01 May 2010

Omer 32: Earthy Earth

Omer Day Thirty-Two

We are moving into a fairly earthy section of the Rambam's Book of Love, a Saturday morning ritual in the Rabbi's Study at CBE for the last 18 months.  It's slow going, a few paragraphs each week, but it has turned into a far-ranging study session and conversation among several members of our community who, I believe, have really enjoyed being immersed in one particular text over an extended period of time.

The Book of Love is Maimonides collection of laws related to the ritualized spiritual practice of Judaism--recitation of the Shma and its blessings; the Amidah; teffilin, mezuzahs, talis and Torah scrolls; with the priestly blessing and circumcision thrown in for good measure.  One here encounters the Rambam's measured reasoning; his decisive personality; and, a very medieval sensibility about the ways human behaves and the sometimes contrasting ways that the Rambam believed a Jew should behave.

Hence the earthy nature of things.  For the second week in a row, we have immersed ourselves--in a very mature way I might add--in what happens when one is engaged in the mitzvah of wearing teffilin at precisely the time when one may burp, fart, urinate, defecate, have sex or (and I think this is radically out of order) take a nap.  In a richly detailed exposition that brings our human reality down to earth in a spiritual way, the Rambam faces what it is that our bodies do even when we are engaged in the sublime acts of worshipping God.  Understandably, this discussion makes some people uncomfortable, disgusted, or turned off--but today we crossed abarrier which I think is part of the Rambam's agenda. 

Without an immersion in ritual, the discussion is meaningless.  But when engaged in ritual ourselves, the relevance comes into focus.  And brings the observance of ritual down to earth, away from the conceptual distance of "those who observe" and closer to anyone engaged in its reality. 

I used an analogy to make this point:  Many people have hired teams to renovate their homes--carpenters, contractors, painters, plumbers, electricians.  And during the process, we occasionally drop in to check on its progress but don't engage in the work of building the structure ourselves.  Our relationship to the structures is that we  inhabit them.  But what is the nature of our habitation if we haven't "built the nest" as it were?  We have to dirty ourselves in the habitation, roll up our sleeves and mix the mortar, roll on the paint, hammer the nails, wire the lights--in order to truly be in relationship with the Tradition. 

Taken in this context, Maimonides discussion of what the body does when we are observing mitzvot makes perfect sense.  Liberal Jews sometime suffer from being too caught up in the conceptual so that some discussions of the complexities of observance appear like distant mirages of a past that we no longer observe.   But Judaism doesn't exclusively exist on a linear progression of time; it exists in eternal time, where what one's body does is but a temporary distraction from an attempt to connect to the Eternal.  In that context, the filth and the muck are, well, flushed away with ease while the more sublime expressions remain the focus of our time on earth.

The earthy earth.

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