Monday, October 16, 2006

"Who Distinguishes Between the Sacred and the Secular...."

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I've previously published my heterodox (thanks to Dan Markel for the word) views on liturgy, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (as they say), and I do pull from Jewish liturgy the occasional insight. 

Over at PrawfsBlawg, there is a fascinating series of comments provoked by Ethan Leib's critique of The New Republic as a "liberal" magazine:  TNR Is Not Liberal In Any Meaningful Sense.  It is an interesting exercise in classification.  The commenters work through definitions of "liberal," "leftist," "right wing," "liberal bona fides," "true liberal," etc. etc.  People clearly feel strongly about it, and I assume that classifying oneself as a liberal is meaningful (or helpful).

Is it in fact a useful heuristic to presume a suite of political, moral, or philosophical views by a label like "liberal" or "conservative"?  I can imagine it is if you want to participate actively in party politics.  I'm not so persuaded for social philosophers (by which I include most law professors) generally.

On Yom Kippur, I blogged (my apostatic guilt trip taking over) on the subject of universalisms versus particularisms, and how we deal with classification and separation is a closely-allied field.  I have always been taken with the prayer that marks the end of the Sabbath - the Havdalah, or "separation."  The suggestion is that our perception of distinctiveness, is at its core, something mysterious, even divine.  So to return to the workaday world, we acknowledge (or attribute to the divine if we are so inclined) the distinction between the sacred and the secular, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor.  There's black and white, and there are shades of gray.  Sometimes we have to draw lines.  It doesn't matter if you think like an American, dress like an American, eat like an American; if you were not born an American, and haven't undertaken the ritual to be one, you can't vote.

Somehow we are hardwired with the paradoxical or antinomial ability to see, or want to see, continuity and distinctness in the same sensory data.  I think the point of the prayer is to have us step back and consider just which distinctions and continuities are worthy of the investment of our intellectual energy.

Just what was it that entitled one to call oneself a bona fide star-bellied Sneetch, anyway?

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