war stories

We were holding kabbalah study group tonight at Beit Malkhut, and I don’t know how it came up. But you know how study groups go — one topic leads to another.

We started with the Kaddish — the Mourner’s Prayer — since all of us had something to mourn, and it was time to explore and see what we could ferret out. I was prepared to be thoroughly annoyed. Which is my initial mode in all these inquiries, especially when they have to do with prayer.

I have a problem with prayers.

What bugs me about them is that the melodies completely draw you in, especially when they slip into a minor key or something equally compelling for which I (who know nothing about music) have no language to describe. So there you are sucked in by the beauty of it — and so it works as ritual, and is very powerful, right?

But then you pick at it. What does this really mean?? The Kaddish is in Aramaic, not Hebrew, but it’s pretty recognizable for the most part.

My rule in study group is, however, not to assume that we know what something means. Instead, we use our Gesenius Lexicon (which does include the Aramaic) and track down every form of every root until we uncover the mysteries imbedded in the text.

I had very low expectations. But that’s what makes it so fun. That’s what makes being a Pessimist so rewarding. With such low expectations, the discoveries become minor awe-inspiring miracles.

In English, the translations are sychophantic, repetitive and well, just plain cloying and annoying. There’s gotta be more to it than that. Why all the glory, glory glory, going on and on about just how terrific our god is? And what’s that got to do with mourning?

Turns out that the Kaddish began to be used for mourning in the 13th century during Crusades and pogroms, as a public affirmation of faith in the face of pogromic annihilation. That is, instead of using the Shma for that purpose. Thus, the Mourner’s Kaddish was a public display of adherence to one’s faith, and that’s why it doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

The words in English are trite, not just repetitive. But looking them up, a vivid picture emerged. Not one of dying and death and loss, but of a joyous celebration. A wedding, if you will.

And god is the bridegroom. He is adorned with a special turban and set upon a special chair (or throne), and lifted into the air with great exaltation. It’s a wedding celebration, joyous, and filled with laughter. Who’s the bride? Well, we are. And our recitation binds our union. Our act of unification. And then there’s the description of his tumescence (translated as ‘might’ and ‘arising’) — it’s pretty heady stuff.

In other words, hidden in the Aramaic is an alternate tale that can be uncovered — showing that exultation, showing what form it takes.

Then I checked out Reb Schneerson.

Reb Schneerson says (in an address on the yahrtzeit of Isaac Luria, the Ari), that our remembrance should be filled with joy and laughter, and not be immersed in the sorrow of the day. Which verifies my own deconstruction of the Kaddish puzzle. For, says Reb Schneerson, for on that day, as we honor the Ari, his revelations open to us, and what should we do, but dance and laugh.

Wow, was he right.

He then goes on to say that when we take in this knowledge from those who have died before us, and as we celebrate their yahrtzeit, the revelations sink right into our very nefesh, deeper and deeper and imbed not just into our mind (sechel) but into our physical being. It burrows into our very brains, and creates more convolutions than previously existed.

It expands our cerebral cortex. It expands our brains.

In one fell swoop he goes from mourning, to kaddish to revelation, to increased brain capacity and power. Just like that.

Does the fact that I’m in shock make him wrong?

I mean, what can I say? He’s the one who’s been proclaimed the mashiach, after all. He’s got his science down pat to back him up. Who am I to say he’s wrong?

Maybe it was all the talk of Crusades and pogroms. Maybe talk of new knowledge. Dunno.

But out came one of my war stories, that I’d not told in quite a long time, and deserves its hearing right now, right here. A great story, really.

But by now it’s late, and my eyes are closing of their own volition, and my head is threatening to crash down upon the keyboard without permission, and I can’t possibly give the tale its due. And it just started raining, and got suddenly cold.

And so, I’ll save it maybe for shabbes, and for the moment say goodnight. And savor the revelations we discovered in the kaddish. And that Reb Schneerson just maybe, maybe might be right.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She’s most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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8 Responses to war stories

  1. boyfromgoy says:

    Thank you for letting me a be a part of the discussion. I feel like I have nothing to add, but bask in the conversation and the stories, even the war stories, complete with hard-core Israeli interrogations, munchies, and the confidence of youth in the face of immanent bloodshed.

    I'm still vexed by the Kaddish. I find that when it comes to prayer, I am usually making large semantic or semiological shifts in my head. It's kind of like queering the text (a habit developed after years of watching television and trying to force myself into the narratives (starting somewhere around Streets of San Francisco or Starsky and Hutch). But it's more like de-godding and re-sacrilizing the text for a humanist ritual-starved soul. Liberal siddurim add a scattering of ועלאמים here and there to make it less ישראל-centric, which is a good step toward a more universal view. Rabbi Green's scientific, evolutionary midrash on אחד expands the possibilities of interconnection and exultation of being part of the All-being, to borrow from the Transcendentalists, of the Kaddish.

    Yet I have had to admit since the High Holidays that it's just as exhausting to constantly have to 'humanize and universalize the siddur as it is to queer every single t.v. program I watch.

    When I had to have an imaginary fight with Rabbi Heschel's—one of my favorite moral thinkers of the 20th century—explanation of the evidence of Intelligent Design. When a friend at Torah study looked at me like I was a poor lost soul when I spoke of Kayin and Habbel as a myth of ritual and lifestyle superiority, more or less giving one the imprimatur of The Almighty and rejecting the other as less-than, other, ignorant, outside. When I asked the Cantor about the meaning of something she had sung and she closed her eyes and dropped her voice to talk about ה–שאם. I knew that even in my new-found spiritual home I was going to be an outsider in more ways than just being a goy.

  2. mira amiras says:

    That is the least goyische response I've ever heard. And it would take me hours to really give it its due!

    But for now, suffice it to say that I'm thrilled that you've joined our Study Group and that it's not the same without you. I think it took all of us to begin to piece the puzzle together — and yah, it's just a beginning.

    I love your Hebrewisms! Especially, adding an aleph into ha-shem (I still have no idea how to access the fonts here). You transformed ha-shem into the letter hei standing on her own (the ultimate feminine letter — and a symbol for the feminine divine) plus 'sheh-aim' with the extra aleph you wrote "who is mother". So what you wrote is, 'the feminine divine, who is mother.' An absolutely lovely and overdue regendering of the god entity.

    So clearly it's time to download Raphael Patai's The Hebrew Goddess, for a real treat…

  3. boyfromgoy says:

    I wish it had been on purpose! but in reality, two things: 1) I love the aleph dearly since we talked about it last summer, and I imagine it as the silent pause before the breath of Being; and 2) I never know when an aleph is required for a vowel in Hebrew spelling, so I probably err to the side of putting in too many.

    I love that my misspelling inspired such an amazing midrash!

  4. Erin Vang says:

    When you replied to my comment on lousy Biblical translations with a suggestion that I read this post, I already had. But about this post I had much more to say, and I knew it would take some time before I could get it said.

    My response to you is here: http://erinvang.com/?p=353.

    Thank you.

  5. mira amiras says:

    I highly recommend people read Erin's midrash on her blog (see link). I'll have much more to say about it when my knees stop quaking …

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