Saturday, September 19, 2009

Liturgy, Heresy, and Rawls: A Yom Kippur Meditation

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw (practicing without a license).

I'm not in synagogue.  I have come to the point in my life where I pick and choose my spots.   Last night, the Touro Synagogue in New Orleans had a substantial attendance for the Kol Nidre services, and the voice of Cantor Seth Warner was appropriately spectacular.  I attend at least one service each High Holy Day if for no other reason than to hear my favorite piece of liturgical music, the Max Janowski setting of Avinu Malkeinu.  (This is the long version - beginning with "Avinu Malkeinu, sh'ma koleinu," available on CD with Jan Peerce doing the honors, and is not to be confused with my second favorite piece of liturgical music, the setting of the last piece of the prayer "Avinu Malkeinu, khaneinu v'neinu," a lovely version of which is available on the Western Winds recording of The Birthday of the World, Part II:  Yom Kippur, narrated, in goosebump-raising manner, by Leonard Nimoy.)  When I bought the Jan Peerce CD several years ago, I was astounded to learn that the Max Janowski piece was written in the 20th century, by the man who served as the music director of K.A.M. Isaiah  Israel Congregation of Hyde Park, Illinois from 1938 until his death in 1991.  Yet it is, at least in all the synagogues and temples I've attended, a cantorial canon, notwithstanding its relatively recent composition.

This is a public confession (if I were really clever I would do it as an acrostic in the style of the ashamnu prayer) of a life-long discomfort with the concept of worship.  As is obvious to anyone who has slogged his or her way through one of my pieces (in the words of Scott Turow in One L on the subject of reading cases, it's like stirring concrete with one's eyelashes), I can find elements of Kabbalistic mysticism everywhere, including contract law.  But the ultimate conception of God in the Kabbalah is actually a recognition that the minute God is reduced to a human conception, it can't be God.  The best language can do is the Hebrew Ein Sof -- there is no end.  Getting in touch with that sense is called kavanah.  The great Jewish scholar and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a lovely book called Man's Quest for God, in which he tries to reconcile the goal of kavanah with the far less inspiring aspect of worship known as kevah, or fixed prayer.  (Though kavanah and kevah are polarities, if you just wait for kavanah, instead of working at it in kevah, you probably won't get kavanah either.)  I can hit my moments of kavanah, but not in the talking section of the sanctuary (more common in Conservative and Orthodox services), and certainly not with the male-centered anthropomorphic reductions of Ein Sof that constitute the liturgy.  But if I don't think Adonai ("My Lord") for the unspeakable tetragrammaton name of God, and consider the unreducible emanations of mystery in the world (like the emotional zenith provoked by Max Janowski's juxtaposition of notes and chords), I can at least get a sense of it.

More of this random mumbling below the fold.

I'm lucky in that Judaism is a religion largely of ritual, practice, custom, and law, and not one of theological dogma.  Indeed, I think one of the reasons Jews often take to Buddhism or the Tao as a source of spiritual insight is their similar absence of intermediary or interpreter between the individual and God.  That's not to say we don't have our sectarian squabbles.  You say tomato; I say tomahto. Kippah or no kippah, organ or no organ, etc.  Does God as Ein Sof care if we eat shrimp?  (I am indebted to Rabbi Dennis Sasso for that line.)  Or, if so, does it rank on the same magnitude, say, as honoring your father and mother?

My interim conclusion is a mix of Rabbi Abraham Kook, a great Kabbalist, and the chief rabbi of Palestine in the mid-20th century, and John Rawls.  Kook wrote an essay entitled "Spiritual Heresy" in which he compared the attempt to put human definition to God to idolatry.

From learning and knowing too little, the mind becomes desolate, which leads to much thinking about the essence of God.  The deeper one sinks into the stupidity of this mental insolence, the more one imagines that one is approaching the sublime knowledge of God. . . .  When this habit persists over many generations, numerous false notions are woven, leading to tragic consequences. . . .  The greatest impediment to the human spirit results from the fact that the conception of God is fixed in a particular form, due to childish habit and imagination.  This is a spark of the defect of idolatry, of which we must always beware.

Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah (1996), at 32.  I now test essential belief against a kind of Rawlsian "veil of ignorance": would you accept a teaching not knowing if it is derived from your religion or someone else's?

My thesis is that this distills and distinguishes universalisms from particularisms.  As long as one recognizes that all human invented constructs are an approximation or an approach to a end that would be universal, regardless of the road taken, I'm fine with it.  I think that's the approach most enlightened religionists take, even when they are comforted by the particular rituals of the particular religion. Religious communities, at their best, provide shared, safe, and peaceful environments for the mutual contemplation of universals, and are bound together by rituals and ceremonies and history, all of which are human constructs. When the human construct trumps the divine, that to me is the essence of idolatry.  Even, to take Judaism, when the method by which you pray trumps the end of prayer, it seems to me we have constructed an idol, albeit in the form of a particular ritual or incantation. So the appropriate attitude is humility in the face of the mystery that lies at the end of all inquiry of any kind, philosophical, religious, or scientific.

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On first reading that makes a lot of sense, even to a stone empirical determinist atheist. I can see how a religion can be a kind of poetic or abstracted language that summarises and renders communicable the feelings arising from (according to me) ultimately determininstic causes. With its seeming indifference to supernatural entities, Judaism seems a very apt vehicle in which to do that.

At a tangent, it's a source of amusement and sorrow to me that Bach's greatest work was done in the service of a Gothic spook ready to damn and burn man for ordinary human failings.

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