Sunday, February 22, 2009


You hear and read a lot of stories as you go along in life. It is only when the years pass and certain stories remain with you that you can say which ones are really meaningful to you. It could have to do with the story itself or something inside you, but this is what grabs you — strongly enough so that many years later, you cannot forget it.

For me, one of these is a Hasidic story about the Baal Shem Tov and his assistant. They have been kidnapped by a demon or magic power and transported to a strange land. Their memory has been taken from them. They do not know who they are, where they are, their names, or what culture they come from. I cannot remember whether they have also been deprived of their belief in God or whether God is someone they still know and care about. I seem to recall they are aware of their predicament. They know they once had memories they have now been shorn of and are distraught over it.

They constantly question each other and try to drag up some remembrance from things past, but to no avail. Finally, it was the assistant, I believe, who says he remembers the alphabet — aleph, bet, gimmel, daled ... (A,B,C,D ...). "Good," says the Baal Shem. "Let us chant the alphabet over and over again." They do so. They pour into it all the enthusiasm they used to put into their prayers. Over and over. And then the magic, evil spell is broken and they are back in their home community.

It's not hard to see why I or anyone would love this story. It's about hope. When you're down and out, it ain't over. When everything has been taken from you, when you have nothing, something good can still happen. There is a way back. We love that. I love it. Hope is part of the human condition. Maybe it is the human condition par excellent. Even when it is absolutely ridiculous to have any hope, we will continue hoping. We need it to live, just to survive another day. But if this is all there was to the story, I would not like it as much as I do.

I like it because it is more specific than the general suggestion to keep hope alive. The danger that they are in is a very specific kind of danger. Their memories have been stolen. They have been robbed of their culture. Their history and the history of their people have been erased for them. This is a danger for many peoples, not just Jews. What can we do about it? How to defeat it?

The answer in the story is a little less specific, but it's not a general answer of just hold on. They go back to something fundamental (which is what I take the alphabet to represent), and they pursue it with all their passion. Now I suppose you could say that it is about prayer, that prayer is the answer. They chant the alphabet as if they were praying. So prayer can save you? Yes. But prayer takes many different forms.

The story actually tells us that you don't have to pray the traditional prayers in order to reach God. You can pray another way. A fundamental way. What is prayer? And what does prayer accomplish here?

Remember: Their culture and their history have been erased. You can beat that. You can beat the powers that want to do this to you (and one thing the story does not tell us is that the powers that do this are very human and not demons at all). God will help you. But you are going to have to put your whole heart into it. This will not happen without your devotion. Reach for something basic and hold onto it with all your heart and soul.

But what is that fundamental thing? That's where the story does not give an answer. For John Berger, poetry is prayer. Talking about injustice is prayer. (See his truly wonderful essay "The Hour of Poetry", probably available in any retrospective selection of his essays.) I'd go with that. For me, to talk with great accuracy about injustice, and historical injustice, in particular, is a form of prayer. As Berger recognizes, "To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is, of course, at the origin of prayer ..."

Sometimes, I think that if I just chant the accomplishments of the Pharisees over and over, this will somehow cause a breakthrough. Constitutional government, due process, justice, peace, open debate with God. This was Jesus' real historical context. If I constantly repeat them, maybe historical Jesus scholars will finally get it and release the Pharisees and Jesus from the captivity they've been placed in. Historical Jesus scholars are obsessed with Temple, rituals, purity, and have imprisoned the Pharisees and Jesus in their own scholarly obsessions. Can chanting release them? Is it foolish to hope? Can words accomplish anything against the incredible power of scholars to suppress all debate? Can the stranglehold of religion on historical studies ever be broken? Only time will tell.

Leon Zitzer

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