Poetry in motion

After a few hours of Sabbath lolling back at my dad’s house, I’m once again standing in Barbara’s living room. The dining table is exactly as it was when I left, dirty forks dangle from plates that bear the remnants of lunch and glasses sit puddled with water and wine.

We set out on our walk, just as Barbara and her husband have done thousands of times. Our destination this evening is not the synagogue, but a small building owned by the congregation several blocks up from the beach.

At the building, Barbara and I separate from her husband and enter through our own door. The women’s side of the room is cordoned off by a thin curtain, through which I can see the silhouettes of the men, the outline of fedoras as they take turns leading the prayers. When it’s time for the rabbi’s talk, the curtain gets pushed open just enough to give the women a view of him at the podium. He is a young rabbi with a scraggly beard and an excited gleam in his eyes. He says he finds the subject of animal sacrifice fascinating because, while the practice is suspended for now, at some point in the future when the original temple is restored, a decision will need to be made about if and how it will be resumed.

Rabbis and Jewish scholars all over the world debate the topic and theories abound as to what might happen because, to the contemporary sensibility, the idea of killing animals for God seems archaic. Today, people expect their religious leaders and their butchers to be separate people. But, the young rabbi explains, this could change. One theory purports that the general public will come to see animal sacrifice as no worse ethically than killing animals for food and will embrace it as an acceptable practice. Another theory proposes that new rules from God will materialize upon the completion of the temple—and that perhaps some new thing, like sacrificing plants, will be an option. Finally, the rabbi arrives at the last theory that he promises will “blow our minds.” He explains that some scholars suggest animals may evolve in such a way that in the future they will understand the meaning and significance of being sacrificed and will volunteer for the privilege. A wave of chuckles sweeps the room, and I think we must be sharing the same cartoon thought-bubble of cloven hooves in the air with the caption: “Me, pick me!”

What happens last is short and poetic, like a 3D haiku that bids farewell to Sabbath. It’s just Barbara, her husband, me and three other men. While Barbara’s husband straightens up the room, the three men gather around a plate. The oldest of the three holds a large woven candle. He lights it. He pours wine into a cup and sips it. He opens a small box and inhales deeply. As he does this, one of the younger men unscrews the lid on a typical spice jar—the plastic kind you can buy at any grocery store—and smells the contents. He passes it to me and I put it to my nose, taking in the sweet aroma of cloves. I give it to Barbara who does the same. I’m mesmerized as the men study their hands in the light of the candle and utter a Hebrew prayer. Then the oldest one douses the flame with the wine from his cup. All three touch the drops of wine that have landed in the plate and then press their fingertips against their closed eyes. Each step is like a single line of a poem whose meaning is allusive but by the end conveys perfectly the joy and sorrow of life; this final act leaves my heart heavy but full.

In front of the building, the six of us say our farewells. The sun has set and the sidewalk is bustling with Saturday night revelers. Music and laughter spill from a crowded Mexican restaurant. The eyes of passersby linger on our small group and I recognize in their expressions the quiet curiosity I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve happened upon a pocket of people engaged in something I assume is both sacred and private. I recall the awe with which I would consider my old orthodox neighbors as I watched them playing and how it was tinged with resentment at my exclusion. I want to reach out and touch people as they pass and whisper, “I’m one of you.”

If a stranger cared to listen, I might tell him: “This religion thing is not the impenetrable mystery you think, but so basic and beautiful you can grasp its meaning if you desire.”

18 thoughts on “Poetry in motion

  1. Dear Corinna,
    There is a sense of being invited in and accepting the invitation and then belonging. This woman (these people) have offered you the invitation. The Christian life offers that same invitation. You have probably heard the word in the Christian world “repent.” It doesn’t really mean piety, but is actually the concept of turning to a new way of ordering your life, so to speak, and joining the kingdom of God. Kingdom is an unfamiliar word in 2013, of course, and maybe scary because we are into independence. But for these people you joined, God’s kingdom is a worldview out of which they (and also Christians) live, i.e., we honor God as the center of life and arrange our lives accordingly (you have so beautifully written about this over the past few weeks).

    Commitment is hard for people. We settle for quasi rather than the full deal. The appetizer and not the meal. As you say, “it’s not an impenetrable mystery but basic and beautiful; you can grasp its meaning if you desire . . .” Yes! And I would add, if you commit to it and thus belong, be embraced, not withholding yourself for whatever reason. It’s then that you experience its sacredness and meaning fully. Centuries of people have done so, with each bringing their own special gifts and talents to its expression.

    BTW, maybe someday in the future, what if the “new rule” some Jews imagine will emerge in the building of the new temple is that Jesus was/is the sacrifice… Jesus is Jewish after all…

  2. Greetings to all of you and I’m back on this side of the world again. I’ve been following the Blog entries but was not able to comment. After you read the following, most of you will probably be thinking, “Gee, she should have stayed gone. . .”

    I must say that my reaction to this latest post was one of wonder. Obviously, Corinna, you and I are very different people! Here’s why – I am left shaking my head at the mere suggestion of such a ‘mind-blowing’ theory – the one the rabbi came up with about animals volunteering for slaughter. I’m not sure if it’s the sheer ‘one can advance any idea in the name of religion’ overtone, or the whole topic of sacrifice in general that bothers me. I just can’t believe that you weren’t all looking at each other with that, “Is this guy NUTS??” look on your faces. . . .

    Perhaps it’s that quote by Bill Gascoyne, “I’m not convinced that faith can move mountains but I’ve seen what it can do to skyscrapers” that is resonating in my brain but I have to tell you, I’m left dumbfounded. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the comments from people much more diplomatic than me. Sigh. . .

    • Carmen!!! YAY!

      I think in nice words what you meant to say, is that “upon hearing such creative thoughts put to speech and possibly done so in a one-sided format (Rabbi speaking only?) it could make people uncomfortable listening to this idea of proposing willing Animal sacrifice as being “necessary” in order to commune with God – without having audience feedback”…

      Then in my words when it comes to animal sacrifice and willingness and burning up a perfectly good roast –
      I need protein in order for my body to function; i am human, and have canine teeth to be able to eat meat and tear flesh, all meat eaters have this ability with their pointy evoluted teeth. I love to fish, dont hunt, but my freezer is full from generous neighbors, and i always buy chicken when its on sale. Im on top of the food chain, although the grizzilies I think are even ‘toppier then me (yes I am making up new words as i go along – pfft) That all being said, I have cats that kill rodents for me, I have a dog to protect me, and I have horses to carry me. I recognize their “personalities”, but if I humanize them I put myself in immediate danger because of the food chain thang’ (cats and dogs have been known to eat their immobile humans, horses will kill you first if it means they could possibly could get killed as they have a fight/flee instinct that cannot be overcome in verbal training, only by training tools- you work with their instinct to survive). Animals arent exactly the type to willingly die- they have a very very very high survival instinct. So do we, when our brains are chemically balanced. Anyhow, give me a lobster dinner and i be happy. Now that all being said…

      I like rituals – Christmas, Easter, Halloween etc. can be construed as rituals too. All religions have rituals, and I appreciate Corinna’s pointing this concept out consistently in her writing. Theres something comforting about rituals and their routine and contemplating both the future and the past in these rituals – and I think this is what she is talking about… right, Corinna?

      Now Im going to go lay down again and fight off the head spins – i have a terrible double ear infection /sinus thing going on and am on drugs.

      Hopefully i will have remembered what i read and posted here…


    • Welcome back, Carmen! To be fair, there’s a wide range of opinions on the subject of animal sacrifice within the Jewish faith. Only the most orthodox are likely to discuss the idea of the practice being resumed once the original temple is rebuilt. Most others don’t see it as a realistic option. It’s all just a theoretical discussion at this point anyway as there are no current plans to reconstruct the destroyed temple. It’s good to have you back!!

      • Yaaaaaaaay, Carmen and Janice and Walt!

        This latest post only goes to show that there are extremist personalities and ideas in all faiths. This rabbi reminded me of the gut reaction I had to Pastor Jason…..what they were saying just seemed out of line….seemed wrong. Really? Animals who want to be sacrificed…..nah. I think that survival is an inherent instinct in all of the animal kingdom. This drive to survive is the reason that many people come to be involved in religions that promise eternal lives.

        Rituals are important even to me, a self-identified atheist. There is something about that continuity of words and behavior that is spiritually satisfying and perhaps speaks to commitment, which Ginger was talking about, although in a different way. There is a certain poetry in ritual, I agree. Certain lines can take your breath away, but it isn’t until the last word that you get the wholeness of the poem. Frankly, I don’t understand every poem that I read. Sometimes I wonder what in the world possessed the poet as they wrote that poem. “What in heavens name are they trying to say? What is this supposed to mean?” Most of the time I do not worry myself about this, as there are plenty of other poems I do understand and appreciate. So it is with ritual. But I do have my limits. I draw my line at sacrifices–animal or human, which certainly was prevalent in some early religions. Can’t think of any reason that this would be appropriate in this day and age…..no mythology would convince me that it would be a necessary ritual.

        I am all for mystery and wonderment….I just don’t need religion to help me appreciate them! Know that is not what you were saying, Corinna, but I think that religions work hard at being impenetrable…they have the answers, and they don’t especially tolerate people who bring different questions… or answers. You say religion is so “basic and beautiful” that any one can grasp the meaning, if they desire. I have appreciated your journey, but I just don’t buy the “basic and beautiful” part. But again, that is just me! Merrill

  3. Welcome back Carmen!

    Putting aside for the moment the references to animal sacrifice, I was thinking about the rituals Corinna described in terms of her last sentence, “This religion thing is not the impenetrable mystery you think, but so basic and beautiful you can grasp its meaning if you desire.” Coming from a liturgical tradition, I’m used to the rhythm and meaning of ritual worship, but I can see how it can be both a help and a hindrance. It seems Judaism does a better job of explaining the meaning of its rituals and traditions than do most Christian denominations. I went the funeral of a co-worker’s father last week at a Roman Catholic church, and being a former Catholic I knew when to kneel, stand, etc., and the sequence of prayers. A could tell a few of my compatriots were thoroughly confused and even got a couple of “why do you do this and a certain point in the Mass”? questions on the way back to the office. Having gone to parochial school I could provide an answer, but I can easily see how some of the “mysterious” rituals performed by all faiths could intimidate others from seeking further. I think its especially true of faiths that also require a different type of everyday dress, like the suits, fedoras, and beards of orthodox Jewish men, or the “simple dress” of the Amish. Several years ago, we visited Yosemite in the winter, and stopped in a lodge for some hot chocolate. There was a family of Mennonites visiting as well (and yes, I can tell a Mennonite from the Amish). Despite the chilly weather, they ordered ice cream for the whole clan, and the look of simple and pure enjoyment on their faces, from grandpa to the youngest kid, instantly removed any barrier their dress and demeanor may have created.

    Tradition and ritual can help with denominational identity and tie one generation to its predecessors, but it can also perpetuate misunderstandings, distrust, and suspicion. I think it depends on how its projected and how willing others are to try to understand.

  4. Good evening all. I have been seriously out of sync because of travel and then church event (our Michaelmas Fair) and then I hurt my back and cyclobenzaprine does NOT make me communicative, let me tell you!!! But I have been trying to catch up and have been enjoying reading everyone again.

    I am not sure just yet how I feel about the last few posts. I have a very hard time with the concept of having to physically separate from the other sex, yet I can sometimes see where it could be restful (especially when I have to deal with the hormones of one of the 15 year old choir baritones and the 13 year old soprano!!!!!!). I know I am seriously uncomfortable with the concept of resuming animal sacrifice (to me as a Christian, it belittles the full and perfect sacrifice already made – but that is my Christianity, and I know does not apply to an Orthodox Jew) and I can not even begin to tell you how I feel about the idea of an animal willingly offering…….Corinna, I will never get out of my mind’s eye your picture of cloven hooves waving in the air and a balloon caption saying “Pick Me! Pick ME!!” Would that I could, lol.

    Yet when I read of the ritual of touching the wine to their eyes, it made moisture come to mine….
    It is very good to read and see the differences. I must honestly say that my first response is to feel more complete faithfulness to what I live and believe in as a Christian, and to realize that I could not be anything else. But knowing how other people feel and believe and act is always a step in understanding them, in the secular sense, as NOT the other, but the same as you. That is important in living THIS life with the respect that is required in order to fulfill the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself.

    Thank you Corinna, and my great affection to you all.
    Yours in Christ

  5. Patti and Carmen are back–what a great weekend!

    Having said my two cents worth about ritual, I guess all I can add is a comment about the idea of animal sacrifice. Personally, I find the idea of a sentient animal volunteering for sacrifice no more pleasant to consider than the stereotype of the pagan virgin ready to offer herself to the volcano gods in 1930’s movies. Like many rituals in both the Old and New Testaments, animal sacrifice may have been appropriate for their time and place, but perhaps aren’t for modern sensibilities. As Corinna said, it was intended to be just a theoretical idea, but it does serve as a reminder that placing ritual above faith has consequences. As Ginger and Patti said, as a Christian, I don’t believe blood sacrifices of any type are needed after Jesus’ death on the cross. I also know that belief is not shared by a few billion people, so I can’t presume to judge their views or their faiths. Just as I don’t agree with everything in my own denomination, I don’t have to agree with everything held by other faith traditions, but I do have an obligation to respect their points of view, along with an obligation to speak from my perspective as well.

  6. Since it seems like homecoming week, i’ll stick my nose in here to say I’ve been fanatically clearing out & cleaning my mom’s house so it can be listed for sale. Just the stuff we had to throw into the 10 yd dumpster filled it to overflowing, and then there were the garage sale items, the donating-to-Goodwill items and alllllll the stuff we have to keep. Yikes! I keep trying to become minimalist, and I keep failing! and I think my mom had the same problem.

    In my opinion, and I could be wrong, animal sacrifices were the shadow of Jesus’ willing sacrifice. God is always doing something new, but he seems to build on the old things he’s already made us familiar with. So when (if?) the temple is rebuilt, God will do something completely new with it. if I’m here, I would love to see it because it will be exciting.

    Corinna, your last statement I read as a heartfelt desire to shatter exclusion in religion. I share that heartfelt desire! I think that’s my number one problem with organized religion: the Us/Them, In/Out aspect. Yet, how can it be avoided? If my little group of believers, for example, decides that it would be meaningful for us to, say, wear all white clothes to symbolize purity, it would set us apart from your little group of believers, and everyone else. We didn’t mean that to happen — in fact we welcome anyone to join our group. But it sets up a “specialness” about us that others resent, or envy, or feel rejected by. Every organized religion, it seems, has rituals and I think one un-intended consequence of these is it sets them apart and excludes others. Can you have a belief system without rituals and without excluding anyone? I want that.


    • Hi Shelley and gang,

      I think we’ve touched on some tender spots with this particular post and comments. I find it interesting that most of us (myself included) will eat animals and, therefore have them “sacrificed” in a sense for ourselves, and yet the idea of a symbolic sacrificing for God makes most of us uncomfortable (even though evidence suggests these animals were consumed by priests and people and not wasted). That this topic is being debated so passionately shows it’s a controversial topic even among orthodox Jews.

      Shelley, I think you’ve boiled it down to an essential question: how do we create and maintain identity while still being united as humanity? Also, how do we change and yet stay connected to the past? I don’t know exactly the answer–and part of my motivation in this project was maybe to explore this idea–but I do think understanding and knowledge goes a long way in lessening the divisions between people.

  7. I don’t think there really is a way to be totally free from some kind of “labeling” in religion or most anything else. Humans, by their nature, identify themselves and others by groups. One could say he or she is a feminist, or LGBT, or American, and each label comes with a set of assumptions for both the member and those outside the group. In some cases, it can be good–you might be more sensitive to what you say to someone based on that person’s group identity. Or it can be bad–used to exclude people from the “correct” group or used to degrade an individual based on group membership. There is value in being a member of a group; it supports and validates your values. Perhaps the best we can hope for is what Corinna said–we learn to respect and understand members of “other” groups. I’ve heard it expressed as the alternative to the “us or them” attitude, replacing it with “us and them”.

    • Hi Tim, I also think just recognizing that the stuff that can be labeled is one aspect of a self, and the other is that which all of us share. I’m starting to think just being aware of this goes a long way in diminishing the “Us vs. Them” way of thinking.

      • Good morning, Corinna. Its almost like we should approach religion like one of those old-fashioned pyramid organizational charts, except we work from the bottom up. The bottom layer–the foundation–would be the philosophies most major world religions hold in common. You work your way up to monotheism, then Christianity, and finally whatever denomination (if any) you belong to. But you need to remember you’re a member of all the layers underneath, and since those are much broader than the upper layers, we share more in common than may first appear.

  8. Woof! I’m just catching up on some of the posts I missed this week….
    Corinna, your raised hooves and “pick me!” lines were hilarious, and yes, this spurred quite a lot of thoughts. Of course, when I read that, it also made me think of Jesus, who is the epitome of willing sacrifice….no matter how he struggled with it in the garden prior to the cross. I too have a problem with animal sacrifice. Many Christians seem to think that animal sacrifice will resume in the new temple–I find that problematic because of Jesus having sacrificed himself already…but I don’t know everything for sure!!!

    It’s interesting to me to reflect on the sacrifices made by the Manjack people with whom we lived for eight years in Senegal….their sacrifices were few and far between (and eaten afterward in their entirety except for the bones). The animals were the measure of wealth, so they were never routinely killed as food–only when an animal died accidentally or was seriously hurt was it butchered….and then distributed to all since there was no refrigeration.

    Reading the different thoughts on these things actually does draw me closer to you all and recognize our sameness and oneness in the human community. Our American society has grown more fragmented and individualistic in my lifetime (a pitifully short time), but this blog experience has helped me to value our individuality in our human community. Thanks to all again! 🙂

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