Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Begidah: disguise, treason

Over the years, this became a sort of parrot-fashion in my daily speech: Hebrew "beged\בגד - cloth" is mainly a "begidah\בגידה - fake treason, cheating, a super trick". University scholars, anonymous Israelis explained that there is no possible etymological connection between the two words. Talmud scholars and professional "pilpulers", on the contrary, are true Jews who know that links exist beyond reason and rationnality, and that letters make sense in there proximity or distance in the Jewish tradition.

All languages have stressed that clothing does not prove that a monk is a monk. But it is quite an experience to constantly wear a cassock in the Holy City of Jerusalem and in Israel. People just stare at you like at chimpanzees in a zoo. They can decide to ignore the cassock-bearer stubbornly and in a way that does not show any basic human respect. It is like a mixture of childlike arrogance, full ignorance shaken with much disregard and hatred to the others. When normal chassidim walk in the street in Europe or America or elsewhere in his "chalat\חאלאט - gehrock\געהראק - stripped black or white brown gown" (Yiddish "chalat\חאלאט" comes from the same word that means "home gown" in Russian\халат), they would be in full panick to hear the laughters, mockery, words of despise, insults and receive the spitting drops eventually poured by the "cassock men". They would immediately alert all Anti-Diffamation Circles and Leagues against Anti-Semitism. They might also keep a low profile as I sadly noted when I landed in Europe and suddenly all Jewish signs had disappeared by some hazard or necessity...

But the main features of a cassock man at the present in Israel consist in the fact that people immediately consider them as foreigners and English-speaking only. As Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem recently stated, the Christian Orthodox are not hosts in the Holy Land and have been present over the 2000 years. But Israelis cannot figure out the Church correctly. They swing between wrong Inquisition ages and mix up East and West. This creates a situation of "begidah\בגידה- treason" because vestments cause a permanent error in getting to the real identity. This is more sensitive in a society where every person is more or less some kind of "Tootsie" film character.

Cassocks (chalates, ghandurahs) trace back to a profound spiritual meaning. In the Byzantine tradition, the great rason or coat cassock is the symbol of martyrdom. In Syriac/Aramaic, "talaysan" comes from "tallit\טלית" the great prayer shawl with the fringes worn by the Jews and by Jesus. Religious vestments are important. This is why a clergyman wears a cassock: he is nude and only covered by Jesus resurrected from the dead, true God and true man. It has nothing to do with a fashion defile or a way to give some honor or heed someone. A cassock witnesses for God's presence; it is not a function coat or some workman's overalls. At the present, it would seemingly be easier not to show in such a dressing in the streets of Israel. Depends! I would tend to think that, in the present, a clergyman who did not go through this experience as a positive encounter that requires true love and understanding, has little to do within the Israeli society. It is not clearcut or too sharp. It deals with Whom is present through the clothes and beyond our own identities.

Let’s come back to the caring hospitality shown at Mamre’s Oaks by Abraham Avinu and his right jolly laughing wife at the announce of her birthing a son. The scene has been drawn, designed, painted. We have tons of icons with and without the patriarch and Sarah. No film, no picture, no video and, of course, no canned laughter. They were two wilderness NFA Arameans dwelling under some big tent, without I.D. cards and photos. They were not dotting the I’s of their pods, phones, MP3 players, world TV networks. They got one (several indeed) Divine breaking news whose developments are prolonging at the present. “I bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the sea-shore; all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command (Bereishit 22:17-18).

Now, by the time of Abraham and Sarah, there were no computers, mobiles, sms messages, instant messengers, ICQ (born on the Israeli coast), Trillian and others connecters. Identity was a “word is a word”. No choice: either you say the truth or you are fined and can eventually be killed in an oral cultural environment. Abraham, for instance, got afraid and presented Sarah to King Abimelech of Gerar as being his sister (Gen.20:1-18). A world of visions, nightmares, dreams and talks, well online chats with the Lord. This is the silent world counter-point of our multi-media stuff. We swirl in a super high tech mall or mart of sounds, cries, music drone dizziness and may lose our identity.

In Hebrew, “panim\פנים = face” comes from the root “panah\פנה = to turn (one’s face). In Gen. Rabba 91: “pney haaretz\פני הארץ = the wealthy”; “she can cover her nakedness/appearance” (Berachot 24a, Niddah 14b). “The Torah has law for each of which there are 49 “clean” and 49 “unclean” ways of interpretation” (Cant. Rabba 2,4). “This question must be brought inside and even to the innermost” (Bava Metzia 16a). In the context of Abraham at the terebinths of Mamre, the ancestor had no proof of identity as we can check today. Hebrew “Panim\פנים” is a plural because of the numerous aspects of an identity. Like the “face of a watch”, a human shows a visage and a hair backside without expression. But appearance and countenance reveal an image, not necessarily who we are indeed. We are overcome with images and looks that do not exhibit the heart of the souls. A decade ago, "Facebook" was created in Harvard. It is doubled with “Piczo” or drawing natural sites for the development of contact networks. Just as “Myspace” (which is very “musical and sounds”) and the various albums and blogs, they question our identity as holders of the “imprint, mark/chotam\חותם – Gr. “sphragis” and not only our self-esteem which is a basic virtue according to the Jewish rabbinic tradition.

For the Jewish tradition, our “faces” (it curiously gave the Yiddish plural form “punimer”) are not narcissistic. If millions of self-addicted people spend hours in vamping up a virtual online presumed contact way to show off who they are or think they are, our self-esteem can be brought to the measure of our suffering of personal solitude; we might even feel abandoned in an immense universe of whirling voices, sounds, changing or photochopped images. Would Abraham or the Sages of old naturally cope with the hi-tech world in which we live? In all times, the challenge has been to overcome fears, panics to feel alone and to face the “burden of some survival”. There is a sort of parallel between Sarah’s laughter and our swiftly virtual “lol”. Is it a desperate search for some kind of existence? In Israel, we constantly face “chopped” images of a wide God’s Likeness that is going through a sort of puzzlement.

It is said: “An extra measure of love was made known to the humans as they were created in God’s Image” (Avot 3:14). This also explains why Adam was unique and created singly: it allows every human being to get aware of the fact that s/he is personal has the same likeness as God and thus be saved –each soul encompasses the whole universe” (Sanhedrin 4:5).Good enough, but this is not what we may see in daily life. We go through times of shows, passivity and self-content. Modern techniques are a plus for a society as far as they allow it to improve its welfare and capacities. But the realm of visible things or people is nothing compared to the vast and immeasurable source of capacities that are beyond our sights and envisioning skills. This absence of plenitude may be a spiritual challenge in times of licentious, loose and libertine turmoil.

Jesus made an intriguing statement: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:24). We have the tools utilized for building up ourselves and not making us sleepy or spaced out. We don’t reach immortality or more power because we have records and archives at hand. Abraham’s blessing is stronger than anything we can share and thus requires a deft touch of reality.

Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel
Av_a Jerusalem Forward Blog
July 1st, 2008 - כט דסיון תשס"ח