouraged self-reliance and humbler connections rooted in family and locality. These survive thanks to North American freedoms on the prairie's fringes in the Great Plains and upper farm-friendly reaches of our continent-- but they also have spread their message all over the impoverished world. They emerge from their roots as agrarian households and collective farms and co-ops, better able to fend for themselves perhaps a bit freer from market slavery or tyrannical oligarchs. Perhaps a salutory lesson for our nation, beholden to Wall Street, Congress, and whomever feeds those fat-cat candidates ventriloquizing for another month.

The Mennonites have sought less compromise with such tainted powers. I was moved by a visual display of what happened to the early Mennonites who refused to conform either to papal doctrine or Calvinist dogma. Nonconformist seemed an understatement, given their fate. They suffered martyrdom rather than surrendering what increasingly seems to me a sensible compromise. Burned alive for asserting their bold practice of adult baptism. Eminently sensible, one might propose, even to the secularists in today's EU or on the bestseller's list. Why accept anyone into a faith unless one understands it and can assent to it?

Layne wonders if children should not be raised with a religious identity, so as to enter one if wished for only upon maturity. Anthony's young weans are being raised in such a way, although I doubt they'll pass the threshold of their local chapel. When they lived in West Belfast, one of the largest parishes in that community towered over their family's back fence. Yet neither parents nor children of that flat ever passed its holy water founts. Such a choice, if extended to all, would in a secular society transform it totally.

Imagine a shul where all who joined, at one time, were strangers outside the village gates, as gerim among goyim. A synagogue for Jews who chose to be such, gentile-reared rather than by birthright "members of the tribe." One temple exists, nearly all converts, today in Tijuana, while in Uganda and India others have joined the lineage that they claim goes back to those kohanim, and which had been severed or attenuated over centuries. If religion had to teach to those past the age of reason, those at least old enough to drive or be drafted or marry, what then? Would churches turn museums, as they have in much of Europe and Canada? Or, into mosques, ashrams, or lamaseries full of eager recruits to more exotic and more demanding ways of pursuing the elusive spirit?

That little temple one neighborhood or so over sits on a street zoned, in the 1920s, for religious worship. While the Catholics, Episcopalians, and Baptists endure, down the corner there's a vivid yellow building. Once another church, it's now an enclosed Vietnamese monastery behind its locked gates.

Happy New Year, l'shanah tovah, Hebraically speaking, always at odds with the majority rule. You wonder why fundamentalists of all Abrahamic persuasions don't adapt this dogged yet innocent reckoning from the Edenic creation. Even if the world did not begin when Sarah Palin or St. Jerome or Mosaic calculators tallied, it's a salutary reminder of marching to your own beat-- and what happens when, doing this on bike or Mennonite horse-and-buggy or Orthodox Jewish refusal to drive on Shabbat, the rest of the world jostles to zoom past you.

P.S. No website exists for the Mennonite Museum itself, but for information see St Jacobs Ontario Website. Photo: It's this or a Google Image of Bill Gates.

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