To outsiders, a religion can seem a strange, artificial thing, sustained by social pressure, by blind faith in nitpicky dogma, by habit-forming and vaguely obsessive rituals. It is where an inquisitive mind goes to die.
But to insiders and heirs of a religious tradition, the resilience of religion has nothing to do with those externalities. We cling to religion because of its ability to talk about the world as we experience it. Instead of analyzing life from outside, it swims and writhes alongside us through our troubles and our pleasures. It affirms our inner world, overturns our inner world, and constantly reinterprets our inner world. It is a vocabulary for being, not merely for observing. It is where our innermost self goes to play.
On Israel’s Memorial Day, we borrow one of the oldest and strangest insights of our religion: that the world is infused and saturated with our emotions. When we grieve, the land grieves, the heavens grieve. The divine itself weeps with us for our fallen children.
In some of the oldest sections of talmudic literature, the two opposing forces of holiness and impurity so central to Jewish ritual are depicted as real forces in the world, able to move in and out of closed spaces, able to spread, and susceptible to being beaten back by human action. It’s not about cleanliness. A mud-stained child is pure; a sanitized hospital is impure. Impurity is driven by death; a corpse is its original, primal source. Priests, kohanim, may not walk into cemeteries. The meat of death may not be cooked in the milk of life. Two fundamental forces of the human experience are locked in perpetual battle, susceptible at every turn to human intent and action. We can drive back impurity — the symbol and agent and acknowledgement of death — but never defeat it. And we can sanctify our lives, and thus all life, and thus discover that life is the sanctification of the world itself.
That insight is in some ways the beating heart of three millennia of Jewish law and thought.
It hardly matters when, from the depths of that battle, we hear the prim, self-assured voices of present-day anthropologists telling us that the cultural constructs of holiness and purity have their roots in the evolution of hygienic instincts projected by our overactive imaginations onto new targets.
Well, yes. Okay. An interesting insight, but not a helpful one. The origins of a thing are not its power, the measurement of a thing is not the experience of it. There are neurological pathways underlying the devotion of parent to child; they can’t tell us how to navigate the pain and ecstasy that this devotion brings into our lives. Not yet, at least, and probably not ever.
The world is full of holiness and of contamination, heart-breaking purity and endless despair. We feel it, we react to it, we wade through it as we go about our daily lives and emotions.
In an important sense — forgive me, rabbis, for such a sweeping statement — Judaism is the art of navigating through that world, not the measurable one outside us, but the chaotic one within, the world in which we all actually live our lives.
As the poet Yehuda Amichai put it, when contemplating the holy (and dirty and divided and poverty-stricken) city of Jerusalem:
The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.
On this Memorial Day, the world is saturated with our grief.
My neighbor invited us all over for an evening of songs about the war dead. Flags flutter from balconies. The radio plays sad dirges throughout the day. Every Israeli I know spends the day actively remembering someone who died.
There is no happiness today, except among the children, who are always happy because they cannot help but be pure.
From our modernized lives, whose measured boundaries are set by stern scientists and anthropologists with their methods and explanations, we are drawn for a day back into the old ways. The world weeps, the air is weighed down with its heavy burden of tears and memory. Our communal world becomes, for a day, what we feel within us.
There’s someone I happen to remember today, the memory unbidden, even unwanted. He has a story, he has a name, but I’m not the sharing sort. I know he is gone, but I know, too, that he hears me remembering. How could he not? The whole world weeps for him at my side.