I am always intrigued by how people of a particular religious tradition describe and define themselves. Naturally, those definitions can vary widely, depending on the person doing the describing and the branch of the tradition with which he or she is most closely associated.
One of the more intriguing self-definitions I've read recently comes from a fabulous 1972 Isaac Bashevis Singer novel I finally just read, Enemies: A Love Story.
The main character, Herman Broder, is a Jew from Poland now living in New York. Like the people in my last book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, he was saved from the Holocaust by a non-Jew in Poland who hid him in a loft. (Indeed, he marries the woman who saved him after hearing his wife and children perished.)
Toward the end of the book Herman is brooding about the nature and purpose of life and how one survives it all. And he winds up describing how he believes Jews -- against so many odds and so many enemies over so many years -- have survived. So here is what Singer -- a Nobel literature laureate -- writes:
"In Herman's private philosophy, survival itself was based on guile. From microbe to man, life prevailed generation to generation by sneaking past the jealous powers of destruction. Just like the Tzivkever (Tzivkev was Herman's hometown) smugglers in World War I, who stuffed their boots and blouses with tobacco, secreted all manner of contraband about their bodices, and stole across borders, breaking laws and bribing officials -- so did every bit of protoplasm, or conglomerate of protoplasm furtively traffic its way from epoch to epoch
"It had been so when the first bacteria appeared in the slime at the ocean's edge and would be so when the sun became a cinder and the last living creature on earth froze to death, or perished in whichever way the final biological drama dictated. Animals had accepted the precariousness of existence and the necessity for flight and stealth; only man sought certainty and instead succeeded in accomplishing his own downfall.
"The Jew had always managed to smuggle his way in through crime and madness. He had stolen into Canaan and into Egypt. Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister. The whole two thousand years of exile, beginning with Alexandria, Babylon, and Rome and ending in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna had been one great act of smuggling. The Bible, the Talmud, and the Commentaries instruct the Jew in one strategy: flee from evil, hide from danger, avoid showdowns, give the angry powers of the universe as wide a berth as possible. The Jew never looked askance at the deserter who crept into a cellar or attic while armies clashed in the streets outside."
Well, no one should take Herman's views, given to him by Singer, as typical of the view of all Jews about Jews, but it's one fascinating definition that seeks to integrate the reality of Jewish suffering into the Jewish condition today.
So my question for you is: If you're Jewish, does this description make sense to you? If you're not Jewish, what self-description of people in your own tradition makes sense to you and seems fair?
The standard definition for us Presbyterians is "the frozen chosen." It misses a lot, but also has an uncomfortable ring of truth to it.
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THE WORLD'S RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE CHANGES
On Tuesday here on the blog I told you about a new survey of world religions by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A Washington Post blogger has done this good analysis of what it means. Have a look, and if you didn't get a chance to dig into the report earlier this week, now's your chance. There's a link to the full report in my earlier posting.
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P.S.: To take note of the one-year anniversary of the devastating fire that destroyed Westport Presbyterian Church in midtown Kansas City, the congregation will hold a vigil in the parking lot at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29. Tentative plans for rebuilding will be unveiled about the same time. The church building is at 201 Westport Road.
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ANOTHER P.S.: Journalists (not me) have voted on the top 10 religion stories of 2012. I generally think such top 10 lists are silly, except as a way of reminding people how many seemingly straight news stories have religious elements to them.