Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Pagan Walks into a Synagogue...

Long-time readers of this blog, as opposed to accidental victims led here against their will, may recall that on several occasions I have mused about connections, whether contrasts or commonalities, between Judaism and Paganism. This entry is a further walk down this path. It may also provide a bit of instruction in Jewish history for those who may not be well-acquainted with this topic. It's also nice to have a way to ward off any truly right-wing Pagans or anti-Semitic neo-Nazi types, for whom I would imagine a sympathetic discussion of Judaism has the same effect as a silver crucifix wrapped in garlic has on a vampire!

On Friday evening, 22nd of February, I was a guest speaker at a synagogue in a town not too far from where I live in New York State. I took the opportunity to speak about some topics that I have been researching and writing about for the last several years for my hopefully-someday-to-be-finished book about religious diversity in Eastern Europe. I focused on two very strange, fascinating and indeed troubling characters from Jewish history, the so-called "false messiahs" Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Both men claimed to be the long awaited Jewish messiah, Zevi in Turkey in the 17th century, Frank in Poland in the 18th, but asserted a path to Jewish salvation that involved massive diversion, if not perversion, of many of the standard forms of Jewish life. Though simply narrating their weird careers as Jewish leaders of essentially anti-Jewish movements that attracted thousands of followers and caused massive headaches for both the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania would have probably been quite enough, I wanted to sketch out both the historical and religious-ideational backgrounds of these renegade religious movements, and also discuss the various ways in which these movements influenced or paralleled other modern Jewish movements from Hasidism to the "Jewish Enlightenment" Haskalah, as well as foreshadowing the French Revolution in certain ways. I even spoke a bit about the Kabbalah as one of the main inspirations for Zevi and Frank.

I then went on to talk about some of my impressions of Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe, explaining how my slowly growing awareness of the Jewish culture of the past in places like Budapest as well as my encounters with ugly flashes of anti-Semitism in Siauliai had inspired me to want to know more about the Jewish side of Eastern European history, resulting in my decision to write a book not only about Eastern European Paganism, which would have been relatively easy for me, as this has been my major research area for some years, but about Judaism as well, in an attempt to arrive at an overview of the diversity of Eastern European religious life beyond the stereotyped assumption of total Christian dominance, as in the usual description of Poland as a "Catholic country," for example.

It ended up being a rather lengthy talk that I gave, definitely a bit TOO long for one tough old lady in the congregation, who approached me later in the evening to teasingly scold me, saying she felt like standing up and yelling "SHUT UP!" at me. However, the reaction was very positive overall, not least from the rabbi, who praised me for getting at the heart of some very important issues in a way that reminded her of her past graduate studies during her rabbinical training. Other members of the congregation approached me to thank me for a stimulating talk. I stayed for the Friday evening Shabbat dinner and had friendly conversations with a very nice group of people. I was very moved, especially by the words of appreciation from the rabbi, as I have been working on this research and thinking in almost total isolation for the last three years. I have really had no one to discuss these things with, other than engaging in imaginary conversations with the authors of the books and articles that I have been collecting. It was therefore extremely gratifying to not only not be laughed out of the temple, so to speak, but to hear people of the faith that I have been exploring tell me that I was on the right track with many of my perceptions and interpretations.

I also attended the evening religious service, and found that quite meaningful and moving as well. Much of the liturgy was focused on imploring the God of the Jews to continue to provide for the welfare and protection of the people of the nation of Israel, and calling on the sons and daughters of Israel to keep faith with their God. This might be seen as a narrow, tribal focus from some points of view. However, at this stage in my life, differences and dividing lines are much less important to me than areas of common ground and expressions of shared yearning and common purpose, and I find my ears increasingly tuned to the universal dimensions of any religious message. I therefore hear the call to the people of Israel as echoing a universal call to all people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds to seek holiness and betterment, and I find nothing strange or alienating in that. This also has interesting implications for my occasional arguments with Norse Pagans who want to make modern-day Norse Paganism into a strictly ethnic, "Northern European" faith, which I and others disagree with, preferring that this be a more universal faith open to any people of any background anywhere.

The alternation between mostly English-translated and Hebrew-original texts in the service also made me think that for Norse or other Pagans in America or other English-language countries, some similar accommodation between modern and ancient language is a pragmatic solution. To speak of the two types of Paganism that I have been most involved with, I could envision Norse Pagans studying Old Norse for reading and prayer purposes, or Lithuanian American Pagans studying Lithuanian, the way young Jewish boys and girls are herded into Hebrew classes, to their childish frustration but their adult pride and satisfaction.

Of course, modern Pagans have a LONG way to go if they want to have any kind of liturgy to match that of Judaism or other long-established religions. This is in fact half the reason why some would-be Pagans give up on Paganism and go back to traditional faiths, whatever their reservations or private differences might be with the faith traditions that they choose to join or rejoin. It is certainly nice to plug right into something that has been long-established and well-worked out, as opposed to something that is forever under construction and endlessly argued over, as is the case with much of the Paganism that I have known!

The evening service included the singing of certain passages by both the rabbi and the congregation, and this was very pleasing to me. My Eastern European journeys have acquainted me with klezmer and other forms of Jewish music, including the experimental Jewish jazz of that mad New York City mystic, John Zorn, that I have developed a warm appreciation for alongside other types of Eastern European folk music from the Baltic to the Balkans. There are certain styles and melodies of Jewish music that really touch my heart. Those damned Jewish musicians, they really know how to rip your heart out with an aching violin and a haunting melody! In the synagogue, I could feel more clearly how more contemporary forms of Jewish music like klezmer are outgrowths of the ancient Hebrew melodies and singing styles.

So, this was a very special evening for me. I feel I made some new friends and feel a new sense of kinship with Judaism--in my own way, of course. "My own way" does not however extend to wanting to imitate Shabbetai Zevi or Jacob Frank in developing a new form of Judaism!

But what about a new form of Paganism? That is something to think about and discuss... In fact, since all of our modern types of Paganism are really quite new entities, despite the older traditions that we draw upon, I would argue that "new forms of Paganism" is the only thing we are ever talking about!

Question: When do Jews get to dress up like Pagans and have a bit of carnival-esque fun?

Answer... Happy Purim! (Today: Saturday, February 23).


Julia Ergane said...

That is why I do not use the word pagan or Pagan to name my religion. True polytheism is far more complicated than trying to fit it into a neat box. The cults of the modern Indians are more similar, even though many try to renounce their polytheism, to the cults of the ancient Hellenes, Romans, etc. If there were over-arcing stories, they were later -- and they were many. We don't have a neat-o wheel of the year; yet, Athena has a year long cycle of festivals as does Dionysos and all the others. I know you are heathen so I do not know as much about the festival cycles. Are they deity based or season based? These are questions to start as you develop a liturgy.

Maelstrom said...

Dear Julia, I am somewhat a heathen but not 100 % committed. I also participate in Lithuanian Pagan rites, Romuva, from time to time.

You raise a very good issue about the problem of how to name these new-old religions. I use Pagan because nothing else has come along that seems any better, but it remains problematic, I fully agree.

Ananta Androscoggin said...

Naziism (real or neo) is not required. For instance, the "gift" given to King Richard II by the city of London to celebrate his coronation.

The citizens of that city slaughtered every Jewish inhabitant of the city, man, woman, child and baby, and looted their homes and businesses, and burned many of them to the ground.

"To please our new king" was the sentiment being expressed.

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