Post-Structuralist Golems

Here is a d’var torah (a word of teaching) that I gave tonight at the Drisha tisch. The subject was golems. A couple of points:

1) Tisches are, traditionally (or semi-traditionally–Chasidut is only a couple hundred years old) Friday night gatherings at which religious Jews sing, tell stories, share teachings, and drink, in varying portions depending upon their proclivities. This tisch was on a Wednesday. Don’t worry about it.

2) The formatting of this little d’var torah makes it look like a poem; the wild leaps in logic and frequent obscurities seem to confirm that impression. To the extent that it matters, I did not intend the d’var to be a poem. Rather, I was working with advice from Fred Craddock’s book As One Without Authority, a landmark in the development of “The New Homiletic.” A Protestant theologian, Craddock argues that to be compelling today (his book is from the seventies), sermons should be narrative rather than expository, should “show” rather than “tell,” and should eschew heightened rhetoric for plain speech. I haven’t pushed myself to embrace his whole worldview, but one of his points is invaluable; he advises that you a) write out the sermon but b) do so not in ordinary prose, but in speech fragments about the size of your ordinary phrase. I’ve found this advice incredibly useful in developing prose that is natural to speak, in memorizing sermons, and in speaking clearly and engagingly. Craddock believes this method is entangled with his broader philosophical points; I’m agnostic on that point; I use his method just because I find it useful.

3) As to the wild leaps of logic: the d’var needed to be 2-4 minutes. Savvy readers can find in this d’var torah a number of sources, for example Chaim Soloveitchik’s remarkable essay “Rupture and Reconstruction,” Nietzsche’s “Uses and Abuses of History for Life,” and Walter Benjamin’s commentary on Nietzsche, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” all which just wouldn’t fit into the short version. I’m too lazy to expand and clarify it at present, but I want to insist that there’s nothing new in what I say.

I

When Harold Bloom starts one of his deepest essays,
He takes up Derrida’s question:
“what is a text, and what must the psyche be
if it can be represented by a text?”
Bloom inverts the question, and he asks instead:
“What is a psyche, and what must a text be
if it can be represented by a psyche?”

How can our psyches represent—that is, speak for—texts?
Can texts come alive as psyches?
Halakhic Judaism makes psyches out of texts
we bracket our eating with brachot
and bind passages from torah on our arms and foreheads
Even our tachanunim, our private supplications,
become paragraphs of words

We make golems
The golem is elemental matter, given life by incantations
By the letters on her forehead, by language and textuality
We aren’t Derrideans, who reduce the human to the interplay of signs and differences
We’re Bloomians, who want to make dead texts live

II

There’s a story about the purim rav at the Purim tisch of the Satmar Rebbe
He started imitating the way the Rebbe davened on Yom Kippur.
His voice, his nusach, the tears, the shuckling.
Suddenly the Rebbe started to cry.
The Purim Rav became worried:
“Rebbe,” he said, “I didn’t mean, chas v’shalom, to disrespect you.”
“No, the problem’s not with you,” the Rebbe said.
“As I was marveling at your perfect imitation of me,
I wondered if every Yom Kippur,
when I get up to daven,
I am really also only imitating myself.”

I find this story troubling
The challenge is:
If we are making ourselves constantly out of texts
Discrete words and letters
How do we ever become psyches?
How do we know we’re following Bloom, and not Derrida?
Making automata?
Recent research suggests that the golem story we all know
is really quite recent, from 1837
That’s the same era as Shelley’s Frankenstein
and Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”
These are Romantic narratives skeptical of technology’s inhuman power
When we make ourselves out of texts, we see the uncanny image of the purim rav
When our davening can be expressed in tangible, describable behaviors,
Whether physical actions or meditative procedures
(physical things, mental things, things among things)
it comes not from a psyche, but from a machine
How do we prevent our learning from becoming technology?
Reducing the full experience of being human
Into so many algorithms and permutations of letters

Or as the Kotzker says: “turn it, turn it, turn it,
“for nothing is in it”

III

There’s a story about the Apter Rebbe
He could remember all of his previous incarnations.
In one past life, he had been the kohen gadol.
So when he led the avodah service on Yom Kippur,
he wouldn’t say kach hayah omer, “thus he used to say,”
but rather kach hayiti omer, “thus I used to say.”

When, as I often do, I worry that
all this learning is frantic and useless
A continual reduction of ruach into hevel,
of people into golems
I remind myself of the Apter Rebbe’s strength
He at once bows completely
“I am nothing but the texts that were,” he says
“Each Yom Kippur merely the memory of the last”
Yet, by making himself a vessel for text
and by acknowledging that his words are quotations
He rewrites the text, saying something—hayiti—that was not said before
Submitting to technical mimesis,
he inserts himself into the mimesis

My blessing for us:
Golmi rau ainecha, v’al sifrecha kulam yikatev
Yamim yutzaru, v’lo echad bahem
Your eyes saw my unformed substance, and in your book all was written
Even the days that were fashioned, when there were none of them
Or: “turn it, turn it, turn it, for nothing is in it”

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