Wednesday, April 04, 2007

a perpetual funeral

I warned of light blogging last week due to hard deadlines. One is past.

I did learn and chant my portion for last Saturday. For the infrequent reader like myself, it is something of a trick because the notation before your eyes lacks vowels or cantilation marks. One must coax those two additional dimensions from memory using only the one dimension of inscribed letters on sheepskin. I am pleased for a change to imagine I did well. Our congregation's president led services and her partner served as the Gabai (a Torah reading assistant or guide) and they both gave me a hug of approval and support. The Hebrew I read was in fact nearly meaningless for me, a few sentences proclaiming which cuts of meat go to the priests in perpetuity and what would defile the value of a sacrifice that has in fact been impossible to render for 2000 years. Reverence does not come all that hard for me but, well, some things sound better if you don't know what they mean. It is one of those passages most of us just let go by. Three of us standing around the lectern, tenderly treating words we could not use.

Meaning gathers around meaninglessness like the children around the dying patriarch...though the children could scarcely be there without ancestors, at that point it is only by courtesy and sentimentality that they are there at all. "Meaning" in the religious sense of the word is of course NOT a matter of semantic bindings or anything Webster dealt in. It is more like "belief" mixed with "what it feels like to imagine you are somehow in league with the cosmic causes or the first cause". It is intrinsically personal though for some of us, words for it come readily. It is what dies with us. It is what dies when one generation passes and is reborn when another rises up. The numerous traditions that provide their wordforms in which we carry these things we cannot really express do give an impression of continuity. But if ever you try to break them open and see what makes them tick...un uh, don't do that. There isn't much there, nothing at least that many can agree upon. So we care lovingly for the writing and the relics that had meaning. The liberals pick up the parts that still have straight forward utility as yardsticks and pretexts for social justice. We like the parts that continue in each age to weigh in well by all contemporary scales of "goodness". What matters is that we, the generation alive now, with each other for support, go on to make what we can of life. A sanctuary full of people with warm thoughts and good will can bring up its meanings in each mind. It is possible to invest ritual actions with steadying and comforting effectiveness. I understand that ritual acquires much of its soothing force because it is repetitive, because its rhythms and regularities shut off many irritants for those who like a good trance. Irregular Torah reading is too stressful for me to experience it in a prayerful state but that does not preclude reverence. For the batch of us that took our turn reading, there was more relief in the air than comes of simply putting a demanding performance behind you. What we revere there is perhaps merely reverence itself but perhaps too, we may be recognizing our own frailty: what will our words be worth a thousand years from now? Have we exemplified and made explicit record of values and priorities that will ensure a life something like the ones we live today can be lived a thousand years from now? If you do not write a sacred text by the action of your life then you must at least reinterpret one.

Prayerful and meditative states do not impress me so much. They are available through many practices. If it is only an altered state in which no news or lasting change can emerge and in which you do not experience a heightened sensitivity for generations you will never meet and do not reach a keener questioning of whether your ways objectively make a tenth generation not just possible but comfortable, then it is only an altered state and as selfish as any other high you can seek. If you don't learn something every day, you are not living. There are all manner of substances to take if you only aim to bliss out.

Certainly, you can get a debate over this if you ask the right person but, for myself, I am far more comfortable with the Talmud parable we studied two weeks ago: Baba Mezi'a 59b. It lends itself strongly to a humanist interpretation: It is now in our hands to make meaning for the words we have inherited. I am, of course, guilty of cherry picking here.

The dead lose both their grip and their smile and which of those two become the legacy after they are gone is entirely determined by we who go forward and what we prefer to reenact.

Regular not-so-fluffy posting will resume next week. I have two more tax returns to prepare....its like they say: death and taxes. But who'd read a blog called "the accountant's thong"?

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