Progressive Revival

[According to the Jewish tradition, all of us – the living, the dead, the as yet unborn, were present at the revelation at Sinai.]

I had a student once, years ago, who was a hippy.  He took a year off to study in Israel.  There, one day, as he has ambling in the port are of Haifa, he saw a hassid, dressed in full hassidic regalia, coming own the street towards him.  Being the flower child type he was, as the hassid approached, my student smiled at him.  The hassid, mistaking the smile for one of recognition, stopped in his tracks and said, “Do I know you?”

Without missing a beat, my student replied, “Yes, of course; we met at Sinai.”

Slapping his head, the hassid said, “Oh dear, forgive me.  Of course we did, but it was so hot and crowded.  How have you been?              

What can we learn from this vignette?

First: One does not have to take the tradition literally in order to take it seriously.  I do not, for example, believe there was a revelation at Sinai – but I do believe I was there.  That is, I will myself into the idea of the story, into the connectedness it represents, the relationship it once enabled between two strangers in the port area of Haifa..   

Second: The story doesn’t work if you have to interrupt the telling of it with a footnote explaining the myth on which it depends, the myth that holds we were all there that day.  Religious language works only if it is known and shared.  If constant interruption is required to clarify it, it quickly becomes an impediment. 

Third: Shared myths and the shared language that gives them voice are powerful ways of connecting people who in most respects are quite different from one another.  One approach common to many politicians is to tailor their language to suit their audience.  (A working class audience?  Drop your “g”s, go colloquial.)    A second approach is to find the words to bridge the gaps.  (Mario Cuomo at his best.)  Religious language is a mainstay of American politics.  This often causes progressives to cringe: “Here they come again, pulling down the wall of separation.”:  “Here they come again, with their sanctimony and their know-nothingism.”

Calm down.  For some of us, the language is distinct from the belief system in which it was originally embedded (and for many, is embedded still).  There is altogether too much resonance to, say, Isaiah’s language (see, for example, Isaiah 2:4 or 58: 5-12) to leave the language to the literalists.  Plus: Not all believers are “true believers.”   Enjoyment of and inspiration from the stories and the poetry and the wisdom of the classic religious texts does not mean standing anywhere near the preposterous assertions of such as Pastor John Hagee.  It means, instead, minimally, a readiness to talk to our fellow citizens in their own language – and, if we are open to it, to make that language our own, as well.