Last week I made reference to the postwar German philsopher H.G. Gadamer, who, among others, plays with the tantalizing idea that a text is made complete when it is read–that is, that it remains incomplete until the reader reads it. Gadamer elaborates this idea further in talking about play, both in the theatrical sense and in the sense of games. A play is “open toward the spectator, in whom it achieves its whole significance.” A theatrical production becomes complete when comprehended by the audience; a literary text becomes complete when comprehended, recognized, by the reader.

Play is an exercise bounded by rules, in which the individual identities of the players are constructed and governed by the rules of the game. “Play itself,” writes Gadamer, “is a transformation of such a kind that the identity of the player does not continue to exist for anybody. Everybody  asks instead what is supposed to be represented, what is ‘meant.’ The players (or playwright) no longer exist, only what they are playing.” The rules of the game–whether literary or genre conventions, rules of football or rules of ritual–determine the identity of the players within it. Joe Montana becomes a quarterback; Kasparov becomes Karpov’s opponent; Alice becomes a reader.

What delimits these experiences is the consciousness that one is playing a game, that one has expectations of rules that stand apart from the everyday and ordinary. Moving a pawn on a chessboard is only meaningful within the context of playing chess; in and of itself, it is simply moving a pawn on a chessboard. Likewise a dollar bill is only a piece of paper, until it is recognized and valued for its purchasing power.

One of the words that Rashi frequently comments on is the word “ki.” “Ki” in Hebrew can have many meanings, as Rashi reminds us: when, if, because, among others. We often gloss over these comments as seemingly irrelevant, exciting only those interested in the picayune details of grammar. Yet Gadamer reminds us that those details are in fact what make a text, a game, our lives, meaningful.

“Ki” appears seven times at the crucial moment of Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious man/angel in Gen. 32.

And Jacob was left over, by himself, but a man wrestled with him until dawn rose.

He saw that (ki) he was not able to overcome him, so he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh dislocated during his wrestling with him.

He said: Send me away, for (ki) the dawn has risen;

He said: I will not send you away except if (ki) you have blessed me.

He said to him: What is your name?

He said: Jacob.

He said: Not Jacob will your name still be said, but (ki) rather Israel, because (ki) you have striven-for-mastery with Elo-him and with people, and you have overcome.

Jacob asked, saying: Please tell your name!

He said: Why is it necessary for you to ask my name?

He blessed him there.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, because (ki) I have seen Elo-him face-to—face and my life was saved.

The run shone for him as he passed by Penuel, with him limping on his thigh.

Therefore The Children of Israel will not eat the sciatic nerve, which is part of the thigh, until this day, because (ki) he touched that part of Jacob’s thigh, the sciatic nerve.

What “ki” does here is signify, create a context for symbols, words, and actions. Ki is used for “because,” explaining the symbol of not eating the hind quarter. It thus makes eating a rule-based exercise, which gives eating rituals meaning. The same is true for Jacob’s naming of Peniel: The name Jacob gives to the place is linked to an experience. It ceases to be a nameless, insigificant place, and becomes a place attached to memory, experience, and aspiration.

These are common uses of ki. More unusual is the use of ki in the moment of Jacob’s renaming: the moment of resignification, when Jacob becomes something else and stands for something new, turns on this tiny word, ki, the word that takes him and us out of our regular experience, pausing the film as it were, and enabling a new layer or meaning to come to life.

What has always struck me about this passage is that it concludes with a ritual signification: in our eating practice, we link ourselves with this moment. That is, Judaism does not leave the the rich game-playing of meaning-making to the realm of the intellectual, but makes it part of our embodied lives. Our lives, in body and mind, take from and contribute to a dense web of signification, of texts and people and ideas that talk to each other through the ages. This reality–and it is a reality, not just an imagined thing–is what makes our tradition so unique and so valuable. It is the 3,000-year old conversation of which we have the honor to be a part, a conversation that begun at the moment of Israel’s naming.

Shabbat shalom.

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I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to eat a foot-long Subway sandwich for lunch just now. But there I was at the shiny new kosher Subway restaurant in Skokie, along with what seemed like the rest of the kosher-keeping community of Chicagoland. I’m told the line before we arrived was around a 2-hour wait; I only waited about 30 minutes. Still, who ever heard of waiting 30 minutes for a Subway sub?

Jews, it would seem. I think of the way people drool about the idea of kosher KFC or McDonald’s when they describe their trips to the Holy Land. When we went to Israel in April, my kids only wanted to eat at kosher Burger King. We went three times in two weeks. I remember when kosher Krispy Kreme opened in New York, or the when the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Skokie lost its kosher status a few years ago. (The secretary at the Chicago Rabbinical Council said I was about the 1000th caller to inquire about it when I phoned that afternoon.)

What is it about kosher chain restaurants that inspires such excitement? It represents a phenomenal inversion: that which is available to everyone is suddenly available to traditional Jews. Not all the food, mind you–there are no dairy items on the menu at kosher Subway, just as there are no cheeseburgers at kosher Burger King. It’s really not the food; it’s the packaging, the ambiance, the feeling that we’re able to have our cake (or our sub) and eat it too. The sentiment seems to be something like, “Look at me, I can keep kosher, wear a kippah, even chap a mincha minyan (pray the afternoon prayer service with 10 men) in a restaurant with the same logo and menu and napkins as all of you out there.” The taste doesn’t really matter; it’s the havaya, the experience, the sense of belonging to the larger culture.

As a kid I remember the many birthday parties I went to where I couldn’t eat the Oreo cookies. This became a major maker of my identity: I was that kosher-keeping kid who couldn’t eat Oreos. And then, when I was in college, they became kosher. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. On the one hand I wanted to eat the Oreos, to reciprocate the embrace of the culture at large. But I also wanted to resist it. What would happen if everything suddenly became kosher, if we no longer had these markers of our identity?

These questions are deeply present, though muted perhaps, at Thanksgiving time. Thanksgiving (unlike Halloween, which I wrote about a few weeks ago) has achieved the status of a true civic religious holiday in America. Everyone has access to it, everyone can make dinner for family and celebrate reasons to be thankful. Jews have had differences of opinion over the years about whether or not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s fair to say that most everyone from the Modern Orthodox to the left observes the holiday. Thanksgiving, like kosher Subway, offers us the opportunity to participate in the culture at large while conforming to our own laws and observances.

The question raised around many Jewish tables at Thanksgiving is, Do we sing Shir Hamaalot (Psalm 126) before the grace after meals? We recite this optimistic psalm on holidays in place of the more lamenting Psalm 137, which is normally recited. Thanksgiving may be a holiday, but is it a Jewish holiday? That is the question behind the question. Most Orthodox Jews would not go so far. Their ritual lives are willing to incorporate that which can be incorporated without changing the legalities of observance.

We all want to be included, to have the same freedom and options that everyone else has. At the same time, as the upcoming holiday of Hannukah will remind us, sometimes identity needs to be defined in opposition to a dominant culture.

Oreos, anyone?

Snapshots from a weekend:

1. This afternoon we attended a wedding of two Jews. Backyard, simple, classy. Casting straight out of a Hugh Grant movie. The ceremony was performed by a judge. Beforehand the mother of the groom explained how the couple had “personalized” their wedding–everything from the huppah to the food to the music was their concoction, with a little help here and there from parents. Sheva Brachot, the traditional seven nuptial blessings, were recited later on. There was a ketubah, though it took the form of vows rather than a traditional Jewish marriage contract. Lots of men wore kippot.  After the ceremony the couple “spent a few moments together in yichud,” or seclusion.

My mother in law asked me afterwards if it was a kosher wedding, and I responded that according to halakha it wasn’t–there was no point at which the groom gave the bride a ring and said, “With this ring you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and Israel” in front of two sabbath-observant witnesses; the ketubah was not technically a ketubah. Yet the fact remains that, in these times, this was a pretty Jewish wedding.

2. One of the relatives coming to the wedding relayed the following story: Her flight from New York was delayed on Friday for hours and hours. An Orthodox-looking woman and her child were to get on the flight, and were clearly getting worried about whether they would make it to their destination for Shabbos. They get on the plane when it’s time to board, and as they are taxiing to the runway, they realize that they won’t make it. They ask the flight attendant if they can be let off the plane. Amazingly, the flight attendant says yes. The plane taxis back to the terminal, they are allowed off the plane, their luggage is removed, and the plane now has to get back in line to take off. It adds an hour to the flight, which itself was not direct–many people missed connections. (more…)

In his usual fashion, David Brooks thoughtfully explores the bevy of screw-ups in recent weeks by politicians. He traces their inability to deal with reality in a dignified way to the loss of “the dignity code” of yesteryear. Here’s the heart of his article:

The dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.

We can all list the causes of its demise. First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

The old dignity code has not survived modern life. The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act.

At the same time as I read this article, I saw this piece from my friend Jay Michaelson in the Forward (yes, I may be the first to put Jay and Brooks in the same post). Jay writes about the distractions our minds and hearts drag us towards, chiefly doing busywork instead of work developing our own souls, and about how they manifest themselves both in the “small stuff” of our lives and the larger issues of life on the planet:

This is true on a micro and a macro level. The micro level I’ve already described: how most of us have to drag ourselves to synagogue or yoga class or the gym or whatever works for our personal development, even though afterward we’re so grateful that we did. In fact, just this lesson — not to trust the heart and not to believe the mind — is, itself, “worth the price of admission,” so to speak. I suspect we wouldn’t have quite so much bigotry, antisemitism and cruelty if we all second-guessed our gut reactions a bit more.

It’s true on a macro level, as well. Many of us, if we are basically happy and healthy, are often fine just the way we are. Like our obliviously content ex-president, we don’t see the effects of our spiritual atrophy. We don’t know what we’re missing: how much more compassionate, loving or just we could be, and how much energy we’re needlessly dissipating on the maintenance of the ego and the fulfillment of its demands. And this ignorance has consequences.

Some consequences are social or, perhaps, political. For example, the great achievement of mainstream America has been to hide the costs of its profligacy. We love Wal-Mart because we don’t see the sweatshops. We love SUVs because we don’t see their effects on penguins and polar bears. And until recently, those of us who were well off financially could easily ignore those who were not. Yes, the Torah, and our secular values, call us to responsibility (Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 15:7), but my experience is that without some inner work to actually open the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6), such calls fall on deaf ears.

The message I hear resonating between both these pieces is that living well–living right–requires discipline. It requires habits. And if we don’t consciously create the habits we want to have, chances are we’ll wind up having bad habits, the consequences of which extend profoundly beyond the confines of our supposedly private little worlds. Whether you get it from the Bible or from Kant, the lesson is the same: Everything we do matters.

I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the University of Michigan hospital, along with my mom and brother, as my dad has had surgery. (He’s doing great, btw.) One of the things you do in the hospital is walk around a lot–you need to stay close enough to be of assistance if necessary, but you also need to move your legs.

Michigan’s is an exceptional hospital. As a visitor, I notice that their signage is ample and clear, that employees are quick to ask whether they can help you find anything, and that the architecture is generally bright and welcoming.

university-of-michigan_logojpg2One of the other things I’ve noticed is that the hospital invokes a sense of ritual to remind itself (and its guests) of its aspirations. If you walk along the hallway towards the medical school (which is attached to the hospital), you encounter frame after frame of class pictures for the last 100+ years of med school classes. Fraternities do this too. It communicates to everyone that there’s a long tradition here, and that the school is proud of its graduates.

There are also enormous banners hanging in the main atrium, with photos of patients and doctors behind words from the Michigan fight song: “Hail to the victors valiant, Hail to the conquering heroes, Hail, hail to Michigan, the leaders and best.” As a kid who grew up singing the Victors at football and basketball games, the song has a deep imprint on me, as it does on most people associated with U of M or Ann Arbor. To see the lyrics in print strikes me as a little corny. But when you see a 20-foot picture of a guy with a huge scar on his chest and the words “Hail to the conquering heroes,” it’s very moving.

What the hospital administration has very consciously done here is invoke the practices of ritual. In both cases, the photos serve as a mirror of the aspirations of the hospital community: This is who we are, this is what we’re about. In the case of the banners with the fight song words, they remind all who see them of the larger purpose, the higher vision, of which they are in pursuit. By evoking (literally) the music of the song, they also trigger the deep emotional associations that singing with 100,000 people at a football game brings about, and unify what might otherwise appear to be two disparate parts of the campus (the football team and the hospital; though the two actually share a lot in common–a focus on the body, service to the larger community, and the status of revenue-generators and profit centers).

Northwestern, and many others, could learn from this example.

From Fish’s blog at the NYT:

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

Okay, I say a lot of the same things. But I also think that the rest of this column reinforces my contention that both the critics of the new atheism and the new atheists themselves are still talking about religion in essentially Protestant terms. (Or, as I would say, the idea of religion itself is a Protestant notion.) Jewish life can’t be broken out this way, and while Jewish thought and ritual are certainly animated by some of the same questions of other traditions, I think it’s really important to avoid the “all religions are essentially the same” trap. They’re not. Each tradition is its own language, with its own ways of understanding the world that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate.

Still, I’m always happy to see thoughtful intellectuals taking on Ditchens.

As many of my readers know, I moonlight as a graduate student at Northwestern in the Religion department. Last quarter I took a course on ritual theory. While initially I didn’t expect it to be highly germane to my overall interest in the development of religion and Jewish life in higher education, I wound up writing a paper analyzing the Martin Luther King Day Vigil at Northwestern as an act of civil religion in the university. In the course of my work I learned much about various theoretical approaches to ritual from anthropology, psychology, sociology and religious studies. (A good book to read, if one is interested in a primer is Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.)

The reason I mention this is that in both the Torah reading this week (Tzav: Leviticus 6-8) and in the Passover seder we will perform next week, ritual plays a central role. Tzav details the way in which certain sacrifices are to be performed, and documents the elaborate initiation ritual for Aaron and his sons. In case one loses interest in reading these dense parts of Leviticus, remember that all of the clothing, motions, gestures, language and sacrifices have significance in a ritual. Think of it like a play rich in symbolism–which has the effect of pointing us beyond the immediately present to a world of additional meanings. When we read a ritual this way, we can ask questions like, “What is the significance of putting blood on the right ear of Aaron and his sons?” or “Why are they not allowed to leave the Tent of Meeting for seven days?” In the simplest sense, then, seeing an act as a ritual means that we imbue it with meaning. We see it as representing something larger than what it immediately appears to be.

Yet ritual does more than that. According to the influential Jewish theorist Emile Durkheim, ritual enacts the values of a community in action. It attempts to influence the morals and behaviors of individuals by bringing them into a larger frame of reference, a totality larger than themselves. That is certainly the case in the sacrifices and rituals in Tzav, which take place on the grand stage of national drama. But it is equally true for the Passover seder, which takes place on the more intimate yet equally powerful stage of home and dining room.

The seder–as connoted in its very name, which means order–is a paradigmatic home ritual. It aims to bring its participants into a larger narrative: “In every generation one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt,” says Rabban Gamliel in the Talmud and the Haggadah. We engage in a ritual, an act of theater, with symbolic foods and even a script, all in the attempt to understand our own lives in the context of our larger story, to braid our story with that of the Jewish People throughout time.

Yet the seder, as a particularly educational type of ritual, invites us to improvise and thereby renew the ritual every year. We are told by the Rabbis to create midrash, to come up with our own readings of the story, and to ask questions about it, to interrogate it. The ritual of the seder is thus not meant to be a stifling ritual, one that establishes a fixed meaning for time immemorial, but rather one that engages each and every individual in the question: How is this story my story? In that process, each of us becomes a stakeholder and a writer of Jewish history.

Shabbat shalom.