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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Cows, Jews, and Tikkun Olam - Emma

Hey all.  I'm a bit nervous about posting this, and I apologize in advance for the superfluity of parenthetical statements. (tl;dr crowd: don't even bother.) 

I am Jewish.  This in and of itself isn’t particularly surprising.  A Jew in New York? Not such a novelty.   Judaism and I have undeniably had our issues.  We grapple several times a week, woman vs. religion,  (“Call me Yisrael*,” my epic would begin) and I have disavowed it more than once in a fit of general distaste.  However, never before have I felt so keenly connected to my own Jewishness than here, in Ahmedabad India, of all places.
*Yisrael, a Hebrew word meaning 'He who wrestles with god,' was the name given to Jacob, one of the fore-fathers of the Israelites/Jews, after he literally wrestled with God.
There are a few approachable reasons for this discrepancy, the least of which is the sudden deficit of an abundance of Jews in my immediate vicinity.
First: yesterday, ITSA went to a beautiful Swaminarayan Temple which, for those of you that don’t know, is a temple devoted to the celebration of Lord Swaminarayan, a religious figure from the 18th century who has been deified for his teachings in a sect of Hinduism.  In this massive and paradoxically opulent temple (I say paradoxical because Swaminarayan was an ascetic who allegedly both survived for eight years with only a gourd, a loincloth, a rosary, and a book of scripture and managed to climb a Himalayan mount without shoes) was a herculean idol, a huge and golden Swaminarayan.  


Perhaps it was my recent and prolonged proximity to holy cows (with whom Jews have had tense relations since that one incident at Sinai), or perhaps it was instinct, but my personal primordial Jew was awakened at this sight.  I suddenly felt an abrupt (if ultimately superficial) connection with Moses on the mount.  Where were my stone tablets of divine dictation?  Unlike Moses, the idol itself wasn't what pissed me off.  It was the deification of a man and the sight of people prostrating themselves before him. (But what of Buddhism? my inner judge cries.  To this I say the following; though Buddhism does venerate Gautama the Buddha, there is never any confusion as to his status as a mortal.) 
(Forgive me if I have offended you by commenting so harshly on Swaminarayan.  I don't know enough about it to cast judgement, truly.  What is written here is merely my reaction to the idol.)

Second: (there is a long preamble to this one) there are many monikers for the Jewish people, most of which are somewhat less than flattering. The one which I consider most pervasive is neither insulting nor complimentary: ‘the Chosen People.’  Though it smacks of a certain egotism, a certain quality of selective righteousness, I do not think it means ‘the people who have been chosen to go to heaven and live under God’s favor.’  Jews don’t have a heaven or a hell and they most certainly haven’t lived under the favor of a benevolent being.  
Personally, I think it is an epithet of burden and responsibility rather than of divine aristocracy.  

There is a Jewish concept, tikkun olam, which literally means “repairing the world.”  The idea is that the world is somehow broken or incomplete, but not irreparably so. An imperfect God (or an imperfect whatever divine absolute you choose to believe ) 'selected' the people who would become the Jews and gave them the responsibility of finding the remaining shards and placing them to right. It is a profoundly beautiful concept, one which simultaneously traps and frees. 

An aspect of tikkun olam is tzedakah, a word which means 'justice' and denotes a meting out of human justice, a concept similar to charity.  The idea is that one ragged shard that God callously left behind is poverty, and it is strongly suggested that we devote ten percent of our yearly income to tzedakah.  Essentially, if a person asks for money or help Jews are obligated not to turn away from them and to give whatever we can.  This has never been particularly important to me before, but confronted with the abject poverty and persistent begging common in India, I have found the fiat more and more pertinent and present in my mind.  I cannot guarantee that it will remain so back in the US, but it has been getting exceedingly difficult to turn beggar children away.

An old joke goes like this; one prostitute asked another if she could borrow the second's bed for the night.  When the second asked why, the first replied "I have a Jewish customer tonight.  Your bed is bigger than mine, and I need room for the Jew and for his guilt!"  Jokes aside, I am beginning I think to feel this guilt, this Jewish inclination towards tikkun olam and all its implications. Whether or not I want to be rid of it is something I have yet to decide, yet to fully comprehend. 

Eh. In the meantime, l'chaim! To life.

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