Ink & Penwipers

Scribbles, screeds, speculations, and the occasional reference to Schrodinger's cat.

16 September 2004

L'Shanah Tovah

Happy New Year to all my Jewish friends and fellow-bloggers. This year I actually get to go to ticketed services, as my roommate has "and guest" written on her ticket. I went to the Erev Rosh Hashanah service, and was very moved by the cantor (cantress?), a young woman with a very sweet and nimble voice. I found that I was beginning to be able to follow along in the Hebrew sections of the prayer book -- I can pick out "Israel" wherever it occurs, and extrapolate to everything that begins "Baruch atta Adonai...". I can pick out a Hebrew "L" -- it's distinctive, looking rather like a camel craning its neck over the rest of the letters. The funny thing is, I think it is going to be green. My Roman "L" is a rather dingy yellow -- I didn't figure out until adulthood that it was one reason I didn't like my name almost from the start. At the age of three or four I changed my name temporarily to "Cisa" -- a survival maneuver, to avoid identifying myself with the person who got in trouble -- but "C" is only a marginally more tolerable yellow than "L" and I gave it up fairly quickly.

Was I digressing? I think I was. Oh, yes. Hebrew -- Jewish services. Last week I attended Selichot and the rabbi let me help to dress one of the Torah scrolls in New Year white. I felt rather shy about it, as I always do when included in liturgy that as a Gentile I have no claim to. On the other hand I am often too curious for my own good and once touched the paper of the Torah scroll when it was open, to feel the thick scrollpaper and the soft ink of the Hebrew words, and only a second later had visions of Uzziah.

The Torah scrolls, dressed in white embroidered with gold and silver, made a pretty sight nestled in the ark. It gave me the not-quite-a-feeling that liturgy often does -- a sense of jubilee, a satisfaction taken in a light, sure-footed dance. It is religious in the sense that I believe the pulses of heaven to move that way, but not religious in the sense that it is credal or required in some way. It's extra -- a grace-note that keyholes me into something new and half-remembered.

For the first time something sank in that I had been noticing in my peripheral vision for a while. The focal point of the Jewish sanctuary is the ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept: in which the Word is kept. I grew up among Protestant evangelicals, where casual references to "the Word" are common -- e.g. "I opened up the Word this morning" and, as one memorable joke, "Did you see that wasp in the Sunday School room? I was swatting at it with the Word to keep it off me!" Strangely, in all its forms and translations and hotly contested status in our society, the Bible still retains some of the redolence of the Word of God: the ultimate image of the power of language, of speech, of fiat. Though I wouldn't contemplate trying to swat a wasp with a Torah scroll. For one thing, considering how big and heavy those things are, I'd be much more likely to squash myself than the bug I was aiming at. Not to mention Uzziah.

In the ark of the tabernacle is the Word; and above the little house where the Word lives is a lamp. And it occurred to me that I have seen this arrangement elsewhere besides the temple sanctuary; I have seen it in my church. In every, in fact, liturgical church. In my church, to the side of the altar, is a tabernacle, over which a lit candle is always kept. When I asked what is inside the little cabinet, I was told it is for the reserved Sacrament -- whatever of the bread (usually wafers) blessed at the Eucharist that has not been eaten. In other words, in my church the Word Made Flesh lives in a little house with a lamp over the top, just as in the synagogue the Word lives in a little house with a lamp over the top.

I'm sure this isn't an accident: permit me my little thrill of ingenuous glee at the symmetry of the connection. In any case, it gave me a greater sense of the continuity between Christianity and Judaism -- not credally (and in any case, half the fun as far as I can tell of Judaism is the fact that it has not a creed but a situation of an open Torah and a ready-set-argue starting-gun), but practically. Liturgically. In the Anglican church, I am told, we say that "praying shapes believing." In turn, of course, what and how we believe shapes our behavior, including how we pray. This give-and-take of worship -- the performative infused with joy -- is not, as I have discovered afresh, foreign in a Jewish temple. It is like going to a house in a country where nobody speaks your language, being served a meal that you thought you knew but has a different spice in it that you can't identify -- and then realizing that the bowl you're eating it out of is exactly the same as the favorite one you had as a child. Your hosts don't exactly get what your excited gestures at the bowl are about, but they can tell you're smiling -- and eating -- and that seems to be enough.

I shook the rabbi's hand after the Rosh Hashanah service and said, my Hebrew tripping clumsily over the tongue, "L'shanah tovah." She gripped my hand warmly, with a broad fervent smile, and said, "L'shanah tovah to you."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could come... Recently I've been upset with my own Church (Catholic) for political reasons, and deeply involved in reading scripture and commentary for other reasons -- in combination it leads me to tell people I'm going to convert.

I don't mean it, exactly. As a Gentile whose family has been various flavours of Christian for as long as anyone can remember, Judaism is pretty foreign to me. Certainly I have no claim on it (and would hate to offend anyone by any hint of pressing a claim). But it does attract. It is both ancient and practical. And entirely in tune with my liturgical soul.

I thought you might like to know that in the Catholic church, the little cabinet of the Sacrament is called a tabernacle.


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